Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Robert Silverberg: "By the Seawall," "Bride Ninety-One," and "The King of the Golden River"

Welcome back to the settler-colonialist project that is MPorcius Fiction Log.  We've been exploring, expropriating, exploiting and explicating (to the best of our limited abilities) 2004 Grand Master of SF Robert Silverberg's 1969 collection Dimension 13, reading the stories reprinted therein in their original magazine versions, and today we finish up with three stories from 1967, the year of the Six-Day War, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and the growth of the United States population to 200 million.  Before we attack these three pieces, here we present links to the ten stories we've already grappled with (and, I hope, brought to earth.)

"By the Seawall" (1967)

Remember when I told you that "Dark Companion" and "Halfway House" had good settings and good characters but were a bit lacking in the story department?  Well, the same description might apply to "By the Seawall," but this story is more entertaining and more satisfying.

The ocean is teeming with huge ravenous monsters of every type--fish, reptile, crustacean, you name it.  These creatures like nothing more than to come ashore and eat people by the dozen.  (This is some far future Earth, I guess.)  So, a century ago, a towering sea wall was built to keep the monsters away.  Our protagonist is an android, a being more or less genetically similar to a man, but grown in a vat and designed to be more resistant to boredom as well as stronger and faster than the general run of all-natural sex-produced humans like you and me.  Such synthetic men have the job of patrolling the seawall, monitoring the condition of the wall and keeping an eye out for any monsters who might somehow figure out how to overcome the wall and its attendant electric and toxic defense mechanisms.

Our hero is doing this job as usual when he witnesses a human commit suicide by diving off the seawall (his fall eased by an anti-grav device) and swimming out to be devoured by one of the giant sea monsters.  This turns out to be the first in an epidemic of such suicides that grips the human race, and the androids are hard pressed to deal with it.  Nobody can really figure out why the suicides are taking place--maybe the human race can't bear to be separated from its ancestral home, the source of all life?  When the protagonist arrests a woman who is trying to kill herself, he asks her about her motivations, and she says she wants to "belong" to the sea and insists that, as a "machine," he could not understand.  Soon after, the android, perhaps shaken by his failure to prevent suicides, perhaps seeking knowledge of what it is like to be truly human, dives into the ocean himself to be eaten.

"By the Seawall" is better than "Dark Companion" and "Halfway House" because of the striking images Silverberg conjures up of the wall and the monsters, and because the ending is more conclusive, more satisfying, even though we don't find out why the humans--and now androids!--are feeding themselves to monsters, and the problem presented to the main character is not solved.  The issues the story addresses--the mystery of human psychology and sociology and the question of what kind of relationship natural and artificial humans might have--are compelling.   

Thumbs up for "By the Seawall."  After its debut in If, the story would reappear in several European publications as well as Dimension 13.

"Bride Ninety-One" (1967)

This is a wacky story, I guess partly intended to shock the reader and partly intended to make him laugh with its matter-of-fact first-person account of a society whose social mores are radically divergent from the mid-20th-century conventional.  These kinds of stories lack human drama and feeling, and I am not crazy about them, but "Bride Ninety-One" is competently told, so I'm calling it acceptable.

It is the future, and a civilization made up of many different intelligent space-faring species stretches across the galaxy.  For these people, sex and marriage has been totally divorced from reproduction, and marriages last only six months, and it is normal for people to marry dozens of times, and to marry outside their species.  

The narrator, a human, has just started his 91st marriage, to a slender being with petals, flexible limbs and an "ingestion slot" equipped with needle-like teeth.  The story recounts their six-month marriage, which faces various crises because the needle-toothed alien wants to have a traditional Terran marriage, but her ideas of what constitutes a traditional Terran marriage is flawed, being based on historical novels she has read.  For example, she thinks human males always cheat on their wives, so when the narrator passes up an opportunity to bang some other woman, needle-teeth is broken-hearted.  Similarly, needle-teeth saves the day by pacifying a rogue beast at a rodeo after all the men have fled in terror from the berserk monster and has to be told that in a Terran relationship it is the man's job to protect the woman, not vice versa.  (The prelude to this scene is depicted on the cover of the issue of If in which "Bride Ninety-One" debuted, but Gray Morrow didn't try to depict the bride, suggesting a lamentable lack of ambition or perhaps a failure to actually read the story--maybe Fred Pohl or Judy-Lynn Benjamin just told Morrow over the phone to "draw some cowboys with an alien bucking bronco.")

(Maybe I need to point out that the narrator insists he loves the little lady and that the two of them have sex often, the narrator does not hesitate to kiss his wife's needle-filled "ingestion slot.")  

Marrying the same person twice is taboo, but, at the end of the story, needle-teeth wants to marry the narrator again.  He agrees when she explains that the marriage will be totally different, as this marriage will follow the customs of her race.  The narrator has his human teeth removed and needle teeth implanted, and learns that he will be married not only to this individual, but all her many sisters.     

This studied bit of bizarrerie debuted in If and seems to have been a hit among European editors--"Bride Ninety-One" has been translated into five languages, according to isfdb.  Karel Thole took a stab at depicting the bride on the cover of the issue of Urania in which the story appeared--as I have remarked before, Thole's work indicates he actually read the stories he illustrated.

"The King of the Golden River" (1967)

"The King of the Golden River" made its first appearance as "The King of the Golden World" in Galaxy.  We've already read a story from this issue of Galaxy, Fritz Leiber's "The Black Corridor," and one presumes the day will come when we read the Poul Anderson and Larry Niven stories from the issue, "Outpost of Empire" and "Handicap."  As "The King of the Golden River" the story would resurface in various Silverberg collections, and in 1969 translations appeared in the French edition of Galaxy as well as issue of Urania devoted to Silverberg and Kit Reed.

Here we have another story about a human who has sexual relations with an alien.  Elena, a Terran, is on an alien planet, living among nudist monkey-people on a volcanic island.  She is sleeping with the chief (if you are going to bang aliens, might as well shoot for the top, right?) and the very first scene of the story involves Elena, naked of course (when in Rome...), hanging around with a crowd of native kids, observing the smoking and burbling of an active volcanic crater, and how one of the kids, nine years old, keeps touching her thigh with his six-fingered hand--Elena wonders if he just being friendly, or if this constitutes erotic groping. 

Silverberg must have read a book about volcanoes, because he spends a significant amount of time describing the different ejecta that come out of the crater as the eruption approaches, smoke, ash, pumice, cinders, lightning bolts, etc.  Elena keeps asking the chief why everyone isn't evacuating, as it looks like when it comes the river of lava will run right through his villages, totally destroying them.  Eventually the big cheese gives her an answer, and we have our twist ending--every five generations the volcano erupts, and the villagers eagerly embrace the event, all but a select few of them welcoming death.  The chief and the priesthood have selected who will survive, and the elect depart to a safe distance--the chief and the clergy are not among them.  As an alien, Elena will be permitted to flee, but Elena decides to put her money where her mouth is, so to speak--she has been trying to join this community of hairless monkey-people, to become one of them, and getting killed with her husband is a way for her to prove to herself that she is sincere.  (As in "By the Seawall" and "Journey's End" the protagonist gets killed in the course of exploring or asserting his or her identity.)    

I am guessing "The King of the Golden World" is not only Silverberg's opportunity to teach us about the behavior of volcanoes, but to express his own (or appeal to readers') fears of overpopulation and attachment to the theory of the noble savage.  RE: Overpopulation, we are told that on Earth births are highly regulated and children are scarce and that Elena was initially disturbed by the hordes of children among the natives.  RE: Noble savage, Silverberg certainly paints the monkey-people in the best possible light--they are graceful and the chief is "unhurried" and "confident, a true king" who is "hailed by all."  Maybe Silverberg thinks we'd all be happier if we wore no clothes, were less sexually repressed, had admirable leaders we obeyed, and were so committed to the environment that we committed mass suicide every century or so.

It is dimly possible that this story is a subtle dig at hippies and the like who rebel against Western middle-class society and romanticize the ways of primitive foreigners without recognizing the unhealthy or dangerous aspects if those non-Western societies, but "The King of the Golden World" seems very earnest and I doubt it.  

Either way, I'm judging "The King of the Golden World" acceptable.    

Left: Phillipe Druillet    Right: Karel Thole

Alright, another of our projects is behind us.  Taken as a whole, the thirteen stories in Dimension Thirteen are not bad, though there are some clunkers in there, and the acceptable and good stories share a similar tone and structure.  We get an interesting setting and some science material about future medical developments or volcanoes or teleporters or how to build a giant wall to keep out monsters, and then what feels like an abbreviated plot with a downbeat ending in which the protagonist fails to overcome the plot obstacle, or does so at tremendous cost--people tend to die at the end of these stories, and a lot of them feature suicide.  Like half of the stories prominently feature sex between humans and nonhumans, or some other form of odd and potentially repulsive sex.  The stories in this collection are not meant to cheer but to disturb or shock the reader.  

There will be more Silverberg in our future, but first we'll explore some 1950s short stories.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Robert Silverberg: "The Four," "Dark Companion," and "Halfway House"

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading the stories that were reprinted in Robert Silverberg's 1969 collection Dimension 13 (the short German version was retitled Dimension 12.)  Three more today; I'm reading the original versions of these stories in scans of the SF magazines in which they appeared in the period 1958-1966.

"The Four" (1958)

"The Four" debuted in Science Fiction Stories, under the Calvin M. Knox pseudonym, alongside work by L. Sprague de Camp and Bertram Chandler.  The issue's blondtastic cover painting by Kelly Freas illustrates "The Four," even though and the story and its author are not mentioned by name on the cover, a practice I find kind of odd.

"The Four" is a brief little tale.  Mary is an angry young woman!  She lives in New Baltimore, an underwater city of 11,000 off the coast of North America; the domed submarine town's authoritarian government maintains total control over births so as to not exceed that figure.  Of those 11,000, two hundred people have psychic powers, and Mary is one of the strongest of them, but her use of her gifts is severely circumscribed.  For one thing, it is illegal to communicate telepathically with people from other underwater domed cities, like New Boston or New Miami, because the government fears any international intercourse could spark a war like the nuclear exchange that destroyed all surface civilization.  For another, even Mary is not strong enough to project her mind above the surface of the ocean, and she desperately desires to see for herself the radioactive ruins the government tells everyone cover the Earth's dry land.

Headstrong and determined Mary flouts the law forbidding contact with people in other domes.  And then she comes up with a scheme to cast her mind above the ocean waves; Mary enlists three male psykers, believing that they combine their mental powers they can reach beyond the ocean surface and view land.

(The psychic powers in this story don't make much sense--Mary can cast her mind hundreds of miles north, south, east and west--even to New London!--but not just a few miles up?)

Mary comes across as a domineering bitch who contemptuously pushes around her three accomplices, and her bitchiness comes back to bite her in the ass as the story ends.  Working together, the four rebels see the land of North America, and find it isn't a radioactive waste covered in ruins after all, but green and beautiful!  The psychic police, having detected this forbidden use of psychic powers, arrest the four, and they are sentenced to death.  Death is administered by throwing people out the airlock to be crushed by water pressure.  Mary, however, saves them from execution by corralling their combined mental power and teleporting the four of them to the surface.

(One person isn't capable of viewing the surface herself, but working with three other people she can transport all four of their physical bodies to the surface?  Not very convincing.)

The four scofflaws reappear on the North American continent in the middle of a radioactive ruin and die within minutes.  As they expire one of them gloats that he used a special mental skill he has to trick everybody into thinking the world was not a radioactive waste; I guess this is revenge because Mary treated him shabbily.  

Gotta give this story a thumbs down.  The characters' motivations are sketchy, and the mental powers are questionable, making the story feel like a filler piece Silverberg threw together without taking sufficient time to revise.  I also have to question the theme--sure, Mary is a manipulative exploitative jerk who deserves to be punished, but the story sort of endorses, or fails to condemn, the heavy-handed government, which rankles.

"The Four" would be reprinted in two other Silverberg collections besides Dimension 13, World of a Thousand Colors and Sunrise on Mercury.

"Dark Companion" (1961) 

After the slapdash and even juvenile "The Four," I was happy to find in "Dark Companion" some compelling human drama and interesting depictions of future technology; the ending is a little disappointing, however, and the story is more about psychology than anything.

Leon Rocklin, 26, is trying to kill himself, but is finding that it is not easy to do one's self in in the super high tech future of a bustling market-oriented interstellar civilization!  Surveillance is constant, so aid is always close at hand, and medical technology is so advanced that even severe damage to bones and flesh can be readily repaired, leaving the self-loathing young man good as new after each suicide attempt.  After the third such attempt, Leon's wealthy parents resort to assigning to their persistently self-destructive son a "Companion."  This artificial man, the product of a vat in a lab, has purple skin, high intelligence, and superb reflexes and lacks genitals, susceptibility to drugs or booze, and any need for sleep, making it more than able to stick to Leon like glue and prevent him from popping a bottle's worth of sleeping pills or jumping out a window or whatever.

Silverberg does a good job describing the medical technology of the future and of fashioning Leon and even the Companion into engaging characters, but the actual plot and its resolution are a little mundane and kind of a let down.  The second half of the "Dark Companion" consists of Leon and his tireless watchman travelling around the galaxy on a space liner, bopping from from one pleasure planet to another, and as time goes by we learn through flashbacks and expository dialogue why Leon is suicidal.  In contrast to second son Leon, a slacker devoted to leisure, Leon's older brother Jeff was a responsible hard-working bourgeois type slated to take over the family's vast commercial enterprise.  While Leon treated the jobs Dad gave him as no-show sinecures, Jeff strove to learn the family business and efficiently accomplish all the tasks assigned to him and proved himself a talented administrator.  Jeff discovered corruption among some middle managers, and when these ruthless criminals realized Jeff was on their trail they lay an explosive death trap for him!  Leon learned about the plot and, while precious seconds were ticking by, he equivocated--should he put his own life at risk by warning Jeff or just bug out and save his own skin?  Leon finally did the right thing, but, having dallied, didn't get to Jeff in time to save him, but did manage to see him get blown to bits.  It is Leon's guilt over his brother's death that is the genesis of his desire to destroy himself.  

This kind of psychology makes perfect sense and is easy for the reader to swallow, but then Silverberg pushes further into abnormal psychology territory, approaching those regions where he starts to lose people who might be skeptical of Freud and Jung and suppressed memories and multiple personalities and that sort of thing, and MPorcius happens to be one of those people.  The artificial man that is Leon's Companion is an expert psychologist, and asserts that Leon doesn't really want to kill himself--Leon is just trying to get attention!  Every time he has tried to kill himself--the three times before he was saddled with the Companion and since then as well--Leon has made sure to alert somebody who can save him.  He also always chooses failure-prone methods of killing himself, never considering shooting himself in the head or jumping off the 42nd floor or anything guaranteed to work like that.  According to the android, Leon doesn't realize consciously that he wants to live--it is his subconscious mind that is ensuring that his suicide attempts fail as well as erasing his conscious memories of phoning the police before he slashes his wrists or telling a guy in a bar he is about to expose himself to subzero temperatures.

The resolution of the plot is somewhat contrived; the Companion (it appears) engineers a situation in which Leon has the opportunity to save the life of a sexy young girl at some risk to his own life--the fact that Leon rescues her wins him redemption from guilt, while his taking care to safeguard his own life during the rescue convinces him that he doesn't actually want to die.  Besides being contrived, the climax is mundane--instead of this dangerous episode being built around a wild science fiction danger like zero gravity or hard vacuum or deadly radiation, the girl just falls off an ocean-going vessel during a storm and Leon, whom we have been told is an experienced swimmer, jumps in after her.  I suppose the storm is a symbol of Leon's psychological state and the sea monsters he glimpses far below represent his subconscious, but come on--Silverberg's plot could have worked in a mainstream story set in the early 20th century, with a friend who studied in Vienna under Freud instead of an android. 

As I have suggested, the first half or two thirds of this story is good, but my patience for these abnormal psychological stories in which the climax or resolution of the story has to do with a person reverting to childhood (like in Robert Bloch's "See How They Run") or suppressing memories or otherwise acting in a way that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader (the climax of Fredric Brown's The Screaming Mimi is a good example) is running thin.  We'll say "Dark Companion" is acceptable.

"Dark Companion" debuted in the same issue of Amazing that featured a reprint of John Wyndham's 1960 "The Asteroids, 2194," which we read back in 2015 because Judith Merril liked it, and a reprint of a 1933 story by David H. Keller that we may read someday.  "Dark Companion" can be found in the collection The Songs of Summer, which I guess was only ever printed in Britain and France.  The top blurb on the 1981 UK paperback printing (which has an oddly altered version of a Juvek Heller painting as a wraparound cover--see the original painting in 1991's Six Fantasy Artists at Work: Dream Makers) is from Ursula K. LeGuin, who suggests Silverberg is "the most intelligent science fiction writer in America," an interesting sort of thing to say; is there a lot of evidence Silverberg is more intelligent than, say., Isaac Asimov or Gene Wolfe?    

"Halfway House" (1966)

Like "Dark Companion," "Halfway House" starts well, with real human drama related to being a businessman and interesting science fiction elements related to medical technology.  And like "Halfway House," I found the ending a little disappointing.

Franco Alfieri is the world's greatest businessman and engineer!  He has built a vast business empire in Europe based on inventing, manufacturing and selling high tech devices, including power sources that have made possible travel to other dimensions through the artificial generation of Singularities, phenomena associated in nature with the death of stars.  Summoning such a Singularity takes "three million kilowatts" and so only rich people can afford to be transported to other dimensions, but intercourse with alien civilizations can yield tremendous benefits, and as the story begins Alfieri himself is transported to another dimension seeking a boon.  You see, Alfieri is dying of cancer, but he is of sound mind and has tons of ideas for new inventions and business endeavors, and seeks a civilization where he can be cured and enjoy another four or five more decades of life in which he can continue building his business and producing life-improving products and services for the people of Earth.

When you leave your dimension via a Singularity, you find yourself in a sort of intermediary universe colloquially called Halfway House; here a staff of aliens of an array of types negotiate with you over the next stage of your trip.  In payment for being directed to the universe where people cure his cancer, Alfieri agrees to work at Halfway House for five years--as an expert administrator, he has a lot to offer the HH staff, and there is a vacancy coming up that will need filling.  After Silverberg describes the man's experience of being cured of his cancer, we accompany Alfieri on a tour of Halfway House and we are there when he is told exactly what position he will be filling at HH--he is replacing the head of the staff, he will have final say on who is sent onwards from Halfway House and who is returned to whatever universe he came from empty-handed.  Most people travel through the dimensions on missions of great import, matters of life and death, and so Alfieri will be literally providing salvation to some and condemning others to destruction.

I hadn't looked at the page count of this story, so I expected that the stuff I outlined above was just the background foundation for the actual plot, but Alfieri's medical treatment and recruitment as boss of Halfway House is in fact the bulk of the plot.  The climax/twist ending of the story came much faster than I expected and is the revelation to Alfieri and the reader that the job of deciding who is saved and who is doomed causes those who fill it tremendous suffering--Alfieri is in greater agony in this job than he was when his body was wracked with cancer and he knew he was dying.

This is a good piece of work, but I can't help but feel Silverberg could have done more with the good setting and character he came up with--it's like he has a good foundation here for a story, but not much actual story.

"Halfway House" debuted in If, and has been reprinted in various Silverberg collections, including The Cube Root of Uncertainty and the aforementioned The Songs of Summer.


Looking back on "Dark Companion" and "Halfway House," another thing they have in common comes to mind--both offer a sympathetic view of big business and the people who build such enterprises.    

Just three stories to go in Dimension 13; they will be the topic of the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Suspense from F Brown, H Ellison, B Pronzini, R Silverberg & R Bloch

This weekend I was looking at the books at a church sale and came upon 2001's A Century of Great Suspense Stories.  There were four stories in there by writers who are associated with SF and about whom I am interested, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Anthony Boucher and Fredric Brown, so I thought I'd track the stories down at the internet archive back home and see how great they really were.  Back at MPorcius Fiction Log's Mid-Atlantic HQ, I realized I'd already read Bloch's "Life in Our Time" and Boucher's "The Girl Who Married a Monster," leaving me with only Ellison's "Killing Bernstein" and Brown's "The Wench is Dead."  I didn't think two stories was really enough for a blog post, so I started hunting around the internet archive and soon discovered Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense, a 1985 edition of 1981's The Arbor House Treasury of Mystery and Suspense, edited by Bill Pronzini, Barry N. Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg, and 1993's Blood Threat and Fears (oy, with the puns) edited by Cynthia Manson, the subtitle of which is Thirty-Three Great Tales of Psychological Suspense.  The Arbor House volume includes stories I've already read by Malzberg ("Agony Column") and Mickey Spillane ("I'll Die Tomorrow" AKA "Tomorrow I Die") but also stories new to me by Pronzini ("A Craving for Originality") and Robert Silverberg ("Many Mansions"), while the Manson book had one by Bloch ("See How They Run"), bringing us to five--count them, five--allegedly great suspense (and/or mystery?) stories.

"The Wench is Dead" by Fredric Brown (1953)

This one debuted in Manhunt, and in 1961 would reappear in Bloodhound, a British magazine that reprinted stories from Manhunt.  Brown expanded "The Wench is Dead" and it appeared as a novel with the same title in 1955.  I'm reading the 1953 Manhunt version.

A few months ago our narrator, Howie, who has a BA in Sociology, was sitting at a desk in his father's Chicago investment firm wearing a white shirt and a tie.  But then he became a drifter and today he's in L.A. washing dishes (TIL that slang for a dishwasher is "pearl-diver") and getting drunk every day.  And it gets better--he has also charmed a whore, Billie the Kid, who wears her "sleek" black hair in a "page-boy bob" and has breasts the "size and shape of half-grapefruits" so he can bang her for free!  He might even be in love with her!

Uh oh, things just got worse!  The overweight heroin-addicted whore upstairs was just murdered!  Who cares, you ask?  Well, Howie and Billie care!  Howie was the last person to see her before she got shivved, Billie having sent Howie upstairs to ask the lady of the night with all the tracks on her arms if she could spare some booze!  The milkman saw Howie go into the heroin-addict's apartment and he told the fuzz, making Howie suspect Number 1!  And Howie can't just tell the cops the truth because while Howie was at work Billie had to talk to the boys in blue and she lied to them about her and Howie's whereabouts at the time of the murder!

Howie goes on the lam with the idea that he will make his way back to Chicago and resume the life of a respectable office worker from a prominent family who only drinks socially.  A series of coincidences and chance occurrences ensue that end up with Howie figuring out who the murderer is and at the same time getting himself even deeper in trouble.  Finally we have a twist ending that gives us every reason to believe Howie is never going to return to responsible middle-class life, that he has found a way to live like a drunken bum the rest of his days, and all he has to do is abandon all sense of decency, all his inhibitions, any reluctance to commit the most heinous of sins!

This is a good, fun story about underworld scum whose lives revolve around drugs, booze, prostitution and petty crime, and the risk and opportunities that arise when by chance they get mixed up with serious big time criminals.  Is it a horror story about the dangers of hitting the sauce and associating with human trash, or a wish fulfillment fantasy for people sick of living within the straitjacket of bourgeois norms?  Brown's writing is economical, smooth, and fast-paced, but still atmospheric and full of psychological insight.  Thumbs up for "The Wench is Dead."

"Killing Bernstein" by Harlan Ellison (1976)

The last time we talked about Ellison I was explaining the many ways that his cover story for the November 1980 issue of F&SF was terrible.  But I'm not an Ellison hater on a jihad against this successful son of Ohio and his horde of worshipful fanboys--I always start these stories hoping I will like them, and maybe I'll like this June 1976 cover story for the first issue of the short-lived magazine Mystery Monthly, which I am reading in a scan of the 1978 collection Strange Wine, which has a great cover by the Dillons perhaps meant to entice fans of Lord of the Rings.  (Is there a story about an elf maiden in this collection?)

"Killing Bernstein" is OK, kind of slight.  The narrator is a big executive at a big toy company, and Ellison indulges in his love of lists and his love of famous names, listing off all the big toy company names, nine of them.  He also has a riff on Jaws, a theory of why a movie about sharks might be so successful at scaring people.

The narrator is having an affair with a beautiful woman executive, last name Bernstein, but her behavior towards him is erratic.  One night she'll have sex with him and say she loves him, then the next day she'll be cold, or even, at the big meeting, shoot down all his ideas for new toys, basing her blackball on the results of her test research.  (This meeting is the central scene of the story, and the longest, and, in the intro to "Killing Bernstein" in Strange Wine, Ellison claims the toys and the reasons they were rejected are all based on toys proposed and abandoned in real life.)  The narrator comes to think Bernstein is out to destroy his career (he compares her to a shark--this is where the Spielberg movie comes in.)  So he kills her in her apartment, but the next day she is back at work.  Is he going insane?  Did he just knock her out so that she could recover and return to the office to play mind games with him?  He kills her again, but she reappears at the office again!

Eventually the narrator figures out what is going on.  Bernstein has multiple clones, and different ones come into the office at different times.  One of the clones fell in love with him, but the others didn't, which explains why the narrator has been treated erratically.  Broken hearted, in a daze, the narrator abandons his career and stays in the research facility where the clones are hiding out, hoping one of them will fall in love with him like that one he murdered.

Acceptable.  One of the problems of the story is that the ending sort of requires you to think the narrator was really in love with Bernstein, but you get the impression throughout the story that he killed Bernstein not out of passion over his rejected love but because she was threatening his career; it is like Ellison wanted this story to not only be a tale of rage over rejection or unrequited love, but also an attack on middle-class money-grubbing careerists.  I also have to wonder if that whole Jaws-related passage about our racial memory going back to the time our ancestors were aquatic animals adds something worthwhile to the story or just pads the word count.  In an interview in the December 1981 issue of Twilight Zone magazine, Ellison seems to be suggesting he doesn't revise his work, that as a "professional" he can produce copy on a first go that is salable (or as he puts it, "not just readable...but...a hell of a story") but maybe "Killing Bernstein" would have benefited from some polishing so its disparate ideas--clones, selling toys, ancestral memories of sharks, rejection by a woman, and competition between executives--were more united into a coherent whole. 

"A Craving for Originality" by Bill Pronzini (1979)

The intro to this story in Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense warns us it is a satire about a hack writer.  Can a satire be suspenseful?  What is it with this false advertising?

Charlie Hackman churns out a dozen or so derivative and imitative novels every year, riding the coattails of trends and fads, making enough money to pay the mortgage on his suburban house and support his obese wife who doesn't like to have sex as well as his three pack a day cigarette habit.  After doing this for fifteen years, on his 40th birthday, he suddenly decides he is dissatisfied with his unoriginal writing and his unoriginal life, and wracks his brain trying to think of something original to write, and when this fails, something original to do.  This part of Pronzini's story is a little annoying, because it is so repetitive--a short paragraph describing Charlie's hopefully original idea, followed by a one-word rejection of it as "hackneyed" or "trite" or whatever, again and again.  The ideas are supposed to be funny, but they are not.

Hackman finally comes up with an original idea while in Manhattan and puts it into action, and Pronzini's story is entertaining for a page or two.  Charlie gets a hatchet and bursts into a bookstore and chops up his many pseudonymously written paperbacks, crying out stuff like "I'm doing hack work!"  Then he runs around town, pursued by a crowd and a cop, to be run over by an automobile, ending the story on another pun on "hack," the car that ends his sad suburban life being a taxi cab.

This story is neither suspenseful nor mysterious, and it is not great, either, but seeing as the chase in my old stomping grounds of Midtown Manhattan made me smile, I'll judge it acceptable.

"Craving for Originality" debuted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and would be included in Graveyard Plots: The Best Short Stories of Bill Pronzini.

"Many Mansions" by Robert Silverberg (1973)

"Many Mansions" first appeared in the third of Terry Carr's Universe anthologies, and has since reappeared in many Silverberg collections and several anthologies.

"Many Mansions" is a randy time travel joke story--I thought this book was called Great Tales of Mystery and Suspense, not Black Humor Cavalcade or Broken Marriages and Broken Minds.  Good grief.

This thing is like 24 pages and manifests itself as like sixty or seventy paragraphs with double spaces between them; each para represents the thoughts and/or narrates the actions of one of the three characters.  We've got Ted, who is sick of his wife, Alice, and day dreams of her getting killed in an accident so he can bang other chicks; when he despairs because that is unlikely, he daydreams of committing suicide.  We've got Alice, who dreams of Ted keeling over.  And we've got Martin, Ted's grandfather, who is over 80 and has sex fantasies about Alice; he gets so excited thinking about her and telephoning her so he can breathe heavily at her over the line that a medical robot has to administer drugs lest he have a heart attack.

This is the future, 2006, when the government controls the weather and Alice's cooking consists of pressing keys on a console.  (The government manages to screw up the weather and Alice still manages to screw up dinner sometimes--this is a joke story, after all.)  Time machines have been developed, and all three of our unsavory characters day dream of using a time machine to have sex with and/or murder one or both of the other two characters, and some of them even, I think, put their ideas into practice--I think the alleged mystery and alleged suspense of this allegedly great story have to do with whether individual little paragraphs are "reality" in this or that alternate time stream or just day dreams.  The little paragraphs get a little repetitive as we see alternate outcomes of the characters' little expeditions to the past.

"Many Mansions" isn't funny, and the story generates no human feeling not only because it is ridiculous but also since it portrays multiple realities, so nobody's death or love or fear or regret feels real--infinite possibilities means nothing matters.  I'm finding this story particularly disappointing because the whole point of today's exercise is to read suspense stories; if I wanted a sex-oriented comedy I would just read Henjo--Hen na Joshi Kousei Amaguri Senko again.  If Malzberg and Pronzini wanted to throw money at their buddy Silverbob I expect they could have found a more suspenseful story in his vast oeuvre than this.

Thumbs down!  

"See How They Run" by Robert Bloch (1973)

This story from the author of Psycho comes to us in the form of a journal that a comedy writer for TV is keeping at the urging of his shrink.  (More Hollywood, more shrinks.  Somehow, we read a lot of stories about Hollywood and psychiatrists/psychoanalysts here at MPorcius Fiction Log.)  Via the diary entries we learn about the writer's life--his father entertained his pals by telling them stuff the narrator as a child said, his mother had him drinking formula from a bottle for a peculiarly long time and was otherwise abusive, there was an episode in which as a kid the narrator killed a mouse with a kitchen knife, he has lost his TV writing job because he was giving the TV star material that was not family-friendly enough, his wife has become a successful singing star, and now he is hitting the sauce pretty hard--and the shrink's diagnosis of his neuroses and uncovering of the subconscious reasons for his various career decisions.  The [unreliable] narrator thinks psychology is a scam, but the text bears out the doctor's diagnosis.  The shock ending is that the narrator has a "hebephrenic schizoid" episode, in which he "revert[s] to childhood or infant behavior levels" and the final journal entry is written in the spelling and grammar of a child.  This child-like passage, somewhat obliquely, indicates that the narrator murdered his wife in much the same way he killed that mouse long ago.   

Rather weak...maybe barely acceptable.

"See How They Run" first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and would resurface in Bloch collections and an Alfred Hitchcock anthology.

So, of our five stories, only one, Fredric Brown's, could conceivably be considered "great," and it is the only one that is truly suspenseful.  The Ellison and Pronzini stories have endings that are surprising, but the surprise was not preceded by the kind of curiosity and uncertainty and anxiety that I think constitutes suspense.  The Silverberg story instilled apathy (and annoyance) in this reader, and the Bloch story wasn't much more engaging (though it was considerably less annoying than the Silverberg.)

Even though today's best story was the most realistic and least speculative, the one that relies least on futuristic technology, abnormal psychology, or absurdist satire, expect the next batch of blog posts here at MPorcius Fiction Log to inhabit our customary milieu of the supernatural and the spacefaring future.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Weird Tales, Jan 1939: Robert Bloch, Edmond Hamilton and Manly Wade Wellman

One of our long term projects here at MPorcius Fiction Log is reading at least one story from each 1930s issue of Weird Tales, and as we speak we are actually in the final phases of this operation!  Having ticked off the list every issue from January 1930 to December 1938, only 1939 remains to be picked over!  Below find links to lists of stories read for each completed year that in turn provide links to my blog posts about each of the individual stories.

 1930   1931  1932  1933   1934   1935   1936   1937  1938

Today the January 1939 issue of the unique magazine comes under our gaze.  We've actually already read an original story from it, "Medusa's Coil" by H. P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop, as well as the reprint it contains, Clark Ashton Smith's 1931 "A Rendezvous in Averoigne."  But there are still three stories in this issue of interest to us, tales by people we like that we haven't read yet, so let's devote today to adding them to the list of Weird Tales stories we have experienced.

"Waxworks" by Robert Bloch

This story is graced by an illustration by Virgil Finlay of a subject essayed by artists throughout the centuries, Salome with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and yet another artistic interpretation of this subject lies at the center of Bloch's story.

Paris, France.  A young man from the provinces, the son of a butcher, lives in a garret.  His parents think he is at university, but he never attends classes, he's just a self-absorbed, self-pitying slacker who thinks himself a poet.  One foggy night he discovers a small out of the way wax museum full of wax sculptures of murderers and other criminals.  One statue represents Salome with the head of her famous victim on a platter, and the romantic young man finds himself fascinated by this sculpture--in fact, he falls in love with it!  He comes back again and again to the little museum to stare for hours at red-headed Salome, unable to help himself, even though he senses an evil emanation from the figure.  Like a woman who teases and toys, he both loves and hates the wax Salome. 

The sculptor of the bewitching figure, an ugly little man, introduces himself to the poet and relates the weird story of how he came to model his Salome after his beautiful young wife after she was convicted of murder and executed by guillotine!  An old man, a colonel and friend of the family, comes to Paris looking for the poet, whose family has realized he is not doing anything productive in the big city and want him to come home.  The colonel also feels the alluring power of the Salome statue, and conducts a little investigation into its sculptor, a man who left the medical profession under mysterious circumstances and who perhaps wasn't telling the whole truth when he talked to the poet--the colonel thinks the sculptor is responsible for a string of diabolical crimes!

Who will live and who will die when the colonel tries to enlist the poet in an effort to liberate them from the power of the wax Salome and end the career of the ugly little doctor turned artist?  

This is a pretty good story from Bloch, whose work is hit or miss; one thing it has going for it is the fact that, after a few sarcastic jibes about the poet's pretensions to being a sensitive artist, Bloch takes the material seriously, so the text is blessedly free from the lame jokes and overwrought social commentary that mars much of Bloch's output.  And of course I am a sucker for stories about guys being beguiled by women and making stupid decisions because they are in love or just horny.  Thumbs up for "Waxworks."

"Waxworks" has reappeared in Bloch collections as well as anthologies in English, German and Italian. 

"Bride of the Lightning" by Edmond Hamilton

Here we have an Edmond Hamilton story which, if isfdb is to be believed, has never been reprinted.

Sheila Crail is a slim black-haired beauty who lives with her uncle in rural Wisconsin.  All her young life she has loved thunder and lightning, and when there is a storm she runs up Lightning Hill to dance amid the bolts that habitually strike it.  She has even come to believe that a creature of electricity that she calls The Lord of Lightning comes to dance with her during these storms.  This Lord is a jealous one, and two young men who courted Sheila have both died from lightning strikes!  Her uncle says this is just a coincidence, but the farmhand who manages the farm has himself seen the Lord of Lightning dancing with Sheila and believes.

The main character of our story is a young banker who comes to stay with Sheila's uncle to assisting with sorting out the finances of the estate.  The banker can't help but fall in love with Sheila, even though he has been told about the Lord of Lightning and the fate of Sheila's prior suitors, even though he himself saw Sheila dancing with the Lord of Lightning--he is sure that was just some odd ball-lightning phenomena or something.

Sheila finds herself falling for the banker, and there is talk of marrying.  But then a storm comes along, and Sheila is certain the Lord of Lightning is going to kill the banker and that the only thing she can do to save him is to give herself to the Lord and thus dampen those seven gigajoules of jealousy!

This is a decent weird story with a tragic ending.  Sheila, blasted by lightning and turned into an electrical being herself, is considered dead by the authorities, though no trace of her body is ever found.  And now the banker goes outside every time there is an electrical storm, stands amid the falling lightning bolts, talking to them!    

"These Doth the Lord Hate" by Manly Wade Wellman (as by Gans T. Field) 

This brief piece was reprinted in a 1951 issue of Weird Tales, as well as in a 1987 issue of the magazine The Horror Show, in addition to the expected Wellman collections.  In both its Weird Tales appearances it is printed under a pen name, Gans T. Field, a pseudonym used by Wellman on a number of occasions.  

"These Doth the Lord Hate" is an odd literary experiment.  Wellman takes a short section from a real book about witchcraft and demons, the 1608 Compendium Maleficarum, an anecdote about a French peasant who accused his wife and daughter of sorcery and handed them over to the authorities, and adds to it a wealth of cinematic and psychological detail.  Wellman quotes an English translation of the original Latin text in brief italicized snippets, and between these quotes we find Wellman's own relatively lengthy extrapolations and speculations. 

"These Doth the Lord Hate" works, being sort of interesting and successfully conjuring up images and emotions.  Thumbs up, then.


And so we put behind us another milestone in our sacred journey through the 1930s run of Farnsworth Wright's magazine of the bizarre and unusual by reading these three pretty entertaining stories.  Hopefully the road will be this smooth throughout the rest of 1939.  

Friday, April 19, 2024

F&SF, July 1957: R F Young, P Anderson, and A Davidson

In our last episode we read a story by Richard Matheson from the July 1957 issue of F&SF, and I noticed some other stories in the issue that interested me, so let's check them out.

"Your Ghost Will Walk..." by Robert F. Young 

This is a satire of suburban Americans who like TV and automobiles, as if we needed another of these.  We often see SF in which space aliens serve as a foil for us humans, the aliens being more peaceful than humans or more in tune with nature or whatever; this story is about how humans (at least middle-class suburbanites) are crass and don't understand love and don't understand poetry, and these deficiencies are thrown into high relief by the presence of robots who love poetry and each other!

It is the early 21st century.  This guy Wade writes advertising jingles for cigarette and automobile manufacturers.  With the money his jingles have earned him he has acquired for himself and his family a big suburban home, lots of TVs and two 2025 Cadillacs.  His domestic staff consists of two robots who have fallen in love with each other; these robots are well-versed in poetry, and recite poems to each other while they do their jobs, like cooking, and get so distracted that they screw up their work, burning the food, for example.  Wade also has a robot to maintain his and the wife's cars.  Whereas the maid and butler robots are converted poetry bots bought on the cheap, the mechanic bot is custom built to love cars.

The maid and butler run away and Wade jumps in one of the Caddies to find them, bringing the mechanic robot with him.  In the course of the search, Wade's cigarette case scratches the paint on the car, and so the mechanic robot murders him with a wrench.  (This is a pretty mean-spirited satire.)  Meanwhile the two poetry robots, it is implied, walk onto a highway and get destroyed by the traffic.

I hate these satires that are just an exercise in venting rage and expressing contempt.  The point of "Your Ghost Will Walk..." isn't to convince the reader that watching TV and driving a car is bad, the author just assumes the reader already thinks that and expects him to enjoy seeing a TV watcher and car driver get murdered.  "Your Ghost Will Walk..." is a wish fulfillment fantasy that caters to the bloodlust of urban sophisticates who despise (or is it envy?) suburban families.   


According to isfdb, "Your Ghost Will Walk..." is the second of two stories about poetic robots.  Maybe the earlier one is also about this same maid and butler.  "Your Ghost Will Walk..." would be reprinted in The Worlds of Robert F. Young.

For more MPorcius assessments of Robert F. Young stories, check out these links:

"Life Cycle" by Poul Anderson

Here we have a relatively rare Anderson story--if isfdb is to be believed, "Life Cycle" has never been reprinted in an Anderson collection.  Robert Silverberg did include "Life Cycle" in his 1968 anthology Earthmen and Strangers, and within that volume both Silverberg and Anderson provide half-page long intros to the story.  Silverberg in his intro stresses Anderson's science credentials and tells us this story is going to be about reproduction.  Anderson's intro, which is headed "AUTHOR'S NOTE," is a sort of apology for and explanation of the inaccurate picture of Mercury painted in "Life Cycle"--in 1957 astronomers thought Mercury had a permanently hot day side and a permanently cold dark side, but by 1968 this had been disproven.  Anderson is one of those guys who really thinks science fiction should be teaching people science.

Like Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson fights racism and celebrates diversity by populating his stories with sympathetic and admirable characters who are non-Anglo, non-white and non-human.  The crew of space ship Explorer, currently stuck on the surface in Mercury's twilight zone, consists of a Basque biologist, a Mohawk engineer and a Martian bird-man mineralogist who came here to trade with the natives.  Why are they stuck?  The local Mercurians, silicon-based life forms that look like insects and share a hive-mind, have deployed armed guards to keep the outworlders from accessing their supply shed a short walk away for Explorer; in the shed is their food and the fuel for their ship.  The three men will starve if they can't lift the embargo, which the previously friendly natives have instituted at the behest of their gods, who have decreed that all aliens die.  The three spacemen only have one pistol between them, so they can't fight the entire Mercurian community of thousands, even though these characters are armed with nothing more advanced than a spear.

The gods of these nightsider Mercurians are the inhabitants of Mercury's dayside, whom the explorers have not yet met or even seen.  The explorers seek to learn more about these gods in hopes they can persuade them to rescind the death order.  The space men acquire the exoskeletons of dead nightsiders--they find them in a big pile of empty exoskeletons just beyond the twilight zone, a short distance into the hellishly hot dayside region.  The nightsiders explain that when they get old, nightsiders walk to the dayside and are killed by the sun's rays.

While the Martian keeps an eye on the ship, the humans don the exoskeletons as a disguise and attend a religious service at which the daysiders appear.  It turns out that the nightsiders are female and the daysiders, who look like lizards, are the males, and this ceremony is a mating ritual/one-night stand where the males impregnate the females.  Even more amazing, the human scientists figure out that the males are former females, those who went to the dayside expecting death--the Mercurians are like oysters, changing sex in mid life!  The females are an egg-laying larval form who, under the influence of the fierce sunlight of dayside, shed their exoskeletons and emerge as males who can fertilize females through sexual intercourse.  The males (who lose their memories in the metamorphosis and thus have no fellow feeling for the females they once were) have set themselves up as gods and conduct an unfair trading partnership with the females, and they want the explorers dead because the offworlders might act as trade competition or even expose the truth to the females.  The males' fears come true when the spacemen explain what is going on to the females--the civilization of Mercury, like so many civilizations in SF stories, is about to undergo a paradigm shift.

The last paragraph of the story is a sort of social commentary sting or maybe just a sexist joke--the Mohawk feels a little guilty that he and his comrades may have triggered the rise of a matriarchy here on Mercury like that which reigns in the United States.

"Life Cycle" is pretty good example of the traditional libertarian science fiction story that promotes science and trade, romanticizes the scientist, the engineer and the merchant, tells you religion is an obstacle and a scam, and tries to teach you biology and astronomy via little lectures.  I like it.    

"Summerland" by Avram Davidson

I don't always like Davidson's work, but this one is well-written so I'm giving "Summerland" a thumbs up.  

Davidson's plot is quite simple.  The narrator's elderly mother becomes friends with a middle-aged couple who are into new age occult fads, like seances.  The husband of the couple, who owns lots of rental properties, falls and dies, and the wife, accompanied by the narrator's mother and sometimes the narrator, goes to many mediums in hopes of contacting her husband via a seance.  Finally, one of the seances gets in touch with the dead husband, and everyone gets evidence that the man is burning in Hell because he gave all his tenants a raw deal, neglecting his properties to the point they were unsafe.

Among the virtues of "Summerland" is its length--a mere four pages, so there is no fat, nothing that will bore the reader or try his patience.  Most importantly, Davidson succeeds in painting believable characters and relationships, and he also structures the story in such a way that it achieves some clever and entertaining effects, like foreshadowing as well as some little surprises.  This is a well-crafted thing.

Quite good.  "Summerland" was reprinted in the Davidson collection Or All the Seas with Oysters and multiple anthologies for which Martin H. Greenberg is partly credited.  One of those is Hollywood Ghosts, but "Summerland" isn't really about ghosts and has nothing to do with show biz--the California angle is the West Coast culture of vegetarianism, hypochondria, beatniks and proto-hippies, of interest in Eastern philosophy and the occult and the way these counter-culture values seep into the precincts of bourgeois business people and their wives.


The Anderson is solid traditional science fiction, and while the Young story is annoying, it, like the admirable Davidson story, offers some insight into the intellectual and cultural currents of the late 1950s in America.  This is a good issue of F&SF, well worth investigating.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Richard Matheson: "Mantage," "One for the Books" and "The Holiday Man"

After spending some quality time in the year 1980 with Barry Malzberg, Felix Gotschalk and Harlan Ellison, let's go back...back...back...to the 1950s and hang out with the guy who wrote Steven Spielberg's best movie as well as Vincent Price's best movie, Richard Matheson.  On April 11 we started reading Matheson's 1961 oft-reprinted collection Shock!; let's read three more stories from that volume today (we're reading the original versions of these stories via the sorcery of the internet archive, world's greatest website.)

"Mantage" (1959)

"Mantage" debuted in Science Fiction Showcase, a hardcover anthology edited by Mary Kornbluth.  Fred Pohl got her the job editing the anthology after her husband Cyril died of a heart attack in 1958; as Pohl tells it, Kornbluth's heart was worn out during his World War II service and the man ignored doctor's orders to stop smoking, drinking, and eating salty food.  As an active SF fan, Mary Kornbluth was qualified to edit an anthology, and Science Fiction Showcase went through multiple editions, but for some reason she didn't go on to edit any more.  (I got all this info from three autobiographical posts at Pohl's blog which focus on his relationship with the Kornbluths, Cyril Kornbluth's death and cremation, and the genesis of Science Fiction Showcase.  (Links: One Two Three.)  Pohl sort of portrays himself as a hero in these memoirs, putting himself out to save the dysfunctional Kornbluths from themselves, and there is some evidence Mary Kornbluth found this kind of thing annoying.  (Link to some evidence.)) 

Enough with the SF gossip.  "Mantage" is what isfdb calls a novelette, and is like 24 pages in Science Fiction Showcase, a scan of which I am reading.  I sighed when I realized the story was about Hollywood; I'm kind of sick of Los Angeles stories.  (I am always glad when a story is about New York.)

"Mantage" is a total bore, even though it does take place partly in Manhattan.  A writer guy sees a movie about a writer guy, and laments that real life isn't like a motion picture, that you can't rush through the ten years of hard work it takes to become a successful writer in a 30-second montage of brief shots of clocks, cigarette butts, and a guy at a typewriter, but have to live every boring or arduous second.  That night, looking in the mirror, he wishes life was more like the movies.  

We kind of know what is going to happen, but, regardless, Matheson inflicts on us a long tedious mainstream narrative of the writer achieving literary success and getting married and taking a ten-week trip to La La Land to write a screenplay based on his novel where he gets involved in a love triangle with a sexy secretary and a sexy actress and thus jeopardizes his marriage but then his wife takes him back blah, blah, blah.  The gimmick that is supposed to make this cliched goop tolerable is that we read it in a series of brief scenes and--dun dun dun--the writer is also experiencing this stuff, his own life, as a series of brief scenes!  He can only remember the significant high points, not the quiet days of hard work, so it feels like his life is passing by in an hour and a half!  He can't recall swearing, he can't recall having sex--his memories of intimate moments with a woman fade to black before she disrobes, you know, just like in a Hollywood movie!  Suddenly his kids are grown without him having witnessed their formative years, suddenly his wife is old without his having appreciated their time together, suddenly he is dying--and he sees the words "THE END" floating before him!

The gimmick is dumb, the plot is sleep-inducing, there is no tension or surprise, and the story is three or four times as long as it need be.  Thumbs down! 

Besides in Matheson collections, after its debut "Mantage" would show up in a few anthologies, including Peter Haining's The Hollywood Nightmare.    

The Hollywood Nightmare has an introduction by fan favorite Christopher Lee

"One for the Books" (1955)

This is an OK story, maybe too long at 14 pages.  An uneducated 59-year-old man works at a university as a janitor.  One morning, he wakes up speaking French.  He can barely control his own speech, French phrases just come right out, almost of their own accord.

Yesterday he worked in the French department, and today his work brings him to other departments, and soon he has an encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects, and will reel off facts and figures and quotes from books autonomically, in response to questions.  He can't manipulate or even really understand this knowledge, he is like a machine, regurgitating words in a monotone when prompted by outside stimuli.

Matheson provides readers many scenes in which the janitor's wife and friends respond with alarm to stuff the janitor says, and we also get many examples of the kind of trivia the janitor now "knows."  The middle of the story thus feels repetitive.  In the final third of the story, assembled college professors rapid fire many questions at the janitor, testing his knowledge, but never think to figure out how this happened to the guy, 

But then we find out how.  An alien space craft appears and sucks the information right out of the janitor's brain, leaving him a blank slate without memory, a man unable to talk or recognize his own name.  We get a superfluous denouement that undermines the shock ending of the tale in which we learn that a year or so later he has learned to speak again.

I would have preferred a story in which a working-class man suddenly has access to vast knowledge and uses this unique resource to become president or a crime boss or a messianic figure or whatever, and faces moral dilemmas and/or undergoes a radical change in values and personality or something--you know, a story in which a character makes decisions and changes, a story which speculates about life and society.  I guess that would be a real science fiction story or a mainstream story--here we just have a horror story in which a guy doesn't act but is merely acted upon by inexplicable forces and suffers.  Oh, well.

We're judging "One for the Books" merely acceptable.  After its initial appearance in Galaxy, "One for the Books" would see print again in several Matheson collections and a few anthologies, including Untravelled Worlds, which looks like a text book inflicted upon British schoolkids.  

"The Holiday Man" (1957)

"The Holiday Man" debuted in the same issue of F&SF which contains one of the better of Chad Oliver's stories about how much better a primitive life is than a modern one, "The Wind Blows Free," as well as stories by Poul Anderson and Avram Davidson we should check out sometime.  It has been reprinted in anthologies like Robert Potter's Tales of Mystery and the Unknown and a book of stories from F&SF, and of course a pile of Matheson collections.

A man is very reluctant to go to work, but his callous wife tells him he must go, nobody else can do his job.  He walks to the station, rides the train to the city, wastes time in a bar not drinking his beer, then sneaks into his office late.  He lays down on a couch and writhes and screams for hours.  Then he gets up, writes notes on a sheet of paper, delivers the paper to his boss.  It seems that this dude goes into some kind of trance and can see everyone who will die the next day or something like that, that he watches them as they expire, be it peacefully in bed or horribly in a fire.  He works for a newspaper and they print his predictions.  It is sort of implied that this is prediction is done only for holidays, or maybe the prediction for holidays is particularly interesting to the public.

This story felt a little oblique when I read it, but I own a withdrawn library copy of Richard Matheson: Collected Stories Volume Two and took a gander at the little afterword to the story therein, to find Matheson confirming that newspapers, in the Fifties at least (I was born in 1971), would regularly predict how many people would die on each holiday, something I don't know that I have ever heard of before.

"The Holiday Man" is well-written, economical, engaging, and successful in setting a mood, and of course I like the theme of being in a difficult marriage and having to commute to an office job you find humiliating or debilitating (you know, like in the unacknowledged classic masterpiece The Kinks Present a Soap Opera), so thumbs up.


Well, we've got a balanced mix here, one long and tedious story, one acceptable story, and one short and effective story.  So a score for today of zero.  The last installment had two pluses and two minuses, so also a zero.  So we are over halfway through Shock! and it's a wash; well, with six stories to go, Matheson has a chance to achieve liftoff or sink into the abyss.

We'll spend our next episode in the 1950s, so stay tuned if that is your thing.