Friday, March 31, 2017

FFB: Robert Bloch: THE MIRACLE OF RONALD WEEMS (IMAGINATIVE TALES, May 1955, et seq.); Bloch centennial week

Robert Bloch's "The Miracle of Ronald Weems" was the third lead novella in a row (one more would follow) by Bloch in an issue of the new magazine Imaginative Tales, and the first new one (the first was a reprint, retitled, from a 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures; the second, "Mr. Margate's Mermaid," a reconfiguration of two shorter stories Bloch had placed with Weird Tales in 1942). Since original publication, I'm aware of only two reprints, in David Schow's collection The Lost Bloch, Volume 2: Hell on Earth (Subterranean Press, 2000) and by Pulpville Press, in a 2006 double-novel format with that fourth issue novella "The Big Binge"...Imaginative Tales had been launched as a fantasy magazine meant to feature Thorne Smith-style mildly ribald farcical tales, and Bloch delivers what is asked for, though in this example a strong dose of Damon Runyon is added. 

Ronald Weems has not quite enjoyed an uneventful life, having been raised by puritanical maiden aunts and having spent the years since their deaths working, somewhat improbably, in the women's intimate-wear section of a department store. He has a crush on a toy clerk named Amy, an incompetent, blustering bully manager in women's wear named Bickerstaff, and the responsibility of helping make a success of a lingerie show at the store, featuring a young and still rather obscure film starlet, services rented for the occasion, who works as Laura Lee. Through misadventure, Weems finds himself the owner of a children's chemical set, mostly to help Amy out of a jam, and, after the lingerie show goes badly and Weems is fired, he discovers that Amy has a man already in her life. Depressed, he considers suicide by mixing chemicals randomly in hopes of creating an effective poison...instead, he accidentally creates an elixir that temporarily gives him powers of levitation and telekinesis...though he has to be mildly drunk, as well. Further misadventure puts Weems and Laura Lee into each other's orbits in multiple ways over the next couple of days, facing one sort of threat after another, not least from local gangster Ace Diamond, who wants money from Lee and criminal aid from Weems. Beyond what they endure together, Lee and Weems manage to get along rather well, in the manner of one kind of romantic farce, and the ending suggests that perhaps some of the effects of Weems's compounding aren't so temporary. 

Bloch by 1955 was an old hand at this kind of narrative, and is clearly having some fun all the way through this story, as bouyant as Weems is at full power, and seemingly enjoying let the narrative spin out as it more or less plausibly might, given Laura Lee is both good-natured and mildly bohemian, and willing to take on her brave if innocent, sheltered eventual swain as they scrape through one farcical, if usually also dangerous, twist after another. As with the Lefty Feep stories and others for Fantastic Adventures, and to some extent his other humorous fantasies for magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown, the puns, the comedy of humors names for supporting characters, and generally good-natured play help keep this from being in any way profound, but also consistently engagingly readable. Aside from the criminal element being relatively quick-thinking and quick-talking, as well as more dangerous than might be expected in a farce, a couple of them engage in the kind of slightly convoluted patois that makes the debt to Runyon mentioned above fairly obvious...if you took Smith, Runyon and Robert Benchley together and convinced them to write a romantic caper-fantasy, this could well've been the result.  The grimmer humor shot through, or added lightly to, much of his horror and crime fiction, and nearly all his more seriously-intended science fiction (he wrote sfnal farce, as well), is less in evidence here, but it's very much of a piece with those works, or the humorous tone of many of his critical essays and fannish-press writing...or his public speaking, as he had toyed at one time with the notion of becoming a stand-up comedian.

I'll be posting some reviews of some of Bloch's more serious and ambitious writing over the next week, as we run up to and past the 5 April 100th anniversary of his birth. For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog. And here's a bit of a Robert Bloch index post for Sweet Freedom...

10 comments:

Walker Martin said...

It's funny but when I was buying IMAGINATION and IMAGINATIVE TALES off the newsstands I didn't think much of them. But now, all these years later, I sort of like them. Nostalgia I guess.

Todd Mason said...

Well, perhaps. Their contents were reasonably well-written, usually, without being groundbreaking very often, so less uneven than such magazines as Lowndes's SCIENCE FICTION and FUTURE FICTION and its stablemates, or IF at times in the '50s, or certainly Howard Browne's FANTASTIC or AMAZING, or the magazines Ray Palmer was publishing, or even GALAXY could be as H. L. Gold was uncertain of how to best go forward in the latter '50s, and was distracted by health problems as Frederik Pohl increasingly had to step in. As with FANTASTIC UNIVERSE and SATELLITE, the Hamling magazines were reliably professional, and sometimes a bit better than that.

Walker Martin said...

I have to disagree as far as GALAXY and IF in the 1950's. Back then I thought they were a lot better than IMAGINATION and IMAGINATIVE TALES. Looking at the magazines now I still think so. But I agree the Hamling magazines had nice covers, looked very professional and provided interesting fan related departments.

Todd Mason said...

I draw your attention to the Paul Fairman first issues of IF, which verge on unreadable, and some of the less-wise story-choices by James Quinn and to a much lesser extent H.L. Gold...then again, so much of what John Campbell picked up for the latter '50s ASTOUNDING was only astoundingly pedestrian. While you were less likely to find howlers like Randall Garrett's "Queen Bee" in the Hamling magazines, or so my perhaps less comprehensive experience of them suggests...now. I didn't say they were better, just less uneven...the Lowndes magazines were better, but by no means with every story, and that was certainly true of GALAXY and the better issues of the '50s IF, as well.

Walker Martin said...

When I look back on the fifties and think about magazines that were just about bottom of the barrel I have to nominate AMAZING and FANTASTIC. I'm not talking about the brief period when they published some quality fiction the early 1950's. By the late 1950's I gave up on them and stopped buying them at all. Which was a mistake since the magazines revived under Cele Goldsmith and Ted White. When I discovered this I went and bought the back issues.

Todd Mason said...

Though, of course, it was the same Paul Fairman who drove A&F and DREAM WORLD through the floor who was the founding editor of IF...and it showed...of course, he learned how to edit poorly from Palmer and Browne, but unlike them he never did otherwise...and the 1950s COSMOS managed to be even worse, though even Lyle Kenyon Engel apparently couldn't plumb the depths reached by the John Spencer magazines in the UK...

Mathew Paust said...

If the story's as entertaining as your review, Todd, I'm sold!

Todd Mason said...

Too kind, Matt...the story rather better...I'm pretty sure Bloch was fully awake while composing it.

George said...

Love Bloch's IMAGINATIVE TALES stories! I might feature one of those on April 5.

Todd Mason said...

Well, George, two Bloch novellas from IT left!

And, Walker, I meant to refer to SPACE SCIENCE FICTION with the Engel reference...but really had in mind VORTEX SF, so that might be why I landed on the COSMOS that Scott Meredith Literary Agency packaged...less impressively than they packaged MANHUNT and its stablemates...