Wednesday, March 17, 2021

FFB/SSW: THE SEVENTH GALAXY READER edited by Frederik Pohl (Doubleday 1964); THE BEST FROM FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, 14th Series, edited by Avram Davidson (Doubleday 1965); SWORD & SORCERY ANNUAL edited by Sol Cohen (and Cele Goldsmith Lalli) (Ultimate Publications 1975); PERCHANCE TO WAKE: YET MORE SELECTED STORIES FROM SCIENCE FANTASY edited by John Boston and Damien Broderick (Surinam Turtle Press 2016)

the final cover painting by Hannes Bok

Lee Brown Coye

Agosta Morol
The Shock of the New...

Fantasy and sf in the fiction magazines devoted to them trended ever more sophisticated from their introduction in the US and UK in the 1920s and '30s, and in other English-language countries (though most other Anglophone countries usually featured simply local editions of the US or UK magazines), till by the 1950s the good ones averaged on par with the run of more sophisticated 
Virgil Finlay
commercial and little magazines. Hugo Gernsback reprinted the likes of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe in his early issues of his pioneering (in 1926) Amazing Stories, which was otherwise largely built, at first, on a tradition of notional technology anecdotes in his early electronics magazines.  (But Gernsback was also happy to feature an Edgar Rice Burroughs "John Carter of Mars" story for the only 
issue of his Amazing Stories Annual). F. Orlin Tremaine innovated as successor to Harry Bates and the latter's Astounding Stories of Super Science; John W. Campbell Jr. refined and continued those advances away from standard pulp adventure, and had the title changed from Tremaine's Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction, and then eventually to Analog (which it remains today);  Sam Merwin, Jr. likewise in the latter '40s  into the '50s improved on the efforts of his predecessors (at Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories, the latter-day versions of Gernsback's second set of sf magazines), Dorothy McIlwraith's Weird Tales (where she widened that magazine's remit beyond the kind of neo-gothic horror and purple overstatement that her predecessors favored, even as impressive as Farnsworth Wright's best editorial work had been), and even the young Frederik Pohl, at his promising magazines Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, demonstrating their initially 19-year-old editor's  quick learning curve but also his openness to  the larger literary world, and as the most financially sound and widely-read of the magazines edited by the young lions of the Futurian Society of New York, a fan/ aspiring pro group of writers, editors, artists, agents and more who included a large number of the most notable conscious artists in fantastic fiction, albeit all still very young in the 1930s and '40s. Judith Merril, freelancing anthologies and establishing the second, and often controversial, sf and fantasy best-of-the-year annual, Donald Wollheim, at Avon Books, then Ace Books, then DAW Books, Robert Lowndes, at Columbia Publications and other low-budget publishers, and Larry Shaw in magazines and at Lancer Books, were among the other most prominent editors among the Futurians.

And so, as the new magazines of the 1950s entered the scene, including the four magazines represented in this review essay, the bend toward increasing literary excellence and ambition was already established ...the best of the new magazines, and the best work in the field published in the 1950s, was able to match the standards of fiction published in any other forum on a consistent basis, even given there was still a fair amount of relatively trivial and weak fiction also made available, as in every other field of fiction as well. By the early/mid '60s, the groundwork laid by the increasing urbanity and prose facility of fiction published in magazines such as Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fantastic: Stories of Imagination, and Science Fantasy had been building steadily on the good work of and in the previous issues of the same magazines, and not a few other allied periodical titles and anthologies of new work, and book publishers open to novels of ambition, at least fitfully... was resulting in some of what is collected in the books, and one special retrospective magazine issue, we consider here.

The four editors, or the three editors and a small cluster of editors at Science Fantasy in the early/mid-'60s the fiction collected here springs from, were doing, under some stressful limitations and not always fully successfully, some of the most important editorial work in fantastic fiction of their time. Frederik Pohl, officially the editor of Galaxy and its recently-acquired sibling If from 1962, had been responsible for an increasing amount of the editorial work behind the scenes since the late '50s, as Pohl's literary agency and Galaxy founding editor H. L. Gold were both facing extreme difficulty. Pohl had been a key supporter of Gold, as agent and as a contributor of fiction, from the magazine's founding in 1950, and was unsurprisingly tapped to serve.  Galaxy and If under his initial official editorship faced tough times; one strategy he took to help the magazines weather slowing sales was to buy a certain amount of acceptable-to-good fiction at a new low rate of payment for stories, 1c/word, then immediately afterward begin editing more selectively, seeking better work at Galaxy's initial 1950 rate of three cents per word...and mix the better work in with the readable till reader support could be, he hoped, regained.

At The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or F&SF, increasingly frequent contributor Avram Davidson was asked in 1962 to become its fourth editor, and third solo editor, the first in that position to not have been either a co-founder or an old hand around the magazine. Davidson as editor was often seen as willing to explore eccentricity even more than had predecessors Robert P. Mills and founding editors "Anthony Boucher" and J. Francis McComas, but he managed to publish a considerable amount of pathbreaking fiction; he remains my favorite of the editors of the magazine, in a very impressive field. 

Similarly, Cele Goldsmith (later married and signing herself Cele Lalli, and later yet Cele Goldsmith Lalli) had joined the magazine staff at Ziff-Davis in the mid '50s with the primary task of editing a short-lived magazine called Pen Pals which was devoted to just that, facilitating new mail correspondents. She was also tasked with assisting the ever-more nonchalant fiction magazine editor on staff, Howard Browne, who had been founding editor of Fantastic, but whom increasingly spent his on-the-clock time at the offices writing his own fiction for publication elsewhere. Goldsmith didn't know very much about fantasy or sf as fields, but was the conscientious presence on the staff, as Browne was succeeded by an old writing colleague of his, and founding editor of  If, Paul W. Fairman, if anything even more oblivious to the quality of the magazine he was barely editing. Goldsmith would comb through the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts, and found as a result, among other work, what would be Kate Wilhelm's first published story, which Fairman disinterestedly published along with the fiction he bought unread from his five "regulars": Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Milton Lesser (before he legally changed his name to Stephen Marlowe), Randall Garrett and Henry Slesar, a very talented quintet who were not usually offering their best work to an editor who wanted manuscripts on-time and unproblematic much more than he wanted them good. Others, including Fairman himself, would also contribute, particularly for some special issues devoted to wish-fulfillment fantasy that led up to a short-lived spinoff magazine called Dream World. Goldsmith learned a lot about what to do and more of what not to.

All of these items have been packaged on the cheap--standard practice at Doubleday in the '60s when not dealing with their "lead titles", and Ultimate and Surinam Turtle Press were and are all but one-person shops, Ultimate a retirement job for publisher Sol Cohen and STP kind of an avocational project of Richard Lupoff's.

Introduction · Frederik Pohl · in
For Love · Algis Budrys · nv Galaxy Jun 1962
Come Into My Cellar · Ray Bradbury · ss Galaxy Oct 1962
The Tail-Tied Kings · Avram Davidson · ss Galaxy Apr 1962
Crime Machine · Robert Bloch · ss Galaxy Oct 1961
Return Engagement · Lester del Rey · ss Galaxy Aug 1961
Earthmen Bearing Gifts · Fredric Brown · vi Galaxy Jun 1960
Rainbird · R. A. Lafferty · ss Galaxy Dec 1961
Three Portraits and a Prayer · Frederik Pohl · ss Galaxy Aug 1962
Something Bright · Zenna Henderson · ss Galaxy Feb 1960
On the Gem Planet [Casher O’Neill] · Cordwainer Smith · nv Galaxy Oct 1963
The Deep Down Dragon · Judith Merril · ss Galaxy Aug 1961
The King of the City · Keith Laumer · nv Galaxy Aug 1961
The Beat Cluster · Fritz Leiber · ss Galaxy Oct 1961
An Old-Fashioned Bird Christmas · Margaret St. Clair · nv Galaxy Dec 1961
The Big Pat Boom · Damon Knight · ss Galaxy Dec 1963

--More to come...

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

SHORT STORY WEDNESDAY: HANGING BY A THREAD edited by Joan Kahn (Houghton Mifflin 1969)

index from ISFDB, slightly augmented

Even at this late date, it's difficult to label the anthologies of Joan Kahn as obscure, given her importance throughout her career as an editor of crime fiction, most famously at Harper and Row, and not trivially at the end of her career at St. Martins. But it might well be that the significance of her career as a novel and otherwise publisher's editor has tended to overshadow her double-handful of anthologies aimed at adult and YA readers, as good and eclectic as they could be--she was one of the few who regularly mixed in not only historical fiction and classics of formerly contemporary mimetic and adventure fiction with the more straightforward crime and horror fiction in her suspense-oriented anthologies, but would also include true-crime and some other historical accounts...not too many other anthologists of her day would include Tacitus in translation cheek by jowl with Helen Eustis and John D. MacDonald. Nor any of these mixed in with an excerpt from Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki. In some ways, what we have here is a very fat, well-bound magazine issue, sans ads or illustration. 

I liked, thus, the Kahn anthologies I read when in my second decade, but not as much as I loved somewhat similarly eclectic (but usually fiction-only, aside from introductions, afterwords, notes on the texts and contributors) anthologies from the likes of Robert Arthur or Harold Q. Masur (often ghosting their work for Alfred Hitchcock-branding), Bill Pronzini, Barry Malzberg, the early years of Martin H. Greenberg, and such prolific editors of anthologies mostly for young readers as Helen Hoke, Betty M. Owen, Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis, and the energetic (and relatively uneven, perhaps as a result) editor for adults and younger readers Peter Haining and, also published in the US by Taplinger ahead of other imprints, the less prolific and perhaps thereby more consistent Hugh Lamb...but there were always reasons to be glad one had a Kahn anthology in one's hands or at least on a convenient shelf. 

And yet this one escaped me altogether in those years, despite my snapping up any anthology likely to contain actual horror fiction (as opposed to all those annoying, ill-written John Canning and similar "true weird tales" volumes of enjoyable an early, sleazy read as Emile Schurmacher's Strange Unsolved Mysteries was). It's just arrived today, and in it is only the second short story I've managed to stumble across from Henry Cecil [Leon, his apparent full legal name, used in his primary career as a judge]...after reading his "Proof" when I was 8yo in Kathleen Lines's The House of the Nightmare and Other Eerie Tales (itself including a slightly annoying short set of "true" supernatural tales among its pages, but forgiven)...if I like this crime story, as I take it to be, nearly as much as the matter-of-fact horror story that is "Proof", I shall be forced to finally make a serious effort to find his own books all these decades later. 

The familiar stories here, such excellences and happy memories as Jorge Luis Borges's "El fin"/"The End", James Thurber's "A Sort of Genius", the Hammett and even the more endlessly reprinted than actually good Bulwer-Lytton (Lines titled her next YA horror anthology for it) are mixed in with the promise of Algis Budrys's early sf story, from Astounding Science Fiction during his years in John Campbell's stable and his first volume of short stories, The Unexpected Dimension (which I belatedly read half of before it went into a storage box for the changing of one apartment for another), the very dimly familiar Wells and Crane stories (skimmed? seen/heard adapted? had to return the library book before I got to them? did I simply miss, say, the Bowen or the McCoy in not seeking out their collections?) and all the others...

It's an odd telescopic trip through some of my earliest and latest reading. I'm glad to have it. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: selections from MY FAVORITE HORROR STORY edited by Mike Baker and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW Books, 2000)

from the
Locus Index:

My Favorite Horror Story ed. Mike Baker & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW 0-88677-914-6, Oct 2000, $6.99, 303pp, pb, cover by Koeveks) Anthology of 15 horror stories by authors including Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ramsey Campbell. Each story was selected, and commented on, by authors including Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Poppy Z. Brite, and Joyce Carol Oates.

  • ix · Introduction · Mike Baker & Martin H. Greenberg · in
  • 1 · Introduction to “Sweets to the Sweet” by Robert Bloch · Stephen King · is
  • 1 · Sweets to the Sweet · Robert Bloch · ss Weird Tales Mar ’47
  • 11 · Introduction to “The Father-Thing” by Philip K. Dick · Ed Gorman · is
  • 11 · The Father-Thing · Philip K. Dick · ss The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) Dec ’54
  • 26 · Introduction to “The Distributor” by Richard Matheson · F. Paul Wilson · is
  • 27 · The Distributor · Richard Matheson · ss Playboy Mar ’58
  • 47 · Introduction to “A Warning to the Curious” by M. R. James · Ramsey Campbell · is
  • 48 · A Warning to the Curious · M. R. James · ss The London Mercury Aug ’25
  • 68 · Introduction to “Opening the Door” by Arthur Machen · Peter Atkins · is
  • 70 · Opening the Door · Arthur Machen · ss When Churchyards Yawn, ed. Cynthia Asquith, London: Hutchinson, 1931
  • 85 · Introduction to “The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft · Richard Laymon · is
  • 89 · The Colour Out of Space · H. P. Lovecraft · nv Amazing Sep ’27
  • 124 · Introduction to “The Inner Room” by Robert Aickman · Peter Straub · is
  • 125 · The Inner Room · Robert Aickman · nv The Second Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, ed. Robert Aickman, Fontana, 1966
  • 162 · Introduction to “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne · Rick Hautala · is
  • 163 · Young Goodman Brown · Nathaniel Hawthorne · ss New England Magazine Apr, 1835
  • 179 · Introduction to “The Rats in the Walls” by H. P. Lovecraft · Michael Slade · is
  • 180 · The Rats in the Walls · H. P. Lovecraft · ss Weird Tales Mar ’24
  • 204 · Introduction to “The Dog Park” by Dennis Etchison · Richard Christian Matheson · is
  • 205 · The Dog Park · Dennis Etchison · ss Dark Voices 5, ed. David Sutton & Stephen Jones, London: Pan, 1993
  • 219 · Introduction to “The Animal Fair” by Robert Bloch · Joe R. Lansdale · is
  • 219 · The Animal Fair · Robert Bloch · ss Playboy May ’71
  • 236 · Introduction to “The Pattern” by Ramsey Campbell · Poppy Z. Brite · is
  • 236 · The Pattern · Ramsey Campbell · nv Superhorror, ed. Ramsey Campbell, W.H. Allen, 1976
  • 258 · Introduction to “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe · Joyce Carol Oates · is
  • 259 · The Tell-Tale Heart · Edgar Allan Poe · ss The Pioneer Jan, 1843
  • 266 · Introduction to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce · Dennis Etchison · is
  • 267 · An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge · Ambrose Bierce · ss  The San Francisco Examiner Jul 13, 1890
  • 279 · Introduction to “The Human Chair” by Edogawa Rampo · Harlan Ellison · is 
  • 281 · The Human Chair [1925] · "Edogawa Rampo" (Hirai Taro) · ss Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Tuttle, 1956 (as translated by James B. Harris)
  • 299 · About the Authors · Misc. · bg

Here's a book I wasn't aware of till this afternoon, though if you'd asked me, I might've thought of a not altogether similar one edited by Steven Silver--also in collaboration with Martin H. Greenberg.  But in reviewing today Greenberg's solo effort My Favorite Science Fiction story, George Kelley mentioned this one in passing, so I looked into it on

As I noted in George's comments section, for reasons unclear to me the essays/introductions written by the writers selecting their favorite short horror fictions by other writers are all dated, on ISFDB, as if they were published or at least written in 1982, when the first edition of the book was published in 2000. As co-editor Baker died rather young in 1997, they probably were commissioned at least some years beforehand. Stephen King's short headnote to Robert Bloch's short story "Sweets to the Sweet" (one of two Bloch stories collected here, the only writer to get two inclusions aside from Bloch's mentor H. P. Lovecraft) was copyrighted in 1982, and Joe Lansdale's slightly longer entry for the other Bloch story ("The Animal Fair") in they might've been put to other purposes, but no previous publication credit is present in the book or online indices. Curious. 

The book's unsigned introduction, which I will guess was primarily if not entirely the work of Baker, doesn't start well: "Of the three main subgenres of popular fiction, horror is often considered the most recent as a viable literary form in its own right." There are any number of subgenres among genres of popular fiction, and they don't usually restrict themselves to popular fiction, if by that we mean fiction which is not attempting to be lasting art. Who is considering the recent advent of horror standing alone? And how little-informed are they? Most of the rest of the essay is about how wrong this posited attitude is...which would be fine, if anyone who wasn't simply trying to judge by whether bookstores had horror shelves or not was jumping to those supposed conclusions.

And the quality as well as the length of the blurbs to essays from the selectors varies from writer to writer within, if all are better than the introduction. They usually don't worry too much about a dichotomy that I often raise, between the otherwise similar fields of "realistic" suspense fiction and fantasticated, supernatural horror, though Joe Lansdale in introducing the second Bloch story makes a point of "The Animal Fair" having no supernatural elements, if (as he doesn't quite say) a slightly unlikely fate for its least lovable character.  (If I were choosing the best horror story by Bloch, "Sweets to the Sweet" would rank pretty high for me as well; I can say more definitely that among his outre suspense stories, I'd plump for "The Final Performance" as even more hardboiled.)

It's the stories as well as the essays that make the book, and aside from such chestnuts as the Poe (Joyce Carol Oates makes a professorial case for it), the Hawthorne (Rick Hautala notes that New Englanders are in the house), the Bierce (Dennis Etchison rediscovers the primary model for his own literary approach), and the Lovecrafts--if you haven't read these, you're mostly in for a good time, though not a few will be pulled up short by aspects of the HPL stories these years, and they are the least of the all but ineluctable classics gathered--and you are unlikely to suffer through such stories as probably Richard Matheson's best shorter work (and definitely not horror per se), Hirai/"Rampo"'s most famous story as translated, at least, and one of Philip Dick's most loved (if that's the word) of his few fairly straightforward horror fictions ("Upon the Dull Earth" is my slightly less-famous preferred story in this wise, but Ed Gorman makes a good case for why this one is his, and what it might've been inspired by, in part). The only story here I've missed previously (and it took some effort on my part to do so, given the various anthologies and colletions it's appeared in since initial publication) is Dennis Etchison's "The Dog Park"...and I'm going to dip into that one now. 

So, thanks to George and all the writers and writer-selectors for this volume (far too many lost since this book was published), for some good memory jogs and useful new perspective. Please see Patricia Abbott's blog for this Wednesday's other short story citations, including Patti's own selection of the formidable writer of horror and more, Elizabeth Bowen. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: stories from ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY READER edited by Carol Serling, Martin H. Greenberg & Charles G. Waugh (Dembner, 1987)

Some of the stories...the whole volume to follow...

the Contento/Stephensen-Payne/Locus index:

Rod Serling’s Night Gallery Reader ed. Carol Serling, Martin H. Greenberg & Charles G. Waugh (Dembner 0-934878-93-5, Dec ’87 [Nov ’87], $15.95, 326pp, hc) Anthology of 18 stories that were adapted as Night Gallery tv episodes.
  • ix · Introduction · Carol Serling · in
  • 1 · The Escape Route · Rod Serling · na The Season to be Wary, Little Brown: Boston, 1967
  • 71 · The Dead Man · Fritz Leiber · nv Weird Tales Nov ’50
  • 104 · The Little Black Bag · C. M. Kornbluth · nv Astounding Jul ’50
  • 138 · The House · André Maurois · vi Harper’s Jun ’31
  • 141 · The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes · Margaret St. Clair · ss Maclean’s, 1950
  • 152 · The Academy · David Ely · ss Playboy Jun ’65
  • 163 · The Devil Is Not Mocked · Manly Wade Wellman · ss Unknown Jun ’43
  • 171 · Brenda · Margaret St. Clair · ss Weird Tales Mar ’54
  • 184 · Big Surprise [“What Was in the Box?”] · Richard Matheson · ss EQMM Apr ’59
  • 191 · House—with Ghost · August Derleth · ss Lonesome Places, Arkham: Sauk City, WI, 1962
  • 199 · The Dark Boy · August Derleth · ss F&SF Feb ’57
  • 215 · Pickman’s Model · H. P. Lovecraft · ss Weird Tales Oct ’27
  • 230 · Cool Air · H. P. Lovecraft · ss Tales of Magic and Mystery Mar ’28; reprinted in Weird Tales Sep ’39
  • 240 · Sorworth Place [“Old Place of Sorworth”;  Ralph Bain] · Russell Kirk · nv London Mystery Magazine #14 ’52
  • 261 · The Return of the Sorcerer · Clark Ashton Smith · ss Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror Sep ’31
  • 279 · The Girl with the Hungry Eyes · Fritz Leiber · ss The Girl With the Hungry Eyes, ed. Donald A. Wollheim, Avon, 1949
  • 297 · The Horsehair Trunk · Davis Grubb · ss Colliers May 25 ’46; ; as “The Secret Darkness”, EQMM Oct ’56
  • 308 · The Ring with the Velvet Ropes · Edward D. Hoch · ss With Malice Toward All, ed. Robert L. Fish, Putnam, 1968
the 1990 Knightsbridge paperback edition (courtesy Andy Austin):

Last Wednesday, I cited Rod Serling's novella "The Escape Route" and its failure as prose (even if it would serve, and probably did, as an acceptable "treatment" to get a script greenlit)...some well-turned dialog, not much else (and the script as shot made for a decent segment of the Night Gallery pilot film...another novella from the same Serling collection was also adapted as the second and weakest of the three stories, directed by Steven Spielberg in a rather painfully "arty" fashion and, like most Spielberg work, wildly overpraised, even giving credit for it being his first professional effort). So, as we build this book's review piecemeal, let's turn to some rather better work, by rather better writers of prose (and at least one of them a playwright who did rather better work at least in fantasticated scripting). 

"The Little Black Bag" is Cyril Kornbluth at his cynical best, the story of his also selected by a poll of the Science Fiction Writers of America for the first volume of their The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (though Kornbluth wrote several books' worth of short fiction in the same league), and as adapted for Night Gallery slightly watered down (such as having the secondary character become a middle-aged man rather than a young woman, perhaps to allow for casting a veteran actor, but even more likely to keep from offending those who would find the character's selfishness easier to take from a somewhat weatherbeaten male). A down and out, homeless and alcoholic ex-doctor comes across a bag of medical instruments more or less accidentally sent back in time from the future...and he and his default assistant find themselves able to do very good things...but the assistant decides the potential for profit should be exploited, with both tragic and ironic consequences.

"The House" is a deft and resonant if somewhat one-punch anecdote of a story; as a vignette, this is enough. I should re-subscribe to Harper's for several reasons, not least to get access to their archive and discover, perhaps, who translated this fine bit of horror (I first read it in Hal Cantor's Ghosts and Things, a Berkley Books anthology that was everywhere one might turn in the '60s and '70s, and one of the two first adult horror anthologies I read at a tender age).

David Ely's "The Academy" is another essentially one-punch story, a bit longer than a typical vignette but not Too much so, and so nicely worked out that even an adult reader who might see the reveal coming might simply continue to enjoy the ride. A suspense story of the disquieting rather than pulse-pounding sort...and even though there's no supernatural element to it, it's usually been reprinted in horror anthologies, such as Ray Russell's The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural, where I first read it. Ely was usually good for this kind of disquiet, as in his near-future sf novel Seconds...very well filmed. For that matter, the NG adaptation of  "The Academy" is only a bit heavy-handed, and Bill Bixby did a very good job as the protagonist.

"The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" is one of the more brilliant of the early stories of the frequently brilliant Fritz Leiber, and it's a severe pity both the Leiber adaptations for Night Gallery were rather half-assed. (Oddly enough, the Lovecraft adaptations were the best I've seen that had been produced up till then, though that wasn't too tough, and they not matched for another decade or so.) A strange sort of psychic vampirism is exploited by both the "girl" (1949 will out) model and the photographer and sponsors  employing them. Another disquieting story, as usually the case with the best of Leiber's horror fiction, and there's no disputing the supernatural element in this one. I might've first read it in the 1978 revised edition of the early Leiber collection Night's Black Agents...

More to come from this volume...and a related one...

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

SHORT STORY WEDNESDAY: Doris Pitkin Buck: "Why They Mobbed the White House"; Kate Wilhelm: "The Planners" (ORBIT 3, edited by Damon Knight, G. P. Putnam 1968); Donald Barthelme: "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning"; Leonard Michaels: "Crossbones" (NEW AMERICAN REVIEW #3, edited by Theodore Solotaroff, Signet/New American Library 1968); Rod Serling: "The Escape Route" ('TIS THE SEASON TO BE WARY by Serling, Little, Brown 1967)


Doris Pitkin Buck is probably the most obscure writer, these years, in the third volume of Damon Knight's new-fiction anthology series Orbit...a former actor and eventually on the English faculty at Ohio State, she was among the earliest of the women writers recruited as contributors by Anthony Boucher and Mick McComas at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and made a name for herself as much for her light verse  as her fiction for that magazine and elsewhere. I knew her granddaughter Laurel Buck slightly, when we were students at the University of Hawaii, and LB recalled DPB gathering the kids and letting them know, I hope tongue in cheek, that the flying saucers/UFOs were actually alien visitors come to help us out..."Why They Mobbed the White House" is a jovial story (distinct from certain recent events), taking the tack of the newly complex tax forms of the mid-'60s, and the increasing use of computers at the IRS and elsewhere, as jumping-off point for something a bit gentler than the typical "comic inferno" sf stories associated with Galaxy magazine and other markets in the '50s and '60s; told as a DC tour-guide's patter, it details how a certain couple found their way into the White House on the platform of having computers actually fill in rather than simply check tax forms. 

Kate Wilhelm's "The Planners" (which w0n the 1969 Nebula Award for best short story) digs a bit deeper and reads a bit heavier, while demonstrating a darker sort of wit. The planners in question include both biochemists and psychologists who use monkeys and apes (the latter including humans) as their test subjects, in seeing how injections of strains of RNA into their bodies enable...and disable...intellectual abilities...and eventually some of the subjects become planners as well. The protagonist, one of the primary researchers and a psychologist, is also consistently suffering...if that's the right word...a series of hallucinations that interact with his actual life, some seemingly simply reveries of sexual dalliance with various women, others rather more extended fantasias...he seems most grounded when exploring the nature of his relatively unhappy marriage.  The narrative slides through the various sorts of experience he has without too many indicators as to where he is departing from reality, but Wilhelm nonetheless makes it fairly clear where she wants to indicate consensus reality in the story, and where not. This story, even more than the Buck story, is indicative of the kind of literary grace the Orbit series would become famous for in its early years, in its relative departure from "realistic" prose form part of what had a number of more conservative writers and readers grumbling over its incomprehensibility...and a Nebula Awards ballot driven by the mutual admiration of a "Milford Mafia" (after the Milford Writer's Conferences Wilhelm and Knight, a married couple, were hosting by the latter '60s). 

Leonard Michaels also deals with a certain retreat from the reality of his characters', a tempestuous romantic couple's, situation, in the vignette "Crossbones"...
which might well've been inspired at least in part by his troubled first marriage, to the eventually suicidal Sylvia Bloch (Michaels is quoted in one online source as referring to her seeming at times "like a madwoman imitating a college student")...the first sentence in this very short story is a long paragraph (a man after my own heart thus). There are about seven or possibly ten sentences in the entirety, about the surreal abuse they subject each other to, and about the probable progress of the woman's father (possibly) on his machismic way over for a visit.  It's funnier if one isn't as aware of Bloch's eventual fate.

Sad fate also plays a role in "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning", but mostly in the string of events that led, not too long after publication, to RFK's death and, a couple of years later, to Edward Kennedy's near drowning (and not so near for Ms. Kopechne). Donald Barthelme's story apparently would've been accepted by William Shawn at The New Yorker if Barthelme was willing to change the title-character's name to something fictional, but Barthelme simply took it back and sold it to New American Review instead...I'd suggest correctly, seeing that this is, essentially, a piece of parodic fiction about how "sophisticated" magazine profiles of (particularly) political figures of RFK's position are all too often inane examples of marketing, hoping to convince the incautious or uninformed reader that every action on the part of their subject is heroic, every utterance sagacious (the one non-fictional anecdote in this "profile" occurred at a gallery, where RFK made a condescending joke about a certain painting, in the presence of the artist; Barthelme, a visual arts museum curator and journalist previous to his fiction-writing, wasn't favorably impressed). 

So...what all four of these stories are about, to one degree or another, is delusion, of the self and others. to some extent voluntarily accepted but mostly not so much. Can't imagine how they might've seemed appropriate to the times, nor that they might've found their way to reasonably avant-garde magazines in book form in 1968.

The fifth story, Rod Serling's "The Escape Route", was one of the three newly-published novellas in his first (legitimate, not ghost-written) collection, The Season to be Wary, in 1967. Serling hoped to launch a career as a novelist, apparently (his brother, Robert Serling, had one, after all), and it, too, is about self-delusion...the fugitive concentration-camp second-in-command's delusions about his service to the Nazi regime, and his relative lack of self-delusion about his circumstances as the Nazi hunters of the 1960s are after him, in his unpleasant circumstances in Buenos Aires. Also about Serling's self-delusion that this novella (I've managed to get 20 pages in, about a third of the way through, as it was reprinted in Rod Serling's Night Gallery Reader, edited by widow Carol Serling, RS's old campus colleague Charles Waugh, and Waugh's typical editing partner Martin H. Greenberg; this trio presumably decided this novella was the least worst of the three. Sadly, while "The Escape Route" made for a decent if unsurprising segment of the Night Gallery pilot film (as I remember it from some 45 years ago), the prose of the novella can be described as passable treatment writing...clumsy, overstated, using poor word choices in the narrative passages...while the dialog, given Serling was not a novice as a playwright, isn't too shabby at all, and at times has a nice snap to it--when the preaching isn't getting a bit thick...another Serling flaw).

If not for the hour, or the nature of this day, I'd probably transcribe the first paragraph of the story...perhaps tomorrow...

For more Short Story Wednesday reviews, please see Patti Abbott's blog.