Friday, April 24, 2015

FFB: GALAXY OF GHOULS (aka OFF THE BEATEN ORBIT) edited by Judith Merril (Lion Library 1955)

    A thoroughly enjoyable anthology of fantasy, sf, horror and Merril's then-favorite term for all fantastic fiction, "science-fantasy" (often in the specific sense of that which mixes fantasy and sf aspects, tropes and furniture, as well as Merril's more broad sense, which she would eventually trade for a broad definition of Robert Heinlein's "speculative fiction" suggestion of some years earlier). Mostly a collection of very recent stories (in those days when anthologists were often striving to avoid reprinting stories other editors had featured, at least when feasible), and as such a sort of run-up to her best of the year annual which would debut the next year as well as sequel to the similar mix in the previous year's anthology, Human?...and all her previous anthologies going back to the first, Shot in the Dark (1950). (She and then-husband Frederik Pohl also ghost-edited, for Heinlein, Tomorrow, the Stars [1952].)
    And, given that Merril apparently made sure the title of the book was changed for the two Pyramid reprints, after the collapse of Lion, perhaps suggests the kind of leaden touch that would help doom Lion Books in the paperback boom years.  I would've suggested Pure and Applied Sorcery, given the running theme of her headnotes.
    Galaxy of Ghouls ed. Judith Merril (Lion LL25, May ’55, 35¢, 192pp, pb) Also as Off the Beaten Orbit.
"Wolves Don't Cry" is the first of several shapeshifter stories here, not all about werewolves, and is notable for the degree of conviction Elliott invests in his portrait of a wolf which suddenly, one morning, finds himself having become a human. While his ability to pick up English, even in the very well-run mental hospital he finds himself in, seems a bit too facile, he is a magical creature, after who's very interested in how his pregnant mate and incipient pups are doing (and the protagonist's one, um, date, with a human woman, is perhaps the most squirm-inducing passage in the book--Elliott, who briefly edited some Playboy imitators later on, was famously a bit of a rake, and one senses this).

"The Ambassadors" is a charming joke story about the discovery of an improbable (at the time) Mars populated by a range of animals similar to that of Earth, only with sentient wolfish creatures as the dominant manipulators of the environment. Happily, this leads to new acceptance and job opportunities for formerly underground werewolves, and eventually for corresponding wolf to ape shapeshifters from the Red Planet. Boucher makes blind reference to his early story "The Complete Werewolf" and to Jack Williamson's novel Darker than You Think; conviction and in-jokes would clearly catch Merril's eye at this point.

"Share Alike' by Jerome Bixby and Joe E. Dean (the latter utterly unknown in fantasy/sf/horror circles otherwise, and someone Bixby presumably met as managing editor of Jungle Stories as well as Planet Stories at the turn of the 1950s; Dean had at least two stories in the adventure pulp) is a reasonably straightforward, if revisionist, vampire story in form. However, as a coded male homosexual romance story, it's pretty strong stuff, and I remember well reading it and the other contents of the first issue of Beyond Fantasy Fiction, H. L. Gold's 1953-1955 companion to Galaxy Science Fiction, and even as a 13yo in 1978 noting how barely sublimated the sexual content of nearly every story was, most less daring in their heterosexuality if also no more openly about sex, while obviously so. I didn't find another magazine of the era so obviously torn between wanting to let its flag fly and being afraid to be blatant about it till the first issue of Help! I'd see, from about seven or eight years later but acutely aware of the youth of an even larger segment of its audience.

"Blood" is an unusually minor if still charming example of a Fredric Brown joke-vignette; Damon Knight's "Eripmav" is a funnier variation on similar material, and if they didn't both help inspire James Howe to create Bunnicula, they could have.

"A Way of Thinking" remains the closest Theodore Sturgeon came to anticipating splatterpunk, in a story that he had to wait several years (until 1953) to see published, apparently (though there are some contemporary references within that suggest it was given another draft before Howard Browne bought it and apparently used this straightforward horror story to fill a sudden hole in an issue of Amazing rather than running it in the more natural home of Fantastic. Sturgeon's name was missing from the Amazing cover of that issue (at left); given the writer's status in 1953 and how much Browne loved his work, that seems unlikely given anything but last-minute placement.)  The first of two stories where the protagonist is an intentionally obvious analog of the writer himself. 

"Child's Play" is the first story in the book to have been multiply anthologized before Merril's use of it here (and since), but it's a natural fit in the book (and it's probably not all that germane that Merril had an affair with Philip "William Tenn" Klass, any more than that she had a longstanding crush on Sturgeon...both are brilliant stories). Given all the sinister doppelganger stories through the centuries, in looking at this one again I was thinking about all the nudges this one gave to another notable example, Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday"--that one a much more stripped down model. Conrad might've helped inspire both, and Poe all three.

The Wellman is the first-published and one of the most brilliant of the often-brilliant series of stories about John the Balladeer, incorporating as much of the folklore and folkways of the Southern Appalachians as possible (including songs) into the fantasy and horror (and occasionally borderline sf) stories. Often, this is the example used to introduce the series to newcomers, and not a bad choice at all.

"The Wheelbarrow  Boy" hasn't been too widely reprinted since its first US appearance in F&SF in 1953, but I certainly remember it from Robert Arthur's YA anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Monster Museum, where its point shone just as nakedly (and wittily) as it does here.

Leslie Charteris, who would consistently drop in on the margins of fantasy and sf, does so with "A Fish Story," the second story in the book to feature an analog of its author as protagonist...not-exactly-Charteris and his wife meet and learn from an eccentric man who Really Gets Fish, and Mermaids, and the like. A very deft ending.

"Desertion" is the Most Classic inclusion here, and probably the farthest from horror (except, perhaps, to Astounding editor John W. Campbell, who decided eventually he hated its message, being a human chauvinist and as proud of it as he was)...but, as Merril is quick to point out,  it is perhaps the most classic sf shapeshifter story...aside from the obvious examples by Stevenson and Wells.  This one I first read in a classroom textbook, though not one of the stories that was assigned in that 7th Grade class.

"The Triflin' Man" is, typically of a Walter Miller story, very readable as a Christian allegory, in large part; not atypically of a Fantastic Universe story, it's set among rural folks who might not completely understand what's going on around them, but that doesn't stop them from taking decisive action. Rather good as an example of either.

Leiber's parody of Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer is still pointed and funny, and, with Jean Kerr's similar if a bit broader lampoon, remains a lifelong favorite (I'm also more fond than many of Howard Browne's pastiche for an early and huge-selling issue of Fantastic, "The Veiled Woman").

"The Demon King" has a very thin plot--Satan appears in a small city's annual panto festival on Boxing Day, to play itself in a variation on the story of Jack and Jill--sustained by Priestley's wit, charm and eye for detail. The oldest story in the book, receiving its first US publication.

Meanwhile, the early Sheckley story which follows demonstrates how he was willing to tweak notions of fan-service in stories from the very beginning...something Alfred Bester was prone to as well, though Sheckley even from the start could be even more double-bottomed (Bester more pyrotechnic). Another fine ending, less vague that it might seem at first.

The Bradbury is the only story in the book to challenge the Simak in terms of widespread distribution (the Tenn tapered off some over the decades), though it might not've had quite the staying power of "Desertion"...I'd certainly suggest it doesn't hold up as well, even if one feel something of tug Bradbury is doing his best to yank from the reader at the conclusion. (I first read this one in a Robert Arthur "Hitchcock" antho, as well.) 

And Arthur Porges's final entry is a cheerful bit of nihilism, with the only dedicated ghoul in the pages, which somewhat improbably has the retribution of the other animals toward humans, and our offshoots such as witches and vampires, led by the rabbits. 

Good stuff, both the classic stories and the more obscure, or at worst good enough. 

For more of this week's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Certainly a wide-ranging collection (though of course it had to have a story by Knight in it! I do like it, though the punchline feels very Fredric Brown to me). Just got one of Merril's later crime novels as per your recommendation and will be reporting back soon (you've been warned)

Todd Mason said...

Alas, no Knight story...just a Brown story which reminded me of that specific Knight story...and I think you might be thinking here of Kate Wilhelm's crime novels (and I still hope it was DEATH QUALIFIED).

George said...

I'm a fan of Judith Merril. Loved her YEAR'S BEST SF series, too! Great cover artwork on these collections!

Todd Mason said...

I'm not too fond of the original cover, compared to the two Pyramid covers, but it's indeed a good book.

Rich Horton said...

Not a book I'd ever seen, and a pretty good one! Agree that Lion's title, and their cover copy, just seemed to miss the boat by -that much-.

Todd Mason said...

I have a feeling the Lion folks thought that tying the book, however loosely, to GALAXY magazine was a shrewd commercial move.