Friday, August 10, 2018

FFB: DEVIL'S SCRAPBOOK by Jerome Bixby (Brandon House 1964); THE CASE AGAINST SATAN by Ray Russell (Ivan Obolensky 1962)

...nothing exceeds like The Exorcist...

    ***it might be the case that some of the other covers reproduced below might not be "safe" for all offices/

    (indicative of the loving care with which Award Books packaged their wares, the novel makes much of the young woman at the center of events being blond...)


    Here you see the covers of  the 1972 Award Books edition of Ray Russell's 1962 first novel (and second book, after his Ballantine collection Sardonicus and Other Stories, 1961), and the second, retitled 1974 Brandon House reprint of Jerome Bixby's 1964 first or second book--it's unclear whether his Ballantine collection Space by the Tale came just before or just after Devil's Scrapbook; these are the versions I have copies of (both published when the texts were ten years old). Aside also from the publishers' obvious attempts to piggyback on William Peter Blatty's poorly-written, extremely successful 1971 novel and the 1973 film he coscripted from it, there are a few ironies and parallels here...both Russell and Bixby had studied music,  would die within a year of each other, Bixby at 75 in 1998 and Russell at 74 in 1999, and both were also screenwriters, if neither never had a film nearly as ubiquitous as Blatty's career-making success, though both approached that level of fame on several occasions. Russell is remembered by cineastes for several gothic items such as Mr. Sardonicus, The Premature Burial and Incubus (the first and third based on his own fiction), Bixby for his short story "It's a Good Life-", already his most famous work by the time of first broadcast of the original The Twilight Zone adaptation, followed by remakes or variations in TZ revivals; he wrote very popular episodes of Star Trek and worked on the treatment for Fantastic Voyage and others, as well as having served as the editor of several magazines, including being the best editor the magazine Planet Stories would see (even given that it had already been a showcase for the likes of Leigh Brackett and her student and collaborator Ray Bradbury before Bixby's own first story appeared there in 1949, and his editorial duties starting about then as well). Both writers wrote a lot for skin magazines; some or most of Bixby's collection apparently first appeared, under pseudonyms, in largely unindexed earlier form in relatively minor men's magazines such as Black Magic (a bit more the Kilgore Trout experience than even Theodore Sturgeon, Kurt Vonnegut's model for the character, ever suffered), while Russell was fiction editor at Playboy in its early years (and was still working on the magazine when the Pan paperback came out, notwithstanding the back cover blurb, below); his first story had appeared in Esquire in 1953. Both Brandon House and Award Books were either (the first) itself an erotica publisher or (the latter) the "legit" arm of a company, Universal Publishing and Distribution, that had mostly published Beacon-brand pornobacks earlier (as well as buying the Galaxy group of magazines in 1969, and running them all into the ground by 1980). Both men were much better writers than Blatty...whose magnum opus might or might not owe something to Bixby's notable stories of innocently evil or seemingly evil children, but which almost certainly owes much of its genesis to Russell's groundbreaking work of potentially, but not necessarily, rationalized fantasy.
    The original 1964 Brandon House edition at left; the first US paperback, 1963, above...where Paperback Library strains to piggyback on Morris West's utterly un-supernatural novel. The Russell's small, but not quite small press, publisher's first edition is invisible online; I've yet to see an image of the cover.

    These are the only two editions of the Bixby to have been published; the Russell is currently in print from Penguin, cover below, and has been reissued several times in the US and UK, as Russell has had a relatively devoted coterie following in both countries. Neither writer gets highlighted much on the early covers of Russell's novel or Bixby's collection...Ballantine a bit more generous with their collections (see below); Space by the Tale, fwiw, is by no means exclusively science fiction. And at least one and perhaps two of the stories in the Ballantine collection were also first published in the same minor skin magazines, or their peers, as most of the Brandon House book..."Trace", one of Bixby's best stories, definitely did appear in one or another of the publications of the American Art Agency, Inc., and deals with an encounter with a relevant, very notable supernatural force.

    Aside from laying most of the groundwork for what Blatty would write later, The Case Against Satan is both very deftly written, using flashback and interpolation of the transcript of a police interrogation very organically, and in such a way as to not foreground the horror of the events so much as their investigation...both in the sense  of getting to the facts of what is happening to the sixteen-year-old girl who seems to be possessed by Satan, and to helping the exorcists, a somewhat troubled priest, riddled with doubt and facing up to his alcoholism, and the bishop he calls upon for guidance in several matters
    toward the beginning of the novel, confirm their faith and understanding. They both come to see, the priest rather less readily, as a more worldly philosopher (and writer of pop theology articles for the likes of, it's suggested, The Saturday Evening Post or newspaper Sunday supplements), that an exorcism is called for, and they proceed...the priest at first willing to accept the exorcism rites as having a kind of psychiatric value beyond that of their spiritual purpose. Russell has done some research, as well, and has included a number of sharply, often wittily, observed matters as the political interplay between the Catholic Church hierarchy and the more influential laity in the parishes, the concessions and reversal of concessions to secular tradition (a discussion of which wedding marches and songs might properly be played in a Roman Catholic ceremony, and which not) and the points of congruence between psychiatry and church ritual. (He does have his extremely well-versed priest and bishop both blithely assume that at least one of the Salem "witches" was burnt, in passing in a discussion where this was not meant metaphorically; whether this is oversight or sly joke/comment on Russell's part is not clear.)  The matter of incestuous desire, at very least, is raised early in the book, and is not shied away from...not uniquely for 1962 or years earlier, though Russell does feel he needs to address the possible accusation of sensationalism in his brief afterword to the novel.

    It is remarkable how many utterly influential and impressive novels (and linked story collections) of horror and suspense fiction, often rationalized but not completely (and certainly not ludicrously so, as was common in the "shudder pulps" or, for later generations, so much a part of Scooby Do, Where Are You? the children's cartoon series), were to emerge in the late 1950s and early 1960s...Robert Bloch's Psycho, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Richard Matheson's A Stir of Echoes, Frank Robinson's The Power, the Max Kearney stories collected in Ron Goulart's Ghost Breaker, Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil? and, of course, Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby...and even the more explicitly science-fictional examples, such Matheson's I Am Legend, or Theodore Thomas and Kate Wilhelm's The Clone...all of which tend to have a sort of investigational or procedural focus, not solely a matter of psychic investigators chasing spirits and demons away (though there was that sort of thing, too) but trying to get at the very nature of them, in a way the older fighters against evil worried less about in their more certain understanding of the supernatural. The Case Against Satan fits neatly into this tradition, and still is a fine reading experience in a way that the derivative, more traditional-horror-focused Blatty novel was not, for me. 

    As witty, and less ambitious, the Jerome Bixby stories collected here are striving to be and succeeding in being saucy, in the manner expected by the readers of the kind of skin magazines they appeared in (where literacy and craft that might sell a story to Playboy or Rogue in those years were less important, if appreciated, than staying within the spirit of eroticization).  The first story in the collection, "Lust in Stone", has for example a relatively familiar club/bar story setting, and a sexual triangle (plus) plot as recounted among the members of the club, but also a twist ending that has not managed to become cliche in the decades since.  Straight up horror, here, with a certain very black humor inherent. "The Best Lover in Hell", while engaging in certain comedy of humors nomenclature (particularly for Satan him/itself), is likewise a clever, highly readable take on a bet made by a damned soul with Lucifer, and a result not necessarily expected, even if some of the consequences are unsurprising. "The Sin Wager" digs into Bixby's experiences as a writer and editor, as well as exoticizing the latter-day scene, in Paris in the last days of the very-high-budgeted slick magazines (the SEP, Life, etc. ) before they started folding or becoming much more modest in their spending, in a tale of a father's supernatural revenge for the seduction of his teen daughter by a Hemingwayesque writer in his thirties. "The Spell of the Witch Wife" is Bixby doing his quick version of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife in a more suburbanized (rather than college town) setting...the television sitcom Bewitched might've taken a pointer or two. Two vignettes follow, "The Dirtiest Story in Hell" being another attempt to bargain with the Devil and "The Last Wish" an ugly little revenge fantasy, on the part of the ghost of a man killed (in self-defense) by his desperate wife. Bixby presumably published most or all of these under pseudonyms initially, and this no doubt allowed for him to feel free to play in the fields of Leiber, John Collier, Fredric Brown, Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch and other, similar colleagues as breezily as he does here...the level of sophistication about the world, as well as the canny playing to the perceived market while winking at some of the more double-bottomed seeming endorsement of the more base motives, the more chauvinistic understanding of how women and men behave. Bixby isn't quite playing too hip for the room, but he is effortlessly demonstrating with these utterly readable and entertaining stories that he could do even better...if he was given more incentive to do so. And while doing so, he rings variations on the latter-day gimmick stories common in the fantasy magazines of the 1950s and '60s, and the men's magazines and other slicks...the latter the kind of stories Kurt Vonnegut was wont to note could do or say pretty much anything as long as they basically celebrated the middle class. Bixby is goosing the middle class outlook in a semi-submerged way here, which might be part of why these stories would appear in marginal men's magazines by comparison. And they are, given their obscurity, more worth reading than one might expect...unless one has read Bixby's other work. 

    Here's the ISFDB index for this book...the original dates and sites of publication are  unknown to the indexers there or at the Contento/Stephensen-Payne/Locus indices. The SF Encyclopedia attributes the cover of the first edition, and presumably the illustrations within by the same hand, to an otherwise unspecified "Miller"...presumably this credit is present on the first edition, as Call for an Exorcist doesn't credit him anywhere for the interior images.

      Space by the Tale Jerome Bixby (Ballantine U2203, 1964, 50¢, 159pp, pb)
      • 7 · The Draw · ss Amazing Mar 1954
      • 23 · The Young One · nv Fantastic Apr 1954
      • 47 · Laboratory · ss If Dec 1955
      • 64 · The Good Dog · ss Fantastic Jan/Feb 1954
      • 69 · One Way Street · ss Amazing Dec 1953/Jan ’54
      • 86 · Small War · ss Science Fiction Quarterly May 1954
      • 91 · Trace · ss 1961 (copyright 1961 by American Art Agency, Inc.)
      • 94 · Angels in the Jets · ss Fantastic Fll 1952
      • 104 · The Battle of the Bells · ss Imagination Sep 1954
      • 117 · The Magic Typewriter · ss 1963 (presumably another AAA, Inc. item, or of similar first publication)
      • 127 · The Bad Life · na Galaxy Feb 1963
      Sardonicus and Other Stories Ray Russell (Ballantine, 1961, pb)
      • Sardonicus · nv Playboy Jan 1961
      • The Actor · vi Playboy Mar 1960, as by Brian Rencelaw
      • The Cage · ss 1959
      • The Exploits of Argo · ss Rogue Apr 1961
      • The Sword of Laertes · ss Manhunt Oct 1959
      • Montage · ss Playboy Oct 1958
      • Booked Solid · ss *
      • Take a Deep Breath · ss Tiger 1956
      • The Pleasure Was Ours · ss Imagination May 1955
      • The Room · ss Playboy Feb 1961
      • I Am Returning · ss *
      • Incommunicado · vi F&SF Nov 1957
      • His Father’s House · ss If Mar 1960
      • Last Will and Testament · ss Playboy Jan 1956, as “Will for Nero” as by Rex Fabian
      • The Rosebud · vi F&SF Aug 1959
      • London Calling · ss *
      • Ounce of Prevention · ss Playboy Sep 1960, as by Brian Rencelaw
    ("The Cage" and perhaps several of these other Russell stories might've appeared in relatively obscure men's or similar magazines as well...)

    Aside from this recent edition of the Russell novel, the misleadingly subtitled volume below is available from Penguin, as well:

    And these two relatively recent collections of Jerome Bixby's fiction, both of which seem to emphasize fiction in the public domain:


    George said...

    I read Ray Russell back in the 1960s and I'm glad PENGUIN has reprinted some of his excellent work.

    Jerry House said...

    To talented undersung writers here, Todd -- both favorites of mine. THE CASE AGAINST SATAN was, I believe, my first excursion with Ray Russell, although I had seen MR. SARDONICUS a bit earlier. (I still remember Russell's afterward to the novel vividly.) Bixby's DEVIL'S SCRAPBOOK I found to be a (narrowly) better collection than SPACE BY THE TALE, possibly because the stories had a rawer edge that spoke to me.

    It is certainly past time for a major revival of both authors.

    Paul Fraser said...

    Interesting post. I recognise both the names but know/knew little about either writer.

    Todd Mason said...

    As George notes, Jerry, Penguin has put the two books back into print, with del Toro and Laird Barron intros to dandle in front of the hip youngs. It is a greater pity, the degree to which Bixby's legacy has been sloughed off...though I do wonder how well and promptly American Art Agency and its peers paid so that Bixby didn't try to sell more to Ray Russell and others who could presumably pay better.

    Well, Paul, there's a nice little pile of books and scattered stories from both...and who knows how much more buried in the more obscure magazines and such under who knows how many pseudonyms...

    And their work as editors shouldn't be forgotten, even if their a/v work often isn't up to what they could do with prose...presumably mostly due to the caliber of folks they were often saddled with.

    Thanks, gentlemen. George, you never read Bixby much?