Wednesday, August 24, 2022

SSW: Jean Goldschmidt: "The Testament of Uncle George", STORY: THE MAGAZINE OF DISCOVERY, May 1967, edited by George Dickerson; Dennis Etchison:"The Pitch", WHISPERS, October 1978, edited by Stuart David Schiff: Short Story Wednesdays

 This issue can be read here.

The Etchison story can be read here.

Jean Goldschmidt's "The Testament of Uncle George" and Dennis Etchison's "The Pitch" are disturbing if also extremely ultraviolet/ gallows-humorous stories, about the results of rather bad family dynamics, to put it mildly. Goldschmidt's was written at the beginning of a very short career, abruptly terminated by a 1971 traffic accident that killed her and her husband James Kempton about four years after their marriage; her husband was Murray Kempton's son. Her story was published in the first (perhaps only?) Scholastic Magazines-owned issue of Story, given a new subtitle and with this issue once again Volume 1, No. 1, purchased in 1966 from the Burnetts with Hallie Burnett now officially a Consulting Editor and Whit Burnett demoted to Advisory Editor and still the "Director of the STORY College Creative Awards", one of which was bestowed upon the Goldschmidt story for 1967.  Etchison's is the product of a writer in a successful midpoint of his career, if not as successful as he deserved; it was published in the horror and fantasy magazine Whispers, probably the most influential horror-fiction magazine of its time, and was reprinted in Gerald W. Page's The Year's Best Horror Stories volume for the following year, despite not being an actual horror story, any more than Robert Bloch's Psycho was, but instead an intense yet somewhat offhanded suspense story, as a number of Etchison's stories were. Similarly, Goldschmidt's story involves a young woman, Gwendolyn, alienated from her family (her father dies when she is very young; her mother marries her husband's brother, though not out of 19th Century tradition, and soon gives birth to a half-brother/half-cousin to the young woman, before divorcing her second husband and leaving Gwendolyn in the care of various family, their son Rudy with his father (who revels in the name George Washington Bridge while publishing Irving Wallace-style novels as "G. W. Bridgeport"), before she conducts various affairs which end poorly, and then commits suicide. Gwendolyn and Rudy, long separated, finally meet in their late teens, and have a multiply unfortunate romantic affair. 

Etchison's story features a loner who is nonetheless a very adept demonstrator and pitchman for several kinds of slicing and dicing food-processing who tolerates no sort of condescension nor rudeness directed at himself, and who seems oddly reticent to demonstrate the knives that are to be sold with the devices, and never takes off his gloves. It seems that as a young boy, his mother, overbearingly monitoring his piano practice from the kitchen, once was too incautious in how she let him know of her displeasure. Things do not come to what would be considered a conventionally happy conclusion in either story, either in the slow build of the strangeness of the Etchison protagonist, who likes to go by "C-Note", nor between Gwendolyn/Wendy and her uncle and her brother/cousin, told in a somewhat showily arch but not off-putting manner, as each of her characters tries and fails to find a comfortable role in day-to-day society.

These two writers began as essential contemporaries, with Etchison beginning to publish in the campus and then professional press in 1963, Goldschmidt in 1966 and with this story in '67; Etchison had his own rather less drastic bad luck in 1971, when the publishing house that was to issue his first collection went bankrupt just as his book was going to press, just after publishing the first edition of Karl Edward Wagner's first collection, Darkness Weaves. Etchison began to write scripts and novels by the late '60s, based as he was in Los Angeles, and began to edit anthologies, including both those devoted to horror and related work as Cutting Edge and Metahorror, and the much more eclectic small press anthology Lord John Ten, celebrating a decade of the Lord John Press's various interests. While Goldschmidt contributed to various magazines and The Village Voice during her foreshortened career...a retrospective of her work and some brief memoirs, My View is Incomplete, was published in 2001 with an introduction by Grace Paley. Etchison published a career retrospective, Talking in the Dark, in 2001, but continued to publish until shortly before his death from cancer in 2019. 

In a sense, one can see how both of their work grew out of some similar influences, such as Robert Bloch and Shirley Jackson (and Evelyn Waugh), but notably both the younger writers, in these stories among others, start at a point a bit beyond where the characters in the most typical work of Bloch or Jackson might still be attempting to pretend to be somewhat conventional or not prone to disconcerting urges; there's little pretense thus among the characters in these and other works by the '60s kids, who are also drawing in part on such writers as Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, and fellow, slightly older '60s kids Joyce Carol Oates and Barry Malzberg (the latter two at Syracuse rather than at Etchison's Berkeley or Goldschmidt's Sarah Lawrence), or the slightly elder Carol Emshwiller and Patricia Highsmith. 

Etchison might be the single most influential writer of his generation on the current horror and suspense-fiction field, in the way he explores characters who are not anchored to conventional empathy nor to consensus reality any more than our more disturbing fellow citizens are; I shall have to read more of Goldschmidt's small body of surviving work, to see if she would've likely continued to take a slightly more antic approach to the same sort of neo-Gothic that fascinates Oates, and not too dissimilar from that which has driven the darker visions of Kate Wilhelm, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler.

For more of today's short-fiction reviews, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

The Fictionmags Index listing for this issue of Whispers:

Index to the Story issue forthcoming...


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for all of the links.

George said...

I remember reading some WHISPERS collections back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Todd Mason said...

You're quite welcome,'s interesting the degree to which this version of STORY feels more like a less sexualized version of EVERGREEN REVIEW than it does like the Burnett's '60s issues of the magazine. Dickerson moved on to political work after his editorial adventures. I wonder how uncomfortable the Scholastic folks were with their new charge.

George, WHISPERS continued to be an impressive magazine even as the anthologies, mostly but not entirely best-ofs (several new stories in each volume, at least), continued...and at a certain point, the anthologies started to come out more frequently than the magazine, the elaboration and production values becoming more elaborate with the magazine version (Doubleday continuing to do the typical D-day production job on the books, but some of the covers being pretty sharp; the paperbacks from Playboy Press and, after the first, Berkley looking at least as good).

Todd Mason said...

We all cheer when elaboration is elaborate. But WHISPERS the magazine got bigger, even more filled with interesting fiction, and prettier and mostly less frequent. Thus presumably more expensive and time-consuming to produce. One's dental practice can only pay for so much and spare just so much time (Schiff's day job was in dentistry, and he was publishing books, and editing the odd other anthology for larger publishers as well).