Wednesday, November 30, 2022

SSW: "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff; "Mary" (and "The Country of the Kind") by Damon Knight

 "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1956, edited by "Anthony Boucher" (William White); can be read here.

"Mary" by Damon Knight, Galaxy Magazine, June 1964, edited by Frederik Pohl (who for the magazine's purposes retitled the story "An Ancient Madness"); can be read here.

"Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff, The New Yorker, 25 September 1995, edited by Tina Brown; can be read here or here.

A few days ago, participants on the Rara-Avis hardboiled and noir crime fiction discussion list mentioned how much they enjoyed Wolff's rather short story, which moved me to (finally) read it; a day later, on the FictionMags discussion list, heavily but not exclusively devoted to fantastic fiction (among other sorts as published in, oddly enough, fiction magazines), mention was made of a Damon Knight story, "Mary" of which I had no memory (sadly, this is becoming increasingly common an occurrence as I enter my dotage); a devoted fan of Knight's work (and one who has read most but not all of that work), I refreshed the memory. And in doing so, I was reminded of Knight's brilliant story, "The Country of the Kind", which I have mentioned on the blog before, as one that was hugely influential on me upon reading it first as a child. It's a better story than the not-bad but somewhat more slight later Knight novelette, and in some ways prefigures the Wolff. You could spend worse afternoons than reading all three. You definitely might want to do so before reading the commentary below.

Somewhat perversely, this 1976 selection of his own work includes "Mary" but excludes "The Country of the Kind". His 1991 entry in the Author's Choice Monthly series, God's Nose, again choosing from his own work, actually averages a bit better, though is too slim a collection. Even though it slights his later work and some excellent novellas (and several good novels--finally--at the end of his career), this omnibus of his first four short-fiction collections (Far Out, In Deep, Off Center and Turning On) is the best one-volume introduction...though copies of the God's Nose volume and the Best of would be, even together, more portable!

Includes "Bullet in the Brain", first collected in Wolff's 1996 volume The Night in Question.

"The Country of the Kind" (the title as well as, to a lesser degree, core concept a riff on H. G. Wells's "The Country of the Blind", a challenge to the adage about the One-Eyed Man being King there) involves an essentially utopian society, in which a sociopath who has artistic impulses of a sort has been not so much imprisoned but allowed to wander freely in society, only with universal proviso that he not be interacted with (since he is prone almost exclusively to sadistic violence in his interactions), altered in a manner that will cause him to black out before he can actually physically hurt anyone, and given a permanent distinctive unpleasant scent (which he can't detect) which will tip off the more or less normal people to his presence (presumably almost no one in this society has lost their olfactory sense). By story's end, Knight has made the case that artists can tend to be disturbers of the peace, at very least, without actually advocating that sociopathy be condoned (too many have done so in the years before and since this story's publication, particularly if the behavior was from some sort of artistic genius), and suggests the protagonist's isolation is a cruelty that parallels any he attempts. The first-appearance headnote by Anthony Boucher, describing Knight's inspiration in writing the story, is useful reading (I first read the story in Robert Silverberg's SFWA anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, V. 1, without any sort of introduction), and the story deftly makes every point Knight seeks to tick off.

Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" in its even shorter focus deals instead with a literary critic, facing life with a critic's intellectual toolkit employed too much to his own detriment, which in a very unfortunate encounter with some bank robbers while making his irritated way through a tiresome day, can't stop mocking the lack of imagination or artistry of mundane reality and the bad behavior around him. As he is shot, even his last conscious thought is a memory of a fellow child on a baseball team with him, using improper grammar in a naturally colloquial way. That this man has allowed carping to shape his entire life, and to hasten his death, seems a bit facile but still makes for a compelling story not too much longer than a vignette. Both the Knight and Wolff stories limn a certain (necessary?) estrangement of the artist and (cousin) critic from the rhythms of what might be considered a regular life, for good and ill. 

Meanwhile, "Mary" is a lesser Knight story in large part because its critique is not delivered with as much brio, even as it's carefully constructed to make its point. Mary's society is post-disaster, not quite apocalypse, and to prevent genetic drift, everyone human is cloned rather carefully rather than allowed conventional breeding, and the society is likewise highly regulated, as people live communally in what amounts to barracks devoted to their jobs; Mary is one of a number of spinners, who manipulate a kind of gelatinous plastic into various sorts and shades of fabric and other similar material. The sexual relations of the various citizens are uncharged, and tend to be free-floating and temporary...Mary, however, is an atavistic creature, as it turns out, known as an oddball from the start for her moodiness (she was allowed to grow from a less than "perfect" ovum, you see) and eventually for her falling for a slightly less disaffected but similar oddball male, and wanting to have an ongoing monogamous relation on their own...they are allowed to do so, much to the dismay of Mary's sorority sisters, though it's unclear how well they might do in the slowly healing post-nuclear/similar-disaster world. In many ways a parody of those who have difficulty tolerating any "variant" lifestyle, the story relatively cleverly builds up its regimented and communal society, dominated by Elders and largely self-enforced, by its "proper" citizens, limitations, but unlike the casual, even bland well-adjustment of the utopian community's middle-class suburban cheer in "Country" or the inanity of much of what the hapless critic faces in "Bullet", the metaphor doesn't quite meet all the requirements for the critique in "Mary"; it has excellent details and even seems heartfelt, in a double-bottomed way, but feels like a more lifeless argument. Frederik Pohl, as Galaxy editor, certainly appreciated its virtues...the Knight story was cited first among the stories on the cover of the issue, and it led off the next best-of volume, The Ninth Galaxy Reader, for Doubleday in 1966.

Today's (or yesterday's!) more prompt entries for Short Story considerations actually posted on Wednesday in the author's timezone, can be found at Patti Abbott's blog here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

SSW: Guest Post: Dennis Lien on SHORT STORIES, November 1953, edited by Dorothy McIlwraith

I rarely read random issues of old magazines (these days I have little time to read much of anything, sigh) but I did recently go through this one on a whim.  (This is one of their late all-reprint digest-size issues, and a beat-up copy was cheap at DreamHaven [a Minneapolis bookstore devoted mostly to fantastica-TM].  I'd read two or three of the digest issues as a kid in the later 1950s, so there was a bit of nostalgia operating.)

Publishers reprinting old pulp stories these days frequently have recourse to reminding us that "attitudes were of the time and are reproduced as such but of course we're all much wiser today."  Well, maybe so. Anyway I did find a number of slightly queasy racial glitches in some of these, though they seriously affected my enjoyment of only one of the stories.

    ifc. · The Story Tellers’ Circle · [uncredited] · cl
    2 · Never a Law · Bertrand W. Sinclair · nv Short Stories March 10 1931
    31 · A Sagebrush Samaritan · B. M. Bower & S. Boswell · ss Short Stories February 10 1925
    51 · Three A.M. on Arrowhead Island · Karl W. Detzer · ss Short Stories December 10 1927
    72 · Kinross the Killer · Dex Volney · ss Short Stories July 10 1928
    85 · The Blunderin’ Fool · Wilbur Hall · ss Short Stories July 10 1928
    104 · The Barque in the Bottle · Wm. Doerflinger · pm Short Stories May 25 1933
    106 · Sing, You Sailors! · Bill Adams · ss Short Stories June 10 1936
    113 · The Golden Gizzard · Clifford Knight · ss Short Stories July 10 1928
    131 · Adventurers All · [uncredited] · ts
    134 · Red Desert · Norrell Gregory · ss Short Stories June 10 1936
    150 · The Judgement of Mystery Swamp · Lemuel L. de Bra · ss Short Stories December 10 1923

The cover is presumably a reprint, though not cited as such in the FictionMags Index. South Asian (?) tribesmen brandish spears at something/someone unseen stage right.

"Never a Law" is a Northern-- when his partner cracks up and suicides on their ship in the far-north Bay of Seals, Christie is framed for murder by the three crewmen who plan to make off with ship and cargo.  He escapes and sets off on foot on a seemingly hopeless nine-hundred mile journey, followed by a Mountie who is fairly sure Christie is innocent, but must try to overtake and bring him in anyway. Well-done, but not a story one wants to read at the start of a Minnesota winter.

Some natives (Eskimo, or more correctly Inuit) appear as minor characters; none get individual names, and they are described as drunks who will trade their wives for liquor.

"A Sagebrush Samaritan"--Pinto Jack has just stolen the monthly payroll from the Santa Fe railway, but it would only have gone to the "greasers" the company employed anyway, so he feels no guilt. On the run, he is befriended by a stranger and they bond over their shared hatred for Mexicans.  (A third allegedly sympathetic character introduced later also shares this trait.) When the stranger is injured, Pinto Jack risks his own capture to save his life and kidnaps a doctor to treat him, then escapes.

Perfectly good "basic decency of rogue displayed when he repays a favor at risk of his life" plot, but spoiled for me by the strange unanimity of anti-Mexican attitudes, which seem dragged in to the story rather than having an organic reason to be there.

"Three A.M. on Arrowhead Island"--Rather dull murder mystery; the evocative title is the best thing about it. I had trouble keeping straight the dull, interchangeable characters, aside from the servant, Benediction, who stands out only because he speaks in a French-Canadian dialect. (And, spoiler alert, turns out to be the murderer, though he thought he was killing someone else, who had cheated him at cards--so a pretty boring motive as well.)

"Kinross the Killer"--Seattle revenue officer Jim Kinross, his boat wrecked, struggles in stormy water for several pages before making it to shore, just where the entry point for the drug smugglers he's been seeking happens to be located. He's grudgingly rescued by an ancient thug, but soon the smugglers (all "Japs" except for one "half-breed") appear and he finds he has to kill his rescuer, then hide behind his body in the bunk bed until he has a chance to also kill the invaders and break up the "damnable" business.

"The Blunderin' Fool"--Western about mining disputes: cast including protagonist, his Negro blacksmith  sidekick "Skin-and-Bones" ("Ain't nobody out hya to botherate him"), a spunky young woman being cheated by her mine officials, and a few local lawmen. Routine.

"The Barque in the Bottle"--Rather good narrative poem in which sight of a ship in a bottle recalls past adventure to an old tar.

"Sing, You Sailors!"--Two mariners who keep failing their second-mate exams for steamers wind up in charge of a semi-derelict windjammer off South America, and manage to sail it back to England, even towing in a crippled steamer on the last leg. And next time around pass the exams.

"The Golden Gizzard"--Allegedly (and mildly) humorous western about "salted" gold mine claims. An escaped turkey, recaptured after roaming the area, is found by the cook to have gold nuggets in its craw. From whence, and (if not naturally gobbled in the wild) inserted by whom? All rather confusing, really. 

The "Adventurers All" article is a memoir of a reporter in China who is almost killed because of a hat he is given by an unpopular official which, in the dark, makes him mistaken for the official by his enemies. All a good joke, supposedly. The FMI lists this as "uncredited;" it's by Alfred Batson and is copyright 1938.

"Red Desert"--Another spunky young woman (with a weakling but honest brother) who owns a mine, but is being cheated by employees. Undercover agent solves things and romance blooms.

"The Judgement of Mystery Swamp"--One of the two rogues on the train actually killed Benet's brother; the other was only an associate. Benet will toss them both off in the middle of Mystery Swamp and the Swamp, as usual, will ensure that a murderer will not make it out alive.

"The Story-Teller's Circle" contains the only new material in the issue--a longish letter from SS author Caddo Cameron and a preview of the next issue, hyping a (new) serial by Frank Gruber. Cameron praises Short Stories for never printing anything unfit for a young "kid" to read.  (Well, that was *his* opinion.)

All in all, no classics.  I'd rate "Never a Law," "The Judgment of Mystery Swamp," and "Sing, You Sailors!" as the best stories, probably in that order, and "A Sagebrush Samaritan" the clunker (and I wouldn't have encouraged a young "kid" to read it) for the strange "white guys on both sides of the law bond over shared contempt for Mexicans" subtext.

Dennis Lien 

Reprinted from the FictionMags discussion list with permission. 
Copyright © 2022 by Dennis Lien
for more of today's Short Story Wednesday entries, please see 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

SSW: Guest Post: Paul Di Filippo on STARTLING STORIES, January 1952, edited by Samuel Mines

I was reading--literally only a few pages a night--an issue of Startling Stories, January 1952.  I finally finished it last night.  Let me see if I can cast my memory back over the weeks and see what I thought of these stories in a few words. 
cover by Earle K. Bergey(?)

•  6 • The Ether Vibrates (Startling Stories, January 1952) • essay by The Editor, Samuel Mines
• 10 • Journey to Barkut (Complete Novel) • serial by Murray Leinster (book publication as Gateway to Elsewhere 1954)
• 10 •  Journey to Barkut (Complete Novel) • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
• 15 •  Journey to Barkut (Complete Novel) [2] • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
• 21 •  Journey to Barkut (Complete Novel) [3] • interior artwork by Virgil Finlay
• 80 • The Great Idea • short story by Raymond Z. Gallun
• 80 •  The Great Idea • interior artwork by Paul Orban [as by Orban]
• 94 • Lost Art • novelette by A. Bertram Chandler
• 94 •  Lost Art • interior artwork by Peter Poulton
• 115 • The Wheel • short story by John Wyndham
• 115 •  The Wheel • interior artwork by Peter Poulton
• 121 • How Green Was My Martian • short story by Mack Reynolds
• 121 •  How Green Was My Martian • interior artwork by Vincent Napoli [as by Napoli]
• 127 •  Letter (Startling Stories, January 1952) • [Letters: L. Sprague de Camp] • essay by L. Sprague de Camp
• 140 • Review of the Current Science Fiction Fan Publications (Startling Stories, January 1952) • essay by Jerome Bixby
• 145 • Science Fiction Movie Review: The Day the Earth Stood Still • essay by uncredited
[can be read here]

The inside front cover ad is for a noir film, The Racke
t. Very nicely eclectic ad. Where are such ads in today's printzines? Asimov's SF getting income from some Amazon Prime advertising for Knives Out? Why not?

The big editorial news is the start of monthly publication. The rest of the editorial is a meditation on the state of SF sales and audience appeal. The letter column starts here, but the bulk of it is at the back of the book. The quality of the letters and the earnest effort and sense of camaraderie is of course impressive, and, I think, hardly equalled by the social media commentary that dimly substitutes for such correspondence today. de Camp has a letter here.
The Leinster piece runs for almost 80 pages and is a de Camp & Pratt (with echoes of Thorne Smith) fantasy romp about a staid fellow who finds his way to a magical Middle Eastern land full of djinn, and gradually becomes the Top Dog there. The humor of course might seem antiquated nowadays--lots of silliness around naked girl djinns--but the tale is light and frothy, going down easy, and even possessed of a few scenes of surreal estrangement.  Reprinted.

The Gallun story concerns a couple of dodgy conmen on Mars. A rube arrives with a lot of cash and an idea on how to revolutionize Mars-Earth transportation.  They seem to rook him, but eventually reveal benign intentions, and the rube is acclimated to Mars. Reprinted just once in a non-English publication.

The Chandler story concerns another scammer who can find any lost artwork a buyer can name. The trick is to travel in time to find the original piece. Our hero is an innocent rocket jockey they need for their mission. Much danger ensues, in present and past, but our hero emerges okay. Chandler, not a writer I would have previously deemed conversant with sex, devotes quite a few lines to the porn collection of one buyer. "There was a painting of what, at first glance, could have been some gorgeous tropical flower. At second and subsequent glances it wasn't." Whoa, ABC, does Commander Grimes know that his adventures are coming out of such a filthy typewriter?!? Reprinted just once in a non-English publication.

The Wyndham tale is post-apocalypse. The very notion and sight of any wheel is forbidden tech. A boy reinvents it, and is sentenced to death, but a wise elder claims the crime and punishment, allowing youth to survive for a perhaps better future. Much reprinted.

The only quasi-stinker is the Mack Reynolds story about a Martian advisor to some cardboard Hollywood guys who want to sell movies--excuse me, "wires"--on Mars. The tale is so full of silly Martian words that it makes for tough slogging. Never reprinted.

I was surprised to see Jerome Bixby reviewing fanzines, as I had not thought of him as a fanzine fan. [I noted to Paul that Bixby's column would've been written about when he was leaving his editorial post at Planet Stories and Jungle Stories, and briefly (iirc) taking one on at Galaxy magazine--so while perhaps no too much Of fan culture, certainly Aware of it--TM]

The art was very fine, making me miss any such illos in modern genre publications.

All in all, with the Leinster as standout, a very pleasant reading experience. I envy the readers of 1952, who got installments of SS and other zines monthly.

reprinted with permission from the FictionMags discussion list.
Copyrigh© 2022 by Paul Di Filippo (on LJ)
for more of today's Short Story Wednesday entries, please see Patti Abbott's blog

Monday, November 7, 2022

2022 World Fantasy Award winners and shortlists

***denotes winners

participants/nominees Gordon Van Gelder, Sheree Renée Thomas, Ellen Datlow:

We are pleased to announce the nominees for the 2022 World Fantasy Awards and the Lifetime Achievement recipients! The winners of the awards will be announced on November 6th, at the World Fantasy Award Banquet in New Orleans, Louisiana.

CONGRATULATIONS to all the nominees and the lifetime achievement recipients!

2021 World Fantasy Awards

Final Ballot and Life Achievement Award Winners



Samuel R. Delany

Terri Windling

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho (Ace Books/Macmillan)

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom/Orbit UK)

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros (Inkyard Press)
***The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri (Orbit US/Orbit UK)
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward (Nightfire/Viper UK)

“For Sale by Owner” by Elizabeth Hand (When Things Get Dark)

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw (Nightfire)
***And What Can We Offer You Tonight by Premee Mohamed (Neon Hemlock Press)

Finches by A. M. Muffaz (Vernacular Books)

“A Canticle for Lost Girls” by Isabel Yap (Never Have I Ever: Stories)

"The Failing Name" by Eugen Bacon and Seb Doubinsky (Fantasy Magazine

Aug. 2021)
"The Demon Sage's Daughter" by Varsha Dinesh (Strange Horizons, 8 Feb 2021) 
“If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark (Uncanny Magazine #42, 

Sep/Oct 2021)

“#Spring Love, #Pichal Pairi” by Usman T. Malik (, Mar 3 2021)

“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine #39, 

Mar/Apr 2021)

***“(emet)” by Lauren Ring (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

July/Aug 2021)

Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) 

Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World (2021 Edition), eds. Charlatan 

Bardot and Eric J. Guignard (Dark Moon Books)

When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson, ed. Ellen Datlow 

(Titan Books)

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror Volume Two, ed. Paula Guran (Pyr)

***The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021), ed. Oghenechovwe 

Donald Ekpeki (Jembefola Press)

Speculative Fiction for Dreamers: A Latinx Anthology, eds. Alex Hernandez, 

Matthew David Goodwin, Sarah Rafael García (Mad Creek Books, an 

imprint of the Ohio State University Press)

Tales the Devil Told Me by Jen Fawkes (Press 53)

Big Dark Hole: Stories by Jeffrey Ford (Small Beer Press)

***Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan by Usman T. Malik (Kitab)

The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales by Angela Slatter (Tartarus Press)

The Ghost Sequences by A. C. Wise (Undertow Publications)

Never Have I Ever: Stories by Isabel Yap (Small Beer Press)

Odera Igbokwe

***Tran Nguyen

Aleksandra Skiba
Charles Vess

Charlie Jane Anders, for Never Say You Can’t Survive (Tordotcom)

Cam Collins and Steve Shell, for Old Gods of Appalachia (podcast)

Irene Gallo, for

***Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, for Monstress Volume Six: The Vow 

(Image Comics)
Sheree Renée Thomas, for editing F&SF


Gautam Bhatia and Vanessa Rose Phin, for Strange Horizons

Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, for Hellebore

Michael Kelly, for Undertow Publications

***Tonia Ransom, for Nightlight: A Horror Fiction Podcast

Arley Sorg and Christie Yant, for Fantasy Magazine

Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny Magazine

"Thanks to the Judges: C. S. E. Cooney, Julie Crisp, C. C. Finlay, 

Richard Kadrey, and Misha Stone"