Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  massive history of Japan during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the “Showa Era,”  It was a long reign, covering most of the Twentieth Century, from 1926-1989.  In addition to the larger story of Japan, it is also his autobiography, as Mizuki’s earliest childhood memories coincide with the beginning of that era.

Showa 1926 1939 a History of Japan

This volume opens several years earlier, with the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 which devastated Tokyo.  The repercussions of this, combined with fiscal mismanagement, created a financial crisis that crippled Japan’s economy.  The optimism and liberalization of the Taisho period took a huge hit.  Japan struggled along until 1929 and the worldwide effects of the Great Depression hit.

A combination of the Red Scare (the belief that Communists were about to take over), military successes and government incompetence led to the rise of right-wing organizations, especially military cliques.  Japan became ever more aggressive against its neighbors in Asia, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo and grabbing ever more territory from China.

Japan became a rogue state, leaving the League of Nations when that body attempted to intervene in its conquests.  Only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy recognized Manchukuo, and Japan’s alliance with those nations was about to drag it into World War Two.

This is a “warts and all” history, which covers events that many Japanese schoolkids might not be taught in official classes, or have glossed over for them.  There are many painful topics in here, so despite childish hijinks in the parts dealing with Shigeru’s early life, I would recommend it for senior high school students and up.

Warts and all is also how Mizuki depicts himself as a child and young man.  Naturally athletic but lazy, bright but unmotivated, sensitive but engaging in fights both as part of a gang and solo.  It will take the horrors of war (as depicted in the third volume) to force him into a responsible adult life.  Perhaps he got some of it from his father, who is shown as a Micawber-like optimist despite his economic woes.

There’s a lot of names and dates, so the end-notes are very helpful–you still might want to have Wikipedia open to assist with some of the more obscure bits and to cross-reference what else was going on in the world at the time.  Some bits come across as very dry, making the personal stories a relief.

The art may be jarring for those unused to Mizuki’s style; many pages are drawn directly from photographs in a realistic style, while others are done in a very loose, cartoony fashion.  It’s also kind of weird to have Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man) as the narrator of the more serious history portion-he would not seem the most reliable of narrators.

Overall, not as interesting as the third volume, which features Shigeru’s most harrowing experiences, but well worth seeking out from the library.

Book Review: Naked to the Stars

Book Review: Naked to the Stars by Gordon R. Dickson

Section Leader Calvin Truant of the 91st Combat Engineers has not slept in two days, his unit is at less than half strength and their translator is dying, and all the officers have been killed, leaving Cal in command.  The truce with the alien Lehaunan is about to end, and it looks like the village they’re stationed near has been getting reinforcements all night.  So it’s understandable that Cal orders an attack as of the official end of the truce.

Naked to the Stars

 

The 91st takes the village, only to discover it undefended beyond a few mine guards.  Cal abruptly wakes up in an ambulance ship sixteen hours later, with wounds he doesn’t remember getting.   The physical injuries are healed with future medical technology, but the missing hours are still a blank.   The brass won’t let him re-enlist for a combat role unless he undergoes a psychiatric probe, but Cal fears that they might find something that would bar him from service forever, and being a soldier is all he knows.

A recruiter offers a way past this impasse.  While Cal is barred from combat, he could become a Contacts Officer, a non-combatant medic/translator/diplomat embedded with the troops to win alien hearts and minds as the humans conquer them.  It’s not an admired profession, but someone’s got to do it, and it’s a way to get back in uniform.  Cal reluctantly agrees, and completes the training just in time to be assigned to the war against the Paumons.  There, he may be able to confront his daddy issues and the horror that lies within the missing hours.

Gordon R. Dickson was best known for his Dorsai novels, military science fiction about futuristic mercenaries.  This book takes a different tack, as Cal must confront the fact that winning a war isn’t just about conquering the enemy militarily.

It’s interesting to compare this book to Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, also published in 1961.  Both feature societies where politics is dominated by military veterans, with public flogging, and extensive sections set in boot camp.  But where the Heinlein book had the troopers protecting a largely apathetic citizenry from aggressive aliens who sought only to destroy, in this book, the government suppresses dissent by violence, and is engaged in expansionist colonization with preemptive attacks on technologically inferior aliens on flimsy pretexts.  The books are also almost polar opposites on pacifism, with one discarding it as useless passivism, while the other sees it as a better way forward.

As mentioned above, Cal has issues due to his difficult relationship with his father, who he chose to blame for the death of his mother.  He also has what we’d consider untreated post-traumatic stress that causes him to detach himself from those around him.  This being the kind of novel it is, most of this gets resolved by Cal having epiphanies, rather than therapy.  It also makes him rather unsympathetic in the middle section.

Cal’s relationship with nurse Annie Warroad is somewhat disjointed; much of its development is off-stage, but at least it’s clear that it does develop (as opposed to the usual 50s/60s SF thing of “love happens because the hero gets the girl.”)  The difficulties in the relationship realistically come from Cal’s emotional issues and tendency to push people away.

This is not considered one of Mr. Dickson’s stronger works, in part I think because it has an agenda that plays against the grain of the subgenre.   And given that the Earth is more or less the bad guys in this one, it may not sit well with some more jingoistic readers.  But it’s got some interesting ideas, and is probably available in a used book store near you, or even your library.

Open Thread: Father’s Day

My father is a retired prison guard.  He was never a particularly scholarly person, but he worked hard at improving himself so he would be eligible for promotions and pay raises.  He brought home books on spelling, improving your vocabulary, speed reading and the like.  And after he was done, I would devour them too.

The Commander and his children from "Manly Guys Doing Manly Things" http://www.thepunchlineismachismo.com
The Commander and his children from “Manly Guys Doing Manly Things” http://www.thepunchlineismachismo.com

Perhaps I got my love of reading from Mom, but it was from Dad I learned the value of reading to gain new knowledge.  That’s one of the reasons you’ll see reviews of non-fiction books on this blog.  I want to learn, to stretch my mind around new ideas and facts.

Happy Father’s Day!

Tell me a story about your father and reading, or about your favorite fictional father.

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