Book Review: Fright

Book Review: Fright edited by Charles M. Collins

The cover makes this book look like a generic product, but that’s a little deceiving.  It’s actually an anthology skewed towards the Gothic end of horror rather than the gory, emphasizing vocabulary-rich authors.  Most of the stories were rarely reprinted before this collection in 1963.

Fright

We open with “The Forest Warden” by E.T.A. Hoffman.  The story begins where romantic tales of the time usually ended–the handsome young man rescues a distressed damsel, they marry and the man is rewarded with a job to support his new family.  But the new forest warden, Andres, finds that his territory is infested with robbers and poachers, and his aim is off, so he is unable to produce the tithe of game he owes his employer.  Also, his wife Giorgina becomes deathly ill after the birth of their first son.  Their small savings are soon exhausted from futile attempts to cure her.

When things look their darkest, a mysterious stranger named Ignaz Denner appears.  As it just so happens, he has an elixir which is just the thing to fix Giorgina right up.  He doesn’t want anything in exchange for this life-restoring tonic, in fact, Ignaz gives them several more nice gifts!  He even proposes arranging for the son’s education, though Andres and Giorgina turn that down.  That said, they appreciate their new best friend.

It’s only after the happy couple’s second son is born and Andres is called away that Ignaz reveals his true nature in a horrific manner.  Things rapidly go downhill from there, except for a seeming resolution about two-thirds of the way through before the abyss opens again.

This book’s translation is based on the 1814 version of the story, with the original ending which was considered too shocking for readers of the time and edited out in later editions.  (On the other hand, this translation apparently cuts out paragraphs of detail about the German judicial system that are not directly relevant to the main plotline.)  The ending is still pretty shocking by today’s standards.

Andres is inconsistent in his characterization; sometimes he’s alert and spots trouble coming, other times he acts very foolishly.  (“I know from personal experience that Ignaz Denner is a murderer who is literally in league with Satan and lies like a rug, but he says he’s reformed, so I will let him live with me.”)  Christianity does not overcome the forces of evil in this story, it just makes them angry.

“Schalken the Painter” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu takes us to Holland, where the famous artist was once an apprentice.  He fell in love with his master’s beautiful niece, and she returned his interest.  However, a mysterious but wealthy man appears after nightfall one night and convinces the master to arrange the niece’s marriage to him.  (The master pays lip service to the idea that maybe the niece should be allowed to have a say in who she marries, but the gold ingots prove a persuasive argument against that.)

After the groom is seen in full light, it’s evident that this marriage is not a good idea, but a contract is a contract, and it’s not as though the niece has any legal recourse.  Soon after the wedding, the couple vanishes.  Some time later, the niece reappears seeking shelter, but before a minister can arrive to protect her, she vanishes again.  Schalken is heartbroken, but there is nothing he can do.  While the bride’s fate remains unknown, Schalken has an experience years later that may give a hint, and he paints a picture of it which the narrator has been explaining.

“Podolo” by L.P. Hartley concerns an ill-fated picnic to an island near Venice.  A man takes his best friend’s wife to this small, mostly barren rock with the aid of a gondolier.  She sees a cat that’s been abandoned on Podolo, and decides to either take it home with her…or kill it so it won’t starve to death.  It is considered bad luck to kill a cat in Venice.  The story has no explanation of what’s actually going on, and the narrator never sees the presumed monster.  Perhaps the gondolier is hiding a worse truth?

In “Glamour” by Seabury Quinn, we are introduced to Lucinda Lafferty.  She doesn’t allow hunting on her land, but she also doesn’t post it, so that a hunter in hot pursuit of game can easily stumble across the border without noticing.  And she doesn’t bother with lawsuits, either.  She curses trespassers, curses them like poison.   The hag-like crone is widely believed to be a witch.

We are also introduced to Lucinda Lafferty, a beautiful, genteel woman of wealth and taste.  She’s a charming Southern belle of the old school, and young Harrigan is quite taken with her.  Why, he’d almost give his soul to be her lover!

Set in 1930s Virginia, this is very much Southern Gothic.  There’s some off-handed period racism.

“Clay” by C. Hall Thompson is a Lovecraft-influenced tale of a New England insane asylum with a new patient.  He keeps claiming that someone named “Oliver” wants him to kill people, using the Mark of Clay.  It’s all explained by the papers in the small chest the patient has with him…except that the chest is empty.  One psychiatrist believes that there’s something more than simple delusion going on, but can he prove it before tragedy strikes?

And speaking of H.P. Lovecraft, his “The Horror of Red Hook” rounds out the book.  A New York cop has had a nervous breakdown and is taking a rest cure in Rhode Island, and the story tells us how he got that way.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia is on full display as the menace of illegal immigrants threatens life as we know it.  (The story is only slightly kinder to legal immigrants.)  While it’s an effective story, I can only boggle as various ethnic groups are slammed, particularly Kurds and specifically the much-maligned Yazidi.   Even the Dutch come into it as one of them is slumming in the afflicted area.  Very problematic.

A quaint volume, long out of print–you can probably find the earlier stories from public domain sources, and Lovecraft is much-anthologized.  But recommended for those who comb garage sales and used book stores.

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

What’s bugging Jack Barron?  Jack used to be a young radical, waving signs and helping form the Social Justice Coalition.  But the SJC became a legitimate political party, and Jack wasn’t really interested in playing politics.  Plus, he’d gotten on television a lot, and the cameras and audiences loved him.  Soon, Jack was offered his own call-in show, and it took off.  The wife who kept him honest left, but his star was on the rise.

Bug Jack Barron

Now he’s the star of Bug Jack Barron, on every Wednesday night.  You call in on your vidphone and tell Jack what’s bugging you, and if he finds your problem interesting, Jack will go on to call important people and bug them about the issue.  And you’d better believe that VIPs are sitting by their own vidphones, because if you’re “not home” to Jack Barron, he will skewer you in front of one hundred million viewers.

Of course it’s all a cop-out.  Sure, Jack Barron is for the little guy…as long as it doesn’t involve any of Jack’s own skin.  And he’ll stick it to the Very Important People, but only to a point, just enough pain to make them sweat, but not enough to make them retaliate.  After all, Jack likes making $400,000 a year, and having a penthouse apartment with the latest electronic gadgets, and free smokes from his sponsor, Acapulco Gold.  And let’s not forget that TV stardom makes you a chick magnet!   No, Jack knows better than to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

Tonight’s show seems standard at first.  Seems there’s a company called the Foundation for Human Immortality, owned by a fellow named Benedict Howards, a powerful billionaire.  The Foundation will cryogenically freeze people to be revived whenever a cure is found for what killed them.  But the process is expensive, you have to have $500,000 in liquid assets for the Foundation to use.  Tonight’s caller tried to get a Freezer spot but was turned down, and he thinks it might be because he’s black.

Jack spots the logic hole right away (the man has $500K in his business, yes, but that’s not a liquid asset.) but decides to roll with it.  He calls Benedict Howards–but Mr. Howards is “not home” to Mr. Barron (for good reason, we learn later) so Mr. Barron decides to turn up the heat on the Foundation a bit.  After humiliating the Foundation’s PR person, Jack calls up his old SJC friend, Lukas Greene, now governor of Mississippi.  Governor Greene explains that the problem here isn’t direct racism, but systemic racism; for historical reasons, there just aren’t that many African-Americans with half a million in cash and negotiable bonds.  That’s why the SJC platform is to nationalize the Freezers so that all Americans have a chance to be revived in the future.

To round out the show and cool things down a bit, Jack calls Senator Hennering, who is sponsoring a Freezer Bill that will give the Foundation a permanent monopoly on their cryogenic process.  The Senator’s a professional politician and an experienced bloviator, so he should be able to provide some calming words.  Except that for some reason, the senator is off-script, and reacting to the call like he’s actually guilty of something.  Odd, but Jack is as gentle as is consistent with his acerbic television persona.

The next day Benedict Howards himself is in Jack Barron’s office, offering Jack a free cryogenic berth if he’ll help put the Freezer Bill through.  Jack still doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s pretty sure he’s wading into crocodile-infested swamp water, and it’s getting deeper by the moment.  He’s going to have to use all his smarts, and see if he still has a last shred of integrity deep down, and that really bugs Jack Barron!

This 1969 novel was considered the story that put Norman Spinrad on the map.  It’s one of the classics of the New Wave movement in science fiction, when newer SF authors decided to use more experimental literary techniques and use edgier subject matter.  In this case, Mr. Spinrad uses a free association stream of consciousness style of narration to fill us in on the thoughts of the characters randomly sparked by their main concerns.  It takes quite a bit of getting used to.  There was, supposedly, a lot of drug use by New Wave authors–this one reads less like it was made on marijuana than amphetamines.

There’s also a lot of foul language, including racial and ethnic slurs (“shade” is now the slang word for pale-skinned people.)  The sex scenes are pornographic in the “experimental literature” sense, but they’re important for exploring Jack’s state of mind, so you can’t just skip over them.  Racism is an important theme of the book, while the sexism seems to be more of the author’s blind spots.

Most of the action is a match of wills and wits between Jack Barron and Benedict Howards (who is clearly meant to evoke both treacherous Benedict Arnold and nutty millionaire Howard Hughes.)  The one violent on-stage confrontation is one that Jack’s completely unprepared for and survives only by luck.  Jack is an anti-hero, handsome, clever and witty, but having sold out to the Man long ago, and willing to use media manipulation to get his way.  Howards is worse, having such a fear of death that it’s become a full-blown thanatophobia, and he’s willing to do anything to avoid dying.  Ever.

Jack’s ex-wife Sara mostly exists to tell us how awesome Jack is, and urge him to return to the superior levels of awesome he had before he copped out.

Because of the rough language, sex scenes and a suicide, I wouldn’t recommend this to readers below senior high school, and it would probably be best saved for college age.

It’s interesting from a historical viewpoint as well, predicting a 1980s that is very different from the one we knew.  Apparently, at the same time the Coalition for Social Justice became an actual political party, Nixon imploded so badly in his first term that Republicans became poison at the national level.  So the CSJ has become the left-wing party, the Republicans have shifted heavily to the right and are composed of corporatists and the former Dixiecrats (no Religious Right here), and the Democrats have grabbed the large middle ground.  Ronald Reagan is mentioned several times as an example of a politician who is more image than substance, but never became president in this timeline.  One of the major Democrats is referred to as “Teddy the Pretender” and is presumably Edward Kennedy.

Mississippi has suffered massive “white flight” and its new black governor is barely holding on with a crippled economy.  AT&T (not broken up in this world) has produced black & white vidphones, and a “miniphone” (basically a cellphone that works anywhere in the AT&T network) is the latest gizmo.  Marijuana is legal in 38 states, Bob Dylan is dead, and low-level single payer healthcare is the law of the land.  Oh, and there’s a mission on its way to Mars, but it’s not relevant to anything.

There’s an afterword by Michael Moorcock, who ran this novel in the magazine New Worlds, which is why this edition uses British spelling.  He talks about the reaction at the time, including the story being denounced in Parliament.

Overall, a book with a lot of interesting ideas, some pertinence to the current day state of the media, some dated attitudes and a lot of uncomfortable content.   Recommended for those who want to experience New Wave science fiction.

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