Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Something has gone drastically wrong aboard the generation ship Matilda .  Centuries after it left the uninhabitable Earth, the ship seems no closer to its destination, if there is in fact a destination at all.  Society has become stratified, with the darker-skinned humans confined to the lower decks, called “Tarlanders”, and treated like servants at best and often like animals.   Those on the higher decks justify this with their religion, which puts straight white men above all others, who are sinners.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Aster is one of the few medics available to those below decks.  She’s something of a genius, and has been allowed to study under/assist the ship’s most esteemed doctor, the Surgeon.  (She knows him as Theo.)  That doesn’t excuse her from backbreaking work in the field decks under the whip-wielding overseers, though.

Recently, the Matilda has been suffering a series of blackouts for the first time in a quarter-century.  Lieutenant, Theo’s cruel uncle and de facto ruler of the ship, has decided that the lower deck people are somehow overloading the power and cut the heat to that part of the ship to “conserve energy.”  The oppressed are suffering, and Aster has been called to amputate a child’s gangrenous foot.

After this gruesome task, Aster returns to her secret botanarium where she grows medicinal plants and performs scientific experiments.  Her childhood friend and confidante Giselle is there and being contrary as usual.  More surprisingly, the Surgeon arrives.  Theo needs some of Aster’s special steroids for his post-polio pain symptoms, and also her help.  The Sovereign Nicolaeus, official ruler of the ship’s people, is dying of a mysterious illness, something Theo has never seen before.

Not having any great love for the ship’s government, Aster turns Theo’s request down.  But then Giselle reveals that she’s been reading the journals of Aster’s long-missing mother Lune, and cracked some of the code they were in–Lune had the same symptoms as Nicolaeus during the last series of blackouts, twenty-five years ago.  Is there a connection?

Aster is a protagonist very different from most I’ve read, being gender ambiguous (but using female pronouns) and having some form of neurodivergence.  The latter is both a strength and a weakness for Aster; it gives her insights that others might miss, but also makes understanding subtleties of language difficult for her to parse.   Metaphors are hard for Aster to grasp, thus her failure to notice that the anomalies in Lune’s journal entries were deliberate.

Most of the book is told in tight third-person following Aster, with three first-person chapters where other characters inform the reader of things Aster is unaware of or not present for.

The storyline largely consists of Aster reacting to other people’s actions; until near the end her few attempts at being proactive backfire.   Theo (who has many secrets) and especially Giselle (never stable, but having gotten worse after much abuse) are far more active, but are mostly off-page doing their things.  The vile Lieutenant seems to relish making life more complicated, deluded by his self-justified mindset.

Matilda‘s society is a pretty clear metaphor for the American South during slavery and Jim Crow (mixed together as needed) and this can come across as heavy-handed from time to time.  We get very little background on how it turned out this way, although one bit of history suggests the social stratification was there from the beginning.

Content notice:  rough language, implied rape, physical and mental abuse, and torture.

The conclusion drastically changes things; there is room for a sequel, but the society will not be the same.

Overall, a mixed bag.  An interesting protagonist and unfolding of events, but often heavy-handed and some key elements seem to be there simply to create the desired metaphor.

Note:  I got this book through PageHabit, so my copy has author annotations on Post-it notes inserted throughout.  This was an interesting extra dimension, but my financial circumstances make it unlikely I’ll order from this vendor again in the near future.

 

 

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955

Magazine Review: Fantastic Universe October 1955 edited by Leo Margulies

Fantastic Universe was a digest-sized science fiction and fantasy magazine that ran from 1953 to 1960, originally coming out from King-Size Publications.  Its quality is considered to have fallen off after 1956, with lesser stories and more emphasis on pseudo-science articles, but this particular issue is from the “good” period.

Fantastic Universe October 1955

We open with a brief essay by Frank Belnap Long, inspired by the Kelly Freas cover and talking about the mythic figure of the Horned Man.  None of the other stories are related to the cover.

“Star-flight” by Sam Merwin Jr. concerns a young woman named Francesa Hawley-Bey, a student at a Martian university.  She’s in her early twenties, but has the physical development of a nine-year-old.  She learns that she is the product of a centuries-long breeding experiment to create near-immortality.  Why, you ask?  Well, it turns out that there’s no such thing as faster than light travel.  Humanity can build ships now that get really close to light speed (something that’s been kept from the general public), but it will still take immense amounts of time to reach the stars.

The scientist who’s been working on these new ships is being hunted because he doesn’t want to give one planet (Earth in this case) a monopoly, as their government wants to use the new technology merely to strip-mine the rest of the solar system.  He, it turns out, is secretly the only other immortal and has been waiting thousands of years for a co-pilot so he can get back to galactic civilization.

The general skeeviness of Fran having her entire life manipulated so that humanity can eventually go to the stars is overwhelmed by the particular skeeviness of the romance subplot between her (remember, physically nine) and her thirty-something college dean.  In fairness to the dean, there are hints he might have been brainwashed into this, but eww.  Also note, romance only–this isn’t that kind of story.

“The Nostopath” by Bryce Walton is about a man named Barton who is all too happy to be assigned to a remote one-man watch station during war with aliens.  He didn’t like it much on Earth, with all those people, and his annoying family.  At first, he greatly enjoys the solitude.  After some months, however, he starts craving some company, and sends a message off to HQ with suggestions.

Headquarters think that Barton’s ideas are jolly good, and soon, a small, carefully selected group of people joins Barton on the asteroid station.  This includes Barton’s wife and child, who have learned from his long absence to really appreciate him.  They all get along swimmingly, and Barton’s World is a model community.

Which is great, until the war is over, and the military wants Barton to come back to Earth.  And for some reason, the crew of the pickup ship doesn’t have orders to let anyone come with him.  Chilling ending as we learn what’s really going on.

“An Apartment for Rent” by Ruth Sterling focuses on the title apartment, which is quite nice.  However, since the sudden death of the long-time inhabitants, the rental office has been unable to find anyone who will stay in it for more than a month, despite the housing shortage.  The rental manager thinks the new couple he’s meeting might just be the ones who will fit the apartment.  They do seem rather taken with it…and might be staying forever.  It seems the housing shortage is worse than you might have thought.  Slight but amusing.

“Rafferty’s Reasons” by Frederik Pohl takes place in a dystopian future which has achieved full employment by banning most technology.  Except for teaching machines that will beam necessary job skills into your head.  Rafferty is a bookkeeper who used to be an artist (art was declared “not a real job”) and hates his boss, Girty, who is high up in the political structure of the New Way.  He’s reached the breaking point, and is determined to strike back any way he can.  Downer ending.

Girty is a thoroughly hateable character, with a combination of “bad boss” and “bad conservative” personality traits that make Rafferty’s reasons understandable.

“Hawks Over Shem” by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp is the centerpiece of the issue.  It’s a rewritten version of Mr. Howard’s story “Hawks Over Egypt” that Mr. de Camp translated into the Hyborian Age setting so he could make Conan the Cimmerian the star.

Asgalun is ruled by a king who is, well, nuts.  The main thing protecting him from being overthrown is his army, but his three main generals are feuding with each other and jockeying for power.  One of the generals, Othbaal, has a checkered path in which he sold out his own mercenaries for a massacre.

The sole survivor of that massacre was Conan the Cimmerian.  He’s finally made it to Asgalun to seek vengeance.  But as fate would have it, first Conan accidentally gets involved with an assassination attempt on a man who turns out to be Mazdak, one of the other generals.  Conan would not have interfered, but the assassins decided they didn’t want any witnesses, and our barbarian protagonist isn’t just going to lie down and die.

Mazdak is grateful to Conan, and Othbaal dying fits into his own plans.  So the pair teams up to infiltrate Othbaal’s palace so that Conan can have his revenge.  Othbaal’s concubine Rufia wisely runs away as her unwanted master is disposed of.  Unfortunately for her, it’s currently illegal for women to be out in the street at night, and she runs into King Akhirom in disguise.

As it happens, fleeing murderous barbarians is not a defense under the law, and so Rufia is about to be executed.  Then she gets a brilliant idea, playing into Akhirom’s delusions of grandeur, and getting him to declare himself a god (and herself his first worshiper.)  That saves her neck for the nonce, but now God-King Akhirom is determined to push the new religion on the entire city.

Chaos ensues, and Conan is recognized as Amra, the famous pirate with a reward on his head!  How will he escape a city gone mad?

Note: child sacrifice and implicit rape are part of the story.

This story has been reprinted several times as part of Conan collections, so should be relatively easy to track down.

“Pink Fluff” by Craig Rice is set in an old house that an architect and his family have recently moved into.  There’s currently some amount of marital discord, not made any easier by the appearance of the title substance, which seems to have no visible source, and vanishes just as mysteriously when you aren’t looking.  And it’s getting thicker….

It is painfully obvious to say that this is a “fluff” story, but yes.  It is.

“Run Around the Moon” by Matt Carter takes place in small-town Minnesota.  An astronaut who accomplished many great feats of exploration is retiring to his family farm.  A humble man and solitary by nature, he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet.  But Lars Hendricssen hasn’t counted on just how famous he’s become.

Lars is the biggest thing to come out of that little town, and they want to exploit it to the hilt.  Tourists and sightseers, professors and legislators, all want a piece of Lars’ time and personal space.  Plus, there’s space-happy kids trampling all over his flowerbeds and being loud and enthusiastic all day.

Fortunately, one of Lars’ old crewmembers comes for a visit, and he’s got an idea for a project to keep the kids busy for a good long time.

I’m a sucker for Minnesota-set stories, and I like the humor in this one.

“Universe in Books” by Hans Stefan Santesson is his first review column for FU.  He would later become editor of the magazine.  He likes the more intellectual sort of science fiction, rather than the space opera whiz-bang stuff.

“You Created Us” by Tom Godwin is about a secret community of atomic mutants created by the tests in the Nevada desert in the late Forties/early Fifties.  The protagonist has a metal plate in his head, and this allows him to realize that the lizard people are there, despite their mental powers.  Perhaps he should not have gone into their lair alone.

This is the sort of thing that might have been turned into an Outer Limits story back in the day.  It’s very much a product of the fear of nuclear war.

A different sort of doomsday scenario is seen in the final story, “Weather Prediction” by Evelyn E. Smith.  George is terrible at remembering numbers, particularly telephone numbers.  So when he claims to have called the weather line and been told that rain is coming, his wife Elinor and her friends laugh.  It’s going to be warm and clear!  Until it isn’t.  And then George tells them the rest of the prediction…but who did he actually call?

Some sticklers for religious dogma might object to the ending.

An interesting issue, but a couple of the stories leave a bad taste in my mouth.

 

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936

Magazine Review: Thrilling Mystery March 1936 by various

Thrilling Mystery was a pulp horror magazine created by Thrilling Publications; I’ve been unable to find publication history details in a quick search.  It specialized in “weird menace” tales, which had supernatural trappings but were ultimately revealed as having non-supernatural (but not necessarily plausible) explanations.  It did not, however, stick entirely to such stories.  This issue was reprinted by Adventure House, so let’s see what’s inside.

Thrilling Mystery March 1936

“The Twisted Men” by Hugh B. Cave starts us off with the tale of a young couple who’ve come to the wife’s isolated New England hometown to purchase a summer home.  Peter and Jo Smith (names changed to protect the innocent) soon discover that some force is taking healthy, sane men, and turning them into twisted, mentally deficient monsters that soon die as their bodies are no longer able to support life.

The explanation is allegedly scientific, but the near-instantaneous transformation of the victims (always done while they are off-page for a few minutes) is highly implausible to say the least.  Some great atmosphere, though.  (Also a completely unnecessary mention of Jo being naked at one point for the “spicy” factor.)

“Cold Arms of the Demon” by Jackson Cole is the non-“weird menace” story in this issue.  There’s something in the lake that likes to drown young women, and staying out of the lake is not a defense.  Good thing there’s a ghost writer in the area!

“Black Moonlight” by G.T. Fleming-Roberts is set in an isolated mountain community, probably in Appalachia.  Despite the best efforts of pretty schoolmarm Helen Dahl, the benighted locals have fallen into the clutches of a doomsday cult that promises the end of the world tonight when the moon is destroyed.   And given that frozen corpses are showing up in the middle of summer in a town with no electricity, the cult just might be on to something.

Good thing Helen’s fiance Larry Brit and town doctor Kayne are not so superstitious!  The story hinges on the notion that the ignorant rural folk don’t understand the concept of an eclipse and wouldn’t have noticed it coming in the Farmer’s Almanac.

“The Howling Head” by Beatrice Morton concerns anthropologist Gregg Hartnett coming across a woman’s head howling in the middle of nowhere.  This proves to be a trap by cannibals.  Period racism and the concept of Social Darwinist atavism (sudden resurgence of ancestral traits, particularly among non-white people) make this an uncomfortable read.

“Vengeance of the Snake-God” by James Duncan stars reporter Gary North, who is engaged to Marion Cravath, daughter of archaeologist Hugh Cravath.  They’ve come to Mr. Cravath’s isolated mansion to gain his blessing on their relationship.  That plotline is derailed when the pair stumble across a corpse in the driveway.  It seems Mr. Cravath raided the tomb of Cla-Mir, high priest of the Egyptian snake god Musartis, and brought the fabulous jewels within back to the States.

There is supposedly a curse on the jewels, and this is the second person to die horribly in a similar manner.  Mr. Cravath had called in detective Paul Medal to protect him, but that worthy admits he’s baffled.  The phone lines have been cut, the vehicles rendered inoperative, and the house’s occupants are dying one by one.  Musartis strikes!

Period racism and ableism, though this time misguided.  The sinister Egyptian little person is a red herring.

“Spider’s Lair” by C.K.M. Scanlon initially looks like a love triangle story.  Jeff is a bank cashier who is in love with Nancy Shelby.  She’s currently dating Clinton Banning, a slick fellow who was recently raised to vice-president by the bank president, Harmon Tabor.  Jeff has been suspicious of Banning for a while, as his work hardly seems of the quality to deserve such a promotion.  The detective agency Jeff hired to look into Banning’s background has discovered a wife that Banning never divorced (and has never mentioned to Nancy.)

Nancy’s weak-willed little  brother Paul Shelby asks Jeff to come along on a triple date to Spider Island that Banning is organizing.  Paul will be bringing along his current squeeze, Dolly Pollard, and there’s a third woman coming along for Jeff, a beautiful but mysterious lady named Rose Larue.  Jeff decides this outing will be the perfect chance to get Banning alone and confront him with Jeff’s knowledge of the abandoned wife.

Spider Island has a sinister reputation, but that might just be because of all the spiders.  Or that it was the lair of pirate Spider Murgler.  Or it might be because of the actual point of the expedition, which is far more lethal than Jeff ever expected.  A nifty if highly implausible murder method is involved.  And maybe a bit more love triangle.  Content warning: torture.

“Blood of Gold” by Wayne Rogers (no relation) has seven young people from the wealthier classes and their chauffeur going on a treasure hunt out in Colorado, based on a map found in one’s father’s trunk.  Most of them will not be making it out alive.  Has some good twists, but again the science explanation for what’s going on is highly implausible.  This is the closest story to the cover illustration, but not quite right.

“The Man Who Died Twice” by Bret Altsheler concerns an attempt to bring a man back from the dead who should have remained a corpse.  Once again, dubious science.  The intro tells us the author also wrote “The Gods Laugh at the Red Maggots” which is a far more intriguing title.

The magazine ends with the “Horror-Scope” column by “Chakra.”   The main feature is retellings of various real-life serial killer cases.  Then there are questions from readers, one on ghosts and the other two on torture.  One of these may be useful to writers looking for authenticity in 1930s gangster stories.

The Adventure House reprint includes the original ads and illustrations.  A good selection of the “weird menace” subgenre, but be warned that in every tale, the role of the main woman is to be rescued by the hero.

 

 

Book Review: Tiger by the Tail

Book Review: Tiger by the Tail by Alan E. Nourse

Alan E. Nourse (1928-1992) was a medical doctor and science fiction/fact author.  His professional training often showed in his stories, perhaps best exemplified by the novel Star Surgeon.  He also wrote The Bladerunner, about a dystopian future where medical care is rationed.  Hollywood optioned the title and stuck it on a Philip K. Dick story.

Tiger by the Tail

 

This book is a collection of nine SF short stories originally published in the 1950s, when speculative fiction was getting more psychologically complex.

“Tiger by the Tail” leads off with store detectives watching in amazement as a shoplifter blatantly stuffs merchandise into her pocketbook.  Far more than could possibly fit into it.  It ends with an existential threat to the entire universe.  The story is exposition heavy, but pays off when an iron bar moving a centimeter becomes a horrifying event.

“Nightmare Brother” is the longest story.  A man finds himself walking down a long tunnel without knowing where he is, how he got there, or even who he is.  And the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train!  He escapes that peril, only to find himself in a worse situation, over and over.  Why is this happening to him?!  Some dubious psychology, and a hint of Fifties attitudes towards women.

“PRoblem” involves a public relations man called in to sell the public on allowing extradimensional aliens to take temporary refuge on Earth while their babies are born.   The aliens are almost designed to cause revulsion in humans, and their personalities are irritating.  And then he finds out their real dealbreaker.  I get the feeling this one was written around a typo.

“The Coffin Cure” involves a cure for the common cold.  Dr. Nourse ignores clinical testing procedures that he would certainly have been familiar with in real life so that the cure can be released to large portions of the public by an overenthusiastic project leader named Coffin.  A few weeks later, the side effects start showing up.  (And they’re fairly logical side effects.) Phillip Dawson, the man who actually came up with the cure, must now find a cure for the cure.   Very Fifties sitcom treatment of his marriage.

“Brightside Crossing” is a grueling tale about a disastrous attempt to cross the surface of Mercury.  Since then, we have learned that Mercury does in fact rotate, so there’s no one “bright side.”  That said, it’s an adventure story with some thrilling moments.

“The Native Soil” likewise is not viable because of new information about Venus.  For the purposes of this story, it’s covered in deep, deep mud–some of which has unparalleled antibiotic properties.  A pharmaceutical company is trying to mine that mud with the dubious aid of the natives.  The enterprise is not going well, and even a top troubleshooter from Earth is about to give up until he finally realizes what’s really going on.

“Love Thy Vimp” has Earth invaded by the eponymous vermin-like aliens.  They cause trouble wherever they go, are vicious and cruel, and nearly impossible to kill.   Barney Holder, a mild-mannered sociology teacher, has been assigned to a task force to get rid of the accursed things.  One vimp has been captured, but experiments reveal no way of stopping it.  Barney must ferret out the vimps’ one weakness.  Fifties sitcom marriage stereotypes pop up again, but this time the nagging wife is an actual plot point.

“Letter of the Law” involves a conman who tried to bilk a group of aliens, only to run into their biggest taboos.   Now he’s on trial for his life, and has to be his own lawyer on a planet where truth is an unknown concept.  The human government emissary isn’t exactly thrilled to be helping.  And even if the conman succeeds, his neck might still be on the chopping block.  Satisfying ending.

“Family Resemblance” isn’t a science fiction story per se, but a comic tale of a hoax designed to make it appear that humans evolved from pigs.  Some groan-worthy humor in this one.

Overall, a decent enough collection of stories that have become dated either through scientific advances or social change.  Worth looking up at your library.

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24 Edited by Tharg

As I’ve mentioned before, 2000 AD is a weekly comic paper with a speculative fiction bent that’s been published in Britain for over forty years.  It keeps up the schedule by featuring several short stories in each issue, most of them serialized.  A while back I c came into possession of the March 2017 issues, which seems like a good chunk to look over.

2000 AD #2020

“Judge Dredd” has been a headliner in the magazine since the second issue, and stories set in the dystopian future of Mega-City One are in almost every issue.  We start with a two-parter titled “Thick Skin” written by T.C. Eglington with art by Boo Cook.  Two vid stars have their skin slough off on camera in separate instances.  Coincidence?  Plague?  Terrorist plot?  It’s up to lawman Judge Dredd to investigate.

This is followed up by “The Grundy Bunch” by Arthur Wyatt and Tom Foster.  A family/cult that worships “Grud and Guns” has taken over one of the few remaining green spots in the city.  Despite the topical overtones, the story turns out to be a setup for a terrible pun.

“Get Jerry Sing” is by classic Judge Dredd team John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.  The title phrase is a bit of graffiti that’s been appearing all over the city.  What it means is a mystery, but pop star Jerry Sing isn’t happy about being a target.  This one has a karmic twist ending that brought a dark chuckle from me.

Lastly, there’s the first part of a longer story, “Harvey” by John Wagner and John McCrea.  The Day of Chaos and subsequent disasters have left the Judges severely understaffed, and it will be a while before they can train new human ones.  So there’s a renewed interest in the robot Judge program, Mechanismo.  Previous experiments with the artificial intelligences have proved disastrous, but this time, the Tek-Judges think they’ve cracked the problems with earlier models.  Judge Dredd is asked to take on “Judge Harvey” as a trainee, to see if this time robot cops are finally viable.

2000 AD #2021

The “Sinister Dexter” series is about Ramone Dexter and Finnegan Sinister, a pair of gunsharks (hitmen) who live in the city of Downlode.  Due to shenanigans involving alternate Earths, the pair have managed to get themselves erased from human and computer memory, and are slowly re-establishing their reputations without the baggage of the past.  They’re inspired by the hitmen from Pulp Fiction, but now bear little resemblance to them.

We have three stories in this group by Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell.  First, the robotic security system for their new apartment building decides that Sinister and Dexter are a threat to the tenants.  A threat that must be eliminated.  The second story is from the point of view of the bartender at their favorite watering hole.  He doesn’t remember their previous interactions, but does know there’s something odd about the pair.  And finally, there’s a new hitman in town, who calls himself “the Devil.”  And his killing skills do seem…supernatural.

I find these characters smarmy and unlikable, but this sort of “not quite as bad guys” protagonist is popular with a segment of the readership.

2000 AD #2022

“Kingmaker” by Ian Edginton and Leigh Gallagher is a newer serial.  A fantasy world was having its own problems dealing with a wraith king, when suddenly technologically advanced aliens invaded.  An elderly wizard, a dryad, and an orkish warrior riding dragons are beset by alien pursuers.  When they finally defeat this batch of invaders by seeming divine intervention, the trio realizes they may already have found the chosen one.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the narrator of “The Order” by Kek-W and John Burns.  On his deathbed, the boastful writer tells of his experiences with the title organization, which does battle with beings known as the Wyrm.  Time has come unglued due to the latest Wyrm incursion, and a mechanical man from a possible future might or might not be the key to victory.  The Wyrm are driven back, but at a cost.

“Kingdom” by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson is set on a future Earth where humanity as we know it has been all but wiped out by giant insects known as Them.  The genetically-engineered dog soldier Gene the Hackman has finally found the “Kingdom”, haven of the last humans.  Unfortunately, there are dark secrets in this supposed sanctuary, so Gene and his allies must strike even against the Masters.

2000 AD #2023

“Brink” by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard takes place in the late 21st Century after Earth had to be abandoned due to ecosystem collapse.  Bridget Kurtis is an inspector for the Habitat Security Division.  After the horrific death of her partner on the last case, Bridget is assigned to investigate mysterious suicides on a new habitat that’s reputed to be haunted…even though it’s still under construction.

The latest installment of “Scarlet Traces”, set in a world where H.G. Wells’  War of the Worlds took place is by Ian Edginton & D’Israeli.  Humanity’s history has been twisted by access to Martian technology.  It’s now 1965, and the Martians are doing something to the sun.  It may require allying with the Venusian refugees to thwart them.  This is fascinating alternate Earth stuff.

“Cursed: The Fall of Deadworld” by Kek-W & Dave Kendall is set in the backstory of Judge Death, the lawman from an Earth where life is a crime and the penalty is death.  Sydney D’eath has put himself in charge, twisting the world to fit his vision of a crime-free paradise.  We follow Judge Fairfax, his sentient vehicle Byke, and the orphan Jess as they search for a haven.  Doesn’t look good for them, frankly.

2000 AD #2024

There’s also two “Future Shocks”, stand-alone shorts.  “The Best Brain in the Galaxy” by Andrew Williamson & Tilen Javornik features a descendant of Horatio Hornblower who will do anything to win a competition to become captain of the most important starship voyage ever.  Anything.  “Family time” by Rory McConville and Nick Dyer is a parody of a certain Hollywood couple who like adopting children from around the world.  Except that this version is adopting orphans from across time.  The Child Protective Services are concerned that these children may not be orphans in the usual sense.  I liked the first story better.

There’s also the short humor strip “Droid Life” by Cat Sullivan  in a couple of issues, depicting life for the robotic staffers of 2000 AD.  Plus Tharg’s editorials, and actual letters pages.

2000 AD stories tend to be on the violent side, and sometimes get quite gory.  I didn’t see any nudity in these particular issues, but the comic doesn’t shy away from toplessness.  Parents of preteens may want to vet these comics before giving them to their kids.

As always, it’s a mixed bag for quality, but the very nature of the magazine means that there’s always something different to look at if the current story displeases, and serials are rotated frequently.  worth looking into if you can afford it.

 

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.

 

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