Interloper • novelette by Poul Anderson ♥♥
More Than Skin Deep • short story by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt ♥
The Last Séance • short story by Agatha Christie ♥♥
The Devil Was Sick • short story by Bruce Elliott ♥
Through Channels • short story by Richard Matheson ♥♥♥
Brightness Falls from the Air • short story by Margaret St. Clair [as by Idris Seabright] ♥♥♥
The Mathematical Voodoo • short story by H. Nearing, Jr. ♥♥♥
Extending the Holdings • short story by Donald A. Wollheim [as by David Grinnell] ♥
Miss Frost • short story by Christopher Wood ♥♥
The Other End • short story by R. Ellis Roberts ♥♥♥+
The Hill • short story by George P. Elliott [as by George Paul Elliott] ♥♥
Narapoia • short story by Alan Nelson ♥
Larroes Catch Meddlers • short story by Manly Wade Wellman ♥♥♥
Cover • by George Salter
Recommended Reading • by The Editors
Having repeatedly spoken about my dislike of George Salter’s covers let me start off by saying that I think this one is all right. Looking ahead, several more also look to be more to my taste.
Although there is one story less in this issue than last month’s there is a lot more wordage due to the increase in the number of lines per page from thirty-five to forty-one.1 Leading off this generous portion of fiction is a novelette by Poul Anderson, Interloper. In this an individual called Beoric lands on Earth and is met by a reptilian alien from Sirius. He is then taken by car to a spaceship disguised as a building where several other species of aliens are located. They are stationed there on behalf of their different planets to control the exploitation of Earth, and their council is controlled by a Denebian called Kane. Beoric is subsequently questioned by Kane, and the former is simultaneously in secret telepathic communication with others of his kind who are coming to attack the council and liberate Earth.
For the first half this isn’t too bad, and some of the writing is better than the equivalent type of tale in Planet Stories might have had:
He sat in silence. The car wound smoothly through darkened streets where only the dull-yellow lamps and an occasional furtive movement in the shadows and alleys had life. It was near the ebb time of the great city’s life; it slept like a sated beast under the sinking moon.
The fields and woods, hills and waters and sky, never slept. There was always life, a rustle of wings, a pattering of feet, a gleam of eyes out of the night, there was always the flowing tide of nervous energy, wakeful, alert. Life like a sea beyond the city, and Beoric had never been really alone.
Until now. But the city slept, and there was nothing wild to run in the fields and leap in the moonlit waters. Beoric’s straining mind sensed a few rodents scuttering in the ground, a slinking cat or two, the threadlike nervous impulses of insects fluttering around the one-eyed street lamps. Now and again there would be a human thought, someone wakeful—and the thought seemed to echo in the vast hollow silence of the city, it was alone, alone. p.12
Unfortunately the last part has too much of the various characters talking at each other, and (spoiler) the revelation that Beoric’s race is a parallel evolutionary spices of nocturnal Earth life isn’t really credible. And that isn’t helped when they are also identified as Elves….
More Than Skin Deep by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt starts off the fantasy with another Gavaghan’s bar story. This one is a typically too-straightforward story about a woman getting divorced and another woman in the bar who knows why. The divorcee (spoiler) got a beauty treatment from someone that sounds like a witch and the treatment only lasts three weeks or so. Once the attraction wears off so do the husbands.
The fantasy continues in the next two stories. The Last Séance by Agatha Christie (Ghost Stories, November 1926) tells of Raoul visiting his fiancé Simone. She is a medium and has agreed to one final séance for Madame Exe, who wants to speak to her dead child. The final scene (spoiler) is set up reasonably well: the child materialises and Madame Exe takes her leaving the medium dead and her body shrunken due to ectoplasm loss.
The Devil Was Sick by Bruce Elliott is a rather odd story about a man called Acleptos who needs to complete a thesis in the far future to join a woman off-planet. He eventually finds a subject that no-one has submitted before: summoning the devil. After some research the summoning is successfully achieved, at which point the devil attempts to satisfy Acleptos’s possible desires. Acleptos isn’t having any of this and (spoiler) the devil is frozen by a force gun and carted off to the insane asylum where, after treatment, he turns into an angel and departs. This is interesting for its proto-Will You Wait2 tone but is an odd and unsuccessful mix of story elements.
Breaking this issue out of its humdrum start is a nice little chiller by Richard Matheson. Through Channels takes the form of a police interview transcript in which they question a young boy. He has been to the movies and has then found something awful when he has returned home, where his parents were supposed to be watching TV with friends…
Brightness Falls from the Air by Margaret St. Clair is another one of her pseudonymous ‘Iris Seabright’ stories, and is the subject of a title naming competition (the title given is simply a ‘?’, and readers are invited to complete the coupon to enter the contest for a prize of a hundred bucks3).
This story tells of a man called Kerr who works in the Identification Bureau/mortuary on an alien planet. A lot of the bodies they keep in their ‘pool’ are of bird-people who conduct huge aerial battles for the entertainment of humans. One day a female turns up to claim a body and Kerr later becomes emotionally involved with her. He eventually walks her home and, after hearing about the problems of her people, tries to get them their own territory on a new colony planet. He fails. Matters (spoiler) take an even worse turn when she disappears, eventually turning up in the pool….
I don’t know if I am missing the point here—is this a metaphor for race problems of a 1950’s America? Whatever, it is a more serious and weighty piece than typical for the time, and works as a mood piece if nothing else.
In an earlier issue I said I didn’t care much for H. Nearing’s The Poetry Machine and noted, with some apprehension, that it was the first in a long series of stories. Initially I thought the second of his ‘C. P. Ransom’ stories, The Mathematical Voodoo, was going the same way but it turned out much better. That said it starts with a rather ridiculous plot maguffin. Professor Ransom has a student that is particularly bad at maths, a fact he demonstrates to his colleague Professor MacTate in a meeting with said student. They discuss solutions to the problem:
MacTate rubbed his chin. “Perhaps if there were some way of giving him confidence—You know. A simple formula of some sort that he could memorize and apply to various sorts of problems.”
Ransom studied his protege and shook his head judiciously. “A rabbit’s foot would work better.”
MacTate smiled. “You mean something on the order of a football player’s talisman?”
“I’ve seen it work.” Ransom looked at Finchell.
Following his colleague’s glance, MacTate noticed that Finchell’s eyes were shining with a strange eagerness. He hastened to dispel the boy’s unseemly interest in this turn of the conversation. “Now, Ransom. Next you’ll be tutoring a wax doll containing his fingernail clippings. Voodoo, or whatever it is.”
Ransom turned to him with an expression that matched Finchell’s. “What did you say?” p.64
The development of this idea is fairly well done and, after Ransom tutors the wax doll he has made, Finchell soon becomes a mathematical prodigy. The story is also helped by its occasional wit, such as when the professors try to track down a University janitor:
From the Director of Maintenance, they went to the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, the Supplies Coordinator, the Foreman Janitor, and the Assistant in Charge of Washrooms and Waste—and finally found the emptier of Ransom’s wastebasket filling soap containers in the School of Business Administration. He was a wiry man of indeterminate age. p.73
Extending the Holdings by Donald A. Wollheim tells of a journey to the moon in the time of President Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97). The vehicle used is an airtight wooden box, caulked with tar and encased in a sphere of wires which propel it upwards. However, the brother of the inventor has kept a vital piece of information from him. The revelation of this at the end of the story may raise a half-smile, or not.
Miss Frost by Christopher Wood is about a man who returns to his childhood house and starts to remember a nanny he had when he was a young boy. When the nanny was having her bath he would sneak into her room and look at a locket she wore. Inside were pictures of two dogs that, as he stared at them, gave way to a vision of the garden, and (spoiler) one in particular that showed the nanny changing into a dog. The idea is fairly routine so perhaps best read for its classic British horror mood.
The next story is perhaps the highlight of the entire issue and illustrates one of the strengths of the magazine in this period: a little known but worthy reprint from a writer outside the field. The Other End by R. Ellis Roberts (The Other End, 1923) is one of only nine stories by this writer, and it is about a gentleman who becomes a tutor for a boy called Terence. The gentleman’s employer is Sir Humphry, and it becomes apparent that the boy is being regularly flogged by him for his Papist beliefs and because of a suspicion that he is lecherous and deceitful. What is actually happening is that Terence is meeting with a supernatural ‘Her’ who has been promising to take him to ‘Other End’.
These events are narrated by the tutor. His memoir of these events shows him to be a self-important, snobbish, judgemental and religiously bigoted individual:
My mother had hoped I would take Holy Orders: but two things deterred me. I am a man of exceptional intellect and great critical ability, and I could not quite make the Articles of the Church tally with what I saw was reasonable. p.89
Sir Humphrey’s manner was excellent; his table was exceptionally good, and his cellar stocked with real taste—though I could not agree with his overvaluation of the Burgundy of 1900 against that of 1904: and when I retired that evening I congratulated myself on my unerring sense in finding a house where the work promised to be light, the society that of gentlefolk, and the remuneration more than the pittance so often given to men in my position. p.94
The windows of my bedroom, to which I was conducted by a maid-servant of unnecessary plainness, looked out over an undulating and considerable stretch of parkland. p.91
His mother was a Papist and his father belonged to that malicious party in the Church of England which is indistinguishable in its devices and devotions from the Roman Catholic heresy. By a providential dispensation, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Burke left any will or appointed any guardians or trustees: so Sir Humphrey, in taking the child to his house, felt at complete liberty to ignore the parents’ superstition, and brought Terence up as a sound Protestant. p.91-92
I initially disliked this character until it quickly became apparent that the story is actually a mordant black comedy—I should have paid more attention to the introduction where the editors say that it is ‘related by one of the most skilfully sketched self-damning fools in the English short story.’ This effect is particularly well accomplished, and if his book was available I would grab a copy.4
The Hill by George P. Elliott5 (Pacific, 1948) is a strange piece about a society of Great Heads, Great Bellys, Fighters and Workers, and how the discovery of large circular blades changes the nature of their society:
I observed that the blades had an unsuspected effect upon the Workers and Fighters. The Workers seemed fascinated by the blades and yet suspicious; they would investigate the entire apparatus time and again, yet when they went through the outlets where the blades were ready to be projected at the smallest sign of danger they always hurried and eyed the dark slot askance. The Fighters, who of course operated the mechanism, liked the thing very much. Yet they showed signs of an odd restlessness now that the Hill was as nearly safe as it could be made. p.105
This has its own internal logic but is somewhat mystifying: perhaps it should perhaps be viewed as a self-contained vision rather than a story. It reminded me of the kind of piece you would sometimes find in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies or the later issues of New Worlds.
Narapoia by Alan Nelson (What’s Doing, 1948) starts off quite well with a therapist and a patient who has the opposite of a number of conditions: he thinks he is following someone, he feels people are trying to do well by him, etc. At the second session the therapist ends up telling the patient all about his problems. Unfortunately it goes downhill from there.
The issue closes with a piece of spooky Americana from Manly Wade Wellman. Larroes Catch Meddlers tells how Crouton and Purdy have come to a deserted house in South Carolina where they think the Confederate gold evacuated from Richmond at the end of the Civil War has been hidden. They find an old man there who claims to be a descendant of the owners and, under duress, he tells them there is no entrance to the cellar: it was sealed along with two of his uncles as guards…. However, when Purdy lights his hand of glory—the hand of a hanged man treated in its own fats—an entrance is revealed. 6
The only non-fiction, apart from the title contest, is the book review column. Rather than the usual capsule reviews there is an interesting essay that weighs in against the mislabelling of recent collections, fix-ups, etc. as novels by various publishers, before going on to mention the high spots of the publishing year. It concludes with a two and a half page list of the best books of 1950.
Overall, and in spite of the variable quality, I found this an interesting issue.
- This six extra lines is equivalent to increasing the size of the magazine to one hundred and fifty pages. It’s hard to tell from the scanned copies I have, but I think they have accomplished this by dropping the type size by one point, and maybe reducing the margin size top and bottom.
- Will You Wait? by Alfred Bester, F&SF March, 1959.
- I couldn’t come up with a decent title, and in any event I would have been too late.
- There isn’t much information about R. Ellis Roberts on the web but there is this. His ISFDB page is here.
- Elliot’s career seems to have consisted of an associational novel and a dozen stories. Ten of them were collected in Among the Dangs (1960)—a handful would also appear in F&SF. A later story appeared in Edges, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin & Virginia Kidd (1980). His ISFDB page is here.
- The introduction asks readers about the meaning and origin of the word ‘Larroes’. There is some information here.