The Locust Descending • novelette by Gordon Eklund
It’s Hard to Get into College, Nowadays • short story by Grania Davis ♥
Groups • short story by Robert Thurston
A Personal Demon • short story by Linda Richardson & David Bischoff & Rich Brown [as by Michael F. X. Milhaus] ♥♥
People of the Dragon • short story by Lin Carter ♥♥♥
The Incredible Umbrella • novella by Marvin Kaye ♥♥♥♥
The Locust Descending • cover by Stephen Fabian
Interior Artwork • Stephen Fabian, Richard Olsen, Joe Staton, Dan Steffan, Marcus Boas
Editorial • by Ted White
… According to You • Letters
One of the magazines I wanted to go back and read again was Fantastic Stories of the Ted White period, and in particular 1976 which I remembered as a particularly good year.1 This was due to a number of things, including strong novellas from both Marvin Kaye (the first of his ‘Incredible Umbrella’ series, discussed below) and Avram Davidson (Bloody Man, one of his ‘Jack Limekiller’ tales), the start or continuation of a couple of series such as the ‘Personal Demon’ stories by ‘Michael F. X. Milhaus’ and the ‘Felimid the Bard’ stories by ‘Denis More’, as well as a number of other good works (George R. R. Martin, Brian Lumley, etc.). The icing on the cake was some great artwork by Stephen Fabian, who had become a regular contributor during the previous year.
This was the first of the 1976 issues and, as would later become apparent, the last bimonthly one: the next issue would be dated May rather than April, a fact ascribed in the August 1976 editorial to falling sales after a recent price increase to $1.
Having looked forward to this, my memories were quickly disabused by the first three efforts. My rose-tinted specs meant I had forgotten that a variable portion of the magazine was always taken up by stories that were obvious rejects from better paying markets.
The Locust Descending by Gordon Eklund concerns a telepath who is kidnapped to bring a wealthy man’s daughter out of her semi-catatonic state. His attempts to do this take place in a glass mansion where the paralysed father lives. Later events occur on a beach in Mexico. There is an enforcer called Harry and a dodgy elder son in the mix as well.
This has lots of talking and hard-boiled threats to the telepath-narrator but never sparks into life. Another flaw is his reluctance to use his talent when he is told not to, presumably in case they feel him in their minds. Needless to say (spoiler), the reason for the daughter’s catatonia is that she is a stronger telepath than the narrator.
It’s Hard to Get into College, Nowadays by Grania Davis starts off in one of those trippy counter-culture futures so beloved by Amazing and Fantastic contributors (the other side of this coin was the dystopian future city story that I suspect was a thinly veiled account of how miserable life was in seventies New York). A student wakes up from a vision that his ‘Juicer’ has given him:
Housed in a giant dome in the center of the former city of Newark, the Juicer, through its myriad outlets, could give a profound experience of mystical ecstasy to the dullest member of the most monotonous work-squad. An experience which was so desirable in this post-flu age, that society was rebuilt, to provide maximum juice to the citizens of US-Can. p.34
The next thing he does is wait in line for the ‘Squeeze,’ a sex machine. The rest of the story is his account of the annual initiation trials to get to college. There is the odd flash of humour in this but it is a slice-of-future-life that goes nowhere.
Groups by Robert Thurston details a man’s separation from his wife, his mother dying, and the various groups that he discusses these matters with. Not SF or fantasy or, more critically, interesting.
I had higher hopes for the next story, A Personal Demon by Linda Richardson, David Bischoff and Rich Brown (writing under the pseudonym of Michael F. X. Milhaus). This is the first in the eponymous series, and is about a college professor called Willis Baxter and a female demon called Anathae.
The story starts in a university faculty party where Willis does the summoning as his party piece. He is as surprised as his guests when he succeeds with a demon who has the appearance of a fifteen year old girl with hooves. She turns out to be an oversexed demon as well.
Various shenanigans follow, including Anathae setting up one of Willis’s colleagues in an attempted rape charge so he won’t be a competitor of Willis’s for the head of faculty job. Also at the party and witness to the summoning of the nude demon is a wealthy benefactor called Rockhurst who wants her to appear at a future stag party as a quid pro quo for funding the college.
Apart from the fact that the plotline of this is fairly weak I had a problem with the fact that Anathae is described as a teenager, and also with her sexualisation. This all seems a bit sleazy: no doubt just broad humour in the mid-seventies but uncomfortable reading now.
People of the Dragon by Lin Carter is the first of another eponymous series. A primitive tribe leave their homeland and move south as an ice age begins. As they camp on the plains the narrator, a fourteen year old boy, goes to find his father and brothers when they don’t return from a hunt. His grandfather also tells of a vision of them in danger.
The boy sets off with the chief’s son and eventually they find bones in a pit:
The raw and naked bones of my brethren and my sire we fetched up out of that black and slimy pit, piled them on a pyre made of dry grasses, and touched the pyre to flame with a bough torn from the burning tree. They flared up like dry twigs in a conflagration, the bones of my father and his sons, and that was a strange thing to see, for new bones burn poorly. Perchance it was the black slime wherewith they were bedrabbled that made them flare like dry tinder.
The smoke of the funeral pyre rose to heaven, bearing with it the ghosts of my father and my brothers on their long journey to the second life. They would join the ghosts of their ancestors in the country beyond the clouds, and dwell in bliss forever, purged of all crimes done in this life by their passage through the purifying flames. p.70
They then set to tracking down the thing that killed them, which (spoiler) leads to a section that is rather reminiscent of some of the scenes in the movie Terminator 2, which wouldn’t be made until some time later:
I flung my spear directly into the mass, but it passed through the stinking jelly without dealing it hurt nor harm. A tentacle shaped itself and whipped out towards me, but I hewed through it with my stone axe, and, severed clean, it fell to twitch and wriggle upon the lank grass like a great worm. But only for a moment did it hold its shape. In the next instant it had burst into a black puddle that trickled back to the parent mass, joined into it and was instantly absorbed. p.72
This has lots of archaic language at the start and has a rather straightforward development and denouement, but I thought it was a likeable and honest piece of S&S for all that.
The highlight of the issue is The Incredible Umbrella by Marvin Kaye. The editor, Ted White, mentions Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp’s Incomplete Enchanter stories in the introduction, and this is a good cue as to the subject matter and the quality of the story.2
It is a delightful tale about J. Adrian Fillimore, a college lecturer who is transported by a magic umbrella to a world based on the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan. There, all the characters break into song at the drop of a hat, and appropriate music plays out of nowhere.
The structure of the piece is quite assured as well, starting as it does with an epilogue that has Fillimore and the Sorceror who originally made the umbrella briefly discussing his adventure. Even after this Kaye is in no hurry to move on, and we see Fillimore as a frustrated and disillusioned lecturer at a small college. Even this leisurely preamble makes for good reading, as when Filimore bunks off and goes to a favourite second hand bookshop, something that readers of the magazine would probably identify with:
That afternoon he made a delightful haul—as he was wont to call the results of any particularly weighty collectorial trip. First, there was the Benziger edition of Benson’s A Mirror of Shallot—only the second copy he had ever seen and the first he could afford. (Rose, in her paradoxical fashion, had penciled “weird tales—very scarce” in the flyleaf, then charged him $4.00 for it). Then, he also found a hardback edition of Carr’s The Nine Wrong Answers: though less illustrious than the Benson unearthing, it was a scarce title nontheless, especially since the paperback editions were all abridged; at any rate, it was a bargain at 19ȼ. (Where did she come up with her figures?)
From the record rack, he actually plucked a mint condition of “Dipper Mouth Blues” which he’d long decided was apocryphal, and—though he rarely bought second-hand LPs—took a chance on the venerable “Mikado” which had Robert Rounseville in the role of Nanki-Poo; it was the last remaining album of that brilliant but woefully under-recorded tenor that Fillmore lacked to make his Rounseville collection complete . . . p.79
Just before he leaves the owner tells him to have a proper look at the items on one of the tables and it is here he finds the umbrella that will take him on his adventure. It is has a long, heavy pole and the canopy material is silk with orange and yellow stripes that are decorated with cabalistic symbols. The catch appears to be jammed. Once he gets back to his college room he experiments with the umbrella and finally manages to open it:
Fillmore pressed the release and the umbrella snapped open. My God, he thought, it’s bigger than I imagined, even considering how bulky it is . . .
The hood stretched out to the furthest corners of the room, blocking off the ceiling. It grew and grew, blotting from sight the entire room, the street below, the town. It hid the world.
Yet through the translucent material, Fillmore could still see the pale sunlight creeping through the rainlaved windowpane. But even as he watched, he saw the sunbeams grow stronger, and commence to beat and glow as if the pulse of the universe were behind and the umbrella-hood was the heart-wall of the cosmos.
The perimeter of the cloth was a single, seamless circle. But Fillmore, astonished, suddenly realized that, like a wing, it was fluctuating in the wind.
Soon after Fillimore arrives in this world he is captured by the pirates from the Pirates of Penzance. Although he manages to temporarily gain his freedom by claiming to be an orphan it isn’t long before he is taken prisoner by the Royal Navy (HMS Pinafore) and charged with piracy. He is transported to London by ship for trial and is not impressed at his plight:
The Pinafore was a-bustle with activity, as Captain Corcoran plotted out the trip back to Portsmouth and the sailors hurried to meet the tide. As they went about their nautical duties, they sang a slow but lusty a cappella oceanic hymn:
“Up merry mates, the anchor weigh!
Unfurl the sheets and spare no toil.
This is the sailor’s happiest day—
Homeward we turn from foreign soil!”
Down below, one of the ship’s passengers failed to appreciate the musicale.
“Foreign soil, indeed!” Fillmore sniffed, sitting on his hard bunk in the brig. “These insular British . . . they’ve only sailed from Portsmouth to Penzance, hardly an ocean voyage! Bah!”
Oblivious to their enforced guest’s displeasure, the sailors took up the refrain again:
“Back to the homes so far away—
Back to the girls who for us sighed—
Homeward we sail, and home we’ll stay
Until the turning of the tide!”
“Blah-blah blah blah-blah blah blah blah!” yelled Fillmore through the one porthole. But his mockery went unheeded.
Any thought of enjoying his adventure had left him during the night: he was sore and stiff from trying to rest on the unyielding cot chained to the brig’s bulkhead. The rocking of the ship did not sit well on his stomach, either, and the provender afforded him was fit only to dump through the porthole—causing, no doubt, the demise of any hapless fish near enough to partake of the slop. p.97-98
The rest of the story tells of his escape from the Navy to his arrival in London (and a short sequence from The Mikado) and eventual recapture and trial (Trial by Jury).
Kaye skilfully and concisely manages to give the gist of what the reader needs to know from the various Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and his additions to the basic storylines are in some cases as witty as the source material. The first time I read this I knew nothing about their work but I still liked the story a lot. It also made me go out and buy LPs of The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore, both of which I enjoyed hugely.3
The cover this issue is for The Locust Descending and is by Stephen Fabian, who also contributes a couple of the interior illustrations. It is a pity that Fabian wasn’t commissioned to do a cover for The Incredible Umbrella instead. A foreground of Fillimore opening a huge green and yellow umbrella covered with cabalistic symbols against a background of singing pirates would have been spectacular. As to the internal art, the only other artist who stands out is Marcus Boas, who illustrates Carter’s story. Steffan’s illustration struck me as particularly poor.4
The only non-fiction in this issue is the editorial and the letters (there is usually an essay on a writer or book reviews). Editorial by Ted White goes from technology (where he prophesises an end to consumer wastefulness and the perpetual upgrading of appliances) to fantasy, religion and superstition. It seems fairly typical of what I remember of White’s editorials: long, earnest (shading to po-faced on occasion) and studded with controversial grenades:
Satanism takes most of its trappings from Roman Catholic practices, suitably inverted (or, to a Catholic, perverted), Christianity, obviously, does not work and has never worked. It bears only passing resemblence to the original teachings of its unwitting founder and has been a creature of European politics for nearly all its nineteen or eighteen centuries of life. It has brought great misery and unhappiness to the vast majority of the world which accepts it, and it is hardly surprising that those who retain any sensitivity within that religion have been known to question the mercy and kindness (or even sanity) of their deity. If one believes—as I do not—that a God is in fact responsible for everything which occurs on the face of this planet (“It is God’s will”), one must be forced to the conclusion that this God is one long since gone mad, one who glories in human (and nonhuman) suffering and anguish. p.124
At the end of the editorial there is a short section about the cover:
Recently I received the latest issue of Richard Geis’ Science Fiction Review (formerly The Alien Critic) and its cover was an extraordinary drawing (in black and white) by Fabian— the style quite similar to that of his interior illustration for “The Locust Descending’’ this issue. I was struck by it and suggested to him that he adapt the style to color for the painting for this issue’s cover. p.128
The letters column … According to You is a bit like White’s editorial in tone. The contributions are long and mostly reply to an earlier editorial of White’s criticising John Norman’s ‘Gor’ series (a counter-planetary series featuring warriors, giant bird races, alien Priest-Kings and women subject to S&M—well, mostly just the sadism).
It is worth getting this issue for the Kaye novella, the Carter is a bonus. My advice would be to read the fiction in reverse order.
- I first saw issues of Fantastic in mid-1977 when I received the first of what proved to be many packages from the well-known fan and bookdealer Ken Slater of Fantast (Medway) Ltd. In my mind’s eye I can still see my mother coming into my bedroom on a Saturday morning after the postie had been with a slim package neatly wrapped in brown paper. There were three issues of Amazing Science Fiction and three issue of Fantastic in it.
Those six covers all had too much type on them but they looked a lot more exciting than the issues of Analog, F&SF and Galaxy I’d been getting from the newsagent (although the short lived 1977 UK magazine Vortex had livelier covers as well):
- Why The Incredible Umbrella appeared here and not in F&SF beats me. Presumably it was submitted to Ed Ferman first?
- LPs were like audio files that were printed out on shellac, and later vinyl, records.
- Interior illustrations from Stephen Fabian and Marcus Boas:
The third of the ‘Incredible Umbrella’ novellas provided a good Halloween cover, or would have if it wasn’t mutilated by barcodes and type: