Of Time and Third Avenue • short story by Alfred Bester ♥♥♥
The Gorge of the Churels • short story by H. Russell Wakefield ♥♥
The Shape of Things That Came • short story by Richard Deming ♥
Achilles Had His Heel • short story by Joseph H. Gage ♥♥
The Rag Thing • short story by Donald A. Wollheim [as by David Grinnell] ♥♥
The Cocoon • short story by Richard Brookbank ♥
The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles • short story by Margaret St. Clair [as by Idris Seabright] ♥♥
Beasts of Bourbon • short story by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt ♥
Jane Brown’s Body • novella by Cornell Woolrich ♥
Dress of White Silk • short story by Richard Matheson ♥♥
Half of this issue is taken up with Jane Brown’s Body, a reprint novella by Cornell Woolrich (All-American Fiction, March-April 1938), a response to reader demand for short stories with the odd longer novelette: the editors ask for feedback on this short-novel experiment.
To begin with this is an intriguing and atmospherically written piece about a rather nervous Dr Denholt driving a car through the night with what would seem to be an unconscious young woman on the back seat:
Three o’clock in the morning. The highway is empty, under a malignant moon. The oil-drippings make the roadway gleam like a blue-satin ribbon. The night is still but for a humming noise coming up somewhere behind a rise of ground.
Two other, fiercer, whiter moons, set close together, suddenly top the rise, shoot a fan of blinding platinum far down ahead of them. Headlights. The humming burgeons into a roar. The touring car is going so fast it sways from side to side. The road is straight. The way is long. The night is short. p.61-62
The tension builds when he stops at a railway crossing and is observed by a man in the bus alongside, and once more as he almost runs out of fuel. He is then stopped by a policeman for speeding but talks his way out of it by explaining he is taking the woman on the back seat to a hospital. Eventually he reaches a remote house, and takes her to his laboratory where he gives her an injection in the back of her neck. It becomes apparent that she is dead and that he is trying to bring her back to life and, over the next few hours, he succeeds but all her memories and personality seem to have vanished leaving her with the mind of a newly born child….
This first part, although it is somewhat dated ‘elixir of life’ fiction, isn’t actually that bad but matters rapidly take a turn for the worse. At the beginning of chapter three a new character is introduced called Penny O’Shaughnessy, who has just crashed his aircraft near the doctor’s house:
Who else had ever met the business-end of a bolt of lightning in mid-flight, as he had just now, flying blind through a storm, lost a wing, managed to come down still alive even if it is on a wooded mountainside, to cut the contact at the moment of crashing so that he wasn’t roasted alive, and crawl out with just a wrenched shoulder and a lot of cuts and bruises? He couldn’t bail out because he was flying too low, hoping for a break through the clouds through which to spot something flat enough to come down on; he doesn’t like bailing out anyway, hates to throw away a good plane.
This one lying all over the side of the mountain around him is not so good any more, he has to admit. The first thing he does is feel in his pocket, haul out a rabbit’s foot, and stroke it twice. Then he straightens up, hobbles a short distance further from the wreck, turns to survey it. Almost instantly the lightning, which already stunned him once in the air, strikes a nearby tree with a bang and a shower of sparks. It cracks, comes down with a propeller-like whirr of foliage, and flattens what’s left of his engine into the ground.
“All right, you don’t like my crate.” O’Shaughnessy grumbles, with a back-arm swing at the elements in general. ‘“I believed you the first time!” p.72
After making his way downhill he comes to a wire fence that triggers an alarm and brings a young woman to see what is happening. It is Nova, the woman that Dr Denholt brought back to life a couple of years earlier. He has a strange conversation where she reveals that she does not know what a telephone or aeroplane is. This is cut short when Denholt turns up to admit him to the house and tend his wounds.
From this point on it is mostly just pulp nonsense, and not even good pulp nonsense at that (multiple spoilers follow). O’Shaughnessy hears from Nova about her repeated injections; the doctor tries to slip him a mickey but fails; O’Shaughnessy proposes to Nova and they later escape.
The plot becomes even more ludicrous once O’Shaughnessy and Nova are in Chicago. O’Shaughnessy is talking to a low-level mobster about a job that involves locating some stashed loot from the air, and the former recounts a tale of the death of a young girl who was with their now imprisoned boss when he hid the money. She was being interrogated about where he had hidden it before she committed suicide. When Nova appears he is badly startled and leaves. Subsequently, persons unknown try to get hold of Nova—she is the gangster’s ex-moll!
This is followed by yet another daft subplot that involves a Chinese man fortuitously turning up as the couple are just about to go on the run: he offers O’Shaughnessy a job for a Chinese warlord, so the pair of the them end up in Shanghai after much (inaccurate) gunplay during their escape from Chicago.
The final section involves O’Shaughnessy coming home after several weeks away to find out that the lack of injections has finally had an effect on Nova. He discovers this when they go out to a restaurant and he tries to put a huge diamond ring he has bought on her finger:
He takes the three-thousand-dollar ring out of his pocket, blows on it, shows it to her. “Take off your glove, honey, and Iemme see how this headlight looks on your finger—”
Her face is a white, anguished mask. He reaches toward her right hand. “Go ahead, take the glove off.”
The tense, frightened way she snatches it back out of his reach gives her away. He tumbles. The smile slowly leaves his face. “What’s the matter don’t you want my ring? You trying to cover up something with those gloves? You fixed your hair with them on, you powdered your nose with them on— What’s under them? Take ‘em off, let me see.”
“No, O’Shaughnessy. No!”
His voice changes. “I’m your husband, Nova. Take off those gloves and let me see your hands!”
She looks around her agonized. “Not here, O’Shaughnessy! Oh, not here!”
She sobs deep in her throat, even as she struggles with one glove. Her eyes are wet, pleading. “One more night, give me one more night,” she whispers brokenly. “You’re leaving Shanghai again in such a little while.
Don’t ask to see my hands. O’Shaughnessy, if you love me …”
The glove comes off, flops loosely over, and there’s suddenly horror beating into his brain, smashing, pounding, battering. He reels a little in his chair, has to hold onto the edge of the table with both hands, at the impact of it.
A clawlike thing—two of the finger extremities already bare of flesh as far as the second joint; two more with only shriveled, bloodless, rotting remnants of it adhering, only the thumb intact, and that already unhealthy looking, flabby. A dead hand—the hand of a skeleton—on a still-living body. A body he was dancing with only a few minutes ago.
A rank odor, a smell of decay, of the grave and of the tomb, hovers about the two of them now.
A woman points from the next table, screams. She’s seen it, too. She hides her face, cowers against her companion’s shoulder, shudders. Then he sees it too. His collar’s suddenly too tight for him.
Others see it, one by one. A wave of impalpable horror spreads centrifugally from that thing lying there in the blazing electric light on O’Shaughnessy’s table. The skeleton at the feast! p.107-108
As you can probably gather the remainder of the story picks up considerably as it continues in an equally entertaining and ghastly manner. They head back to the States to seek help from Dr Denholt, although only after O’Shaughnessy decides to sell his aeroplane and book passage on a steamship that is going to take several weeks to return home. Not the smartest of decisions, but this course of action provides scenes such as this one, which occurs after the rest of the ship have discovered her condition:
Days pass. The story has circulated now, and turned the ship into a buzzing beehive of curiosity. People find excuses to go by her on the deck, just so they can turn and stare. O’Shaughnessy overhears two men bet that she won’t reach Frisco alive. She tries to smoke a cigarette through the lips of the mask one afternoon, to buoy up his spirits a little. Smoke comes out of her hair-line, under her chin, before her ears. A steward drops a loaded bouillon-tray at the sight of her. Nova stays in her cabin after that. p.112
Unfortunately these lurid developments are too little too late for what is mostly a hard-boiled gangster story. I have no idea what the Boucher and McComas were thinking of in resurrecting this: it would perhaps be of some passing interest in a late-thirties pulp for its initial and final sections but it is completely out of place in an early 1950’s F&SF.
Apart from one notable exception that I’ll come to at the end, the rest of the fiction isn’t up to much either, the majority of it passing notions that have been written down as opposed to proper stories.
The Gorge of the Churels by H. Russell Wakefield is a story about a couple in Imperial India going for a picnic with their child and man servant. Before they go their man-servant attempts to dissuade them, stating that the location gets its name from the spirits of women who have died in childbirth and who attempt to steal living children to ease their pain. You can probably tell what happens once they get there making this far too straightforward a tale, but at least it is an atmospheric one with a good sense of place.
The Shape of Things That Came by Richard Deming is a story set in 1900 that concerns a writer who has written a story set fifty years in the future after using his scientist uncle’s time-travelling nightshirt! He is told by his editor that the story is unbelievable, and there is a weak twist ending (spoiler) involving a parallel Napoleonic world.
Achilles Had His Heel by Joseph H. Gage is a western tale that tells of what happens when the Ferryman from the Styx passes through a ranch and leaves some of the river’s water behind. One of the ranch hands later becomes ‘intolerable,’ immune to knives and bullets, etc., until he plays in a card game and becomes over-amused that is…. Not a bad twist on the Achilles’ heel idea.
The Rag Thing by Donald A. Wollheim is an example of one the notional pieces I referred to above with its straightforward story about a dirty rag stuck down the back of a radiator that comes to life. This is all a bit unlikely but for whatever reason I thought this was OK.
The Cocoon by Richard Brookbank is an odd story about a Captain who bales out over a planet and is imprisoned by alien cocoon makers. He is subsequently liberated by one of his lieutenants, and the events leading up to all this are recounted as they travel back to the latter’s ship. Apart from the fact that I didn’t get the ending (spoiler) where the captain leaves to return to the cocoon makers, there is other stuff in here that doesn’t seem germane to the story (the Captain’s relationship with his wife features, as well as a woman that the lieutenant is going to marry).
The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles by Margaret St. Clair is another of her pseudonomyous ‘Idris Seabright’ stories, and is an odd story about a man who attempts to sell rope to the gnoles—strange Jerusalem-artichoke shaped beings with tentacles—and who makes a serious error of judgement in what he attempts to take in payment.
Beasts of Bourbon by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt is another dreary ‘Gavagan’s Bar’ tale. This one is about a man who brings strange animals into existence when he drinks too much. There is a chase or two down to the bar in an attempt to escape them, and a later section where a love-interest sketches the animals after a ship-wreck but that’s it. This is fairly typical of the ‘bar format’ story: come up with a half-baked idea or notion, drop it into the template, don’t bother developing it: cheque please.
Dress of White Silk by Richard Matheson has an introduction where the editors state that his Born of Man and Woman (F&SF, Summer 1950) is the most popular story they have printed to date. Coincidentally this story is also written in an odd style, the narrator again a young child.
She tells of her deceased mother and her white dress. When the child is caught in her mother’s room playing with the dress her grandmother says she must not do that or go into the room. Later, a friend comes to play (spoiler) and the pair end up in the room, unpack the dress and the visiting child dies. It was not entirely clear to me what happened, some type of vampirism or possession possibly?
The one saving grace of the entire issue is Of Time and Third Avenue by Alfred Bester. This is one of the first of a remarkable run of stories that this writer would produce in the 1950s (while also producing two classic novels, The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger!/The Stars My Destination).1
A man claiming to be from the future arranges to meet Oliver Wright in a bar and attempts to convince him to hand over an almanac he has bought. Wright hasn’t yet realised it is from forty years in the future. The actual story from there on is fairly straightforward, although it has a clever ending, and there are hints of the sophistication and slickness Bester would bring to his later stories. Bester has his time-traveller speak a linguistically odd version of English:
“MQ, Mr. Macy,” the stranger said in a staccato voice. “Very good. For rental of this backroom including exclusive utility for one chronos—”
‘‘One whatos?” Macy asked nervously.
“Chronos. The incorrect word? Oh yes. Excuse me. One hour.”
“You’re a foreigner,” Macy said. ‘‘What’s your name—? I bet it’s Russian.”
“No. Not foreign,” the stranger answered. His frightening eyes whipped around the backroom. “Identify me as Boyne.”
“Boyne!” Macy echoed incredulously.
“MQ, Boyne.” Mr. Boyne opened a wallet like an accordion, ran his fingers through various colored papers and coins, then withdrew a hundred-dollar bill. He jabbed it at Macy and said: “Rental fee for one hour. As
agreed. One hundred dollars. Take it and go.”
Impelled by the thrust of Boyne’s eye’s Macy took the bill and staggered out to the bar. Over his shoulder he quavered: “What’ll you drink?”
“Drink? Alcohol? Never!” Boyne answered. p.3-4
As to the non-fiction, this month’s Cover is one of George Salter’s poorer efforts. There is a short editorial note, Larroes catch philologists, commenting on inconclusive reader correspondence about the meaning of the word ‘larroes’ (they should have googled it like I did last issue), and in Recommended Reading they have this to say about a handful of anthologies:
The Conklin [Possible Worlds of Science Fiction] and the Crossen [Adventures In Tomorrow] are musts, and the Derleth [Far Boundaries] and the Leinster [Great Stories of Science Fiction] recommended for any science fiction bookshelf. The fifth recent anthology is Donald A. Wollheim’s Every Boy’s Book of Science Fiction (Fell), of which we’ll say only that no boy of ours is going to be introduced to this noble field by means of archaic and subliterate pap. p.58
Somewhat unfortunate given (a) Wollheim had a (pseudonymous) story in the issue and (b) the Cornell novella in this issue (don’t throw bricks at people from inside a greenhouse). They go on to cover a lot of other books (twenty titles in total!)
A disappointing issue, notable only for the story by Alfred Bester.
- The story in this issue was one of a baker’s dozen of stories that Alfred Bester published in three periods of activity between the early fifties and the mid-sixties:
The Devil’s Invention (variant title Oddy and Id), Astounding (August 1950)
Of Time and Third Avenue, F&SF (October 1951)
Hobson’s Choice, F&SF (August 1952)
The Roller Coaster, Fantastic (May/June 1953)
Star Light, Star Bright, F&SF (July 1953)
Time Is the Traitor, F&SF (September 1953)
Disappearing Act, Star Science Fiction Stories #2, ed. Frederik Pohl (Ballantine, 1953)
5,271,009, F&SF (March 1954)
Fondly Fahrenheit, F&SF (August 1954)
The Men Who Murdered Mohammed, F&SF (October 1958)
Will You Wait?, F&SF (Mar 1959)
The Pi Man, F&SF (October 1959)
They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To, F&SF (October 1963)
The reason that nearly all these appeared in F&SF—Galaxy got both the novels—may have had something to do with an editorial meeting that Bester had with John W. Campbell of Astounding after the latter wanted revisions to Oddy and Id, as recounted in his essay My Affair With Science Fiction in Hell’s Cartographers, ed. Harry Harrison & Brian W. Aldiss:
“I wrote a few stories for Astounding, and out of that came my one demented meeting with the great John W. Campbell, Jr. I needn’t preface this account with the reminder that I worshipped Campbell from afar. I had never met him; all my stories had been submitted by mail. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was like, but I imagined that he was a combination of Bertrand Russell and Ernest Rutherford. So I sent off another story to Campbell, one which no show would let me tackle. The title was ‘Oddy and Id’ and the concept was Freudian, that a man is not governed by his conscious mind but rather by his unconscious compulsions. Campbell telephoned me a week later to say that he liked the story but wanted to discuss a few changes with me. Would I come to his office? I was delighted to accept the invitation despite the fact that the editorial offices of Astounding were then the hell and gone out in the boondocks of New Jersey.
The editorial offices were in a grim factory that looked like and probably was a printing plant. The ‘offices’ turned out to be one small office, cramped, dingy, occupied not only by Campbell but by his assistant, Miss Tarrant. My only yardstick for comparison was the glamourous network and advertising agency offices. I was dismayed.
Campbell arose from his desk and shook hands. I’m a fairly big guy but he looked enormous to me, about the size of a defensive tackle. He was dour and seemed preoccupied by matters of great moment. He sat down behind his desk. I sat down on the visitor’s chair.
‘You don’t know it,’ Campbell said, ‘you can’t have any way of knowing it, but Freud is finished.’
I stared. ‘If you mean the rival schools of psychiatry, Mr Campbell, I think—‘
‘No I don’t. Psychiatry, as we know it, is dead.’
‘Oh come now, Mr Campbell. Surely you’re joking.’
‘I have never been more serious in my life. Freud has been destroyed by one of the greatest discoveries of our time.’ ‘What’s that?’
‘I never heard of it.’
‘It was discovered by L. Ron Hubbard, and he will win the Nobel peace prize for it,’ Campbell said solemnly.
The peace prize? What for?’
‘Wouldn’t the man who wiped out war win the Nobel peace prize?’
‘I suppose so, but how?’
‘I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr Campbell.’
‘Read this,’ he said, and handed me a sheaf of long galley proofs. They were, I discovered later, the galleys of the very first dianetics piece to appear in Astounding.
‘Read them here and now? This is an awful lot of copy.’
He nodded, shuffled some papers, spoke to Miss Tarrant and went about his business, ignoring me. I read the first galley carefully, the second not so carefully as I became bored by the dianetics mishmash. Finally I was just letting my eyes wander along, but was very careful to allow enough time for each galley so Campbell wouldn’t know I was faking. He looked very shrewd and observant to me. After a sufficient time I stacked the galleys neatly and returned them to Campbell’s desk.
‘Well?’ he demanded. ‘Will Hubbard win the peace prize?’
‘It’s difficult to say. Dianetics is a most original and imaginative idea, but I’ve only been able to read through the piece once. If I could take a set of galleys home and—’
‘No,’ Campbell said. ‘There’s only this one set. I’m rescheduling and pushing the article into the very next issue, it’s that important.’ He handed the galleys to Miss Tarrant. You’re blocking it,’ he told me. ‘That’s all right. Most people do that when a new idea threatens to overturn their thinking.’
‘That may well be,’ I said, but I don’t think it’s true of myself. I’m a hyperthyroid, an intellectual monkey, curious about everything.’
‘No,’ Campbell said, with the assurance of a diagnostician, You’re a hyp-O-thyroid. But it’s not a question of intellect, it’s one of emotion. We conceal our emotional history from ourselves although dianetics can trace our history all the way back to the womb.’
‘To the womb!’
‘Yes. The foetus remembers. Come and have lunch.’ Remember, I was fresh from Madison Avenue and expense-account luncheons. We didn’t go to the Jersey equivalent of Sardi’s, ‘21’, or even P. J. Clark’s. He led me downstairs and we entered a tacky little lunchroom crowded with printers and file clerks; an interior room with blank walls that made every sound reverberate. I got myself a liverwurst on white, no mustard, and a coke. I can’t remember what Campbell ate.
We sat down at a small table while he continued to discourse on dianetics, the great salvation of the future when the world would at last be cleared of its emotional wounds. Suddenly he stood up and towered over me. ‘You can drive your memory back to the womb,’ he said. ‘You can do it if you release every block, clear yourself and remember. Try it.’
‘Now. Think. Think back. Clear yourself. Remember! You can remember when your mother tried to abort you with a button hook. You’ve never stopped hating her for it.’
Around me there were cries of ‘BLT down, hold the mayo. Eighty-six on the English. Combo rye, relish. Coffee shake, pick up.’ And here was this grim tackle standing over me, practising dianetics without a licence. The scene was so lunatic that I began to tremble with suppressed laughter. I prayed. ‘Help me out of this, please. Don’t let me laugh in his face. Show me a way out.’ God showed me. I looked up at Campbell and said, ‘You’re absolutely right, Mr Campbell, but the emotional wounds are too much to bear. I can’t go on with this.’
He was completely satisfied. ‘Yes, I could see you were shaking.’ He sat down again and we finished our lunch and returned to his office. It developed that the only changes he wanted in my story was the removal of all Freudian terms which dianetics had now made obsolete. I agreed, of course; they were minor and it was a great honour to appear in Astounding no matter what the price. I escaped at last and returned to civilization where I had three double gibsons and don’t be stingy with the onions.
That was my one and only meeting with John Campbell and certainly my only story conference with him. I’ve had some wild ones in the entertainment business but nothing to equal that. It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles. Perhaps that’s the price that must be paid for brilliance.” p.57-60