John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p. 256 of 365) (Amazon UK)
The Desolator • short story by Eric C. Williams
Chemotopia • short story by Ernest Hill ♥
Idiot’s Lantern • short story by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥+
Paradise for a Punter • short story by Clifford C. Reed ♥♥
A Way with Animals • short story by John T. Phillifent [as by John Rackham] ♥♥
Grinnel • short fiction by Dikk Richardson
The Furies (Part 2 of 3) • serial by Keith Roberts ♥♥
Cover • by Keith Roberts
Editorial • by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Editor, Kyril Bonfiglioli; Associate Editor, J. Parkhill-Rathbone
This issue reprises last month’s contributions from Keith Roberts: he provides the cover plus a serial instalment and a short story. I think the Cover may be an illustration of the wasp nests from the final part of his serial, but I wouldn’t put money on it.
In this second instalment of The Furies the story has the same episodic form as the last. The wasps deliver Bill Sampson and the rest of the lorry load of survivors to a camp and leave them, more or less, to their own devices. Later, they start to get themselves organised, and the wasps escort them out of the camp on runs to gather food and provisions. On one of these trips they pick up a cockney girl called Pete, who has a badly torn face and isn’t expected to survive but does.
There are also non-Carnell sleeping arrangements:
Julie and Maggie made a point of spending every other night with one of the men. Julie told me they’d worked out a rota; I’ve never been sure whether to believe that or not. She said she’d put me on it; there was something undeniably attractive about a night with a raw-boned, enthusiastic blonde but I turned the offer down. I don’t exactly know why; I think it was to do with Jane. p.103
The thing that struck me most about this middle section of the novel was how markedly working class the characters are—I have vague memories that in other British disaster novels the protagonists are usually doctors or professors or the like. As well as Pete’s broad East London/Cockney accent, the rest of the camp inmates come from a Ken Loach movie, which makes a change for this kind of story:
Most of the first lorryload had in fact been hauled from Bristol; Harry West was a piano tuner who’d survived a wasp attack on one of the suburbs, Freddy Mitchell a scaffolding erector who’d been working on the redecoration of a ballroom. Owen, the Welshman, was a chef from one of the big hotels there. Len Dilks, the two girls Julie and Margaret, Dave the guitarist and some three or four more were the remnants of a Beatnik colony. p. 66
After the camp has fallen into a routine of sorts Len manufactures a crossbow with Bill’s help, and a breakout is discussed with the rest of the hut. During this, Harry West the piano tuner disagrees with the plan and is shot by Pete before he can warn the wasps. The rest then break out and head for the hills.
The last half of this instalment is set in the caves at Chill Leer in the Mendips. Here we get a few pages of spelunking before they set up camp and begin waging a guerrilla war on the wasps. When winter comes the wasps die off naturally, which makes you wonder why they bothered with hit and run attacks in the first place. They then start a winter hunt for the hibernating queens to prevent any future colonies.
Towards the end there is a scene that has a drunk Pete holding a queen Fury captive—rather than having killed it outright Pete has taken it for ‘interrogation.’ Bill finds her, bayonet in hand, with the wingless, legless queen strapped to a board. She tells Bill how her parents died during the attack by the Furies and reveals aspects of her life before the invasion, another section that you probably wouldn’t have found in the Carnell version of the magazine:
She said wildly “They all knew me, in Westrincham. You ask anybody, did they know Jan Peterson. You’d have got a real laugh. That’s the biggest laugh of all. Din’t I ever tell you what I was Bill, din’t I say?”
“I’m more interested in what you are now. What you’re doing to yourself . . .
Her voice had developed a thin edge of hysteria. She said “I was a whore, Bill. Common muckin’ prostitute. Best ride in town . . .” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Now look shocked. Now tell me I’m a bleedin’ barbarian again . . .’’
I didn’t speak.
She said “I were the old black sheep. That’s the laugh. I were the one that wadn’t no good. Dad used to tell me. ‘Never come to no good you won’t, my gal,’ that were what he used to say. ‘Never come to no good . . .’ But when they come, they took him orf instead. Him and Mum and the kids. That’s the joke, they left me . . .
“I used to work three nights a week at the flicks. Used to get a lot o’ trade from that. Rest o’ the time I was on the streets. I used to do all right. I’d got this place I went to, this pub. They didn’t care. Everybody knew about it. The old man knew. They all knew Jan Peterson. I was at it up in the smoke only Dad didn’t know then. But you couldn’t keep things quiet in Westrincham. It wadn’t the same . . . p. 124-125
This comes over as somewhat overdone melodrama, although the cruel treatment of the Fury queen gives it a visceral edge.
After this, Bill decides he has had enough of Chill Leer: he grabs a car and drives off to the coast. He runs into the army who open fire on him when he won’t stop. The car crashes, and he loses consciousness.
The story that Keith Roberts also contributes to this issue is Idiot’s Lantern, an ‘Anita the Witch’ story, and it is probably one of the best of that series.
Anita arranges for a TV to be installed in the cottage to entertain both the witches during the dark winter nights and, after some initial resistance, Granny Thompson is captivated.
Anita later tires of the device when she discovers that it interferes with her other senses: this leads to the loss of some of her favourite wildlife when she isn’t there to defend them. She later sees a chance to get rid of the TV when Granny Thompson applies to be a contestant on a quiz show.1 They are accepted and travel to London, but when they eventually end up on air, it does not go well:
The quizmaster introduced them as “Mrs. and Miss Thompson, from Northamptonshire” and asked for “a big hand” for some obscure reason. Applause pattered like gunfire and Granny looked startled. She muttered to Anita, “We ent done nothink yit . . .”
The machines caught the words and flung them out on the air. The audience roared delightedly and Granny Thompson’s lips set in a thin line. Anita began exultantly planning the best escape route. Everything was working out just as she’d thought it would. It was one thing to watch this show from an easy chair at home but quite another to be up on stage helping provide the kicks. That wasn’t quite so damn funny . . .
The compere beamed. “But you will do something, Mrs. Thompson, you will. We’re all quite sure of that. Now, this really most delightful girl, would you step forward a little, please, my dear, that’s it, let all the folks have a good view. Now this is your granddaughter you tell me, Mrs. Thompson, that is correct is it not?”
Granny turned from glaring at a camera that was very obviously examining Anita’s cleavage. She opened her mouth, considered, then closed it again like a rat trap. She said frostily, “No, has a matter hof fact . . . she ent. She ’eppens ter be the daughter hof a third cousin. Hon me mother’s side . . .”
“But you have brought her up?”
“Yis . . .”
“And very charmingly too if I may say, yes very charmingly . . . For the benefit of his audience the compere rolled his eyes and appeared about to drool. “Very nicely too . . . And you’re going to answer questions on, let me see, on folklore, isn’t it, that is correct, folklore?”
“Om orlready tole yer twice,” muttered Granny fiercely. “You blokes do goo on, dunt yer?” p. 32
Things continue to deteriorate during the first question and finally fall apart when the compere asks the second:
Now for two pounds, two pounds, can you tell me three old-time cures for rheumatism? Any three you can think of now, any three at all . . .”
Anita thought she was going to burst. This was it, this just had to be it . . .
“Toads,” snarled Granny. “Round yer neckit usually though yer can stick ’em practic-ly anywheer. I dunt ’old with ’em though. Sheep jollop’s best, that kent ’ardly be beat ..
The compere’s face changed abruptly. Up above, someone began a frantic signalling. “Yer dries it,” bellowed Granny inexorably. “Then rubs it uwer anythink wot ’urts. That gen’rally answers. But if it dunt, try dugs’ wotsits . . .”
The quizmaster was aghast. The audience convulsed. “Only they ent so easy come by ner more,” explained Granny. “They’re the things though—”
“Mrs. Thompson, please—”
“You ’as ter spell ’em up,” screeched the old lady. “Bile ’em. I kent tell yer the spells ’cos they’re a trade secret but if yer teks my advice—”
The compere was trying to hustle them away from the mikes. He no longer looked suave. “I ent finished,” fumed Granny. The great man spoke between his teeth. “You have, lady, by God you have . . .”
“Dunt you blaspheme in my presence,” shrieked the elder Thompson. The stick was up at last, beating the air. Faint blue crackles emerged from its tip. “Tek yer ’ands orf,” snarled Granny. She swung round. “An’ stop pokin’ that thing down our gel’s frock . . . The camera received a full charge from the spellstick, whistled backward and began making thunderous circuits of the stage. p. 34
After they escape to their cottage Granny Thompson takes her revenge. The last line is as appropriate today as it was fifty years ago.
The rest of the fiction is a very mixed bag. The Desolator by Eric C. Williams2 is a pretty dreadful time-travel story that involves a man from a grim future time-travelling back to the past to make his fortune and live comfortably. . . Until the police catch up with him that is. It is clichéd, and has clunky science explanations too.
Chemotopia by Ernest Hill is, I suppose, a satire about the treatment of three teenage droogs, sorry, delinquents who are picked up from a police station and taken for medical treatment after the murder of an old woman. The doctor and nurse chat away dispassionately during their further transgressions, e.g. bad language, exposing themselves, etc. After medicating them they go home and do the same to themselves. This one reads a little like a B-movie version of A Clockwork Orange.
Paradise for a Punter by Clifford C. Reed is a fantasy about a man at a racecourse getting particularly good odds from the bookies for the favourites, and he can’t quite understand why. The ending (spoiler) reveals that he is dead. That said, it is well enough done, if obvious.
A Way with Animals by John T. Phillifent has a man in police custody explaining why there was a fire in his flat. It materialises that while on holiday at his aunt’s he freed a dragon that was trapped in a cave. Subsequently, it came back to his flat to live with him, or more accurately on the flat roof of his building, although it pops in every now and then—hence the fire. This is a readable enough story and better than it sounds.
Grinnel by Dikk Richardson is a short-short which starts off like this:
Shelley had never liked Granville. Now, he had been pushed too far.
Looking Granville straight in the eye, he said ”Grinnel.”
“I beg your pardon,” said his boss, an outraged look on his face.
“Grinnel,” repeated Shelley. “Grinnel. Grinnel.”
“Are you swearing at me?” demanded Granville.
“Grinnel,” said Shelley again, making it obvious that he was not. “Grinnel. Grinnel. Grinnel.”
“Don’t be a bloody fool.”
“Shelley!—Damn it, man, stop!” p. 58
. . . and continues in a similar manner for another couple of hundred words. Another TBSF (typical Bonfiglioli space filler).
This issue’s Editorial sees Kyril Bonfiglioli discuss SF and science in the 1930s and the differences between then and now. This will give you a flavour:
But the s.f. of the 30s was not an inferior form of the art so much as something different altogether. No one took seriously the cardboard masks of the heroes and heroines of the space sagas. They were the masks behind which we became, in imagination, what we thought we should be. We felt our imperfection and we still had the idea that, somehow, perfection could be reached by striving, by will-power, by self-control. Such s.f. had something of the qualities of a myth or fairytale and became part of our experience. We participated in it and it changed us a little.
In a curious way, we have all grown up: even teenagers seem much more mature than they were. Perhaps the need for a myth has vanished. Anyhow, we have substituted illusions about ideals for illusions about ourselves being disillusioned, and get the kind of s.f. we deserve. p. 3
A rather dreary issue with little of note bar Roberts’ Idiot’s Lantern.
- I think the quiz in Roberts’ story is based on Double Your Money, which was hosted by Hughie Green. I can remember watching it as a kid—if you are of a similar age and viewing experience to me you’ll get even more out of the story.
- The majority of Eric William’s output was several novels for Robert Hale but he also published a number of short stories in three distinct batches. The first batch included three pieces to Amateur Science Stories in the late 1930s. Later, in the mid to late sixties, just before he got started on his novels, he published half a dozen more (sold to, believe it or not, five different editors: John Carnell, Michael Moorcock, Kyril Bonfiglioli, Harry Harrison—maybe that one was Keith Roberts—and Philip Harbottle). There was a final tranche of short stories around the beginning of the century. More at ISFDB.