Hey all! Just a quick bit of housekeeping – I have a job now, so posts are going to be on Sundays ONLY, not Sundays and Wednesdays. Thanks for understanding!
A Bride for the Devil by Stuart Palmer from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949
Emily Parkinson, a rich, bored woman, buys an ancient scroll from her favorite antiques dealer, because he tells her that it’s a ritual for summoning Satan written on real human skin. And he’s not even lying! She asks him to translate it, and he does.
Together, they form a “Satanist Society,” the membership of which is a gaggle of other bored rich women who follow Emily on her various supernatural phases. They gather the ingredients (the blood of still-born babies proves difficult but not impossible to acquire) and finally come together for the ritual.
Dr. Baynard, the dealer, preforms the ritual, reciting the names of the devil and saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards. When he finishes, there is silence, and Emily thinks it’s failed. She turns to console her followers, but they’re all staring, horrified, at something in the middle of the pentagram. It’s a disgusting creature, anthropomorphic but also frog-like, scabby, oily, and dripping.
It jumps onto Emily, riding her “as a rodeo performer rides a bucking horse” around the room and then out into the night. She was never seen nor heard from again.
Fun fact: This is the first story in this project where I’d heard of the author. I’d never read anything by him, but the name rang a bell. Per Google, he was a popular writer of screenplays and mystery novels. So that’s cool!
Overall, most of this story is just garden-variety good. Good writing, good story, good characters. Nothing that really bugged me, but nothing that I want to spend time extolling the virtues of, either.
There was one stand-out scene, though! As Emily and Dr. Baynard are preforming the ritual, all of the rich women who are part of the “Satanist Society” picture what they expect to appear. The diversity of images of the devil is the coolest thing about the story. Full disclosure: I’m Jewish, and we don’t have a devil in our theology, so I’d never put much thought into the depictions of Satan. Is he Pan with horns and hooves or Lucifer, a tragically beautiful fallen angel? Does he have a mustache to twirl or a contract to sign? I wish more time had been spent on this moment, because it was absolutely fascinating.
The other aspect of the story that I found interesting was the creative ways they found to modernize the ritual and its ingredients. Replacing unicorn horn with rhino horn because “what was the fabled beast but the result of garbled tales brought back to Europe from Africa by someone who had met someone who had seen a rhino?” Isn’t that clever? I feel like there’s a lot of potential for other stories in that one idea.
We’re clearly supposed to laugh at Emily Parkinson for her foolishness and search for distraction in Satanism and think that she deserves what she got, but it’s hard to tell exactly what we’re making fun of her for. Is the thesis that women are frivolous and kind of shitty or that rich people are? Or that this attitude is a perfect storm the “worst parts” of femininity and wealth? I’m legitimately not sure. It definately comes off as sexist, but I can’t bring myself to be too mad at it, because I have a little bit of that “fuck the 1%” attitude myself.
That said, Emily gets one (1) feminism point* for having just a heck ton of agency. She makes her own decisions, and she makes sure that her commands are carried out. The other women seem to only follow in her wake, though, so it’s a bit of a wash.
And just to nitpick, at one point the narrator points out that villains are more memorable than heroes with the example, “who battled with Quasimodo?” Um?? I grant you that I haven’t read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I was pretty sure that Quasimodo is a protagonist! Was this a common interpretation of the novel back in the day?
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
This is a fun little story but not quite substantive enough to reccomend wholeheartedly.
*to avoid falling under Poe’s Law, I want to clarify that feminism points do not exist and that feminism cannot be quantified like that. I used the phrase because I think it’s funny.
Men of Iron by Guy Endore from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949
Anton has worked at a factory making pins for over fifty years. He has a gold crescent on his coveralls to prove it. He’s old, now, and shakes just as badly as the machines he works with. The manager would never consider firing him, even though he makes mistakes. At night he nods to the watchman and goes home to his wife, who is usually already asleep.
Then, one day, an engineer comes in to check out the machine. He says that the way it shakes shows that it’s inefficient and needs repair. They install an automatic feeder and chuck, which not only stops the vibrations but means that there’s nothing for Anton to do but watch and make sure nothing breaks. He eats his sandwich, barely able to hold the bread for the tremors him his hands, and wishes someone would instal an automatic feeder in him. Then he has this super weird dream sequence where he’s being force-fed pins.
Eventually, the machine is given the same crescent as Anton, with a presentation ceremony and everything. One of the managers has a side conversation where he tells the story of how the ocean became salty, an old parable about a magical salt mill that never stopped. Its owner eventually threw it into the sea, but it kept on churning, and before long the sea was full of salt.
Anton comes in after the ceremony, sees the crescent, and promptly dies. The machine picks itself up from the floor, takes Anton’s body, and carries him home. His wife wakes up just long enough to notice that her husband is back, but he’s changed – he’s much quieter, and he doesn’t shake at all.
This is a reprint, originally published in 1940.
This is an odd little story, with a good twist and fine writing. The attention to detail is super strong, to the point of being kind of gross at times (aging involves bodily fluids that the story is not afraid to mention, which I respect). The message is clear and probably was timely, and the whole thing comes off as tragic, creepy, and kind of heartwarming all at the same time. It’s a really strong piece of writing!
On the other hand, the story was kind of hard to follow at the end – I had to read the last two paragraphs twice to catch the implication that the machine had become Anton, and wasn’t just carrying him home like he was his father or something. It doesn’t break the story for me, though.
I just wish the connection from the main plot to the salt grinder parable had been stronger. I see how it ties in thematically – endless salt, endless pins, it’s not hard – but it doesn’t go anywhere. The story isn’t about over saturating the market through increased efficiency, it’s about how machines are replacing humans. I think the author could have written a longer story about these themes, and to be honest, if he had, I’d read it. But as it stands it doesn’t quite all fit together.
The story itself is topical, and it’s a topic that, where I live at least, has been obsolete since before I was born. The factories here all closed up in the 80’s, if not earlier. Some of them were made irrelevant by new technology, as happens in the story, but more were outsourced to China and India, where the CEOs can get away with paying their workers less. The fear of being replaced by technology isn’t gone in 2017, but it’s not the first thing on most people’s minds, and so the story doesn’t resonate as strongly as I think it deserves to.
Still, stories like this hold up as emblematic of the fears of their day, and it is valuable if for no other reason than reminding us of where we’ve come from.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
It’s well written with a good twist, but it’s a topical story that doesn’t translate that well to the modern day.
Review Copy by H. H. Holmes from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949
A mysterious magician meets with a client, a writer who blames the failure of his book on a particularly scathing review written by one Mark Mallow. He hires the magician to kill him, through means satanic.
On the other side of the country, the San Francisco Times book department receives an unsolicited manuscript, a book called The Blood is the Death. The head editor declares it trash, and the receptionist puts it in the “do not review” pile. And yet, when the next person comes in, a reviewer of Christian books who the receptionist calls The Reverend, he finds the book on the waiting pile. He complains about how poorly printed it is – the ink smudges on his hand.
He’s complaining about this when Mark Mallow himself walks in. He immediately translates the pen name on the book – Hieronymus Melanchton – as being the Greek version of Jerome Blackland, the man whose book he’d trashed. He decides to take the book with him, but when he touches it, the ink comes off on his hand, and this time it’s red.
He takes it home with him anyway. Something about it draws him. As he begins to read it on the subway home, the other passengers seem to edge away.
The Reverend also can’t get the book out of his head. He’s eating dinner when it turns from black to red, and then disappears entirely. Immediately, he heads for Mallow’s house with a vial of holy water. When he gets there, it’s too late. Mallow is dead.
The story closes with the mysterious magician attending his client’s funeral. It’s only professional courtesy, after all.
This is a thoroughly engaging story. The writing is good, with a lot of atmosphere and a bit of a comedic edge, particularly the character descriptions. The Reverend is notable in this respect for being described as an unmarried clergyman who is “not so much a misogynist as a gynophobe,” a line which made me laugh in public. There are a lot of funny lines, actually. The humor is pretty understated, but it works, and it keeps the plot from being too much of a slog.
The premise is pretty original as well – take your paint-by-numbers “playing with powers you can’t understand” story and make it about books? That’s so fun! It’s not something I’ve seen anyone else do. It’s relatable, too, at least to me. As writerly-type, well, let’s say that the sting of rejection is something I’m familiar with, so the madman’s motivations make sense to me, and on the other hand, I do actively look forward to terrible stories so that I have material to work with on this blog.
Unfortunately, a good premise can’t save a stale plot, and this is still that paint-by-numbers “playing with powers you can’t understand” story. I could call it beat for beat. I don’t know if this was played out in 1949, but it definately is now. The characters are one-note archetypes whose attributes we are told about rather than shown. The telling is witty and clever, but it doesn’t make the characters any less flat. Plus, the whole thing has this undercurrent of preachiness which just drives me bonkers.
On the other hand, it has a decently written female character. She’s underdeveloped, but all of the characters are, and she has the most personality out of any of them. She’s not oversexualized or dismissed as a shrewish bitch – she’s just a businesslike-but-quirky receptionist! So that was refreshing.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
I don’t hate this story – I enjoyed reading it! – but I think it was probably a lot more interesting in 1949 than it is in 2017. I hope saying that doesn’t get me cursed!
Edit: Turns out, H. H. Holmes is here a pen name, using the name of a famous serial killer active during the Chicago World’s Fair! Clever.
The Hurkle is a Happy Beast by Theodore Sturgeon from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949
Summary: In a “different universal plane,” there is a planet called Lirht. There, during a disaster, the door to a lab is carelessly left open, and a hurkle kitten wanders in. Hurkles are pets on this world. They’re small and cheerful and purr by emitting radiation. They’re also curious by nature, so this particular adorable critter climbs into some kind of dimensional portal in the lab and ends up in our world.
Schoolteacher Mr. Stott is interrupted in his endeavor to be as unpleasant to his students as possible when he notices that they all seem to be scratching themselves furiously. He takes this as a sign of insolence, and intends to scold them, until he notices the hurkle sitting on his window sill. It’s like nothing he’s ever seen, but it has six legs so he gets DDT from the janitor, sends his students from the room, and sprays the poor hurkle.
Something about the chemistry of the DDT causes the hurkle to mature and give birth to a litter of two hundred baby hurkles, all of which were parthenongenetic females and so could reproduce on their own. And reproduce they did.
The story ends thus:
But the humans had the slidy itch, and the scratchy itch, and the prickly or tingly or titillative paraesthetic formication. And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
So they left.
Isn’t this a lovely place?
My impressions: This charmingly disturbing little story is, indeed, a work of science fiction. So much for The Magazine of Fantasy, huh? It’s also the shortest work I’ve read so far.
I’ll admit to being kind of biased about this story. It uses tropes and ideas that I already really like, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed reading it. First of all, I love the tone. It’s funny in a kind of quiet way, a way that doesn’t rely on jokes or outrageousness to make itself known. The humor is in the word choice and the framing, the way the narrative chooses its priorities. Think Lemony Snicket. Here’s an example of what I mean. This sentence introduces the inciting incident of the story:
Now, on Lirht, in its greatest city, there was trouble, the nature of which does not matter to us, and a gwik names Hvov, whom you may immediately forget, blew up a building which was important for reasons we cannot understand.
See what I mean? A person blowing up a building is hardly funny, but telling it to us and then saying we should forget about it is hilarious. This is what I try to do when I write comedy.
Plus, the punchline is the destruction of the entire human race, which is just the best.
I also have such a weakness for aliens who are a) really, really alien, and b) presented as cute. This is something that shows up in my own writing as well. My friends make fun of me for it. And the hurkles are really, really alien. They’re blue (well, the prettiest ones are blue), with a knobby head, eight eyes of graduated sizes, and six legs, two of which are “boneless” and the others of which are stiff. They’re also described as “kittens” and presented by the narrative voice as just adorable. Like the humor, this is conveyed through word choice, and it’s really well done. Even though they’re freaky and will give you radiation poisoning, I kind of want to cuddle one.
The only thing that came off as dated or annoying in the story is the teacher. His particular brand of self-absorbed tyranny seems like it belongs to sepia-toned period dramas about plucky boys escaping their one-roomed schoolhouses, not in a modern town. Maybe he’s true to someone’s experience of school, but even my shitty teachers were not shitty in this particular way. In any case, his attitude pulled at my suspension of disbelief more than any of the fantastical elements did.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
It’s really funny. I think it’s worth your time.
The Lost Room by Fitz-James O’Brien from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949
Our unnamed protagonist has taken a room in a spooky old house. He rarely sees the other inhabitants. It is a summer night, unbearably hot, and he is lying on his couch, smoking and narrating at length the histories of all the objects in his room. Eventually, he goes out to the garden to get some air, when he comes across a small person who warns him that the other people in his house are “cannibals, ghouls, and enchanters.” The person says he used to be one of them, but now he fights them.
This puts the protagonist in a blind panic, and he runs back to his room, where he finds three women and three men having what he calls an “orgy,” although all they seem to be doing is eating and drinking together. I guess back in the day an orgy was just a group of people doing something you disapprove of. Anyway, they offer the protagonist food and drink, which he refuses. Good move. He tells them to get out of his room. “His room!” they laugh, and he discovers that they’re right—none of his possessions are in the room. His piano has turned into a terrible organ, his English dagger into a Turkish one, and his painting into a weird pocket dimension. Still, it’s his room, and he demands that they leave. One of the women challenges him to a game of chance. If he wins, they leave, but if she wins, he’s cast out of the room. He accepts. Bad move.
Obviously he loses. He’s pulled out of the door and down the hall, but for reasons that aren’t explained, he isn’t able to leave he house. Instead, he is doomed to wander the halls forevermore, searching for his lost room.
We have another reprint here, and you can tell. The language is pretty antiquated. That’s part of the reason I had so much trouble reading the story. The prose is thick and detailed, and twice I got a page into it, realized I hadn’t absorbed a word, and had to start again.
This was a portent of things to come. The entire story is pretty boring. Compared to the last one, where I was hanging on to every word, today I just wished the words would stop. One major reason for that is how long it takes to get started. It’s fourteen pages long, but the supernatural element isn’t introduced until page seven, fully halfway through the story. Before that, the narrative focuses on describing the protagonist’s possessions, and yeah we need to be introduced to them so that their change later is shocking, but a single dagger doesn’t need two pages of backstory about how its owner had been Queen Elizabeth’s lover and also a broke asshole. Maybe these descriptions are meant to be red herrings, but they’re so meandering that they pulled me right out of the story.
Then, when things pick up, the story takes a turn for the nonsensical. The protagonist clearly reacts the way he does as a means to put him in the right place for the plot, and not because he’s well characterized, because his responses are inconsistent and baffling. And despite all of that, the ending still manages to be predictable. Maybe this kind of quiet twist ending was new and exciting in 1858, but now? It’s just dull.
And in case that’s not enough for you, this story has our first example of really overt racism. The servant in the house is described as “the Negro waiter, a ghoul-like looking creature from Congo, … When he did come, one felt sorry that that he had not stayed away all together, so sullen and savage did he appear.” Later, he shows up as an actual ghoul, but now his teeth are “saw-like.” The whole thing is just super gross. It should go without saying that building atmosphere should never come at the expense of marginalized people. Not only is it absolutely morally repugnant, it’s lazy and uncreative.
There’s also more subtle racism against Turkish people, as is clear in the transformation scene. The protagonist’s good, wholesome English dagger is transformed into a Turkish one with tassels, and his Canadian snowshoes are turned into Turkish slippers. Because, you know, everything that isn’t made by white people is evil and supernatural. Ugh.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
There are a million other stories out there about creepy people in creepy houses. Read one of those.
Private— Keep Out! by Phillip MacDonald from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949
The unnamed protagonist is leaving his job one day when he runs into an old friend, Charles Moffat, who he hasn’t seen in years. Charles is obviously ill and distressed, clutching a briefcase, and so the protagonist offers to buy him a drink. Charles’s constant fiddling with the case frustrates him, and so Charles lets him see inside. It’s a random assortment of objects: the base of a tennis trophy, the playbill for a Broadway show, a picture frame that the protagonist remembers being on Charles’s desk but has clearly never been opened. He demands that Charles explain.
By way of answer, Charles asks him if he’s seen Archer lately. The protagonist says that he doesn’t know anyone by that name. Then, Charles asks him if he ever feels that he almost understands the Key, the secret of the universe that no person is allowed to grasp. He says he feels that way sometimes, maybe once or twice a year. Then, Charles tells him the story of their mutual friend, Adrian Archer.
Adrian had been their friend at school. He played doubles tennis with Charles, and when they gradated, became a star on Broadway, and eventually, Hollywood. He married and moved into a house that the protagonist helped him choose. One night, he, his wife, Margaret, and Charles got drunk together and talked about this Key. Adrian believed himself to be close to figuring it out. That night, Margaret called Charles in a panic, and hung up before she could explain what was wrong. The next morning, Adrian’s house was gone. Every mention of him in every document had been removed, and every person had forgotten who he was.
The protagonist feels like he should think Charles is crazy, but somehow, he doesn’t. As he mulls this over, Charles goes to make a phone call. It takes a long time, so he asks the barman to see if Charles is still back there. The barman tells him that no one is there, and that the protagonist has been alone this whole time. It ends on this chilling line: “I wonder how much longer there is for me.”
This is one of the most gripping, haunting stories I’ve read, just like ever. My summary doesn’t do it justice. I found it hard to analyze because I was so wrapped up in the drama of the story. And it’s such a quiet little piece of horror, too. No ghosts to punch, no vampires, no murder. Just the universe silently unmaking anyone who gets too close to the truth. It’s like Lovecraft without the racism or the tentacles.
I’ve enjoyed reading both of the other stories so far, but in a year’s time, I won’t remember much about them. This one, I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s the kind of story that makes you question the tenants of your life. Are your memories true? Could something about your world change hugely without your noticing? It’s a frightening question.
The use of detail is good – things are set up at the beginning of the story that are paid off at the end in a satisfying way. The picture frame, the barman, all the trips Charles takes to the phone booth, they all tie in to the central plot. The author manages to create a sense of growing dread without use of dramatic language, or even all that much specific detail, which is really hard to pull off. He does it though. It rocks.
Yes, the language feels very 1940s, moreso than any of the stories so far. The prose reminded me a bit of the Nancy Drew books, actually. Obviously, the content is super different, but the tone and the dialogue are similar. But other than that, there’s very little that alienates me about the story. There’s no sexist language or dumb plot devices to keep me away from the story, and so I’m sucked in. It’s awesome.
Honestly, it’s almost too good for me to have anything interesting to say. The story’s been anthologized a couple of times, it looks like, so you can probably find it if you look. Read it yourself. Question everything. Try not to disappear.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
Holy shit yes.
Thrunley Abbey by Percival Landon from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949
First, the framing device: Our unnamed protagonist is a British gentleman traveling from London to Brindisi, in India. On the train, he meets a man named Colvin, who asks to share his cabin on the ship they’re both taking. This is unusual, so the protagonist asks him to explain. By way of response, Colvin tells the following story:
In India, Colvin used to be friends with an Englishman named Broughton. They both moved back to England, where Broughton settled down, married, and moved into Thurnley Abbey, an ancient manor that was rumored to be haunted. These rumors were fed by the previous owner, who hated people and was caught setting up lamps and stuff to make it look like a ghost was really there. Broughton doesn’t fully believe in the ghost, and even if it exists, he seems unworried. He says, “If a ghost ever does come in one’s way, one ought to speak to it.”
Skip forward six months. Colvin gets a letter from Broughton asking him to come to his house – he needs help. Colvin does, and passes a pleasant evening at a dinner party Broughton hosts. Then it’s time for bed. Once more, Broughton tells him, “Mind, if you do see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.” Colvin goes to bed.
Then, of course, Colvin sees a ghost. It’s a skeleton wrapped in in rags, hovering at the foot of his bed. At first, he’s terrified, but it occurs to him that this must be a prank. He punches the skeleton. He goes fucking apeshit on the skeleton. He breaks it up until it’s nothing but scraps of fabric and shards of bone. It’s awesome. Then he busts into Broughton’s room and shouts at him for pulling suck a mean prank, until he realizes that Broughton is so deeply distraught that he cannot have caused it. All he can say is, “You didn’t speak to her.” The three of them (including Broughton’s wife) huddle there until morning, where nothing is left of the ghost but some smears of Colvin’s blood on the floor.
Do those quotes sound a little older than 1949 to you? Well you’re right! This story is a reprint, originally published in 1908. And boy can you tell. It reads, in a lot of places, like a Sherlock Holmes story. The way it’s structured, the prose, the characters – if the Victorian era ended in 1901, nobody had told Landon. Personally, I don’t mind it. I tend to like this style of prose, and God knows I love Sherlock Holmes. It was interesting and unexpected to find a story like this in a magazine from forty years later, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about reprinting rules before the internet (how hard did they have to work to get permission to print it without email? How far in advance did they have to start this thing?), but none of that effects my enjoyment of the story.
You know what did effect my enjoyment? Colvin punching the ghost. Maybe it’s my own limited experience at work here, but I’ve never read a ghost story where someone punched a ghost! It was probably supposed to be high-tension and action, but I must admit, it made me laugh. I loved it. I’m going to steal it for a story someday. It’s innovative and shows so much about Colvin’s character. I wish there was punching in every ghost story.
The description is solid, especially of the spooky old manor and the ghost itself. Landon builds atmosphere well, with the ivy and the rippling tapestries and the strange guests. The ghost is gory and legitimately scary, with bits or hair and flesh still hanging off of it, which I am all about. There’s maybe a bit too much description, though, given that it’s a short story. The house gets more characterization than either point-of-view character.
Racism-wise, it’s not too bad. I mean, colonialism isn’t questioned, it’s not especially progressive, but erasing the existence of England’s hold on India would come with its own set of problems. There are no mega offensive depictions of Indian people. This is achieved largely by not having any depictions of Indian people of all, bar one. The individual in question is shown to be superstitious (he sees his mother’s ghost), but then, ghosts are real. He’s right.
All that said, this story isn’t going on my “favorites” list. It hits one of my personal pet peeves, which I don’t expect everyone to agree with, but which really stopped me from enjoying this story the way I wanted to. It has that goddamn framing device.
Framing devices like that, which do nothing to change the plot and are barely mentioned at the end, always feel like a waste of time to me. There’s a common piece of writing advice that says to not start your book with a dream sequence, because the reader gets invested in it and then has it snatched away, along with their ability to care about the story. Framing devices like this do the same thing to me. It breaks my immersion immediately. This is a large part of the reason why I can’t stand Frankenstein, and why, when I reread the Sherlock Holmes stories, I skip “A Study in Scarlet.” Then again, Frankenstein is a classic taught to high schoolers everywhere, and “A Study in Scarlet” was popular enough to spawn the rest of the Holmes canon, so I must be alone in this.
Because of this broken immersion, though, I didn’t find the story all that scary. It’s a shame, because like I said, the writing is great. And did I mention the protagonist punches a ghost?
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
If the summary makes it sound like your genre, I think you’ll like it. There isn’t anything especially objectionable about it, and the writing holds up. Check it out!
Bells on His Toes by Cleve Cartmill from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949
Summary: This story is about a cop named Hank who is in charge of investigating a “scientific cult” to find out if it’s harmful. He meets with the leader, and meditates with him, clearing his mind of everything but a singe thought: “Rings on his fingers, bells on his toes/He shall make music wherever he goes.” To his astonishment, the meditation seems to have been actual magic. Now, music from unseen orchestras plays songs that correspond to his moods, including Beethoven’s Fifth (da da da DUMMMMM) every time he walks into a room. This gets him fired from his job and kicked out of his apartment. Worse, the cult leader seems to have disappeared. After a few desperate days, the cult leader’s receptionist, Helen, helps Hank find a new job, scoring movies. All he does is read the scripts, and the perfect soundtrack pours from the air. Even better, Helen agrees to marry him! All of this happiness makes him useless at his job, though – no matter what he reads, all that plays is “Happy Days are Here Again.”
My impressions: I won’t lie to you guys, this story is funny. It made me laugh out loud at several points, particularly when Hank is talking to his boss and “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” started playing. I’m sure it’s even funnier if you know all the songs that are referenced, but it’s still effective.
Honestly, most of the story is still effective. Minus the song choices and some language we’ll get to in a moment, it reads like a contemporary story. The setup – normal guy in a normal world ends up with a magical Thing and has to deal with it – is used all the time, for comedic or dramatic or tragic effect. It’s an easy way to build tension, and it’s not hard to do well. It’s all down to getting the real world’s reaction to magic right, and Cartmill does a solid job of it, to the point that, if it were written today, I’d label this Magical Realism.
That said, he doesn’t get everything right. Unsurprisingly, it’s Helen who’s his downfall. She’s not a terribly written character – she has an actual personality, and moments of bitterness and spunkiness that add to the comedy well. Every single time she’s mentioned, though, she’s referred to as a “pretty blonde,” even after we know her name. It’s not a long story, Cartmill, we haven’t forgotten what color her hair is in a page and a half. It’s the kind of subtle sexism that probably was barely noticeable at the time, but now is just grating.
And then this happens. Keep in mind that the story spans less than a week, and this is at the end of the first non-work-related conversation that Hank and Helen have had:
“I can’t tell you, Helen, how honest-to-God happy I am. I’d got used to this screwy situation, and I don’t even hear the music myself, but it bid fair to wreck my chances at any job. I wish I could do something you’d like to express my appreciation.”
She didn’t speak, but her eyes had an expectant light.
Hank Smiley was not one to take the long way round. “I might as well find out,” he said. “The only way I know is to ask. Do you think you could get used to the music, too, and not hear it after a while?”
She aimed at him, but her eyes were serious. “Almost everybody is trying to hide something, Hank. You’ve turned a liability into an asset, but you’re still trying to hide it. As long as you’re conscious of it, I can’t forget it. It’ll be easy for me to forget it as soon as you do.”
“Well, I was ashamed of it for a long time,” Hank admitted. “But that seems silly. I’ll forget it, all right.”
“Then,” Helen said, “Sure I’ll marry you.”
What? Where the hell did that come from? I had to reread the passage a dozen times to make sure I hadn’t missed a line where he asked her to marry him. But no, I guess it’s implied that if she spends any more time with him, they’ll just have to get married. It’s baffling to me. I thought they were going to kiss, or start dating. This can’t just be a 1949 thing, can it? This is actually weird, right?
I’ll tell you what is a 1949 thing – turbans. When Helen is introduced, she’s described as wearing a turban, but she’s also described as blonde. This had me solidly stumped. Hair isn’t visible in the turbans I’ve seen.
Then, I did a little research. It turns out, in the 40s and 50s, they used “turban” to mean “wide headband” or “wrap.” I was picturing her in like a proper Sikh turban, when they meant something like this:
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
I enjoyed reading this story, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to reccomend it to anyone else.
So it begins! And isn’t she a beauty? A redheaded bombshell and a weird green muppet, everything I like in my fantasy.
You’ll notice that this isn’t Science Fiction and Fantasy, just Fantasy. That’s true for only the first issue. It’ll be interesting to see what changes. The introduction, written by publisher Lawrence E. Spivak, mostly laments the sad state of fantasy publishing in 1949. It was consigned to pulp magazines and considered too “immaterial” for the modern world. Alas, little has changed. Although fantasy is definately published, it tends to be ghettoized and seen as unsubstantive escapism, kids books or nerd nonsense, not suitable for serious adult, or, God forbid, academics. Hopefully, the overwhelming popularity of stories like Game of Thrones is breaking through this, but we still have a long way to go. Lawrence, I feel you.
Another thing that caught my attention was the introduction of the editors. The men themselves didn’t capture my imagination, but the description of their libraries did. I’ll just quote it for you:
Between them they posses (with occasional bitter blood-feuds over who owns what) one of the most comprehensive libraries of fantasy fiction ever assembled, from long out-of-print masterpieces or otherwise unavailable foreign works to thorough files of every important modern magazine in the field.
Never mind the questions this raises about their living situation (does this mean they have a joint library? are they a couple? would they be less candid about their library if they were?), never mind how incredible such a place must be (they should make it a museum, a research library, a shrine!). No, what struck me most here is how important library-building must have been before the internet. I’m a notorious book collector–I’ve well-overfilled my bookshelves and keep buying books, someone stop me–but there’s never been any urgency to it. If I read a cool story in an anthology, I can always find it later. Everything is on the internet. I google the title, and 80% of the time I can find the text online for free, and the other 20% I can buy whatever volume off Amazon, used if it’s not still in print. I sometimes forget how new and unusual these luxuries are.
Ha! I haven’t even read the first story and I’m already reflecting on modern life.
Nuts and bolts: Vol 1. Num. 1 was published in Fall, 1949 (I couldn’t find a month), and contains 128 pages and eleven stories, plus the introduction. It was edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas and published by Lawrence E. Spivak. The cover was done by Bill Stone. One of the authors is a woman (Winona McClintic!) and one goes only by initials, so who even knows.