Perseus Had a Helmet by Richard Sale

Perseus Had a Helmet by Richard Sale from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949.

Summary: 

We begin with a framing device. A young reporter is trying to pry a cover story from hard-boiled police detective Captain McGrail. Reluctantly, McGrail tells the following story:

There was a young man named Perseus who was something of a wimp. He worked with a beautiful woman named Ruby Miller, and he was head-over-heels in love with her. She had no interest in him, but kept stringing him along because he bought her things. She was also stringing along another coworker, a huge buff guy called Bill Jordan.

The company they work for announced its 50th anniversary party, a costume ball, and Perseus asked Ruby to go with him. She was on the outs with Bill at that point, so she said yes. Perseus then rented a Greek costume, to go with his name. The sword and shield were paper maché, but the helmet was real metal.

Just as he was about to leave, Bill arrived at Perseus’s house and told him to not show, that he was going to the dance with Ruby. When Perseus, in an uncharacteristic fit of bravery, refused, Bill beat him up and left him unconscious.

When Perseus woke hours later, he pulled himself together and decided to go to the party anyway. He donned his costume and helmet and got in a taxi, announcing the address to which he was headed. The taxi driver took one look at him and ran screaming from the car.

What follows is an account of the numerous people who run screaming from Perseus before he realizes that his helmet makes him invisible. Finally grasping his situation and the possibilities it affords, he “decided” that he was going to kill Bill Jordan and marry Ruby Miller. First, he broke into several stores and banks and stole $3,000 (like $50,000 now), so he and Ruby could live in style. Then, he sent Bill a note saying he would die at 8pm that night. Perseus stole a gun, climbed the fire escape to Bill’s apartment where he sat surrounded by police, and shot him in the head.

But the helmet appeared to have a mind of its own, falling off Perseus’s head as he climbed down. He was arrested and brought to Captain McGrail, where he confessed the whole story.

My impressions:

This is a reprint from 1938. It’s a real hard-boiled detective story! Or at least, the framing device is. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve complained about framing devices, the way that they set up extra characters and ideas that end up not being important. While that’s usually true, this device actually works well, because it is so obviously a framing device. We’re not being fooled, just told a story. It’s a relief to see.

I’m a huge fan of this writing style. Lots of clever turns of phrase and neat little metaphors. It’s exactly what you think of when you picture the inner monologue of a noir detective, except without being grimdark. It’s a tone thing – sentances like “Some sort of celebration of the fact that business had been going on more or less for fifty years.” It’s just fun!

Unfortunately, there are also lines like this one: “”As a salesman, he impressed you more like a female impersonator.”

So yeah. It’s mega cissexist, and also plain old sexist. Ruby, an adult woman and the love interest for the adult male protagonist, is described as “a smart little girl.” This is the first time that the sexism is a full plot point, too (yay?). The story is predicated on Ruby deliberately leading the two men on, which is a pretty obvious sexist stereotype, and sucks all the fun right out of reading it for me.

Add to that the fact that, if you’re awake, you can see the twist coming right away, and the reveal is still treated like it’s a big deal (it takes four hundred years for Perseus to realize he’s invisible) and it’s just not that great.

Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta

It’s not the worst, but given how many stories like this there are in the world, I bet you can find a better one.

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Rooum by Oliver Onions

Rooum by Oliver Onions (what a name!) from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949.

Summary:

Rooum is the name of a mysterious construction worker who is the best at everything but refuses to actually join a construction company. He’s odd, but generally well-liked, including by the unnamed narrator, who he is always asking about molecules.

He and the narrator have a series of increasingly strange interactions until, one night, the two decide to stay at a hotel together since their job is so far out of town. Rooum sleeptalks, saying, “What the devil is it prevents me from seeing him, then?” When he wakes, the narrator asks him what the heck that was about, and he tells him.

Basically, every so often this invisible man that only Rooum can hear runs up from behind him and phases through him. At the beginning, it was painless, but now it seems to take more effort and more pain for the being to pass through. They talk a lot about how it’s analogous to different types of osmosis.

After this conversation, Rooum disappears for several months. When the narrator finally works with him again, it seems he goes crazy. They’re all high up in the air when Rooum takes one of the cranes and starts driving off with it. Only the narrator can guess what’s actually happening – he’s running away from the being, and he can’t escape this time. The narrator and his coworkers try to stop him, and succeed in stopping the crane itself, but Rooum jumps (or falls?) from the beam and tumbles to his death.

My impressions:

Holy racist language, Batman! The very first sentence is about how Rooum’s name “put [the narrator] in mind of Negroes,” and it’s decidedly not a compliment.  This ruined the story for me immediately, and for no reason. None of this is ever referred to again. There’s no big reveal about the root or meaning of the name, no connection to Africa, nothing. None of that would have made the first paragraph justifiable, obviously, but it at least would have made sense. Instead, it’s racist and baffling.

If that were not enough, the story also has serious pacing problems. The buildup is meandering, and could have worked to build atmosphere if any of it had been mentioned in the story’s climax, which occurs over the last half page and goes by so fast that I had to reread it several times before I realized that Rooum was even dead. The characters themselves don’t do much to help the situation. The narrator is barely characterized, and Rooum comes off as a stock “mysterious hyper-competent guy.” It’s not great.

Which is really too bad because this story has the coolest premise of any of the stories I’ve read so far. I mean, there’s an invisible man who runs through a mysterious construction worker, and has a harder and harder time of it because of the laws of osmosis. That’s completely original. I’ve never read anything like it, and I doubt I will again. I really like how it halfway explains its concept with science, but in a way that isn’t trying to be hard SF or anything. It’s fantasy that’s analogous to science. Nifty! Plus, it’s a creepy short story focused on working class laborers instead of more bored aristocrats, which is always nice to see. I just wish it was tied together better, and, yaknow, not racist.

Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta

What a waste of a cool idea.

A Bride for the Devil by Stuart Palmer

A Bride for the Devil by Stuart Palmer from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949

Summary:

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.

My impressions:

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

Men of Iron by Guy Endore from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949

Summary:

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.

My impressions:

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

Review Copy by H. H. Holmes from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949

Summary:

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.

My impressions:

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

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

The Lost Room by Fitz-James O’Brien from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949

Summary:

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.

My impressions:

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

Private— Keep Out! by Phillip MacDonald from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949

Summary:

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.”

My impressions:

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.

Thurnley Abbey by Percival Landon

Thrunley Abbey by Percival Landon from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949

Summary:

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.

My impressions:

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!