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.

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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!

 

Bells on His Toes by Cleve Cartmill

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:

Mystery solved!

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.

Volume 1, Number 1

FFS 1 1

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.