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.

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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.