Here we are with our second foray into Mikhail Bulgakov.
He’s certainly the most pulpy of the writers we’ve encountered so far. If he had managed to emigrate to the UK (he was close after the Russian Civil War but typhus prevented it), I believe his literary output would have been colossal and made him better known. This one is short and wry with tongue firmly in cheek.
“A Séance” by Mikhail Bulgakov (1922)
Various aristocrats are meeting for a séance. All formerly posh, they’re now living in dingy apartments as they come to terms with Communism. Despite that, they stick to their flirty Liaisons Dangereuses games and polish their former glories. Tonight’s a sort of grab bag of characters out of a much diminished social circle. And there’s lots of chatter of how scary to make things. All this is depicted in brusque choppy fashion.
Meanwhile, their servant girl has no idea what to make of things. She watches as windows are covered, lights are turned out, and strange sounds start occurring. Eventually she gathers up her courage and starts peeping through the door to where the former nobles are gathered. She overhears talk of emperors and how the spirits give Bolshevism three months at best. All this is unnerving for her, so she goes downstairs to her friend’s apartment and tells her all about these wacky people she works for. As she does so she’s overheard by an outlandishly dressed soldier fellow who follows her back upstairs to see what apartment she works in and he then goes off to tell someone who tells someone. Before long the aristocrats hear a loud banging on the door, and at first they think it’s the spirits. But, it’s not. It’s the Cheka and they want to see everyone’s papers please… The End.
This story has the barest hint of the supernatural about it. That outlandishly dressed soldier fellow? Is he human or supernatural? Regardless of what he is, he does his duty informing the authorities of the strange doings in the apartment building. And the squalor is played up to point at an absurdity in the aristocrats. They’re playing old games from a world that’s gone, unaware that the new world has new games and they’re fast approaching the door. You can laugh at them, but it’s not a laugh without despair.
Next time, a story by a writer I have a collection of but haven’t read.
Macassar oil. Do you know what that is?
Macassar oil was a hair product that became popular during the 19th century. It was made from coconut and palm oils. Everyone back then wore so much of it that the fabric headrests of chairs would get a worn polish on them. This was unseemly in the eyes of society. Enter the antimacassar: a thin, decorated bit of cloth you could slip over a chair’s headrest to protect the fabric. If you’ve ever ridden on a bus or train, you’ve likely encountered an antimacassar. I knew none of this before reading this week’s story. Now I do and so do you.
“The Antimacassar” by Greye La Spina (May 1949)
This is a decent story and one that makes for a good ending to the collection.
Our heroine, Lucy Butterfield, works for a textile company. She’s on the road showing samples, but really she’s trying to find her missing friend, Cora Kent. Cora was the sales representative before her and went missing somewhere in the back country. Our heroine has tracked her to a remote farm where a Mrs. Renner and her handy man live, along with the sickly Kathy Renner who is twelve years old and confined to bed.
Mrs. Renner claims not to have seen Cora, but Lucy suspects they know something. It was there that Cora made the strange antimacassar with its pattern of circles and snakes that puzzled Lucy so much to send her out here. She lingers around the farm maintaining the pretense that she’s simply the road rep for a fabric company. Soon Kathy’s whining that she’s hungry and there are strange sounds at Lucy’s door. Then the nightmares begin of a monstrous child that feeds on her.
Lucy finds herself growing weaker, and slowly she realizes she must leave, but Mrs. Renner keeps sabotaging her attempts. In between all this Lucy and Mrs. Renner discuss needlepoint and fabric. Finally, the monstrous child appears. What a shock! Kathy is a vampire! But fortunately, the heroine’s strapping lad of a boyfriend, Stan, shows up right there and kills the monster child. Lucy sent Cora’s strange antimacassar to his mom and right away he realized the snakes and circles were an SOS message. What’s odd is no one is shocked by the vampirism. Apparently, everyone in this world must be a Weird Tales fan and expect such things. The End.
I dug this story. It had a nice mix of the morbid and the mundane. And enough of my family worked in New England’s textile industry, so it was neat to see something similar here. (It actually takes place in backwoods PA, but I imagine the two are similar.) And while the heroine is ultimately saved by a strapping lad, she is the one throwing herself into harms away to rescue a friend and do the detective work. I might have wanted the collection to end with more Everil Worrell, but this was not a bad place to finish. From here it’s easy to see Shirly Jackson and Stephen King on the horizon.
And that’s it.
We have reached the end of The Women of Weird Tales. I hope you all have enjoyed it. The collection is great fun and I recommend it. Maybe if enough people buy it Valancourt will put out a fancy Everil Worrell collection!
I’ll post my top 5 favorite stories over on my patreon. If you’ve enjoyed this series, why not consider becoming a patron. Or not. You do you. You can expect the Red Specters reviews to start sometime in June.
This is it.
The penultimate story. And it’s a story that asks an important question: What if Weird Tale writers didn’t have so many sex hang-ups?
“Great Pan is Here” by Greye La Spina (November 1943)
Our narrator’s driving along after having five cocktails with his cousin Cecily and their chaperone, Aunt Kate. They are on their way to the symphony. Now Craig, our narrator, has the hots for cousin Cecily and fears that her upbringing under the old-fashioned Aunt Kate is making her too reserved. He wishes something would wake the girl up to the world of love and emotions. Especially his emotions for her. Then side the road he glimpses a pan pipe. It’s just lying.
Was it real? Was it not?
He hesitates to bring it up. Aunt Kate hates missing the opening movements of a symphony. But he does, and no one believes him.
Later back at home our narrator drinks some more and appraises the effects of moonlight on his garden. He’s got a new nymph statue he brought back from Italy, and it’s pretty sweet. Musing such, he’s surprised when he glimpses someone in his garden. He goes to investigate and finds no one but hears the faint piping of a pan flute.
Was someone taunting him?
But no matter how desperately he searches he can’t find anyone, so eventually he goes back to the house.
The next morning Cecily’s dressed for yachting and our narrator’s thinking thoughts of love and goddesses and basically being a lusty horndog except in an Edith Wharton sort of way. He’s about annoyed when she suggests inviting along a friend, Tom Leatherman, they bump into. They all pile into the boat and our narrator fumes as he gets the yacht going. Meanwhile Tom’s talking about the pan pipes he found on the road the day before. Cecily hears that and apologizes to our narrator for not believing him the day before. Craig accuses Tom of sneaking into the garden and playing the pipes. But Tom denies it was him. Then Cecily startles everyone by saying she heard the piping too, and if it wasn’t Tom who was it then?
If only they had read the title of the story they are in.
There’s more sailing. More brooding over pan pipes. More talk of strange notes being played in the air. They go back to shore and ditch Tom Leatherman. Then Craig and Cecily go in the garden for a picnic. They’re starting to warm to each other. The mystery of the pan pipes has made a bond between them. But as they walk they find they’re not alone in the garden. A strange man is there.
Strange and foreign looking.
It’s the Great God Pan.
He then gives them the pitch. He’s an old god making his way in the new world and he’s looking for gardens that bear something of the old ways about them. Craig’s garden with the imported nymph statue is one such place. And Pan wants it. In exchange he offers to give Craig what he desires (Cecily).
This is where something interesting happens. First there’s talk of haggling and buying affection with gold, but Craig says that’s not how it’s done these days. Now it’s love that seals the deal and love that is exchanged freely between individuals. Cecily needs to give her consent in order for there to be a deal. And she does much to Craig’s delight.
Pan’s pleased and says he’ll be back later that night.
Now Craig and Cecily start to wonder what exactly they’ve done. They’ve invited an old god into the garden. That’s not something you can just admit to the yacht club. However they do decide to get married and when back inside they tell Aunt Kate and she’s happy, but still doesn’t want them to be alone together.
Night arrives. Time for bed. Once the house is asleep Cecily and Craig sneak out into the garden. The music starts. The Great God Pan is there.
Ecstasy, dance, sex, etc.
And it was all okay.
I’m not quite certain at the level of consanguineous between Craig and Cecily. I’m thinking they’re like third cousins, which strikes me as weird but not awful. There’s a bit more the next morning where Aunt Kate mentions the nymph statue seems to have lost her scarf, but that’s pretty much the end. But overall, nothing awful happens.
At least nothing awful relative to your views of conjugal relations between distantly consanguine relatives and Paganism taking root in the USA. If you’re cool with all that this story is simply The White Goddess meets Edith Wharton. Premarital sexy times are had and no one is hurt who isn’t already more than a little bit dead inside, and they’re only hurt by having a bad night’s sleep.
La Spina likes her purple prose and manages to dress all her words in such a way that they wear diaphanous gowns. Sure, it reads a bit stilted and melodramatic, but it’s not without its charms. And the sex positivism and enthusiastic consent ideas are refreshing. Like why would I be outraged that two young adults who are obviously into each other sleep together? Is it because they do it under the influence of strange rites conducted by a swarthy foreign man? That’s silly.
Of course, it’s possible that I missed some sinister element in the story. But I don’t think so.
Next week, our last story from The Women of Weird Tales. It’s another from Greye La Spina, and it’s called “The Antimacassar”.
Until then stay well.
We have entered 1930s era Weird Tales. Gone are the fever dreams of Everil Worrell. The next set of stories have a much different and more recognizable tone. In a less charitable mood I might even describe them as “meh”.
However, the covers, as you can see, remain saucy.
“The Black Stone Statue” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (December 1937)
My name is Very Successful Artist. I am writing this first hand account of how I became so successful. It all started in my rooming house where I encountered my long missing friend, Famous Explorer.
Now, as you can imagine, I was surprised to find Famous Explorer in such a low boarding house with such a meddlesome landlady. She spoke in this dialect of English that uses many apostrophes when I transcribe it. Overall, she was awful and wouldn’t even allow her boarders to keep a radio. I bring this up because there was a high-pitched sound coming from Famous Explorer’s room. Now I managed to corner my friend and through some arm-twisting I got him to relate his story. I will now pause my first-hand account to let Famous Explorer give his first-hand account of what happened.
Hello, my name is Famous Explorer.
I was deep in the jungles of South America. It was exactly like all those pictures of jungles people show in those movie serials. One day, my assistant, Ethnic Stereotype, went missing and I had to go find him. When I did find him it was in this strange part of the jungle where everything had been transformed into vividly detailed black stone. Needless to say he had been transformed as well. Poor, Ethnic Stereotype. Now it turns out in this jungle was this very beautiful snail-slug-orchid-thing and it turned everything it touched into this black stone. It also makes a high-pitched sound. Believe you me, it took all manner of derring-do to not get turned to stone myself, but I managed to capture the thing. Now I’ve brought it back to civilization where I plan on exploiting the thing for industrial purposes.
Very Successful Artist has pushed me on top of the snail-slug-orchid-thing. I am now dead.
Yes, that is correct sirs, I, Very Successful Artist, turned Famous Explorer into a statue and stole the snail-slug-orchid thing. I did the same to the landlady and a bunch of other people. All my statues have been created using the snail-slug-orchid thing. My whole career is a sham. I am going to throw the snail-slug-orchid thing into the ocean and kill myself now.
Thank you and goodbye.
Very Successful Artist
And there you have it: “The Black Stone Statue”.
It was okay, very much the ur-cliché of a cliché. I feel like this strange creature that transforms/mimics things was a staple in a Philip K. Dick’s work. I don’t know if he took the idea from this Counselman story, but it’s not hard to imagine that he did. Which is fine. He ran with it and made it his own.
A web of silence.
Now comes the good trash.
Last week’s Everil Worrell story was a bit of a bust, but this week’s story (and next week’s) has her back playing to her lurid, morbid best. They are exactly the sort of stories I imagine when I think of weird pulp fiction: pure id mixed with feverish psychological drama all blended to a frothy mess that is both inviting and intoxicating. Does it need to make sense? No. All it needs to do is get under your skin and make you squirm. This week’s story is one of those with strong torn-from-a-tabloid’s-headlines qualities.
And so, with copious exclamation points…
“The Rays of the Moon” by Everil Worrell (Weird Tales, September 1928)
Our nameless narrator is a medical student and he’s in a graveyard – because he needs a cadaver!
He is a madman and a genius, you see, not at all like those other medical students giving their lives to help humanity. No way. Our narrator and his buddy, Browne, are geniuses, and they know humanity ought to give up their lives to serve them! So our boys get into the murder business to fuel their research, but it doesn’t go well and the buddy accidentally kills himself when his hand slips during an incision on one of his victims and he accidentally poisons himself. But our narrator hardly cares. At the time of the story’s start he has only one love in the world, morphine drugs! He used to have another love: a nervous high-strung girl he was courting, but when she “pledged” her affections to him, he promptly dumped her. The girl had a brother, and he begged our narrator to make a better end of the relationship, but no doing. Our narrator has no time for simple sentiment. He tells the brother that any girl who would kill herself over a break-up would be better off dead than alive.
And so, our narrator sits in a graveyard spying on a new-made grave, and since he’s a junkie, he’s shooting up. The morphine helps the time pass. Finally, all is darkness, save for the light of the moon, and our narrator sets to digging. But moonlight makes him see strange things. The eerie half-light makes a chill crawl up his spine. No matter how much he tries to laugh it off, his nerves won’t quit and he’s worried he might get hysterical, when THUNK! his shovel hits the casket. The hard work of dragging the casket out calms his mind.
But full moons, open graves, and heroin don’t mix and once the casket’s out of the ground there’s only the pit behind it, and that pit under this light with those drugs in his vein, all of it puts our narrator’s mind to boiling. He pulls himself together and opens the casket. Inside is the body of a young woman, and our narrator can’t bear the sight of her. He quickly covers her head with a sack.
But in the moonlight the whole scene shifts. The hooded corpse, the open pit of the grave, the eerie light?
The great cosmic vastness blossoms greater than all the morphine in the world. And his soul leaves the body to take a trip to the moon where judgement awaits! There the narrator stands beside the hooded corpse before a tribunal of all Earth’s dead! He trembles in fear because he knows he has defiled their place. What to do but pass out, at which point the trial for his soul begins! The hooded corpse calls forth a character witness. It’s Browne his old partner who died from the infected cut. The narrator hears how Browne might have lived if not for the narrator’s evil influence on him. But there is a yet a chance for our narrator’s soul. Once more, the hooded corpse and the narrator descend into the grave.
The narrator wakes now, no longer on the moon, but in the cemetery with the vile hooded corpse of the young woman beside him. Only now, the corpse is no longer a corpse. The body breathes! Our narrator’s first impulse is to flee, but the girl has taken hold of him and grips him fast. She even speaks his name. Morton! Who is it there in the grave with him with a hood hiding her head, but the girl he jilted and left for dead! And then she starts to scream. What to do, our narrator thinks, but kill her again. So, he strangles her and gets away. Only now he knows, his soul lost its trial. He is now forever damned!
This story has everything: mad scientists, heroin, grave robbing, hints of necrophilia. It’s a lurid stew of rehashed Poe served up with a side of trash, but it’s old trash and that’s always interesting to look at. Does this story have any redeeming qualities? Nope. None at all. And that’s okay.
Next week, another lurid mess from Everil Worrell (and my favorite from the collection): the Gray Killer!
I have rediscovered my time management skills and organized my executive function disorder to bring you two, count’em, TWO short-story synopsis. First we have that two-fisted purveyor of screw turning, Henry James. After that will follow that treacly plumber of psycho-sexual phantasmorgia, Hans Christian Andersen.
Let’s get to it!
“The Friends of the Friends” by Henry James
This story’s premise was great and hooked me from the start. An editor is going over a deceased writer’s papers and wonders what to do with this strange story she tells. She had two acquaintances who each had true premonitions of a loved one’s death while still both children. Being the society-minded person she is the woman decides wouldn’t it be great if these two people met each other. However every time she or anyone else tries to bring them together some thing happens to keep them apart This becomes a running joke in her social group, and so it goes on for years. Another peculiarity of the pair is that each refuses to be photographed, which is currently all in vogue among high society.
Some years pass, the old joke continues to remain, but by now the woman telling the story has fallen in love with the man and has decided to marry him. Around this time the woman of the fated pair is finally freed from her marriage (she’d been living separate from her abusive husband), and this sparks a crisis in the narrator because she has just hatched a full proof plan to get the two to meet. The narrator fears that these two are so much alike that she’d be tempting fate by having them meet each other. So she lies and has the woman of the pair visit while the man’s away. However, the narrator had compelled the man to get his picture taken, and the picture now sits on her mantle. The woman of the pair spends some time studying the picture and the back on which the man’s address is printed. She then leaves. The next day the narrator feels terrible and goes to confess everything to the woman, but when she arrives she discovers the woman died the night before. More guilt-ridden than ever, the narrator confesses all to the man, her fiancé, and admits that she had played a cruel trick on her friend out of fear at what might happen if the two should meet. The man laughs telling the narrator that the woman appeared to him in the night and stood some time in his chambers watching him. This startles the narrator, who turns detective to piece together the woman’s actions before her death. All she can learn is that the woman spent some time dozing at her club and everyone saw her there. However enough doubt remains in the narrator’s mind that she ends her betrothal to the man. For his part, he feels he has done nothing wrong and that the narrator is being silly. Six years later, the narrator tells us the man dies, probably from suicide, although she believes he had done it to be reunited with the dead woman who had haunted him. The End.
So, yeah. Like I said I fell in love with the seed of this story and the weird mumblecore smallness of it. Sadly, James’s ultra-thick but ultra-pasteurized prose works to suck all the life out of the idea and bury it beneath expositive introspection and I’m not so much a fan of that.
But, that seed of two people in an extended social group having strange experiences so all their mutual friends work to have them meet each other? Lordy, I would love to have a dozen different writers take it up and use it to write a story. Imagining a Victor LaValle version alongside a Kelly Link version alongside a Laird Barron version gives the old skull-nut chills.
Now, on to Hans Christian Andersen
“The Traveling Companion” by Hans Christian Andersen
Parents love Hans Christian Andersen for his Christian imagery and moral instruction. Children like his because the princess has her own private pleasure garden where she can torture the unworthy and feed their eyes to her wizard mentor-pet.
Truth told, I had never read Andersen before, discounting him as simply a moralistic fairy tale writer. And while that’s partially right, it overlooks the heaping fruit-loopy tower of psycho-sexual WTFry he offers.
John is a good protestant boy left alone in the world after the death of his father. But he’s a devote lad full of inherent goodness and has no fear as he sets out into the wide world. Soon he finds himself homeless and forced to shelter in a chapel where he comes upon a pair of Bad Men getting ready to defile the recently deceased body of their debtor. John stops this by giving the Bad Men all his money and then sets off poorer in the morning. Soon he is joined by a jolly traveling companion and the two decide to stick together from now on. As they journey the companion exhibits many strange powers and makes odd bargains with payment.
In time the two reach a city where a king is sad because his daughter is a beautiful witch monster that delights in torture. She will marry whichever man can answer her question “What am I thinking?” three days in a row. Those that fail get impales in her torture garden. Since John had a vision that this woman would be his bride early in the story he falls head over heels in love with her despite all warnings. Figuring John’s dead unless he does something the companion sets about using his magic to spy on the princess. Soon enough we learn she’s in league with an evil wizard who gives her all manner of material comforts. This wizard tells her what to think on the morrow, and the companion hears this and tells John in the morning. Later when John answers the princess’s question correctly everyone starts rejoicing wondering if the end of the curse is at hand.
The second night is a repeat of the first with the princess going to her bad wizard friend and the traveling companion overhearing all. John succeeds in answering the second question, and now things are getting serious. On the third night, the bad wizard tells the princess to think of his head, and this the traveling companion chops off once alone with the bad wizard, giving it to John in a bundle and telling him not to open it until the princess asks her third question. When the time comes and the question is put to John, the head astounds everyone. Since John guessed all three questions correct the princess is his and there’s much rejoicing.
Except for the princess who has to say goodbye to her magic powers and private mountain torture palace. A witch is still a witch after all.
The companion tells John how he might wash the witch out of the Princess by dunking her in a bath with swan feathers in it, and this John does washing the princess who changes into a black swan then a white swan. Now a prince John wants to reward his companion, but the fellow says no, he was but repaying a debt and reveals he’s the dead guy whose corpse John protected at the start of his journey. And so, they all lived happily ever after.
This story was a trip and my experience of it ran opposite to what I felt reading the Henry
Miller James* story. “The Friends of the Friends” had a great premise but meh execution. “The Traveling Companion,” on the other hand, had a meh premise but great execution. Both are worth the time it takes to read them.
If you do, let me know what you think.
Next week… a story by someone the editor refers to as “not a very good poet.” Until then, may all your yesterdays be weird.
* I always get these two confused.
This week’s story is “The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort. Comfort’s most famous as the author of the 1970s era bestseller, The Joy of Sex. Maybe you peeked at it when you were a child? He was also a pacifist and a nudist. And while “The Lemmings” is a solidly okay story. But it does gain something by imagining it being screamed at you by a naked man carrying a sign that reads, “Wake up Sheeple!”
“The Lemmings” by Alex Comfort
Our nameless narrator travels to an island where he meets The Keeper whose job it is to tend the lemming colony on the island. Curiously, outside the title and the fact that the creatures are harvested for their fur, Comfort never refers to them as lemmings in the story. And while these creatures seem to match the Walt Disney fabrication of lemmings they’re also creatures with a sort of society. They form social groups and make laws and take pride in their appearance, and at a sign they march en masse into the sea to die. And that’s exactly what happens.
The narrator and the keeper chat about the creatures. The Keeper has affection for the creatures, but more as a curious dispassionate observer than as someone who will make any large changes to their existence. He crafts the creatures little medals that they award each other on their suicidal swim, and he dresses like a priest because it makes them more relaxed. A few lemmings refuse to take part in the mass suicide and suffer violence as a consequence, but by and large the suicide is approached as a necessary carnival mixed with a patriotic duty. Afterwards the Keeper and the narrator skin the drowned bodies once they start washing up on the island’s shore.
Wake up Sheeple! Etc.
Overall this is a barely off the nose sort of allegory with enough flourishes to make it rise above the straightforward. Like I said it’s solidly okay and doesn’t at all overstay its premise, and it’s jagged enough to have hooks that might even make it stay with you.
An odd aside, this story reminded me a little of Jack Vance. Except Vance would have either made it a footnote to a larger story or put an intergalactic casino nearby where jaded gamblers come to bet on the event and which would serve as the backdrop to some adventure short story.
Next week, another “Definitive Article Adjective Noun” short story.
This week has been a week as has every week before it this year except more so. It’s possible back in 2018 we had a week that wasn’t a week extra than a week, but if we did I don’t remember it. Not only has it been a week, but also I’ve suddenly become very busy at work and am likely to remain so until November.
And I do not like this.
Apologies in advance if things show up later or are slimmer than usual. I’ll likely default to slim over delayed, but there you go. It’s a bummer too, because I had plans… ambitions even. All those are on the back-burner for now. Or until I get more people on my patreon, because nothing motivates me more than feeling like I owe people “content”.
On to the story…
“A Dog in Durer’s Etching” by Marco Denevi
This is a story by someone I had never heard of before. From the introduction Denevi appears to have been a favorite of Manguel’s and this story comes from an unsuccessful anthology series Manguel edited. His idea was to give writers a prompt and tell them to write whatever they want on it. Denevi’s story comes from the volume where that Durer print above (The Knight, Death, and the Devil) served as the prompt.
I’ve written about Durer and Weird Knight Shit before and will happily declare that I am a fan of both. I’m also a fan of dense but flash-length, stream of consciousness rambling short stories. And this story delivers that too. It’s a single sentence. A near two thousand-word sentence.
The Knight is returning from the war. Which war? All wars, because every war is the same war when it is lived through. The Knight left home for the war as an innocent youth. He’s now returning a battle-hardened (and psychologically damaged) soldier. But it’s home, and as he rides towards it he reflects on war, and the schemes of princes and popes, and death, and God’s judgment, and the memories flow – memories of carnage, pillaging, and the like. Maybe he’s no longer a man at all but some desiccated husk of calloused flesh withering in a suit of armor. Maybe no man remains at all, and he’s only his armor. He rides on. He muses. He wonders at the webs woven by popes, princes, and emperors, and wonders about God. And then he sees a dog, and he realizes the dog doesn’t see at all the webs that rule its world. It has no way of working out the plots of pope, prince, or emperor. It is free from God’s judgment, but this in no way makes it safe. Or so the Knight muses. The dog does a bit of its own musing. It sees not the Knight, but the Death that rides with the Knight in the form of Plague. It knows this truth that the Knight doesn’t and barks, but the Knight can’t hear Death barking, and only hears the dog.
This isn’t so much a story as a trip. Denevi’s written a story with a virtuoso’s flourish that you read to experience the act of reading it. And I love that.
Next week: another writer I’ve only ever seen in the discount dollar bins.
Here are some recent books reads. Maybe you will find them interesting, or maybe you’d like to recommend something you’ve enjoyed.
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells (Murderbot #3): I am a fan of the Murderbot series and this one delivered the usual murderbot goodness even if it wasn’t my favorite of the series. One thing was Murderbot didn’t seem to have any new shows to watch and obsess over so that quark in their voice wasn’t present as much as it had been in the first two books. And another confession is that I’m less into the conspiracy thread that links all these stories together and only have vague memories of who people are from the earlier books. All that said, if you like Murderbot, then this is good Murderbot. And if you haven’t read Murderbot then this is a recommendation that you should start. It’s a fine series about a security bot that has gained autonomy and found itself the protector of some humans in a very corporate nightmare interstellar science fiction setting. Each book delivers a good few hours of smart action entertainment.
The Sunken Lands Begin to Rise Again by M. John Harrison: This is a book where the bit that moves the plot has been intentionally left out, so you’re left reading about damaged people on the edge of a mystery that they can’t quite discern or even confirm exists at all. I can understand how anyone might hate that, but in the hands of a stylist like Harrison you get something else that looks closer to our lives as we live them within systems too large for us to comprehend. Nostalgia, conspiracy theories, grand paradigm shifts – it’s all here, while also being about a relationship between a man recovering from a breakdown and a woman mourning the death of her mother.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock: This book’s what the old folks call “a trip”. The setting’s England in the late 40s and Steven Huxley has come back home from the war to find his father dead and his brother growing ever more obsessed with the nearby woods. From there it’s a psycho-symbolic Jungian quest story as Steven and his brother uncover the mysteries of Ryhope Woods. The Woods serve as something like a mythic resonator and draw archetypes from those near to it. When I say this is a trip, I mean it. Before long the brothers are in the infinite wood, questing for the center while locked in a struggle that hearkens back millenia to the end of the Ice Age.
Vast by Linda Nagata: Far future hard SF about a band of explorers onboard a spacecraft that’s seeking the origin of a threat to their civilization. It’s also a rather long extended chase scene as the explorer’s spacecraft is being pursued by an enemy spacecraft. While this does have some of the cringe of 1990s SF, it’s also undeniably a book that inspired a lot of books that came after it. It’s hard not to read Alastair Reynolds and not see the debt he owes Nagata’s work. (And he admits this, so that’s no slight on Reynolds.) There’s also a weird Cthulhu mythos vibe here that I find fascinating, and which I might write more about at some point in its own post. I’ll just say that vast is an apt title for this book, and Nagata makes you feel how life might be lived across such vast gulfs of space and time.
Silver by Linda Nagata: I read Vast so I could read Silver, which is a sequel to Edges which was a sequel to Vast, but Silver is also a sequel to Nagata’s novel Memory which had a completely different setting, so we’re in that territory where an author is trying to merge the streams, and it… works. One thing I loved is that all the characters inhabit technologically advanced civilizations, but interact with the technology in different ways, so at first both sides look down on each other before recognizing their similarities. I’ll also say I think Nagata has become more accessible since the 1990s, and this feels less like the Vast setting and more like her Memory setting.
There’s a lot going on in the world and every week it feels like there’s more of it.
Sometimes I feel like it may not the best time to ramble about fiction. But, we’re all leaning into self-care, and some more than others. Putting out these (near-) weekly blog post makes me feel some accomplishment. Is it selfish of me to foist that upon you? Maybe. Certainly I think so in the gloom of whatever negativity gets its clutches on me, but at those times I know better than to trust my thoughts or take them seriously. If I did I know I’d be more miserable.
This week we have two stories, both classics but one more so than the other.
First up, the lesser classic:
“The Bureau d’Exchange de Maux” by Edward Plunkett Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany AKA Lord Dunsany
This one felt like a Twilight Zone episode, and who knows, maybe it is.
Somewhere on a shady street in Paris there is a store and in that store sits the most evil man. This man operates a peculiar sort of stock exchange where one person can exchange their evil for another’s. Too many children got you down? Why not exchange that with someone who’s down because they have none? Fear losing all your money? Why not exchange that fear with someone who fears making more money?
People come to the exchange pay their dues, and the evil man matches clients together. The narrator has stumbled into the place and at first is an observer. But after awhile the concept of the place pulls him in. He wants to know how it works and decides to test the place by getting rid of some inconsequential evil, his fear of boats. He exchanges this with a man who’s afraid of elevators and the narrator goes away thinking he got the better of the deal. Of course when he gets back to the hotel, his new fear hits him hard and he realizes he’s doomed himself to a life of always taking the stairs. The next day he goes back to the Bureau to see if he can cancel the exchange, but when he reaches the street the store’s not there. It’s like it never existed at all. The end.
I won’t lie. I like Lord Dunsany, especially when he works in this contemporary weird mode, as opposed to his mythic Orientalist. You can give it a read here.
Next is our classic story, a philosophical tale that I’m sure you all know.
“Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
I will confess that at uncharitable moments I’ve viewed this story as “The Cold Equations” for the woke. If you’re not familiar with “The Cold Equations”, you can read the Wikipedia page here. It’s the type of story lauded for its adherence to a grim hard techno-objectivism and is as contrived as any other moral fairy tale. Omelas has some of that, except Le Guin’s more honest in what she’s doing. She tells us at the start that she isn’t writing a story, but writing a thought experiment dressed up as a story. And as the one in charge of the experiment she is tilting the field against us, the reader.
Omelas is a beautiful place and we come to it on the first day of its summer festival. In every way it is utopian and delightful with Le Guin pointing out that it has none of the usual utopian corniness. And so paragraph after paragraph we wander Omelas and admire all that it offers and we see the games and delights, and Le Guin lets us enjoy all that, until she decides that Omelas needs a taint for us to believe it is real. And the taint is where the moral puzzle rests.
In some building’s dark basement there is a child who lives abused and uncared for. All adults in Omelas know the child is there and all know if the child wasn’t there the utopia could not exist, and if it wasn’t this child it would likely have to be another, possibly even one of the beautiful ones we saw in the earlier paragraphs. Everyone knows the child is there. But some, those who walk away, see the child and can’t afterwards return to their idyllic existence in Omelas. In time they abandon utopia and leave to find a better place.
Unlike “The Cold Equations”, Le Guin doesn’t present her moral puzzle as a story. (Nor is she working with an editor that seems particularly set on having the sentimental teenage girl die.) Le Guin builds her moral puzzle in every paragraph, putting the pieces together just so. It’s a good read and a testament to Le Guin’s craft. When we get to the dark basement, she depicts the taint in Omelas in very clear terms. There is no way to negotiate with this evil. It simply is. And Le Guin gives us only two potential outs: do we live in Omelas, enjoying all it has to offer while knowing the only way it can exist is by gross cruelty or do we abandon it and walk away?
Most everyone likes to think they would walk away from Omelas, but would you still, if it meant you’d likely die from starvation on some mountain slope? Le Guin leaves unsaid any mention of the walkers’ fate. She doesn’t tell us there’s a better place, only that there’s a place more unimaginable than Omelas, and it’s one she can’t describe. My take is that those who walk away from Omelas die, but their rejection of Omelas is what makes that place change.
But here I am negotiating with a contrived moral puzzle. The most interesting moral puzzle is how to live when every place is Omelas, only of a differing shades. In that situation is it even possible to walk away?
Put your solution in the comments below.
Everyone’s favorite two-fisted pulp action superstar: Franz Kafka!