Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Casual Shorts: Jack Finney, Of Missing Persons (1955)

Finney, Jack. "Of Missing Persons." Good Housekeeping, March 1955.

  • First published in Good Housekeeping, March 1955.
  • A publication history of "Of Missing Persons" can be found at the ISFdb
  • The full text is available online at 101bananas.

I read the short story, this time, in the anthology Suspense Stories (Mary E. MacEwen, editor. Scholastic Book Services, September 1963). I believe I first read the story (ca. 1990) in the excellent anthology Fantasy: The Literature of the Marvelous (Leo P. Kelly, ed. McGraw-Hill, 1974). The story was also included in Judith Merrill's annual S-F: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (NY: Dell, 1956).

Rating:     7/10

From a stranger in a bar, an average and unambitious bank teller learns of the Acme Travel Bureau. If selected by the bureau's staff, a visitor can purchase a ticket to a colonial paradise whose inhabitants have no worries, and their true passion, whatever it may be, is their contribution to society. The cost for such a ticket is whatever the visitor happens to have on their person. And the ticket is one way only.

"Of Missing Persons" is very much a product of its period, and the same type of story, of an escape from one's mundane existence and of the problems of the world, was all-too-common at the time. The concept was depicted famously in Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone screenplay, "A Stop at Willoughby," in which an average working stiff gets off the train from his daily commute at the town of Willoughby, where the townsfolk live in an era of the past, and can go fishing at their leisure. Finney himself specialized in stories and novels of escape, including the popular Time and Again (1970), and his most recognized short stories: "The Third Level" (1952) and "Of Missing Persons" (1955); in all three the protagonists find unusual methods of leaving present-day New York City for some kind of utopia, be it in the past with a lovely girl, or in some faraway place.

Cold War anxieties, post WWII trauma, nuclear threat and other worries of the period, alongside the protagonist's insignificance amid the large urban landscape, are highlighted as elements that lead these common men from wanting a more comfortable life. Our bank teller here has no ambitions of greatness, of bettering a world that is crumbling away, but rather to leave that world and all its inherent anxieties. The utopia in "Of Missing Persons" that Finney has created is a fairly simple planet named Verna. It is a true utopia, as nothing appears to mar its fantasy and there is no illusion that can be broken. The story culminates in an ending which essentially solidifies the idea that 1950s New York City is a world from which one is best off escaping. Our protagonist has mounting doubts of the truth of Verna, and these doubts leads him to abandon, at the last minute, his voyage. He is left, sitting in a bar, miserably recounting this adventure to anyone who would listen.

Along with a simplified utopia, Finney gives us a simplified explanation of speedy space travel, and stock characters in both the narrator and the alien travel agent. Despite these simplicities, the story closes with strong effect, as the overarching idea itself is well presented.

The technical strength of the story lies in its circular narrative. The story is a monologue aimed at the reader. We meet this stranger in a bar, who tells of meeting a stranger himself in a bar, heeding him to listen to his story. The narrative comes full circle, as the bank teller is warning us of our anticipated visit to the Acme Travel bureau, giving us the same warnings he received from the stranger he had some time ago met in a bar.

For more of this week's Wednesday's Short Stories, please visit Patricia Abbott's blog.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Great Ghost Stories, edited by John Grafton (1992)

Grafton, John, editor. Great Ghost Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1992.
______. Great Ghost Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications (Dover Thrift Editions). Undated reprint (my copy, pictured below right).

Great Ghost Stories at the ISFdb
Great Ghost Stories at Goodreads
Cover design by
Paul E. Kennedy

Overall Rating:     6.5/10

This small book contains ten stories over exactly 100 pages (therefore averaging ten pages per story--math simple enough even for me), and a two-page preface, or "Note," uncredited but presumably by editor John Grafton. Though many of these stories have frequently been anthologized in all kinds of collections, from ghost books and supernatural tales to Victorian fiction, quite a few are not seen very often and I had not read most of them.

Why have we not seen many of these stories more often? I suspect it is because many of them just aren't very good. We have three oft-reprinted classics in Ambrose Bierce's "The Moonlit Road," Bram Stoker's "The Judge's House" and the superlative "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs, and these three are easily among the strongest in the collection. Along with the stories by Edwards and Dickens, these make up the good half of the anthology. Sadly, there is a distinct weaker half, including forgettable entries by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and M. R. James. While these stories are not terrible, they are also not as inventive as their better works, and do not contribute anything new to the genre. They are well written, Le Fanu's in particular, I think, but it is as though the authors are going through the motions. (E. G. Swain arguably can be discounted here as he never attained the heights of the others, and his contribution to this little book is indeed better than that of his colleague and friend James).

Overall it is a quick read of some curiosities that a person like me might enjoy. I would not, however, recommend this to the casual reader, nor to those who tend to prefer more modern ghosts.

The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards     7/10
All the Year Round, ed. Charles Dickens, Christmas 1864

On a cold December afternoon, a recently married young man is lost while hunting in the moors. Snow starts to fall, and as our young narrator fears his demise is near, he encounters a crotchety old man and follows him to his home. There he meets the master of an isolated house, a man who settled far from society to study science, as his beliefs in the otherworldly were scoffed at by urban contemporaries. Yet even our own rational narrator's grounded beliefs are challenged that night as he makes his way toward his recent bride.

A very entertaining story, with an ingeniously woven speculation on truth and motive. For my article on the story, please visit this page.

To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt by Charles Dickens     7/10
All the Year Round, ed. Charles Dickens, Christmas 1865

Published one year after "The Phantom Coach," in the next Christmas volume of All the Year Round, this story seems to take as its starting point an idea from its predecessor. Specifically, in this age of reason, a person should not admit to others of having seen an apparition, otherwise they risk a comfortable livelihood. Yet while this idea comes up again half-way through the text, this is not the  main focus of the story. Dickens seems to be more concerned with criticizing England's judicial system.

The nameless narrator, a successful banker, becomes obsessed with a recent murder in England, which leads to a hallucination of one man angrily chasing another, and a brief vision of the chaser at the narrator's home. He is then appointed as a member of the jury trying the case of that same murder, and there continues to witness the apparition of the victim while the murderer is standing trial. An interesting concept, well delivered (it is Dickens, after all), and while we are confident of how the story will resolve, there is nonetheless an excellent final paragraph with a slight twist.

A ghost story which may not contain any ghosts, depending on one's interpretation. To read mine, please visit this page.

Dickon the Devil by J. Sheridan Le Fanu     6/10
London Society, December 1872

The nameless narrator in this one, most likely a lawyer, is sent to the isolated Barwyke Hall in order to partition the property between "two rich old maids," after the owner has died. In the region the narrator learns of strange goings on at the property. His first night there he meets the friendly caretaker and encounters the strange idiot called "Dickon the Devil." Following an odd incident in the middle of the night, he learns the next day of the former owner, Squire Bowes, who would never hurt a fly, but was loathe at the thought that old maids would inherit his home. Since his death there have been sightings on the land of the Squire Bowes, sickening of cattle and other strange goings on.

While Le Fanu is the author of one of my favourite collections, In a Glass Darkly, "Dickon the Devil" is the weakest of his stories I have so far read. It is well written, and has a good atmosphere and a nicely detailed setting, but lacks the thought put into his other work. Like Dickon himself, the story is in a sense simple-minded, not constructed with the care, the detail put into something like "Green Tea." The story doesn't wrap up as nicely, and the mystery here seems loose, leaving me with questions.

The Judge's House by Bram Stoker     7/10
Holly Leaves: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic Life's Christmas Annual, 5 December 1891

Young Mathematics student Malcolm Malcolmson visits the remote English village of Benchurch in order to spend a month in quiet isolation with his books. There he rents a house that lay for many years uninhabited, known as the "Judge's House," since the last person to reside there was a cruel judge who it was said took pleasure to send persons to the hangman.

Subject-wise the story is a little confused as combines ghosts with possession. The characterization and atmosphere hold up well, however, and elevate the story to greater heights than the ending did.

A Ghost Story by Jerome K. Jerome     6/10
The Idler, September 1892

A conversation about ghosts leads one man to tell a tale of a victim in a crime of passion to pursue the wrongdoer across the globe. I never cared for stories set up via conversation, though I believe Jerome published this piece as part of a series of articles and not necessarily as a short story. The tale told, however, is quite good, though it would be improved in a modern rendering with addition detail.

The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Bierce     8/10
Cosmopolitan, January 1907

Told through three different points of view, we learn of a murder and a haunting that slowly reveal the facts of the tale. This is a story with a gradual twist, revealing the events little by little until the plot is  finally made clear. As each person is privy to only a small set of details, we need all three points of view, including a voice from beyond the grave, to explain the events of a single night.

A modern and ingenious short story, Bierce helped develop point of view in the short story, and this  early piece is a good illustration of how point of view can benefit a story. The story is quite tragic, and the tragedy is enhanced by its structure. Bierce knew a straightforward telling, while it can work itself into a fine story, would not in this case have the impact that this structure provided. This was my first reading of the story, though it has appeared in various anthologies, and for such a short piece it is insanely gripping.

The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs     9/10
Harper's Monthly Magazine, September 1902

Among the most famous of classic ghost stories, I'm not sure I need to even summarize the plot. On a stormy night, a man and wife and their son are at home, waiting for an old acquaintance of dad's to arrive. Sergeant Major Morris, once stationed in India, arrives obviously distracted, and tales of his experiences in foreign lands leads conversation to his possession of a monkey's paw. A dried paw cursed by a fakir to teach others of the value of fate, an item that will grant three separate owners three wishes. However, there is a caveat, as the wishes are fulfilled through terrible means.

What is there to say about "The Monkey's Paw"? It is a straightforward enough story with a simple, all-too-familiar lesson. One can argue the tale is a ghost story, and one can argue it is an early zombie tale. Either way it is highly effective, well written, and a horror story with a real tragedy, one that drives the plot and breaks the heart.

The Rose Garden by M. R. James     6/10
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, London: Edward Arnold, 1911

Mrs. Anstruther wishes to add a rose garden to her and Mr. Anstruther's recently purchased property in Essex. Where she would like to install the garden is an old bench and a post deeply rooted in the ground. Once these are removed, Mr. Anstruther has a horrible nightmare and Mrs. Anstruther suffers a terrible shock. I wonder if there is a connection...

Not one of James's strongest stories. What is going on and what is causing the haunting is pretty much explained to the reader half-way through the story, and leaving the reader with no real ending but to confirm there was indeed a ghost. Not a shock since there is no ambiguity concerning the ghost's existence. It is, however, written with charm and some humour, unlike James's usual approach, and enjoyable as a result.

Bone to His Bone by E. G. Swain     6/10
The Stoneground Ghost Tales: Compiled from the Recollections of the Reverend Roland Batchel, Vicar of the Parish, 1912

Reverend Batchel is part of a long line of vicars at Stoneground. He is an insomniac, and took to sleeping in the small chamber by the library, as he is an avid reader. Late in the night there are noises coming from the library, which has always been assumed to be part of the workings of the house, until one night, searching for some matches, a box is placed into his hand! Then a book appears suddenly on the table, and the good vicar can hear the pages turn.

An enjoyable little story though nothing exceptional in narrative or technique. There is some genuine coziness in the winter reading space of Stoneground, but that is likely because I like cozy winter reading spaces.

On a side note, Swain was a colleague and friend of M. R. James, and part of the group of churchmen who liked to share ghost stories. The Stoneground Ghost Tales was his only major publication, but dwarfed greatly by James's 1904 Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

The Confession of Charles Linkworth by E. F. Benson     6/10
The Cavalier and the Scrap Book, 13 January 1912

(Look at that publication date. We're on the cusp of its 110th anniversary.)

Mr. Charles Linkworth is hanged for the murder of his mother. Oddly, the rope used for the hanging appears to have disappeared, and since the hanging, Dr. Teesdale, the prison doctor, has been receiving an odd whispering phone call and senses the presence of the dead man at the prison.

No surprises in this one as the title relays the apparition's motive. The most interesting parts of the story were the early detailing of the murder, and the phone calls on a genuine vintage phone, circa 1911. Well written and constructed, it is nonetheless lacking and not among Benson's best work.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Charles Dickens, "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt" (1865)

Dickens, Charles. "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt." All the Year Round, Christmas Number 1865.

For publication history, please visit the story's ISFdb page.
"To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt" at Goodreads.

Rating:     7/10

Published one year after Amelia B. Edwards's "The Phantom Coach," in the next Christmas volume of Dickens's own All the Year Round, this story seems to take as its starting point an idea from its predecessor. Specifically, in this age of reason, a person should not admit to others of having seen an apparition, otherwise they risk a comfortable livelihood. Yet while this idea comes up again half-way through the text, this is not the main focus of the story. Instead, Dickens seems to be more concerned with criticizing England's judicial system.

The nameless narrator, a successful banker, becomes obsessed with a recent murder in England, which leads to a hallucination of one man angrily chasing another outside his apartment in Piccadilly, and a brief visit from the chaser at the narrator's home. The banker is then appointed as a member of the jury trying the case of that same murder, and there continues to witness the apparition of the victim while the murderer is standing trial. An interesting concept, well delivered (it is Dickens, after all), and while we are confident of how the story will resolve, there is nonetheless an excellent final paragraph with a slight twist.

While the existence of a ghost in the story appears straightforward, there are some clues to indicate that the narrator is less than trustworthy (an uncommon trait for a Victorian ghost story protagonist), and that there is no actual ghost. The first clue is in the title: "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt." While the story was later published under other titles, most famously "The Trial for Murder," but also "The Thirteenth Man" (which, in context of the story, is the creepiest title), Dickens specifically chose a title which has little to do with the story. "Don't believe this banker!" the title seems to be stating. The narrator relates incidents of other characters catching glimpses of a ghostly figure, or sensing something amiss when the apparition is in the room. However, not one of those characters corroborates the narrator, as he is the only teller of this tale. The banker's other insistence that the tale is true is to declare, and tell us to remember this detail as we read, that the identity, name or likeness, of the murderer was never mentioned in the papers during the investigation, so he could not have known the identity in advance. However, the narrator sets down his tale after the verdict was given, thereby writing this confession after the papers no doubt published name and likeness, since the narrator himself describes early on that this was a major murder case that preoccupied the public interest.

In addition, the title "The Trial for Murder" does not work with the narrative as it focuses on one element of the story, essentially negating the early events, which are both important to the plot as they set down the foundation of a haunting at the trial. "The Thirteenth Man," though a strong and creepy title, I think, places emphasis on the victim of the crime, whereas the story is not about the victim, nor really even about the crime, but about our narrator's experience of the court.

Dickens's main interest in this narrative is the judicial system. He seems to be claiming that the British criminal system is a joke, since the judge, jury and nearly everyone involved in the trial must have the ghost of the victim influencing the court so that the correct verdict is reached. Essentially, there is no confidence in the court to uncover the truth. The narrator, selected as foreman of the jury, gives no opinion of his own as to why he believes the man on trial is guilty, but focuses and responds solely to the dead man, whose gestures pantomime his innocence. The other jury members are in turn influenced by the apparition, as is the judge when he reads through his notes on the final day of trial. In a partly comical yet gruesome sequence, the apparition exaggeratedly mimics the cutting of his throat to indicate he could not have committed suicide, that he could not have cut his own throat in the way it had been slashed. This is a straightforward scientific fact not brought up by the prosecution, and yet one that could present the defense's claim of suicide as ludicrous. In addition, the member of the jury who questions only the hard facts and slows the deliberation is one the narrator refers to as an "idiot," and who at one point has at least two other jury members in tow. Dickens is satirizing the jury system, indicating how a randomly selected jury can be influenced by its least intelligent member. In fact, the fate of the man on trial is being debated, albeit indirectly, between an idiot and a ghost.

I won't give away that last line which I like so much, but I need to allude to that ending in order to argue my case (since I can't be pantomiming in your bedroom, office, library or coffee shop). That final quote negates the idea of a ghost, since a ghost is an apparition of a dead person, often in limbo, seen here purportedly by someone sensitive to the dead man's plight. The ending instead points to an act of mesmerism, where the living can have influence on others. Our narrator may be describing a universe where sprits of the dead and mesmerism co-exist, and the ending is certainly effective, but this is highly unlikely. Mesmerism was a fad during the nineteenth century, and like with many pseudo-sciences of the time, Dickens was a serious participant. As a professed rational man during the rise of industrialism and an age of reason, Dickens did not believe in ghosts, yet he subscribed to every other upper-class pseudo-scientific fad, including phrenology, of all things. Dickens uses elements of mesmerism in other stories, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and most famously in his brilliant 1866 Christmas tale "The Signal-Man." He uses mesmerism to specific effect, and his ghost stories normally for social commentary, so it is therefore unlikely that he would combine the two without a specific purpose. The purpose of this story is fairly obvious.

Therefore, by book-ending his story with two points, the story title and that last line, which contradict the events contained in between, Dickens is subtly alluding to the fact that this narrator is not to be believed. Scattered throughout the story are other clues to indicate as much, and his commentary on the judicial system is clear.

As a ghost story it is not the most accomplished, and Edwards's "The Phantom Coach" works better. Yet as a subtle and darkly comic piece of social criticism, it is really quite good.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Amelia B. Edwards, The Phantom Coach (1864)

The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards

First published in All the Year Round, ed. Charles Dickens, Christmas 1864
Read in Great Ghost Stories, John Grafton, ed. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1992
For an extensive bibliography, please visit The Phantom Coach's ISFdb page.

Rating:     7/10

Amelia B. Edwards was among the writer acquaintances of Mr. Charles Dickens, and her short prose has appeared in both of Dickens's periodicals: Household Words and All the Year Round. While known primarily as a novelist and non-fiction author, this story is not Edwards's only supernatural tale, but it is her most popular. It was published in the annual Christmas volume of All the Year Round, and has been reprinted continuously since in various anthologies.

The story is narrated by the unnamed protagonist twenty years after the fact. Recently married and visiting the north of England with his wife, our young and confident man is caught out late on the English moors while hunting for grouse. It begins to snow and the temperature falls considerably, so that our narrator speculates on his demise. As luck would have it, he encounters a crotchety man and stubbornly follows him to his house, where our narrator meets an eccentric hermit. This hermit, appalled at the intrusion, grudgingly allows our narrator to stay the night, and eventually warms up to his surprise guest. After dinner he gives the young man a brief account of his life, impressing the narrator by expounding fluidly on numerous topics. He is a man of both science and philosophy, as he defines himself. Once a scientist in the city, he was ridiculed by colleagues for his belief in the supernatural, specifically in apparitions, and resentful of the closed-mindedness of his contemporaries, he decided to isolate himself from society. In this cabin he is able to dedicate himself to work. Our narrator learns of a late mail coach that is expected that night five miles from the house, and hurries to meet it. In so doing, he finds his own  strict rational beliefs challenged, and is essentially converted to the hermit's viewpoint on apparitions.

"The Phantom Coach" holds up well a century and half after its initial publication, yet simultaneously remains embedded in Victorian ghost story conventions (though it does stand out from other standard fare of the time). The narrator is presented as a rational man, confident and resourceful. Off the bat he informs his listener that he is revealing an experience he has shared with only one person, and adamantly states that it happened and that no one can convince him otherwise. He is presented as  trustworthy, and his vivid re-telling of the events of that afternoon imply clarity and sobriety.

The story is broken into three distinct sections: the introductory portion when our narrator finds himself lost, and during which we learn of his character; the second section when we meet the hermit and discover the main idea behind the story, that science and the supernatural can co-exist in our world, and are not mutually exclusive, and finally the third portion, when the narrator heads out on the old mail road and encounters the supernatural.

The narrator's encounter with the hermit is perhaps the most compelling portion of the story. It helps to back up the narrator's claim of ghosts in an ingenious way. Our nameless hermit makes it clear that his successful career was ruined because he was outspoken on his belief in apparitions; he essentially lost everything as a result of being open with his beliefs. We know the narrator is young, just married and prepared to make the best of his new life. Following his experience later that night, he heeds the hermit's cautionary tale and decides to save his future by keeping the experience a secret--he even admits to not having told his wife, not willing to damage his marriage to the woman he loves. As he states in the opening line: "The circumstances I am about to relate to you have truth to recommend them." From his point of view he is not being arrogant, but instead indicates that truth is not just his word, but also his motive, since sharing truth on such experiences is risky.

Interestingly, this is the premise to Dickens's Christmas ghost story "To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt," published in the following year's Christmas edition of All the Year Around. Dickens's narrator begins his tale with these words: "I have always noticed a prevalent want of courage, even among persons of superior intelligence and culture, as to imparting their own psychological experiences when those have been of a strange sort." It is likely Dickens, who edited the journal, was directly influenced by "The Phantom Coach." 

Of the incident itself, I won't write much. It is expected, but nonetheless well presented. If we assume the tale is being narrated in 1864, then the events occurred in 1844. The incident, we learn from the crotchety old man, occurred nine years before, therefore if we were to keep up the timeline established above, the incident could have occurred in 1835.

For more of this week's Wednesday short stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2021

Landrigan, Linda, editor, Jackie Sherbow, Managing Editor. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  NY: Penny Publications, March/April 2021. Volume 66, Nos. 3 & 4.

AHMM website
The issue over at Goodreads

Overall rating:     7/10

This is the first of the contemporary AHMM magazines I've read since the late 1980s when, a kid, I asked my parents for a subscription for my birthday. Though most frequently my reading of AHMM consisted of back issues from the 1960s and 1970s that I'd picked up for pocket change as a pre-teen in local second-hand bookshops. Receiving this issue in my mailbox was a treat, and excitedly I began to read, wondering how different this issue would be from those I was used to reading. How much more modern and innovative, more complex and dark. Soon I realized that in many the stories are pretty much the same, though the overall quality of the writing has improved. As though we re-visit the same themes and plot outlines, only we spend more time focused on the craft. Like issues of old, this one has a mix of serious drama and humour, along with a dash of the supernatural, which I always appreciated with AHMM.

The mix here is really quite good, with a solid consistency in quality. We have reincarnation, a murderous animal, a sexual affair, the first century Europe, and a dose of humour (which then and now has always been my least favourite sub-genre).

What is most modern about the issue is its relationship with the internet. Though since receiving this issue a few months back I've received old fashioned mail-in subscription renewal offers, there are many complementing items on the AHMM website, which I quite enjoyed.

For my favourite individual stories, I'm picking two: "The Beast of Easedale Tarn," by James Tipton, the one featured on the issue's cover. I also quite enjoyed the Matthew Wilson piece, "Thank You for Your Service."

The Soul of Peg O'Dwyer by Michael Nethercott     7/10

In 1950s New York, a young woman is hypnotized and brought back to her youth, which turns out to be 1880s Ireland. It seems the girl relapses into a former life, and we quickly learn that this incarnation of herself came to a sudden demise as she was walking home. The incident is investigated by recurring character Mr. O'Nelligan, from the O'Nelligan/Plunkett series.

With good build-up and suspense, I was drawn into the story. While I did figure out the mystery, it was quite late in the story. Interestingly, there is discussion of coincidence and their improbabilities, yet the plot relies on one major coincidence in order to be pulled off. I won't give that away, since it can spoil the story.

As a supernatural story, "The Soul of Peg O'Dwyer" earns its very own page in the ISFdb.

Shank's Locked Room by Robert Lopresti     6/10

Over dinner at a mystery writers' convention, a small group discuss the curious case of a stolen hotel room key belonging to one of its members. Curious, since nothing has actually been taken from the victim's room. A quick little conversation story, light in mood and energy.

(For an amusing account by the author on naming characters please visit this article on Trace Evidence.)

The Beast of Easedale Tarn by James Tipton     8/10

Dr. Watson visits Easedale Tarn, near the village of Grasmere, to investigate a "big cat" that is terrorizing the Lake District. There he encounters a diverse cast of characters, evidence of a large feline, an actual puma, and a scandal around poet William Wordsworth.

A highly enjoyable story, with a tight combination of complex mystery, intriguing characters and unforced humour. A pleasure to read.

Friends and Neighbors by John M. Floyd     6/10

Sherriff of Pine Country, Mississippi, Raymond Douglas, visits friend, author, former lawyer and current love interest Jennifer Parker, to gloat about how he has just solved a case. Parker, however has her mind elsewhere, and the two share, each helping to solve the other's mystery.

Quick and enjoyable.

The Girl with the Gibson Girl Look by O'Neil De Noux     7/10

A married man falls for a pretty younger woman, and they begin a calculated affair. As expected, things do become complicated, so much so that a murder must be committed.

As is frequently the case in a story depicting an affair through a husband's point of view, the man is victimized via a stern, cold and unattractive wife. In addition, he is trapped in the marriage since his comfortable lifestyle is a result of his wife's fortune. In this case, the male character is redeemed as his deep devotion to his daughter is tossed, otherwise unnecessarily, into the plot. Despite this sometimes unnerving trope, I liked the depiction of the affair--it was in fact what kept me glued to the story, not caring if a murder was looming ahead. I wanted things to work out for the couple, knowing of course that they wouldn't since I'm reading this in an issue of AHMM.

Plot builds up nicely, but unfortunately the ending drops in a bit out of nowhere, and is not too satisfactory. I shouldn't be surprised, since there are some other unrelated red herrings in the story, insignificant remarks or moments that are weighted, only to remain insignificant. Despite this, the story is good on its own merits, so that a clever ending is not what I am looking for.

A Night of Lies, Thieves, and Thunder, Long Ago by William Burton McCormick     6/10

It is the year A.D. 28, and in the midst of a raging storm, a retired thief finds that a younger version of himself has found his way inside his home, a fugitive of the law. Here are two thieves and somewhere nearby is some valuable treasure, so tension abounds, heightened by the storm and the soldiers that are searching for the younger man.

The ending should be obvious since it's clearly pointed out in the plot, and might be obvious for a more practiced mystery reader, but I didn't even come close to figuring it out. It works, and has an element of absurdity that I always appreciate.

Thank You For Your Service by Matthew Wilson     8/10

A veteran of two rounds of duty in Iraq, Kyle decides to make YouTube videos of stolen valor: of citizens pretending to be veterans in order to take advantage of veteran benefits.

My favourite story of the issue. It is well constructed and maintains both depth and a good plot. The story focuses primarily on Kyle's struggles, while detailing the story's crime: stolen valor. I learned a lot about the topic and have since viewed some videos on YouTube. The story gives insight on post-war veteran experiences, on the injustices and shocking extent of stolen valor. Beyond this, the story also touches on the desperation of citizens to exploit veteran benefits, and even the desperate attempts of veterans who try to take advantage of the fakers by making a proper livelihood. The situation is presented full circle.

Dead Man’s Hand by Melissa Yi     6/10

As a result of winning a poker tournament, garbage collector Ritchie is invited by the local judge to play a hand of poker at his home. Because we are in the pages of a genre magazine, Ritchie and the group of high society characters are not playing for money, but rather for something more precious.

Overall I enjoyed the story, but felt there were some ambiguities needing clarity, such as why the judge and his friends wanted to play for these specific stakes (the single word tossed out by Ritchie is not enough to convince me). I'm leaving this vague since it is a spoiler.

Saint Paddy’s Day by R. T. Lawton     5/10

Two men are hired to retrieve the corpse of their friend Padraich, which has been stolen the night before the funeral by some old drinking buddies who wanted to take him on one final night of bar hopping. Comedic mysteries are not my thing, and this one falls a little flat for me. My least favourite story of the issue.

Business as Usual by Wayne J. Gardiner     6/10

On her return to New York, a "specialist" is nearly assassinated at LaGuardia Airport. She recently finished a job for a prominent Chicago businessman, but the job, a killing, had some "collateral damage," and her employer likes his jobs taken care of exactly as planned. He is so exacting in his work, that despite the mutual attraction between them, it is likely he wants her dead as a result of the less than perfect hit.

The Thrifty Way by Brendan Dubois     7/10

Former social work student and current thrifty shop employee Maggie is at work when a strikingly good looking stranger comes by looking for a series of books on the history of the US navy in World War II. The shop has four books from the series, but he would very much like to have the set of fifteen. Maggie is both suspicious and intrigued, and finagles an expensive dinner from the nameless stranger in exchange for the identify of the person who dropped off those books.

The plot and resolution are fairly standard, but the story is well constructed, suspenseful with a likeable protagonist and excellent use of backdrop, focusing on thrift, poverty and the contrasting ways in which to make a life. Maggie is essentially a failure at helping others, her degree useless and her work unsatisfying, and despite a deceivingly optimistic outlook, she is borderline depressed. The story's title serves up a nice bit of irony.

There is a minor error in the text. When our stranger first steps up to the counter of the thrift shop, he places one of the books on the counter, mentioning that the shop has four. He then goes back "to get the others," and on his return Maggie states he comes "back with the other four." He should really be coming back with the other three. (p. 159)

What the Doctor Ordered by John H. Dirckx     6/10

Following a board meeting, its senior members stay back to talk about the good old days. A couple of lawyers describe unbearable clients that got off the hook, and then a doctor confesses to murdering some patients.

An entertaining story that ends on a half-decent joke, but a riveting telling and an interesting mystery merge for a good read.

The Dueña by Tom Larsen     6/10

Captain Ernesto Guillén, the once mighty inspector now reduced to working in the tiny Ecuadorian coastal town of Olón, is called to investigate a burglary, and takes a young sergeant with him to the scene of the crime. A fairly standard story, where the captain shows off not only his investigative skills, but also a soft side.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Su J. Sukol, Zee (2020)

Sukol, Su J. Zee. Moncton, NB: Bouton d'or Acadie. November, 2020.

Zee at Goodreads

"Just be yourself."
"But which self should I be?"

The notion of self-discovery is additionally complicated when one can see a variety of selves through the critical eyes of others. In Su J. Sukol's Zee, we follow a young girl with an unusual ability that both propels and impedes her development.

Zee is a child described as hypersensitive and hyper-empathic, qualities that enable her to read the thoughts of others. This unusual ability has various consequences as Zee evolves along her formative years.

In one of the novel's strongest sequences, setting up what will haunt our protagonist in the years to come, Zee sits in class during her first day of kindergarten. She is listening to her educator taking attendance, and as Ms. Alison reads the names on the class list, Zee catches glimpses of the associated thoughts ("Black boy, ADHD?", "Jewish, lesbian?"). Innocently, Zee waits excitedly for her turn, wondering what thoughts would be associated with her, and picks up the educator's confusion at the name on her list, thinking it is actually Zoe (because "What were her parents thinking, giving her a name like that?"). In turn, Zee happily believes that she is indeed Zoe. She allows her self to be shaped by the pre-judged (as opposed to prejudiced) thoughts of others. While not all thoughts are intended to be mean, whether stating facts or trying to understand others, but by stating facts as we know them, and trying to understand the world around us via race, gender and culture, we are pre-judging.

This incident is one along a string that helps Zee define who she is and how she should be presenting herself, based primarily on the expectations of others. Yet Zee is already on the outskirts of society, and the thoughts she may experience can be particularly "othering." She is the child of a quad of devoted and loving caregivers: a gay white biological mother and her partner, and a gay black biological father and his partner. Aware of her special talent and devoted to helping raise her, these adults try to guide her to be herself, and yet they are also struggling with how they must present themselves. Insecure, they try to define their relationship with Zee, and their relationships with one another, often acting in contradiction to their feelings. While the search for self is a challenge in one's youth, the aspiration to be oneself is a challenge for all ages.

Not normally a reader of young adult fiction, I genuinely enjoyed this book. Characters are well portrayed, presented sympathetically, their complex sets of emotions well handled--a difficult task. The book is important for young readers. While it presents negative and otherwise minor characters fairly two-dimensionally, seeing others for what they appear to be, and while Zee herself often acts as a secondary character, the main adult characters remain complex, and it is through their world view that many of the ideas in the novel are approached.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 1969

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Volume 14, number 10. Ernest M. Hutter, ed. H.S.D. Publications, Inc. October 1969.

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (October 1969) - The Alfred ...AHMM, October 1969 at Goodreads
AHMM, October 1969 at The Alfred Hitchcock wiki

Overall Rating:     7/10

With pics of interior art coming in a day or two... [EDIT: this week I hope.]

Overall, a pretty good issue, with only one story I did not like. The bulk of the stories are forgettable, yet enjoyable enough to read, and many of the selections here managed to find their way into anthologies, including a few in Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. My favourite story is the character-based "The Attitude of Murder," by Nedra Tyre, who I am not familiar with. Other good ones are: "Pardon My Death Ray" by the always enjoyable Jack Ritchie, "Killer in Town" by Max Van Derveer, and "Scream All the Way" by Michael Collins.

My copy is a sad mess. Not only is it overly yellow, but the spine is broken, there is writing on the cover, and a stain on the back. Luckily I paid 0.35 when I picked it up second-hand at NDG Paperback sometime in the mid-80s, probably in a similar condition, only a little less yellow.

Jack B. Daggett's Lament by Frank Sisk     6/10
Narrator Al stops by a small town bar for a drink and something to eat. There he meets patron Jack B. Daggett, who, for the price of a few drinks, recounts his life history. A promising young chemist, he met a corrupt woman who guided him to marry a young and innocent orphaned named Christian, in order to gain access to her sizable inheritance. Of course, things became complicated when Jack fell in love with the woman.

Regular contributor Frank Sisk delivers a somewhat overlong but fairly good story. As most of his short stories, this one is character driven, featuring misconceptions and a small twist. This one tries hard to provide pathos, and with some editing could have easily been improved.

Killer in Town by Max Van Derveer     7/10
Sheriff Billy-Don Joe Glover is anticipating trouble as war hero Matthew Charles McLamp is slated to return to town. The son of the town's wealthiest citizen, years before he had killed a young girl in a traffic collision, and though rumours of his being inebriated behind the wheel pervaded the town, his wealthy father managed to help get him acquitted. Sheriff Glover is concerned that the victim's father would attempt some kind of revenge. While he was away, Matt's new bride Ertha moved into the Big House with his parents, and his dad hired a friend of theirs to chauffeur the lonely girl and keep her company as she awaits her husband's return.

A layered mystery, there is much I like about this one. Pervading the story is a strong sense of despondency, as this successful family lives isolated at home while its ostracized heir is fighting in Vietnam. The family is perpetually punished for both the accident that killed the little girl, yet more so as a result of the acquittal. Beyond the family's experience is the sheriff, offspring of the town's founding fathers, near the end of his career. He knows everyone in town, has a good sense of character, and yet, we discover, misreads each of the players in this complex drama. An AHMM story with more subtle depth than its average feature.

The Waiting Room by Charles W. Runyon     6/10
A trio of thieves and killers on the run hole up in an abandoned service station, surrounded by police. Told through the point of view of Pawley, the leader, he reflects on the current situation and how he has dragged his brother John and his lover Shirley down to this point.

A good read, though I remember liking it more when I was a kid. This was one of the stories that stood out to me from all the back issues I was reading in the 80s. From an adult perspective, it is good, and the existential elements delivered from unlikable and unsympathetic characters is interesting in of itself, yet it is surface only, with no actual depth. Though I suppose this is appropriate since there is no real depth among these characters.

"The Waiting Room" has been reprinted a number of times, including in three AH anthologies: Alfred Hitchcock's Death-Mate (NY: Dell Publishing, May 1973), Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Make You Quake and Quiver (ed. Cathleen Jordan. N: Davis Publications, 1982), and Portraits of Murder (ed. Eleanor Sullivan. Galahad Books, 1988).

Pardon My Death Ray by Jack Ritchie     7/10
Re-printed in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, mid-December 1991
At a university campus, a man informs two instructors that he is from another planet, and that his people inadvertently launched a death ray at Earth that will kill everyone on the planet at ten after eight that evening.

An amusing short short story that, despite its brevity, manages to toss in a couple of twists. Jack Ritchie was always among my favourite regular AHMM contributors, under this pseudonym or that of Steve O'Connell, and this silly little piece of science fiction is a treat to read. (Though I am left wondering why members from such an advanced species would still carry bits of paper in their pockets.)

The story was among nine reprinted for the magazine's thirty-fifth anniversary (along with seven originals), for mid-December 1991 issue. I don't believe it has been reprinted elsewhere.

A Little Time Off by Stephen Wasylyk     6/10
City detective Dave Malone is on a fishing vacation in the woods, and is wading with his reel when a small fishing boat explodes. He is enticed through guilt by local sheriff Tom Fulton to help investigate the incident, and they learn quickly enough that the boat's engine did not explode, but that instead the boat was blown up. It must be murder!

A decent enough story, quick and wraps up nicely, though the forced humour could have been excised, or at least trimmed.

The Secret Savant by Edward D. Hoch     6/10
Missing persons expert Trainor is hired by a state university to locate esteemed Chemistry professor Ronald Croft, who vanished seemingly without a trace. Yet Croft locates him quite quickly, and learns that the professor is away to conduct an experiment related to his research on the connection between genes, chromosomes and criminal behaviour.

Predictable, and our hero goes from confident investigator to panicky plot trope, but ends on a nice cynical take on the human condition.

Scream All the Way by Michael Collins (Dennis Lynds)     7/10
One-armed detective Dan Fortune is hired to help guard a safe containing $250,000 in cash of bonus pay for the sales staff of a major rug company. Following a burglary attempt, the insurance company demanded that the safe be guarded at all times, and Fortune, along with a partner, must spend the night at The Sussex Towers to ensure the safety of the cash. On that first night, however, there is an unusual amount of traffic on the floor, and Fortune decides to investigate.

A good story, with a surprisingly large cast for a short story, though without getting overcrowded. Dan Fortune is a recurring character, and I quite liked him, attitude and intelligence-wise. Some nice commentary on crime along the way fro our hardened investigator, and I liked the dedication to solving a crime he did not need to even acknowledge, as he would benefit either way. I would seek out more stories of this Dan Fortune.

Both "Scream All the Way" and Charles W. Runyon's "The Waiting Room" were included in Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Make You Quake and Quiver (Anthology #11) (ed. Cathleen Jordan. NY: Davis Publications, 1982). I recall reading the anthology as a kid, thinking this was lazy editing, but in all honesty, both stories are deserving of the reprint.

Thief in the Night by Carroll Mayers     6/10
Misogynist diamond thief Harry Tyson is vacationing at a sunny resort. On the balcony late one night, he witnesses a beautiful young woman commit what appears to be a robbery next door. When questioned by resort security the next morning, if he'd seen anything, Tyson keeps quiet, and instead searches for the woman so he can blackmail her.

An average story, saved by its brevity. Fairly predictable, and we know that a misogynist such as Tyson will get his just desserts. There's also some detail about our protagonist that's only revealed at the climax, which is always ant-climactic. Nonetheless readable.

Go Ahead and Talk by Liane Keen     5/10
An American visiting London following a long absence runs into an old friend in a pub. The friend, the wealthy recently widowed Peter Carstairs, invites our unnamed narrator to his home, and opens up about the difficulties he had with his beautiful and loving--though incredibly jealous--wife.

Predictable in the worst way; simply in that there was really only one way the story could end. The long lead-up was not interesting enough either, weakened by its conclusion. There is also an uncomfortable scene of physical domestic abuse, discussed as though it were the most natural thing. I wonder if "Liane Keen" is genuinely a woman. This appears to be her only published story... but I did not search too hard.

The Attitude of Murder by Nedra Tyre     7/10
On a beautiful day, the routine walk of retired Alexander Hull is extended, taking him to an unfamiliar neighbourhood. Having lost his hearing, Hall's perception of physical attributes has become heightened, or so he believes, and looking through an upstairs window he is convinced he has witnessed a murder. He is then struck with the dilemma that many an unwitting eyewitness to a possible crime has faced: how to convince the authorities?

This story is focused not primarily on the crime, but on the character of the witness. The plot is mere trope for the development of our protagonist: a lonely widow with limited funds, who has little in life but a small apartment and a tight routine. There is natural empathy toward Mr. Hall (he even reminds me, to a certain degree, of my dad), and the reader believes what he saw while sympathizing with his meagre canned dinners and rising costs of food. There is a great tragedy here, in that Mr. Hall succumbs to being a man with no purpose to serve.

Anthologized in Alfred Hitchcock's Let it All Bleed Out (NY: Dell Publishing, 1973), which also includes another story from this issue, the lesser "The Hand."

Poof! by Syd Hoff     6/10
In the middle of the night, Charles Bergman hears a voice clearly informing him that the world will be coming to an end, and that he will be the sole remaining survivor. He immediately awakens, and kisses his wife goodbye, inadvertently waking her. We are meant to wonder whether Bargman has lost his grip on reality, or if really he is fated to become the last man on Earth. We do not wonder for long, as the story skips quickly to its conclusion.

Very short and overall forgettable, but fun enough while it lasts. Hoff was a popular cartoonist in his day, and had a handful of stories published in the pages of AHMM, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Charlie Chan Mystery Magazine, and some others. Four of his short stories have been included in AH: Presents anthologies: "A Hundred Times" in Alfred Hitchcock's Hard Day at the Scaffold (NY: Dell Publishing, 1967), "The Human Fly" in Alfred Hitchcock's Death-Mate (NY: Dell Publishing, May 1973), "The Ghost and Mr. Grebner" in Alfred Hitchcock's Behind the Death Ball (NY: Dell Publishing, November 1974), "Older than Springtime" in Alfred Hitchcock's Coffin Break (NY: Dell Publishing, May 1974), and "The Ghost and Mr. Grebner" in Alfred Hitchcock's Behind the Death Ball (NY: Dell Publishing, November 1974.

Hand by William Brittain     6/10
A major traffic jam brings cars to a standstill. Edward Julian is stuck behind a green Chevy, frustrated at the delay, when he notices the vehicle to his left, its suspicious female driver, and a sheet in the back seat which is exposed to reveal a hand with a stream of blood. As with "Attitude of Murder," how does our unwitting eyewitness convince the police that a murder was committed? Particularly when the local homicide detective is overly tired from working two straight shifts?

Predictable, and with an ending that's a bit wonky as it transforms into an unnecessary action sequence. Since it's post denouement, it's just tiring. However, the first part is well done.

Anthologized in Alfred Hitchcock's Let it All Bleed Out (NY: Dell Publishing, 1973), which also includes another story from this issue, the superior "Attitude of Murder."

Doing His Hamlet Thing by Lee Chisholm     6/10
At the Benigno police station, Lieutenant Michael O'Shea is facing his once high school English teacher. As a student, O`Shea had complained to Miss Dawson about Hamlet's methodical, inactive method, and his teacher's response was that Hamlet was taking his time, mulling things over as he tries to unravel the mysteries that abound in the plot. Now, as O'Shea interrogates Miss Dawson about the corpse of a small-time crook that was recently discovered nearby, along with some old clippings found in the dead man's wallet, O'Shea is taking his time piecing together his theory of the motives behind the man's death. He is doing his Hamlet thing.

Another entertaining, brief little story. Predictable, but well laid out and I do like the concept. What I like most is the idea that this teacher, doing her best to educate a disinterested student, may have planted the seed that led to her unravelling; that her guidance that influenced his bright future, uncovered her dark past. Maybe a few Shakespeare references might have made it a little more fun. Or maybe not.

Memory of a Murder by Clark Howard     5/10
Magazine writer Dan Briggs arrives in the small town of Lakeford to write about a thirty year-old murder for a series of unsolved cases. In October 1940, young Jennie Hunt was strangled in the cemetery grounds, and her boyfriend Billy Deever was believed by townsfolk to be the killer. Yet Deever disappeared that night, and has not been found in the twenty-nine years since the crime.

Predictable all around, but decent enough of a story. How he fled Lakeford was pretty cool. I didn't care how the murder was presented, particularly the forced meanness of Jessie, almost presenting Deever as the victim, when clearly it was she.

Clark Howard was a prolific mystery writer, whose work appeared in many issues of AHMM and other magazines. For a list of his numerous short story publications, you can visit the webpage dedicated to his writing at clarkhowardauthor.

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