Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Casual Shorts 5: Robert Bloch, "Block That Metaphor" (1958)

Bloch, Robert, "Block That Metaphor"
  • Gold, H.L., Editor, Galaxy Magazine, October 1958, Galaxy Publishing Corporation. pp 134-144
  • Bloch, Robert, Atoms and Evil, NY: Fawcett Gold Medal, August 1962. pp. 60-69

Rating: 7/10

The extraordinarily prolific and often entertaining Robert Bloch has been continuously anthologized in various genre collections. Yet while some stories such as "Beetles" (Weird Tales, December 1938), "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" (Weird Tales, July 1943) and "The Man Who Collected Poe" (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October 1951) appear and re-appear to seemingly no end, others such as "Block that Metaphor" are a surprisingly rare find. I managed to locate a copy of the original publication at the university library, who were kind enough to grant me permission to photocopy the pages of the archive-bound Galaxy journals. I've since given myself permission to post images of these copies to share with you all.

What is "surprising" about the story's rarity is that it is a great example of Bloch's fusion between humour and horror, and features a surprise ending which makes readers emit an odd sound as they struggle between the expulsion of air while laughing, to the ingestion of air in their expression of shock.

Moreover, "Block That Metaphor" is a science fiction story, a genre that Bloch, as prolific as he was, practiced only occasionally, though often successfully, having been awarded a prestigious Hugo for another oft-anthologized piece, "That Hell-Bound Train" (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1958). In fact, "Block That Metaphor" may have been eternally overshadowed by the well-received Hugo-winner, which was published in MF&SF one month earlier.

In this story of the future, humans have recently struck relations with an otherworldly race. Members of this race have the ability to pick up subvocalizations, described as those little conscious thoughts we might have yet don't fully vocalize. Furthermore, they have a tendency to take statement and expression literally. The race is deficient in (though not absent of) emotion, and are overly practical, so that the colourful English language is often lost on them. And it doesn't end there. Since members of this race have no use of noses, they instead wear different attachments in the middle of their faces depending on the situation. Attachments are often ornamental, though some have more practical uses, such as a drill or sharp blade, should the need arise.

Otherworldly ambassador Vorm, is visiting diplomat Lane Borden at the Embassy, as they are attempting to reach an agreement concerning extraterrestrial mining. A final important detail concerning these aliens is that are coated by a kind of natural armour which prevents them from being harmed in gaseous or extreme temperature galactic mining sites. It's this coating that has led to the nickname "mechs," as in mechanical beings. This meeting is being held in secret, since the general population of Earth has not quite accepted the creatures, especially since, with their knack of taking things literally, including subvocalizations, they have accidentally harmed a few members of Earth's first contact crew. Lane has quite the task ahead of him, dealing carefully with this unusual visitor with all the pressure of a mob outside the Embassy, a large group protesting the current negotiations. During all of this he must also attend to his beautiful bride-to-be, Margaret Zurich, a talented classical pianist. Though Vorm has little emotion, he does love music, so that there is potential for equal footing and mutual understanding.

But since this is a Robert Bloch story, we receive a nice little package that includes a twist that is both horrific and humourous. Though the story exists primarily for its twist ending, Bloch manages nonetheless to create a fairly well-rounded story, detailing a truly unique alien and creating an appropriate situation and its corresponding circumstances. Had the story been half its length, solely fixated on the great ending, it would likely have been forgettable, but Bloch did well in expanding it, and though the plot is nothing revolutionary, for a ten-pager it is quite fun and effective.

The page-sized drawing on page 140 is by Martinez, and details the first meeting between Vorm and Margaret, who is keeping her composure while in the presence of such an alarmingly different humanoid. Martinez captures Vorm quite well as per Bloch's description. What's specifically effective is that we don't see Vorm's face, and this idea of nose attachments is left to our own vivid imaginations. Though this scene lies in the future, the human characters are throwbacks from the 1950s. Those headphone-like objects Lane and Margaret are wearing are devices that help to block out subvocalizations, a preventative measure. Nice shadows and detail nonetheless, and the meeting selected for the story's art is appropriate, since it eventually leads to disaster.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

All These Little Worlds: Stories from the Fiction Desk 2 (2011)

Redman, Rob, editor, All These Little Worlds: Stories from the Fiction Desk 2, London: The Fiction Desk, fall 2011.

For my review of Various Authors, please visit this page.
For The Fiction Desk website, please slide over here. (And if you can, please support them by subscribing.)
For the Goodreads page, take a free ride to this link.

Having enjoyed the stories included in Various Authors, and having been introduced to various authors, I was looking forward to The Fiction Desk's follow-up, All These Little Worlds (which for a few months I kept mis-reading as All These Little Words). No matter, since the anthology contains nine worlds, each in turn containing several words. As with its predecessor, this collection is a nice mixture of straightforward literary realism with some fine examples of the literary fantastic. What I've liked so far about these Fiction Desk anthologies (well, the first two at least) is the inclusion of literary fantasy (or contemporary urban magic realism, if you prefer). I've stopped reading many journals due to their lack of imagination, since practically every story starts reading just like its neighbour (this was the case with the respected yet ordinary Glimmer Train). There is much of the ordinary in literature, and not enough of the extraordinary. The combination of realism and literary fantasy is well balanced.

(As an aside, I use the term "literary fantasy" simply not to confuse with straightforward fantasy, as that word standing by itself conjures for many sword and sorcery and little hobbits.)

In one way Worlds ups the ante over Authors simply by including a novelette. A risky move for a 167-page anthology, since Lambert's thirty-pager takes up about 18% of the anthology. One bad long story can drag the entire book down 18%. That's pressure. Yet the publication does well, selecting a strong work and placing it nicely as the third story following something far lighter in tone.

Of the nine stories I liked eight. As part of The Fiction Desk's award for the "best" story in each of its anthologies, Worlds authors voted James Benmore's "Jaggers & Crown" as the best story in the anthology. A truly fine story among many, but my vote goes to Halimah Marcus's "Dress Code," a real surprise.

"Jaggers & Crown" by James Benmore. 7/10

On a morning just like any other, Kevin Crown is settled with breakfast and the paper and notices an unusual heading in the obituaries: "Kevin Crown 1930-2011." Naturally, reading the surprisingly short entry, Crown begins to reminisce about his career as straight man to the incomparable and risqué comedian of the 1950s and 60s, Sonny Jaggers.

The story of old-time comedic duo Jaggers and Crown is familiar, and its familiarity helps place it in the annals of the golden age of western entertainment. Yet of course the duo is fictional, but Benmore managers to create a convincing and interesting bio of the team, wonderfully brought to life through Crown's own voice. We have an alcoholic gay front man in the 1950s who is redefining radio and early television comedy, while battling demons in a bottle (and through the form of a nutty clairvoyant). The story is told in a light and straightforward manner, ending on a kind of punchline to a subplot that is worthy of early radio. What I liked most about the story is the tragedy of not Jaggers, but that of Crown. While Jaggers died young and in his prime, Crown was destined to live until an eighty year-old nearly forgotten side-kick. This is not an element at the forefront of the story, which helps to heighten its inherent layer of tragedy, as the well meaning Crown becomes the side-kick of his own life story.

"Swimming with the Fishes" by Jennifer Moore. 7/10

At the pet shop Mum gets her children a diver. His name is John. A diver is evidently a little man who lives and swims around a household aquarium. The unnamed narrator is the little girl who is totally taken by the diver, while her little brother Davy wants something a little more exciting.

I appreciate The Fiction Desk's openness to literary fantasy and the unconventional. In Various Authors we had some great selections, most notably Patrick Whittaker's great piece "Celia and Harold." While "Swimming with the Fishes" is a good fun read, it lacks something above the element of fun. The ending sort of transforms the piece into a bit of a joke, though (without revealing anything) there is the implication that modern children are so spoiled and self-involved that the life of others has little value to them. Spoiler: Davy's final act of flushing John is notable in that while the diver is a pet, he is also sort of human, and if we are to continue along this thread, how will future children respond to actual humans when they cease to be amusing? This act is foreshadowed by the story's ominous title.

"Pretty Vacant" by Charles Lambert. 7/10

Lambert's novelette features teenaged Italian Francesca, daughter of a separated and self-absorbed wealthy couple, who is sent to the UK for the summer to a boarding school filled with seemingly unwanted wealthy kids. Her mom tells her that with the recent string of kidnappings in Milan, Francesca will be safer elsewhere, yet the girl feels she is being dumped. She is soon clung to by a spoiled Spanish girl named Pilar, and befriends homeless boy Garry, with whom they plot a little kidnapping of their own, which they title "Operation Pretty Vacant," or OPV.

The term and title "Pretty Vacant" can be attributed to a variety of story aspects. We are dealing with spoiled and unseeing teenagers from different classes. Sure we feel sorry for their having been abandoned, but like their materially-driven parents they are wholly self-interested and motivated by childish emotion. These are teenagers who won't grow up, not just because their circumstances have dragged them down, but because notions of self are so ingrained that they live by childlike instinct. There is hope, however, as we learn that the mature teacher Elizabeth was herself once an abandoned teenager yet has managed to survive and work in an environment designed to help others.

"Room 307" by Mischa Hiller. 6/10

At a hotel restaurant a married man with a new set of twins is dining alone. Waiting for his supper to arrive he phones his wife, who surprisingly brings up their recent difficulties related to the absence of intimacy. Soon thereafter a beautiful woman enters the restaurant and asks to sit with him; it is clear he is married and all the male gazes are fixated on her. Soon he is aware she might be flirting with him, and a battle between his needs and his love ensues. "Room 307" takes its time to build up and appears directionless at times. Clear, concrete writing, however, keeps the reader in the story to discover a piece about relationships, primary needs and the notion of selflessness.

"Dress Code" by Halimah Marcus. 8/10

New private school English instructor Linus is having some difficulty coping, not with his class but with the consequences of the recent Casual Friday dress code the female students are abusing. We discover, however, that Linus's coping lies beyond the mundane tribulations of a high school teacher, that he has always been coping, with women and with life. The one person he feels who can, in a sense, save him, or give him some kind of purpose, is the seemingly non-conformist student Amanda. However, just like any sixteen year-old, and despite her maturity, keen sensitivity and bright future, she is nonetheless caught up with being a teenager, and Linus's focus becomes utterly misguided. The highly social conscious teenagers are clearly beyond Linus's understanding, and his unconventional yet accidental approach to his class's curiosity costs him a good deal.

A very fine story with strong character delineations, it quickly grasps my vote for best story of this issue. At times comedic, the story borders on the tragic, illuminating the very real hyperbolic misunderstandings between generations and between students and instructors. More than that, however, the story is about an outcast in a world that has rejected him, and his tragic inability to find an appropriate way to return.

"The Romantic" by Colin Corrigan. 5/10

Martin is a former printing press worker who, after an accident at the plant that cost him his left arm, lives in a small cottage writing poetry. Bad poetry. Verse upon verse of bad poetry. About love and daffodils and sunrises and such. He meets a heartbroken Connecticut traveller at the local pub, and will soon come to an unfortunate awakening. The bad poetry is hilarious, but the story loses a little with some of its own weak, abstract prose, such as "Details begin to float into position about her face, like strokes of water colour adding definition to her presence." According to his bio, Corrigan, a filmmaker, is hoping to translate "The Romantic" into a short film. I'd be curious to see it.

"After All the Fun We Had" by Ryan Shoemaker. 4/10

A high school official explains how he went to great lengths to maintain student enrollment. I have never been a fan of stories that act as semi-comedic rants, or of any kind of ranting, so this one isn't for me. There were a couple of amusing moments, but to me it's a question of style and approach, and this is one approach I can do without.

"'Glenda'" by Andrew Jury. 6/10

Recently separated Charlie now spends his free Saturday evenings with his former mother-in-law "Glenda," a boisterous woman he can only picture in quotation marks. Oddly though, their relationship is evolving rather positively, and Charlie realizes he's beginning to look forward to her visits. While I often claim stories should be shorter, I wanted this one to be longer and to follow the progress of character and relationship evolution. The story is a good combination of drama and humour with great character focus.

"Get on Green" by Jason Atkinson. 7/10

Little Tonya wants to "get on green" today; essentially to get onto the positive roster at school. But good behaviour doesn't come naturally to her, and the pressures of adult expectations and her mother's struggles have their adverse effects. A great read, surprisingly touching with a good mix of the hopeful and the defeated.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Henry Morrison editor, Come Seven / Come Death, 1965

Morrison, Henry, Come Seven / Come Death, New York: Pocket Books 50122, April 1965. 147 pages

This is for Friday's Forgotten Books. For more forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's pattinase.

Though a fairly obscure book, it was covered for FFB two years ago by Randy Johnson at Not the Baseball Pitcher.

When I was a kid my parents invested in a small apartment building. They didn't own it for very long: the area was sketchy, the work was just too much, and a large number of tenants turned out to be problematic. Among the problems were midnight moves; people jumping back rent by moving out in the middle of the night. The only advantage to these midnight moves is that tenants were forced to leave some belongings behind and my parents had to content themselves with rent replacements, such as furniture, a kitchen knife they still use, assorted miscellanea, and of course books. Lots of books. From first edition Nancy Drew titles to Harlequins from the 1970s, along with a wide assortment of mystery paperbacks. Many of these paperbacks we later sold to second hand shops, which I now regret as they are (or might be) collectables. Among those was this tiny anthology I hung onto and have finally gotten around to reading.

The anthology is an interesting mix, a selection of the great mystery detectives from the 1950s brought together in the mid-1960s. The stories are original to the anthology, no reprints, and clearly some of the veteran authors either had fresher ideas for their aging detectives, or took the project more seriously than others. Which is to say there is quite a discrepancy between the quality of the different stories.

"The Guilty Party" by Richard S. Prather. 7/10

"There are days you feel euphoric for no particular reason; there are babes who make you feel euphoric for particular reasons." A heart-stoppingly beautiful woman walks into detective Shell Scott's office asking him to look at this thing under her bed, "a little funny metal thing." Scott, melting at the sight of this woman, is prepared to do anything for her.

Prather's noir is stylish, the prose floating on well constructed witty sentences. The characters are simple, though appropriately so for such a whimsical piece. The only disappointment is that the ending is not as good as the beginning, and the solution to the mystery itself is clear early on, especially considering there is only one suspect. This isn't too problematic, though, as the story is not about the mystery but is instead invested in the comedy, and does a fine job at that. Reading this story for a second time was just as entertaining as the first. I wonder if this story has seen much light since leading this little paperback.

"The Corpse Maker" by Harold Q. Masur. 6/10

When New York defence attorney Scott Jordan's petty thieving client Bertram Heckler doesn't show for his morning hearing, Jordan rushes over to his apartment and discovers the small-time crook beaten nearly to death. In a few hours Jordan encounters a second near-corpse, a dead man, and a number of crooked individuals. And of course there's the requisite beautiful dame. A good little mystery, fast-paced and told through the charms of tough guy DA Jordan. There's also an amusing early reference to LSD: "What's that?" Jordan asks. "A drug used by psychiatrists. It's called instant analysis. Cleans out the subconscious like lye in a sceptic tank."

(Masur was a regular contributor to the top mystery magazines of the 1950s-1970s, including Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. For Hitchcock, or more appropriately, for Random House, he ghost-edited a couple of hardcover anthologies following the passing of Robert Arthur, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Be Read with the Lights On (1973). While I generally like Masur's short stories, I never thought he was as good an anthologist as his predecessor Arthur.)

"The Memory Guy" by Henry Kane. 5/10

Peter Chambers is helping rising actress Rosanne Hamilton with some phone calls she's been receiving, calls threatening the life of her father, Judge David Hamilton. Meanwhile, the judge has threatened to disinherit his daughter, demanding she leave the stage or he will bequeath his fortune to two colleagues, including her recently separated husband George Hudson, known as "the memory guy" due to his photographic memory.

Kane's story points so clearly to the mystery's solution that, as I was reading, I was immediately piecing the parts together. Like one of those giant piece jigsaw puzzles for kids, the ones with only six pieces that you know where to place each component only by glancing their way. The idea is ok but it's lazily constructed and certain parts feel rushed that's it's simply not a very good read. Oddly, and irritatingly, the story blurb on the back cover even gives the ending away. Perhaps the person responsible figured out the mystery on page one and assumed it was so evident that it was not a solution but a piece of the puzzle.

"With Frame to Match" by Frank Kane. 3/10

Detective Johnny Liddell receives an early morning visitor, a blonde bombshell who asks him to help her brother who is being framed for murder in a nearby small town. So Johnny has his way with said bombshell and heads off to the small town to stumble into some organized crime. And he does in fact stumble into it, since rather than investigating and figuring things out detective-like, someone tells him what's going on. Then we get more exposed breasts, full ones, and some fighting with fists, knives, guns and an open window fifteen floors up. (For whatever reason this small town has some tall buildings.)

Not a good story. The emphasis on voluptuous blondes and redheads with cascading hair and full breasts with a sort-of mystery conveniently tossed in does not make a good story. I know it's 1965, but the fact that Liddell sleeps with the blonde sister when she's terrified for her brother's life is tasteless. Liddell is, in this story at any rate, not much of a detective, just a womanizing, weapon-wielding tough guy. And the "frame to match" business is poorly executed; essentially Liddell speculates that the witnesses who signed off on the the blonde's brother's photo, pinning him with the murder, signed the back of the photograph unaware that it had been stuck to photo of the real killer. Yet this isn't proven, just tossed in as a theory which everyone's supposed to lap up 'cause he's the hero of the story. Sigh.

If I'm ever falsely imprisoned, please don't call in this guy.

"Too Much Like Murder" by Jonathan Craig. 8/10

"Perhaps--like so many other unpleasant things in this life--it will just have to run its course."

Neal Cranston is murdered in his basement, and Detective Pete Selby is called in to investigate. A wealthy and reclusive man, Cranston spent his time repairing old jukeboxes and nickelodeons. He was also a soft man, much to the disgust of his proud brother Howard and his spiteful wife Elaine. Yet for a reclusive man there seem to be innumerable suspects, like the pretty model Bonnie Lambert, her jealous and obsessive admirer Wayne Ferris, Elaine's lover bartender Vince Miller, and the mysterious Roy Stark.

I was glued to this story, its various characters and convoluted relationships. What appears to be a fairly straightforward mystery, with Selby seeking out suspects and interviewing them in due course, transforms into tragedy, and the end is worthy of its suspenseful investigation. I know Craig was big in his time but this is probably the first of his works I've read, and having read it I will make a note to seek out more. Hopefully this tragic piece has made its way into an anthology or two.

"The Shakedown" by Richard Deming. 6/10

Manville "Manny" Moon meets friends at the classy El Patio resto club just when a man is being tossed out. Unfortunately the consequence of this act manifests in a bomb being later tossed in through a window, killing a patron. Moon spots the culprit as he flees, and suspects that the affair is part of a recent shakedown in which a crime syndicate is extorting money from neighbourhood restaurants in return for protection.

Though the story is a fairly straightforward mystery, the denoument is quite good, another piece of noir tragedy. Fisticuffs and beautiful women play their parts, but their parts are necessary and not over-the-top.

"Baby Sister" by Stephen Marlowe. 4/10

Chester Drum is in Cannes on vacation when he is hired by expensive prostitute Caroline Thevenin to shadow her baby sister. Thing is, innocent sister Gabrielle recently walked in on Caroline and learned at sight of her sister's profession, and in her shock and dismay has been spending Caroline's savings on drink and gambling. The shortest of the stories in the little anthology, "Baby Sister" is quite forgettable. There is nothing remarkable, original or unexpected that occurs, the plot structure is a little sloppy with all the backtracking as to how Drum got involved with Thevenin. And the last line made me groan.

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