Saturday, January 28, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #17: The Little Black Bag by C. M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth, C. M. "The Little Black Bag." Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.12/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Old Dr. Full felt the winter in his bones as he limped down the alley."

Disgraced alcoholic GP Dr. Bayard Kendrick Full finds himself in possession of a medical bag from the future. With the help of Angie, a materialistic girl from his downtrodden neighbourhood, Dr. Full manages to construct a clean, ethical career for himself as a respected GP. Assistant Angie, however. is less than satisfied with how they are making use of the bag, wanting instead to enter the more lucrative area of plastic surgery, and when Dr. Full is preparing to retire, Angie proves she can go to extremes to realize this goal.

Though the story is set primarily in the present, Kornbluth gives us a glimpse of a future where intellect is minimalized as a result of advanced technology. The instruments in the little black bag heal on their own, so that the practitioners of the future need only to follow the simple instructions included in the bag. There are instruments with which to operate, and medicines with which to heal, pretty much everything. The doctors themselves, in light of this advanced machinery and medicine, are presented comically as buffoons. The comedy in these sequences is, however, distracting from the more interesting dynamics of the present. Dr. Full is admirably attempting to reclaim his former status as respectable GP, to make amends for the awful twist toward alcoholism that his life had taken. There is less characterization of Angie, who comes off as simply a manipulative materialistic opportunistic blonde. Poor Dr. Full thinks she has become more humane, that she has a good heart, and this inability to see her true nature is his ultimate downfall.

"The Little Black Bag" was successfully filmed for an episode of Night Gallery, adapted by Rod Serling and starring Burgess Meredith as Dr. Full. The adaptation replaces Angie with a male vagrant, a character which works better in this scenario than the opportunistic blonde. In addition, the final brutal comedic-tragic scene is played out on a more public arena, which adds to both the comedic and the tragic elements.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Peter Haining, ed., First Book of Unknown Tales of Horror (1976)

Haining, Peter, ed. The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, June 1976.
______. The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror. London: Mews Books, October 1976. (pictured)

The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror at the ISFdb
The First Book of Unknown Tales of Terror at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     6/10

Mews Books, 1976

This small collection is part of a series of three books assembled by prolific anthologist Peter Haining, collecting little known works from a combination of popular and lesser known supernatural fiction authors. Haining writes in his introduction that there has been an inundation of horror anthologies in recent years (1976), and that the same stories are being reprinted repeatedly, and that "the endlessly patient readership has accepted this in the hope, too often vain, that amongst the familiar there might occasionally appear the unfamiliar."

The idea is a good one, and yet there is usually a reason most neglected stories have not been often reprinted, and that is mainly because they are not very good. Had they been of better quality, they would not have been neglected, or published/re-printed only long after the author's death (as is the case with the Bram Stoker and Robert E. Howard stories). The anthology is, however, far better than I expected it to be. While it is not brilliant, it does include some stories I am happy to have read. It is of interest primarily to those who generally enjoy supernatural tales, but a casual reader would likely not care for most of what Haining has put together. The stories are not bad by any means, though there are a couple of weak ones included. My favourite is the first, H. Russell Wakefield's "The Sepulchre of Jasper Sarasen," while I also enjoyed the Arthur Machen story, "The Cosy Room," and the next-to-last story, which has no supernatural element but some good writing and fine suspense, Francis Clifford's "Ten Minutes on a June Morning."

The Sepulchre of Jasper Sarasen by H. Russell Wakefield     7/10
Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953
Ornithologist Sir Reginald Ramley comes across a sepulchre containing six coffins. The burial grounds are decrepit, likely the result of a bomb from the recent war. Speaking with the cemetery warden, Ramley learns that the coffins belong to a woman and four children, and the husband/father who is believed to have murdered them, and who died mysteriously shortly afterwards. For some odd reason, Ramley is drawn to the coffins, dreaming of the sepulchre and when awake, feeling drawn to return.

Very much a Victorian ghost story in style and tone, the story is quite engaging and creepy,

The Crystal Cup by Bram Stoker     6/10
London Society, September 1872
An artist captured and imprisoned so that he creates a thing of beauty for the upcoming Feast of Beauty, suffers and pines for his lost love. He builds a splendid crystal cup, and dies. The Feast of Beauty is held, and revenge, as expected, is meted out. Split into three sections with three points of view, the story is interesting enough, but for the melodramatic over-writing of the first and third sections. In the introduction Haining mentions the story has not yet been collected, and it is likely because it is not very good. Not Stoker's best work by a long shot, but there is evidence of talent in this early story.

The Cosy Room by Arthur Machen     6/10
Shudders, Cynthia Asquith, ed., 1929
A young man rents a cosy room in a small English town, having fled Ledham after committing murder. He plans to wait for things to cool off then take the train to South London where he would find work and disappear in the crowd. But as he waits, his mind plays tricks on him. An interesting psychological suspense story, well written, but lacking a strong finale.

The Little People by Robert E. Howard     4/10
Coven, 13 January 1970
An American brother and sister are visiting the English moors, and the older brother explains to his sister that the "little people" stories of Arthur Machen are based on tribes that existed a long time ago. To prove that the idea of little people is "rot," sister Joan decides to spend the night out on the moors. Then the expected happens. Really not very good, and not surprising that it remaining unpublished during Howard's lifetime (1906 - 1936). Like the Stoker story included in this anthology, it was resurrected in order to give hungry readers something new.

Scar Tissue by Henry S. Whitehead     6/10
West India Lights, Arkham House, 1946
Our narrator Gerald Canevin takes in a young man named Joe Smith, who has "ancestral memories," memories of former lives. Smith proceeds to tell of his memories fighting in an arena, and provides proof via a scar left from what should have been a fatal wound.

Surprisingly interesting. I enjoyed the arena re-telling, whereas high adventure normally bores me, and I feel overall the idea is well presented, with no real resolution. But I suppose that scar tissue points to the truth in that final scene.

The Hero of the Plague by W. C. Morrow     7/10
The Californian, January 1880, as "The Man from Georgia"
A disheveled yet honest-looking man named Baker appears one day at a hotel, asking for work. Though ridiculed by the porter, the sympathetic hotel owner takes him in. A victim of wrongful imprisonment,  Baker is distracted and confused, but recovers over time with the comforts of the hotel. One day a guest infected with cholera dies at the hotel, and the doctor, with the help of the owner and Baker, administer to the sick.

This is a well written story with some fine dialogue that borders on the comically ludicrous, a style I quite enjoy. There is predictability and pathos, but Baker is well drawn and I very much enjoyed reading this. I much prefer the more appropriate original title, "The Man from Georgia," as the title used for the anthology covers only a minor portion of the tale, and sucks the pathos marrow.

The Horror Undying by Manly Wade Wellman     7/10
Weird Tales, May 1936
Lost in the woods in the middle of a snowstorm, a man takes shelter in an abandoned cabin, and finds under the floorboards a documents that tell stories of what appear to be cannibalism.

Though predictable through and through, the tales within the pamphlets and clippings are interesting and engaging. We are expected, however, to believe that the narrator, who reads and then destroys the documents, is able to quote their entirety verbatim.

The Machine that Changed History by Robert Bloch     7/10
Science Fiction Stories, July 1943
Hitler's scientists have constructed a time machine, and Hitler has Napoleon brought from 1807 to present day 1942. Hitler hopes that the brilliant strategist can help undo his errors and bring him world domination, promising to share the spoils with Napoleon. But Hitler does not count on this story being written by a young Robert Bloch, so there is a twist on its way.

The Candle by Ray Bradbury     6/10
Weird Tales, November 1942
Unhappily married Jules Marcott spots a decorative candle amid the weapons in an old shop, and instinctively decides to purchase the item. The shop proprietor tells Jules that if he lights the candle and whispers the name of a person, that person will immediately die, and demonstrates this on a frisky cat. The price to rent the candle is three thousand dollars. Desperate and yet without money, Jules steals the candle to seek revenge on the man who stole his wife away.

Predictable, but a fun early Bradbury read.

Unholy Hybrid by William Bankier     6/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 1963
Sutter Clay is an excellent gardener, able to grow the best stock in the region, and able also to create some exceptional hybrids. When he murders the woman who has spent the winter with him, he buries her amid the pumpkins on his land. A good read but the ending could have been so much more effective, as it delivers the expected rather than offering up somtehing different, or a twist on the expected.

Ten Minutes on a June Morning by Francis Clifford     7/10
Argosy (UK), April 1970
Revolutionary Manuel Suredez, sentenced to death, is reprieved while on the scaffold with the noose around his neck. The Colonel tells him that he was saved because of his excellent marksmanship, and because of this skill he will be sent to the town of Villanova to murder a man. If he fails, his parents and sister will be killed. The man he must assassinate is the personal envoy to the President of the United States.

A surprisingly good story, with a great deal of suspense. Clifford is patient with his story, focusing on its details, and delivers a genuinely tragic end. Francis Clifford was born Arthur Leonard Bell Thompson (1917 - 1975).

They're Playing Our Song by Harry Harrison     5/10
Fantastic Stories of Imagination, December 1964
A very short story about a rock quartet, The Spiders, their obsessive fans and an expected twist.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #16: Light of Other Days by Bob Shaw

Shaw, Bob. "Light of Other Days." Analog Science Fiction--Science Fact, August 1966.

This article is part of my attempt to read the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:    9.14/10
My Rating:         7/10

"Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass."

A pregnant and unhappy couple travel from London into the rural townships, where they come across a farm selling slow glass. Slow glass is a process of leaving a special pane of glass aimed at a scene for one year, and the glass would capture the image and reflect it for the next year. "If the glass was then removed and installed in a dismal city flat, the flat would--for that year--appear to overlook the woodland lake." This particular slow glass farmer has in stock glass that is "ten years thick." Garland is ready to make a purchase, thinking that introducing something different to their lives might help his marriage, but his wife Selina is skeptical.

A good story overall, though predictable. I also wonder if the story intends to inform us the unhappy couple will see things differently and save their relationship in light of the farmer's tragedy, so that rather than the glass reflecting a special view, the farmer's life is reflecting potential happiness for their future, in contrast to the darkness of his past. This is a nice notion, but the bitterness between Garland and Selina seems to me too deep to salvage, and people do not change so easily, particularly ones as heard-headed as these two urbanites.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #15: Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith

Smith, Cordwainer. "Scanners Live in Vain." Fantasy Book, Vol. 1, No. 6, January 1950.

This article is part of my attempt to read the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:    9.14/10
My Rating:         9/10

"Martel was angry."

In the distant future, as humans explore the galaxy and settle on other planets, special provisions must be made for space travel. Namely, selected humans must undergo a procedure that transforms them into scanners. A scanner must be present during space travel, as they are the ones who carry the burdens of flight, who must remain awake to properly steer and who suffer the torturous pains of space. It is the presence of these scanners that enables the colonization of other planets, and scanners are therefore held in high esteem, as these men sacrifice themselves and a comfortable life for the progress of humanity. Yet the procedure to become a scanner is drastic, as most senses must be severed from the brain, while the body must be partially mechanized, so that scanners become more machine-like, and less than human. Scanners can occasionally "cranch," a process that allows them to reconnect with their senses and become more human, but only for a limited time.

As protagonist Martel is cranching, an emergency call is put out to all scanners not in outer space, and a meeting reveals that a man named Adam Stone claims to have solved the problem of the pains of space travel. If this were true, scanners would no longer be needed. A senior scanner insists that it is a lie, and proposes that the man be assassinated. Martel is immediately outraged, but is the only cranching scanner at the meeting, so cannot vote, and his emotional appeals become almost vulgar among the mechanized and rational men. The vote goes by way of murder, and a cranching Martel vows to intercept the chosen assassin, but must proceed as an emotional, sense-filled human against a powerful, cyber human.

A unique and formidable story, particularly for the period. Smith gives us a world in which humans separated from their senses, from what essentially makes them human, are over-rational machines, and hence notions of morality have been erased. Most of these scanners are rationalizing murder for self-preservation, and even those that vote against the assassination do so not out of a feeling of right and wrong, but with cold reasoning, and nonetheless stand aside when the verdict to murder is reached. Only the cranching human is willing to sacrifice himself for what he believes, emotionally and rationally, to be the right thing.

The technology in "Scanners Live in Vain" is fascinating. There is a cold logic to space travel, and a cold acceptance of these mechanized humans. The story imagines a dirty, unromantic space travel, unlike much of the facile forms of travel found in early sci-fi stories. Technology is a human necessity, as space travel is needed for humans to survive and to evolve, but the increase on our reliance on technology makes us less human. Technology as presented in the story is more believable than the technology presented in stories published a decade later, as there is purpose to the technology presented, and much of it is grittily pragmatic, even unattractive, such as the machines that are attached to the torsos of these men, and the entire cranching experience. There is even a precursor to texting/messaging, as scanners use "tablets" to communicate with one another over distances, and even use a form of shorthand not unlike texters of present day. Without the emojis, thankfully.

It is interesting to note that the story is set up as a kind of paradox. Martel is presented to us in his mechanized scanner form, prior to cranching, and yet the first sentence is "Martel was angry," introducing the character with a high emotion. Clearly Martel is on the verge of change, his humanity already revolting against the machine that he has become.

I first read this as a kid in one of the sci-fi anthologies that got me reading sci-fi anthologies: First Voyages (Martin H. Greenberg, Damon Knight, Joseph D. Olander, eds, Avon, May 1981). I clearly recall reading and being amazed by this story. I think for me it was quite unique, and I genuinely felt for the character who would soon be without purpose. The story holds up incredibly well, and my first re-read three decades later was nearly as intense. Different in an adult's eye, but still quite impactful.

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