“The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson

The more of her work I read, the more I admire Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). No-one was better at drawing out the horrors of everyday life. You’ll find no monsters or demons in her stories – not literal ones, anyway. What you will find is an uneasy sense that the people around you are not what they seem, that the civilized surface of society conceals a dark and violent underbelly. Her most famous story, “The Lottery,” exemplifies these themes. A subtler piece, written only a few months later, is “The Summer People.”

Circus

“The Summer People” was first published in the September 1950 issue of Charm, but unfortunately I cannot find an image of its cover. Ray Bradbury selected it for his 1956 anthology The Circus of Dr. Lao & Other Improbable Stories, and it was included in Jackson’s final collection of fiction, Come Along With Me, posthumously published by her husband in 1968. The Library of America released a splendid volume of Jackson’s fiction in 2010, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, that includes the story (surprisingly, Oates didn’t write an introduction for the book, but she did give an illuminating interview). I read it in a volume of Jackson’s stories published by Penguin Classics in 2017 called Dark Tales. Read it here.

The story concerns the Allisons, an older couple who live in New York but spend their summers at an idyllic lakeside cabin in the country. They have done this for seventeen years, and every year they leave the Tuesday after Labor Day. The Allisons have reached a point in life where their children are independent, their friends are either dead or settled, and they have no need to work. There’s nothing that forces them to leave the Tuesday after Labor Day except habit. They decide to stay on an extra month or two this year. Breaking the news to the locals does not go as smoothly as they expect, and the Allisons come to realize that they are no longer welcome – in fact, they may be in terrible danger.

Come Along

Terrence Rafferty, reviewing the Library of America release for The New York Times, did a good job of explaining why Jackson’s writing is so unsettling: “A lot of writers, both in and out of the horror genre, know how to create a sense of dread. What makes Jackson’s sensibility so distinctive is that her brand of dread tends to be self-aware and even, at times, self-amused. There’s often a tinge of embarrassment to her characters’ fear, simply because it’s so tenuous, so apparently sourceless: they can’t tell if what’s troubling them is something or nothing.”

“The Summer People” is a perfect demonstration of this style. Very little actually happens here. There is no hideous revelation. Everything that seems sinister has a mundane explanation. Everyone in town makes a point to mention that nobody stays after Labor Day (nobody) because they’re surprised the Allisons are breaking seventeen years of habit. The gasman won’t sell them propane because he didn’t order enough. A letter from their son hasn’t actually been tampered with, despite an “unusual number of dirty fingerprints on the envelope.” The cabin’s ancient telephone was bound to give out eventually. The narrator confirms nothing. There’s only a feeling of an unseen menace quietly creeping up from behind, suspense that builds and builds and builds until the story just ends, leaving the fate of its characters unsaid.

When I first finished the story, I found this lack of resolution unsatisfying. But in the days afterward, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I supposed I was worried for the Allisons, but that wasn’t it. The Allisons are fictional, after all. Then it dawned on me that I was worried for myself. I live in one of those tiny American towns with a picturesque main street straight out of The Andy Griffith Show. I work in one, too. They are exactly the sort of towns Jackson wrote about. I realized that the nebulous unease that haunted Jackson had been implanted in me, too. Or maybe it’s always been there.

Dark Tales

Jackson was an outsider. She was a writer when women were expected to be housewives, and a liberal Democrat who lived in conservative towns that did not approve of her politics or her Jewish husband. It is not surprising that so many of her stories, including “The Summer People,” are about interlopers who face a reckoning at the hands of the status quo. Perhaps this story effected me so deeply because in our current political climate – with hate crimes towards people of color, LGBT+ people, Muslims, and Jews on the rise – we see evidence every day that Jackson’s writings had a deep foundation in reality. Being an outsider in America is dangerous.

While I read the story as one of outsiders challenging tradition at their peril, there is a case to be made for “The Summer People” as a metaphor for aging and society’s poor treatment of the elderly. Jackson is careful to note the changing of the seasons; the Allisons really aren’t “summer people” anymore. We learn that they feel lonely in New York, that many of their friends are dead, that they don’t see their children often. The Allisons are comforted by the lakeside cabin, but even those pleasures are taken away from them bit by bit, until, like so many elderly people, they are left alone to wait for death.

Jeff and Ann VanderMeer included this story in their anthology The Weird. It is not weird in the way that Lovecraft is weird – it does not blend genres, and there are no supernatural elements. But in terms of atmosphere, of sustained and ever-mounting apprehension, Jackson’s tale more than fits the bill. I was deeply unnerved by it, and it inspired me to seek out more of her work for future reading. I highly recommend it.

NEXT TIME: OFF SEASON by Jack Ketchum!

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“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” by Clark Ashton Smith

If you were to stop someone on the street and ask them their favorite Clark Ashton Smith story, they would probably respond with something along the lines of, “Who?” Indeed, whenever I mention him in conversation this is the most common reply. This is a shame. Consider his reputation among other writers. H. P. Lovecraft wrote, “In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Clark Ashton Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living.” The great Ray Bradbury said, “Take one step across the threshold of his stories and you plunge into color, sound, taste, smell, and texture – into language.” Jack Vance praised his “wild imagination.”

Smith (as has been mentioned on this blog before) was one of the “Big Three,” writers closely associated with the magazine Weird Tales. His writing is characterized by a vast and ornate vocabulary, his style often compared, not unrightly, to prose-poetry. His stories are often flavored with a sardonic humor that separates him from contemporaries such as Lovecraft. He was also an accomplished poet. “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” was finished in 1929 and submitted to Weird Tales in 1930. At the time, it was rejected by editor Farnsworth Wright, but he reconsidered and published the story in November of 1931. Read it here.

Weird November 1931

The story is part of Smith’s Hyperborean cycle, a collection of tales set in the fictional prehistoric land of Hyperborea. These stories blend the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft with the Iron Age settings of Robert E. Howard. The story concerns the thief Satampra Zeiros, who ventures to the long-abandoned city of Commoriom with his partner Tirouv Ompallios. Commoriom was once the capital of Hyperborea, and the thieves reason that there must be great treasures still buried there. Upon their arrival, however, they find that they should have stayed away.

In terms of plot, “Satampra Zeiros” is quite similar to Lord Dunsany’s “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon The Gnoles,” from The Book of Wonder (1912). Both tales focus on a master thief and his partner. Both begin with a summary of the master thief’s impressive exploits. Both concern a journey through a forest to a feared and abandoned locale supposedly stuffed with riches. And both end with one of the thieves meeting a horrible demise at the hands of the entities that dwell there.

Lost World

Smith and Dunsany are also linked by their rich use of language. Smith’s description of the thieves’ journey to Commoriom through the jungle is gorgeous and evocative.

“Though the sun had not yet neared the horizon, the shades that were cast upon us from gigantic boles and branches became ever denser, and we moved in a dark-green twilight fraught with oppressive odors of lush growth and of vegetable corruption. There were no birds nor animals, such as one would think to find in any wholesome forest, but at rare intervals a stealthy viper with pale and heavy coils glided away from our feet among the rank leaves of the roadside, or some enormous moth with baroque and evil-colored mottlings flew before us and disappeared in the dimness of the jungle. Abroad already in the half-light, huge purpureal bats with eyes like tiny rubies arose at our approach from the poisonous-looking fruits on which they feasted, and watched us with malign attention as they hovered noiselessly in the air above.”

The similarities to Dunsany were recognized immediately. In his initial rejection letter to Smith, Farnsworth Wright wrote, “Personally, I fell under the spell of its splendid wording, which reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s stories in The Book of Wonder.” Smith also mailed a copy to his friend H. P. Lovecraft, who responded enthusiastically: “What an atmosphere! I can see & feel & smell the jungle around immemorial Commoriom… You have achieved in its fullest glamour the exact Dunsanian touch which I find almost impossible to duplicate.”

Hyperborea

The story is also notable for its connection to the Cthulhu Mythos, a shared fictional universe based on creatures and concepts introduced in Lovecraft’s stories. The name derives from Lovecraft’s seminal weird tale “The Call of Cthulhu,” which I will be covering here later this year, and was coined by August Derleth, one of Lovecraft’s many correspondents and protégés. Specifically, “Satampra Zeiros” introduced the toad-god Tsathoggua, an entity which has appeared in the work of many Lovecraft-inspired authors since. However, due to the gap between the rejection and publication of “Satampra Zeiros,” this was not Tsathoggua’s first appearance in print. Lovecraft incorporated the deity into his 1930 story “The Whisperer in Darkness,” which was published in Weird Tales a mere three months before “Satampra Zeiros.”

“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” has been republished many times over the decades. Among the more notable reprints, to me, are Smith’s 1944 short story collection Lost Worlds, published by Arkham House, and the 1971 Ballantine Adult Fantasy release Hyperborea, which collects the entire Hyperborean cycle into one volume. I read it in Penguin Classics’ The Dark Eidolon & Other Fantasies, a 2014 collection of Smith’s poetry and short fiction, edited by the renowned weird scholar S. T. Joshi.

Dark Eidolon

Personally, after reading it I understood why Wright rejected it. Smith neglects to develop his characters beyond broad strokes, and I felt the ending to be quite abrupt. That being said, I also understood why Wright changed his mind. Smith’s writing is luscious, the setting of Hyperborea is intriguing, and the atmosphere he develops is palpable. It may not be his best story, but as an introduction to his work it does the job nicely.

NEXT TIME: “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson!

ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer is one of the modern masters of the weird. The breadth of his literary knowledge is vast; together with his wife Ann, he has edited many massive anthologies, including The WeirdThe New Weird, and The Time Traveler’s Almanac. He has been publishing his own fiction for decades, his work compared to that of Borges, Kafka, and Thoreau, but he did not achieve widespread recognition until the publication of the first novel in his Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, in 2014.

The novel concerns Area X, an unspecified expanse in the southern United States (descriptions of flora and fauna suggest Florida) where reality has been altered in ways humankind is still attempting to understand. Just what caused it, no-one seems to know, but inside Area X, things change. Spend too much time there, and you may find that when you come out you aren’t human anymore. There have been eleven expeditions into Area X, overseen by a shadowy government agency known as the Southern Reach. Annihilation documents the twelfth.

The book seems to derive some inspiration from the 1971 novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. In that novel, an unseen alien visitation leaves behind several “Zones” across Earth full of dangerous phenomena. Much of the book is spent with its characters investigating these Zones and finding horrible things within. However, that is where the similarities end. The Strugatsky brothers were interested in satirizing life under Soviet rule; VanderMeer has other concerns. I was also reminded at points of B. Catling’s 2012 novel The Vorrh, about an expedition into a perilous magic forest.

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VanderMeer’s novel falls very much within the weird tradition, containing strong science fiction and horror elements. Its protagonist is a biologist, one of four unnamed women who make up the latest expedition into Area X. She is writing a journal for posterity, and makes a point to leave out details or events that she feels will dilute the objectivity of the document. She approaches all with a scientist’s eye, including her strained relationship with her husband. She is the ideal heroine for what follows; even when utterly inexplicable things start to happen she attempts to retain her objectivity.

Utterly inexplicable things start happening early. From nearly the first page, Annihilation confronts us with strange, illogical occurrences: a “tower” built downwards into the earth, plants and animals that look strangely human, hallucinations that might not be hallucinations. We learn in snippets what happened to previous expeditions – suicides, disappearances, aggressive cancers, beast attacks. The book is a constant stream of eerie details, some mundane and some not, that contribute to an ever-growing atmosphere of unease and foreboding.

What I loved about Annihilation is that while it is easily recognizable as weird fiction, VanderMeer has made the formula feel fresh with the timeliness of his themes. The Southern Reach books were published during the Obama administration, but their depiction of a government agency that constantly lies to the people it should be protecting feels quite germane in 2018. Moreover, VanderMeer’s repeated associations of Area X with ecological disaster cannot help but invoke thoughts of climate change. In fact, I would argue that climate change is the overarching metaphor of the book – something has been done to the planet, and now the world is changing in disastrous and unpredictable ways.

Tom LeClair, writing for The New York Times, had a different take. He argued that the book was about the act of writing: “Area X stands for the domain of fantastic fiction. The biologist is the reader. The Crawler is the subconscious creative process. The lighthouse keeper symbolizes outward communication and puts a human face on the Crawler. And, sure enough, the lighthouse keeper does bear a striking resemblance to the author picture on the back cover.” While I disagree that this is the novel’s raison d’être, I think it’s an interesting analysis.

Annihilation German

As a stylist, VanderMeer is direct and precise. This is appropriate, of course, as he is writing from the point-of-view of a scientist, but he is careful not to let his prose become too clinical. He understands the most important rule of genre fiction: if you want the reader to accept fantastic happenings, the characters must be well-drawn and relatable. There are moments when the biologist turns her gaze inwards, and VanderMeer’s writing becomes aching and elegiac.

“Slowly, painfully, I realized what I had been reading from the very first words of his journal. My husband had had an inner life that went beyond his gregarious exterior, and if I had known enough to let him inside my guard, I might have understood this fact. Except I hadn’t, of course. I had let tidal pools and fungi that could devour plastic inside my guard, but not him. Of all the aspects of the journal, this ate at me the most. He had created his share of our problems – by pushing me too hard, by wanting too much, by trying to see something in me that didn’t exist. But I could have met him partway and retained my sovereignty. And now it was too late.”

What beautiful writing this is, so deeply sad, evoking an entire relationship in just a few sentences. There are many reflective moments such as this throughout the book; by the end I found myself moved more intensely than I had expected.

Annihilation poster

Earlier this year, a film adaptation of Annihilation was released. Directed by Alex Garland, it is a very different beast than the novel. Garland’s film seems to be about first contact – when presented with a truly alien being, how do we find a common frame of reference to communicate? The novel is about change. What happens when you are forced to change? What happens when you’ve changed so much you’re no longer you? Both are challenging, thought-provoking works, but ultimately I preferred the novel. Even when the plot starts to enter mindbending territory, the forthrightness of VanderMeer’s prose keeps the reader grounded; the defiantly cerebral film is not as accessible.

Annihilation is short and it is the first part of a trilogy. Despite those things, it feels self-contained. It builds a world and then tells a complete story within that world. It does not answer the most distressing questions it raises, but that only increases its effectiveness. I have not yet read the remaining entries in the trilogy, Authority and Acceptance, but I look forward to doing so. All three books have been published together in an omnibus called Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy.

Area X

To wrap up, this was my first exposure to the writing of Jeff VanderMeer, and I was very impressed. He continues to write; in 2017 his novel Borne was released to critical acclaim, with Publisher’s Weekly claiming that the book was “something more than just weird fiction: weird literature.” Expect to see it covered here at some point in the future, as well as the remaining volumes of the Southern Reach trilogy.

NEXT TIME: “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” by Clark Ashton Smith!

“Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is generally agreed to have begun in 1939 and ended, depending on who you ask, as early as 1946 or as late as 1960. It came after the pulp era of the 1920s and ’30s, and before the experimental New Wave sci-fi of the ’60s and beyond. Many of the genre’s most famous authors – among them Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke – made their names during this period. Golden Age sci-fi strikes a particular tone, favoring scientific accuracy, adventurous settings, linear narratives, and heroes (overwhelmingly male) who solve problems with can-do spirit.

I have already said that the Golden Age of Science Fiction began in 1939, but more specifically, it began with the July issue of Astounding SF. John W. Campbell had taken over as editor two years earlier, and the magazine had been improving in quality with each issue (Golden Age sci-fi is sometimes called “Campbellian science fiction,” as Campbell’s influence dominated the field for years). This was one of the first truly great issues under his leadership. It included the first story by Isaac Asimov to appear within its pages, but the real groundbreaker was the tale featured on the cover: “Black Destroyer,” by the Canadian writer Alfred Elton van Vogt (read it here).

Black Destroyer

The plot is simple enough. Intrepid explorers land on an alien planet to investigate the ruins of an ancient city. They think they are alone. They are not. They are stalked by the Coeurl, a large cat-like creature. The Coeurl has exhausted its food supply, and in the humans it sees a chance for survival. It allows itself to be taken aboard their ship, where it begins to kill the crew and build a ship of its own in an attempt to escape to the freedom of space.

It’s not hard to see why sci-fi scholars point to this specific story as the start of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The literary qualities I described at the beginning of this essay are fully formed here. Adventurous setting: check. Linear narrative: check. Plucky human heroes: check. Scientific accuracy: well, I suspect van Vogt didn’t consult any scientists before writing this, but he at least attempts to make his science seem plausible. Reading this story today, you recognize a template for a great deal of the popular sci-fi that followed, particularly the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and, on television, the original incarnation of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966-69).

Historical importance aside, though, the quality of van Vogt’s prose is wildly uneven. Many of his sentences are laughable – one paragraph begins, “The little red sun was a crimson ball” – but others achieve a weird power. The opening paragraphs are as good a demonstration of his style as any.

“On and on Coeurl prowled! The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. A vague, dull light it was, that gave no sense of approaching warmth, no comfort, nothing but a cold, diffuse lightness, slowly revealing a nightmare landscape.

Black, jagged rock and black, unliving plain took form around him, as a pale-red sun peered at last above the grotesque horizon. It was then Coeurl recognized suddenly that he was on familiar ground.”

Ugh. That is bad. “Nightmare landscape”? “Unliving plain”? “Grotesque horizon”? I don’t even know where to begin with that description of light. The story is full of such language. Still, despite its clumsiness, there’s something evocative about it. Van Vogt has a vision, and that vision is compelling; it is simply that he is not quite able to express it with the poetry it deserves. He gets just close enough that we keep reading.

Stephen King is less generous than I am in his assessment of van Vogt’s abilities. In a 2013 article for The Atlantic, King opined that “he was just a terrible, terrible writer. His short story, ‘Black Destroyer,’ begins: ‘On and on, Coeurl prowled!’ You read that, and you think – my god! Can I really put up with even five more pages of this? It’s just panting!”

Space Beagle 1

King is not the first to make such comments. An early critic of van Vogt’s was Damon Knight (author of, among other things, “To Serve Man,” the basis of a celebrated episode of The Twilight Zone). Knight wrote, “In general van Vogt seems to me to fail consistently as a writer in three elementary ways: 1. His plots do not bear examination. 2. His choice of words and sentence-structure are fumbling and insensitive. 3. He is unable to either visualize a scene or to make a character seem real.”

Knight’s observations have merit. Van Vogt’s writing, as previously discussed, stumbles often. As for characterization, I will say that the Coeurl is a vividly imagined creature. We get a good sense of its history, motivations, and capabilities. The humans, though, are boring, barely defined archetypes. We get names, job titles, and little else. I didn’t mind at all when any of them met a horrible demise. To be honest, by the end I was rooting for the creature. Considering how the story concludes, that’s a disappointment.

Not everyone agreed with Knight’s assessments, though. One of van Vogt’s stalwart defenders was Philip K. Dick, who wrote, “There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality…all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.” Harlan Ellison wrote, “Van was the first writer to shine light on the unrestricted ways in which I had been taught to view the universe and the human condition.”

While the story that spawned it has been more or less forgotten except by genre aficionados, the Coeurl lives on in popular culture. It was the inspiration for the displacer beast, a classic monster in the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and has appeared as an enemy in the Final Fantasy video game series since 1988. I would also argue that the Coeurl inspired the “salt vampire,” which drains sodium from its victims, in the 1966 Star Trek episode “The Man Trap.”

Space Beagle 2

In 1950, van Vogt reworked “Black Destroyer” into the first section of his fix-up novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (the term “fix-up” was coined by van Vogt himself). One of the other stories integrated into the novel was called “Discord in Scarlet,” originally published in the May 1950 issue of Other Worlds. The first story describes a nearly indestructible alien creature killing the crew of a human spaceship off one by one. The second describes an alien stowaway that implants parasitic eggs in the stomachs of the ship’s crewman. If you think this sounds like Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, you will not be surprised to learn that van Vogt thought so too. He sued 20th Century Fox for plagiarism, but the case was settled out of court.

To conclude, I don’t know if I’d recommend this to the casual reader. At this point there are far better “evil alien stalks human prey” stories to choose from; as I’ve already discussed, there are significant issues here with characterization and quality of writing. If you’re interested in the history of science fiction, though, this is an essential read.

NEXT TIME: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer!

“A Boy & His Dog” by Harlan Ellison

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In April of 1969, a story by Harlan Ellison appeared in the magazine New Worlds. Ellison was already a well-known name, having won three Hugo Awards in as many years. The story was included in Ellison’s short story collection The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World later that year. The tale was called “A Boy & His Dog” – a modest title for a story that has had a profound influence on science-fiction since.

Beast That Shouted

The story takes place in the year 2024 following a nuclear war and concerns – as you would expect – a boy and his dog. Vic, the boy, is fifteen years old and, befitting his age, obsessed with sex. Having grown up parentless in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Vic has no real grasp of morality or ethics and rapes whatever women he can find. He is aided in his search for sex by his dog, Blood. Blood is telepathic, the result of government experiments before the war. Because of this governmental tampering, Blood has lost the ability to scavenge for food himself. In return for finding food, Blood helps Vic find women.

Women are scarce in this world, you see. While the men went out to fight the war, the women stayed at home in major population centers, which were subsequently bombed. It’s an interesting plot point, but not one that I feel is terribly well-explained. It seems odd to me that almost all women were wiped from the face of the earth while the men who were actually fighting the war survived in great numbers. I understand that short stories are, well, short, but I would have liked to learn more about this. Ellison, to his credit, does explore the implications of this somewhat – vintage pornography is a valued commodity in this world and it is not uncommon for men to engage in gay sex.

The story begins with Vic and Blood going to the movies to watch the aforementioned vintage porn. While in the theatre, Blood smells a woman and helps Vic track her to an abandoned YMCA. Vic prepares to rape her, but stops short. Something happens to him that has never happened before. He finds himself interested in her. He notices her hair, the color of her eyes. She talks to him and looks him in the face. He wants to talk back. Then they are attacked by a gang whose members want the girl for themselves. Vic and Blood protect her, and by the time the smoke clears Vic’s in love.

This first section of the story is standard pulp sci-fi. Ellison was hardly the first to write post-apocalyptic fiction; such stories were commonplace during the Cold War. Ellison, for the most part, doesn’t deviate from the norm here – his wasteland is populated by roving gangs and glowing (though unseen) mutants. Vic narrates and his tone is grim, no-nonsense; this approach allows the story to absorb the reader in a way a campier tale would not.

What humor there is comes from Blood, whose sarcastic voice is very similar to Ellison’s himself. Despite being a dog, Blood is the brains of the duo. Unlike Vic, he is well-educated and frequently enlightens his companion in matters of history, grammar, and survival strategies. He also teases Vic by calling him “Albert,” a sly reference to Albert Payson Terhune, the author of “dog novels” such as Lad: A Dog and The Heart of a Dog. Blood tends to serve as Vic’s moral compass, reminding the boy of their obligations to one another when Vic is distracted by women or other temptations.

The girl is named Quilla June. She comes from “downunder,” a society that lives in a massive underground facility. Before the war, scientists built a couple hundred of these shelters, and the middle class and good Christian folk of America (“squares of the worst kind,” in Vic’s words) settled in to recreate the comfortable lives they knew up top. Blood knows that the people who live downunder distrust surface dwellers and warns Vic against involving himself with Quilla June, but Vic doesn’t listen. Quilla June knocks Vic out with a pistol and runs away. Furious, Vic pursues her to the downunder town of Topeka. Blood refuses to follow and stays on the surface, even though he will not be able to find food on his own.

The section of “A Boy & His Dog” set in Topeka is what gives the story its metaphorical bite. Before now, the story has been vivid and exciting pulp fiction. Here, Ellison aims higher, unleashing a scathing commentary on middle-class American values. Vic’s description of the town reads like a Norman Rockwell painting:

“They rocked in rockers on the front porches, they raked their lawns, they hung around the gas station, they stuck pennies in gumball machines, they painted white stripes down the middle of the road, they sold newspapers on the corners, they listened to oompah bands on a shell in the park…they walked hand-in-hand with some of the ugliest chicks I’ve ever seen, and they bored the ass off me.”

It is a picture-perfect recreation of small-town Americana, but from the beginning Vic realizes how bland and empty it is to live there. “They ate artificial shit: artificial peas and fake meat and make-believe chicken and ersatz corn and bogus bread and it all tasted like chalk and dust to me.”

In her book Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, Ellen Weil neatly summarizes how clinging to the past has ruined Topeka’s future: “The Topekans have chosen to deal with historical change by denying it, substituting instead a repressive condition of stasis, enforced even down to the level of daily speech, in which everyone must politely address everyone else as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.'” (As Weil notes, a society that exists in a tightly regulated stasis is not a new idea for Ellison; it is the basis of one of his most famous stories, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman.”) The point Ellison is making here is clear. The society up top and the society down under are both inhumane, but for different reasons – a point Ellison drive homes as this section unfolds.

We learn why Quilla June has lured Vic to Topeka: The population is growing sterile and most of the babies are girls. Topeka needs virile men to keep the population from dying out. At first, Vic is delighted to serve as the town stud, but within a week he finds the fake sunlight and forced politeness of the town’s citizens repressive and yearns to escape. This is another section of the story that made me wish that the story had more focus on female characters. Ellison seems to be setting up a contrast between the predominantly male surface and the predominately female Topeka, but ultimately he never does anything with this. I suppose I can cut Ellison some slack; a literal “war of the sexes” might have been a bit much.

Vic enlists Quilla June in his escape plan and they make their way back to the surface. Ellison has a few more jabs to make at small-town hypocrisy on the way out; Quilla June’s “prayer-shouting Poppa” is revealed to desire her sexually, and Vic uses this desire to incapacitate him during the escape. By the time they reach topside, Blood is starving. Quilla June begs Vic to leave Blood behind and go with her, asking, “Do you know what love is?” Faced between saving his dog, whom he depends on for survival (and who depends on him), and the girl he loves, Vic makes a choice: “Sure I know. A boy loves his dog.”

The implication is obvious: Vic kills Quilla June and feeds her to Blood. Some readers of the story have interpreted the scene to be cannibalistic – in The Edge of Forever, Weil even draws parallels between “A Boy & His Dog” and the cannibalism in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. However, Harlan Ellison has explicitly stated on more than one occasion that Vic does not engage in cannibalism.

BoyandHisDog

Considering how often I’ve brought up the dynamic between the sexes in the story, I think now is a good time to address the accusations of misogyny that have followed the story around for decades. The novella was turned into a movie of the same name in 1975. Harlan Ellison did not write the screenplay; this was done by producer Alvy Moore and director L. Q. Jones. Noted feminist theorist and sci-fi novelist Joanna Russ (The Adventures of Alyx) wrote in her essay “A Boy & His Dog: The Final Solution,” “Sending a woman to see A Boy & His Dog is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau; you need not be feminist to loathe this film.” Ellison himself denounced the film’s ending, which makes light of Quilla June’s death, calling it a “moronic, hateful chauvinist last line, which I despise.” Because the film is a generally faithful adaptation of the plot of the story, the two are often conflated.

However, it is important to separate the film and the story when discussing potential misogyny. The society Vic lives in, and certainly Vic himself, are ragingly misogynistic, but I do not believe the tale itself is as well. Ellison, in his introduction to Vic & Blood, a graphic novel adaptation of the story illustrated by Richard Corben, defends himself thusly: “[People] seem blissfully unaware of history (well, duh) and what happens after a decimating war in which food, weapons, shelter and women become valuable chattel… I show my real attitude towards these matters by making Vic little more than a beast, while Blood represents culture, wit, intellect, saavy, and civilization at its best.”

Vic Blood

Joanna Russ goes into the matter in depth in “The Final Solution”:

“The story is, to my mind, somewhat different from the film; no one in the story is totally sympathetic or totally evil, and in particular the events surrounding the two main characters’ escape from the story’s underground society – he’s an intruder and she’s a native, but both are misfits – are such as to preclude choosing one character as morally better than another. The story’s point seems to be that both the societies, above ground and under ground, are rotten. Furthermore, the story is told from the male character’s point of view, a technique that admits both his relative ignorance of the other people in the tale and his natural bias in favor of himself.”

While I do not think Harlan Ellison has written a misogynistic story, he does have a tendency of writing female characters who betray others, or who invoke hatred in male characters – Ellen, for example, in “I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream,” or Pretty Maggie in “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” Quilla June fits that profile. Over the course of the story she betrays Vic and the people of Topeka, and the coldness with which she attempts to murder her own mother during the escape chills even Vic.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t list all the ways that “A Boy & His Dog” has influenced science fiction. There are, however, two major descendants of the story and its various adaptations that are well-recognized in popular culture: George Miller’s film The Road Warrior, and the video game series Fallout. In an interview with The Dissolve in 2013, Ellison claims that Miller called him from Australia to admit that he “ripped off” The Road Warrior from the film of A Boy & His Dog. Jesse Heinig, programmer on the original Fallout, stated in an article for Escapist that “A Boy & His Dog influenced Fallout on many levels, from underground communities of survivors to glowing mutants.”

Blood's A Rover

Since its publication, “A Boy & His Dog” has been renowned as one of Ellison’s masterpieces. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1969 and was nominated for the Hugo. Ellison wrote two short follow-up stories in the subsequent decades, “Eggsucker” (which recounts the early days of Vic and Blood’s friendship), and “Run, Spot, Run,” in which Vic develops a conscience after Quilla June’s murder. For years, Ellison claimed that these stories were part of a larger work called Blood’s A Rover, but the completed novel never materialized. However, in January of 2018, Subterranean Press announced that it would be releasing the completed novel later that year.

As for me, I loved the story. Its vivid setting, complicated characters, social satire, and clear influence on future works of science fiction make it essential reading.

NEXT TIME: “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt!

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood

Welcome back, everyone! I apologize for yet another prolonged absence. I first promised an entry focusing on Algernon Blackwood’s classic weird tale “The Willows” years ago, and now I’m at last making good on that promise. Let’s get to it.

First, some biographical notes: Algernon Blackwood was born in 1869 in Shooter’s Hill, England (now part of London, but at the time part of Kent). He received his education at Wellington College, and then had a rather varied career – among other professions, he worked as a dairy farmer in Canada, operated his own hotel, wrote as a journalist for the New York Times, and taught violin. Throughout his life he wrote essays for assorted periodicals. He was also one of the most prolific authors of ghost stories in the history of the genre, and a member of the Ghost Club (an organization dedicated to investigating the paranormal; its members have included Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). He died in 1951. “The Willows,” one of his most famous stories, was first published in a 1907 volume called The Listener & Other Stories. You can read it here.

The Listener

The story concerns two men (both unnamed, though one is consistently referred to as “the Swede”) canoeing down the Danube River on vacation. The river is flooding and the waters are treacherous; the narrator and his companion take refuge on an island covered in willow trees while they wait for the wind and water to subside. Things start to happen: A man passing by tries to warn them away. Strange noises are heard at night. The canoe is sabotaged. Food disappears. The willows appear to change positions of their own accord. Gradually the narrator and the Swede come to realize they have found themselves at a crossroads where two realities are bleeding together, though neither is fully capable of comprehending or expressing this idea. It becomes clear that they must fight for their sanity or be lost forever.

“The Willows” is, in my opinion, perhaps the purest example of the early weird tale. It is not horror or science fiction, yet contains elements of both. The narrator is a no-nonsense individual who relies on reason and the concrete evidence of his senses, who in fact prides himself on being able to provide a logical explanation for all unusual occurrences. Like many other narrators in weird fiction, he will be confronted with events that render his reason and senses obsolete. There is much talk of a general feeling of unease that gradually deepens into existential terror, another hallmark of weird fiction. Blackwood’s narrator is lucky – he and the Swede emerge unscathed – but had this story been written by a later practitioner of the weird, such as H. P. Lovecraft, it would be easy to imagine the characters succumbing to madness or worse by the end; loss of self, rather than death, is what is most usually at stake in weird fiction.

Blackwood does not make clear the exact nature of the creatures that stalk his characters. At one point the narrator emerges from his tent into the night and sees, or perceives that he sees, mighty figures so enormous they stretch into the clouds; he cannot see their faces. The experience evokes in him an almost religious awe. The Swede recognizes that no matter what the figures are, he and the narrator are insignificant by comparison, and their insignificance might be the only thing capable of saving them. The insignificance of humanity in the cosmos is a significant theme in weird fiction.

So, “The Willows” remains a textbook example of the weird. But 110 years since its publication, how does it hold up as literature? The answer is: quite well. Blackwood was a well-traveled author, and the opening passages describing the European landscape are lovely. From the beginning he establishes the importance of willows in his story, describing them growing along the banks of the Danube.

“These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive. For the wind sends waves rising and falling over the whole surface, waves of leaves instead of waves of water, green swells like the sea, too, until the branches turn and lift, and then silvery white as their underside turns to the sun.”

Note how Blackwood anthropomorphizes the willows here. This is a technique he uses throughout the story. When the narrator and the Swede first land on their island, Blackwood describes “an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands.” A few pages later, they are characterized as “pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening.” It’s an effective technique for building tension, as Blackwood slyly admits in the story itself:

“When common objects in this way become charges with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living creatures.”

The willows, then, serve several purposes: they are a physical manifestation of the unease felt by the narrator, and also a way to make the otherwise benign landscape seem alien and dangerous. Later in the story, Blackwood ups the ante – the narrator is awakened during the night by “the sound of multitudinous little patterings” and emerges from his tent in the morning to discover the willows are closer than they were before. No longer a symbolic threat, they are now an intimidatingly physical one. This is the moment in the story when we as readers become convinced that the narrator and the Swede are in real danger.

Blackwood also achieves suspense through the personalities of his characters. The narrator, as I have noted before, is a logical man. He can and does try to rationalize almost everything that happens in the story. As such, at many points he reasons that his deepening unease is not the result of anything concrete, but rather of his imagination. By contrast, he characterizes the Swede as “devoid of imagination” and “imperturbable.” Thus, at the beginning of the story Blackwood has established a dynamic: the narrator allows his imagination to get the better of him, and the Swede laughs it off.

As the story progresses, this dynamic subtly shifts. We see the Swede’s composure chiseled away until he is even more convinced of other-worldly happenings than the narrator. Most of the “explanations” we get about the characters’ situation come from the Swede, and are all the more effective for it. Even when he’s ranting about things like “sound in the fourth dimension,” we take him seriously because Blackwood takes him seriously. The Swede’s carefully charted descent into hysteria is one of the most effective suspense-building devices in the story.

I would like to examine the ending. Early in the story, the narrator and the Swede see what they initially perceive to be a corpse floating in the river. The corpse spins and bobs through the water, and finally they conclude they must actually have seen an otter (“it seemed – so much bigger than an otter”). Later, during the second half of the story, the Swede suggests that the interdimensional beings (or whatever they are) that haunt them will not leave them alone without a sacrifice. Ultimately, the Swede and the narrator are saved from this fate as a sacrifice is provided in the form of a peasant man that we have, ostensibly, never seen before. The corpse is tangled in the willow roots around the island. After a period it becomes dislodged and is described as “turning over and over on the waves like an otter” as it drifts away.

I have heard this passage criticized as a deus ex machina – the day saved by a plot contrivance. To me, though, it’s one of the eeriest events in the story. With as much time as Blackwood devotes to the otter incident at the start of the narrative, it cannot be a coincidence that he recalls it so strongly at the end. My immediate thought was that the “otter” the characters see at the beginning of the story is the corpse they discover at the end. If that is so, have they wandered into some sort of temporal anomaly? I realize that I’m reaching here, but for me, the mere possibility only added to the unearthly power of the story.

There are a few criticisms I would level at “The Willows.” Firstly, it is too long. This is more a novella than a short story, and Blackwood has a tendency to repeat his points. He spends whole pages on the Hungarian landscape, and while I stand by my earlier statement that his wilderness writing is beautiful, there’s just too much of it. We also get seemingly endless descriptions of the narrator’s unease. I understand and appreciate Blackwood’s game in slowly building an ever-deepening atmosphere of dread, but he could have shown a little restraint. Secondly, the prejudices of the time occasionally surface in the text. The Swede’s survival skills are compared more than once to those of “red Indians.” The Hungarian peasants of the region are described to “believe in all sorts of rubbish.” These instances are few and far between, but they jump out when reading the tale in 2018.

“The Willows” has been well-received since its initial publication. In his seminal essay “Supernatural Horror In Literature” (the forerunner to Stephen King’s Danse Macabre), H. P. Lovecraft writes, “Here art and restraint in narrative reach their very highest development, and an impression of lasting poignancy is produced without a single strained passage or a single false note.” His story “The Dunwich Horror” would pay direct tribute to “The Willows,” opening with a tour of a river through New England, complete with mysterious passersby who try to warn the main characters away. Later, J. R. R. Tolkien would feature a malevolent living willow in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel Threshold quotes from the story several times and incorporates aspects of it into the narrative. There was, for a time, even a horror magazine called The Willows (though it is now defunct). In 2017, Nathan Carson and Sam Ford turned the story into a two-issue comic book with surprising success.

Willows comic

“Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows.” Art by Sam Ford.

To summarize, it’s easy to see why this story was revered by Lovecraft and others. It is a textbook example of the classic weird tale, evocatively conjuring the mystery and otherworldly dread that are the hallmarks of such fiction. It moves a little slowly, but patient readers will be well-rewarded with a deeply unsettling slice of cosmic horror.

NEXT TIME: “A Boy & His Dog” by Harlan Ellison!

“Shortcut” Available Now!

Dear readers,

Apologies for my prolonged absence. I posted my entry about “Aye, and Gomorrah…” and then I blinked and eight months had passed. Time does that as you get older. I haven’t forgotten that I still need to post something about “The Willows,” but in the meantime, if you’re interested, the good folks at Element 118 Books in Asheboro, NC have started publishing some of my short fiction. This month’s offering is called “Shortcut.” They’re offering it for FREE on their website for a limited time before it goes to Amazon to become a Kindle exclusive.

shortcut-5nov2016

You can download the story here. There are also free stories available by the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, M. R. James, and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, as well as terrific selections by local North Carolina authors. I encourage everyone to check it out!