Short Reviews – The Exiled, The Hunted, George Guthridge

The Exiled, The Hunted by George Guthridge appeared in the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The Exiled, The Hunted is one of those Jungle-Planet-with-Cat-People sword and planet type stories. Only the Cat People aren’t native to the Jungle Planet and they don’t use swords. And they’re not really Cat People. But given that they’re primitive tribal mammalians with tails, they fall enough into Cat People trope that it works well enough as shorthand.

Guthridge’s story involves an environmental mystery, an inter-species love triangle, giant mudbeasts and cat people (sorry for the reductive term, George, but that’s what I’m sticking with) who hunt them, all set against the tragic background of the native lost cause (but in space!). Viewed as a simple planet adventure with naked cat girls and telepathic monsters, it’s a fun enough read, but looked at as some kind of social commentary on science vs conservatism, it will make you squint your eyes and say “I see what you did there.”

Nassam is the chief of the tribe of cat people who have been exiled to a planet of swamps, mud and tasty tasty mudbeasts. Speaking of tasty, he’s in love with Leeani, a huntress of his tribe. The problem is, he’s married to Chola, a human woman who had joined up with Nassam and his people during the war that eventually led to their exile. The main reason Nassam married Chola is that the cat people share a mystical empathetic bond with their family, and humans are more adaptable and innovative than cat people, so Nassam thought it would be awesome to have human kitty kids, but that didn’t pan out.

Nassam is faced with the problem that his tribe is dying out, suffering sickness, and he is falling under the strain of both leadership and the mysterious illness that’s afflicting the kitty folk. He is ultimately forced to put his faith into his wife, who has always had faith in him, and move the tribe because holy cow, the planet they were exiled to is radioactive as crap! They end up having to make multiple moves, because while things get a bit better now and then, the problems don’t go away. The tribe begins to doubt their chief and resent his ailing human wife.

In addition to being tasty, the mudbeasts are telepathic. Nassam gets the drop on an exceptionally large mudbeast who promises to reveal the secrets of the swamp and how to survive the planet’s radiation if he’ll spare its life. Nassam promises to spare the creature and order his tribe to stop hunting the mudbeasts in exchange for the knowledge it imparts, but just having told him how he can save the tribe, the beast is killed by Leeani. Nassam getting all contemplative while Leeani complains that he let her kill sink into the endless muck kicks off the epilogue in which the sadder and wiser chief will guide his people, love his wife, and make do on the crappy mudball planet, and the dying beast ominously contemplates the future of the cat people who might someday become mud monsters as well to survive, or something.

There is a lot going on in The Exiled, The Hunted. It deals with race, generational issues, scientific acceptance (or perhaps even faith in science) and the potentially disastrous consequences of conservative reactionary objection.

Generational issues are only briefly touched on, so I’ll knock those out first. The cat people’s empathic ability is sort of the reverse of the typical mystic indian trope; instead of connecting with ancestors, elders connect with youth, vicariously enjoying the thrills of the young in their old age. Unfortunately, the young cat people have radical notions of privacy and don’t want grampa empathically watching them all the time.

Race is one of the biggest issues, and is at the forefront because of the inter-species love triangle. While Nassam is kinda meh about humans and kinda meh about his wife, Leeani actually hates them, so she double hates Chola for being a human and being the chieftain’s wife. I don’t remember if it explicitly says it, but I think that humans were the ones who drove the cat people off their planet in the first place. Chola is one of those exoticists, a gone native type, who for various reasons has decided that she identifies so much with the “other” that she joins up with them and wants to be one of them and even marries herself a chief! Needless to say, a lot of the catfolk besides just Leeani resent the whole ‘gone native’ thing, but what struck me was that while we’re shown the anti-human racism of the catfolk in a negative light, Chola’s fetishization of the exotic, noble and primitive cat warriors is presented uncritically. And her human (white) know how is what ultimately saves the tribe!

Ignorance of Science (and radiation) will destroy the tribe and only science (mystic mudbeast knowledge + Chola’s human know-how & reasoning) can save them. Leeani embodies conservatism in the story: she has regressive ideas about race (hates all humans), has regressive ideas about science (doubts the human with her plans to escape the radiation), and figuratively kills knowledge and progress when she kills the mudbeast that had just given Nassam the secrets of the swamp. Shame on Leeani! Shame on the doubters and racists!

The Exiled, The Hunted is not a bad story. In fact, it’s probably one of the best in the issue in terms of writing and storytelling. It’s just that if one looks just below the surface, the messaging is so strangely off-the-wall that you find yourself wondering just what Guthridge was really trying to say here. Probably symptomatic of being written in the mid-70s before mainstream progressivism went totally insane, but read today this story is one that seems like it wants to have both a progressive social and pro-science message while coming across as a story about how at least one catman came to understand the white (wo)man’s burden from his wife who helped him save his tribe. “Look, guys, we have to do what this human lady says, she knows more than us about things, so let’s take her word for it.” Sure, she was right, but still…

The Exiled, The Hunted is one of Guthridge’s earliest published works; noting that, the skill with which he writes is impressive, so if he only got better, he’s worth checking out.

This is the last of the stories from the June 1977 issue of F&SF; there is a fascinating essay by Asimov on the nature of and means of observing and detecting black holes which I do not feel qualified to comment on save that I find the Dr’s non-fiction far more enjoyable than his fiction.  Later this week, I’ll be picking up with more from the January 1976 issue.

Short Reviews – The Final Close, J.P. Dixon

The Final Close appeared in the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was totally not made up by me.

The Final Close is the 3rd ‘Scary Injun’ story in the June 1977 issue. Nina was of the “monsters might be indistinguishable from indigenous people/indigenous people might be monsters” variety; The Horse Lord was of the “indigenous people know more about the scary stuff you should stay away from” variety; The Final Close is of the “indigenous people are gonna get ya, whitey, cuz they’re indigenous” variety. Racist? Sure, why not? But it’s like the short fiction version of a dime-store Indian; The Final Close captures a nuanced bit of Americana that can’t just be written off by saying it plays to stereotypes.

One of those door-to-door men that most folks only remember from old Looney Tunes -the kind who’d brag about selling refrigerators to Eskimos- and his young protege are making their way across the country selling folks headstones. If that doesn’t gob-smack you with foreshadowing of impending doom, I don’t know what would.

The ‘hero’ of the story is the young sales apprentice who thinks he’s on the verge of making it rich. He thinks he’s fancy stuff in his suit and tie, so doesn’t realize what a rube he is. Hitting on the counter girl at the burger & fries joint elicits a response of smiling contempt. Watch out for Old Pretty Mouth. The duo makes their way into Chickasaw City to find that the town’s name is only half-accurate. An angry lady and her neighbors end up chasing the “goddamn tourists” with a rifle and various implements straight into the maw of Old Pretty Mouth, a giant bass/serpent/crocogator/monster/something, and probably have a big larff about it after.

The Final Close, while not executed with quite the mastery of craft possessed by Bloch or playing with the depths of fear that The Horse Lord did, is a serviceable piece of disposable horror worthy of inclusion in a Creepshow-like showcase. The first one, not the second one. Like Nina, there’s the aspect of white fear at play, but more of the sort that makes you snicker as the unwitting dopes fall straight into whatever indigenous-peoples-related-doom awaits them.

One of the most striking aspects of the Final Close is the close attention to detail; if you only focus on the silly story of white guys chased by ‘injuns’ then ate by monster, you’ll miss the impressive amount of descriptive work put into making everything seem real and true to life. I’d not only believe that Dixon had driven through Chickasaw City, I’d believe that he ate at that burger & fries joint and had the counter girl snark at him. The last punch is with Old Pretty Mouth itself; after all of the details and descriptions, all we get of OPM is the kid’s dying thought that “Old Pretty Mouth looked just the way the kid had imagined him all along, and there was no escape.”

The best I can say about The Final Close is that this is how The Death of Bunny Munro should have ended.

Short Reviews – The Holdouts, Kit Reed

Kit Reed’s The Holdouts appeared in the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The Holdouts is comprised of three separately told parallel stories, the theme of which are -you guessed it- hold outs. Other than this theme of ‘holding out’, nothing ties the stories together in a meaningful way (or at least one that I can remember), and therein is one of the major weaknesses of this story. The other major weakness is that only one of the stories was interesting. For some reason, I’d completely forgotten what the B-story was, despite it having been more interesting at the time than the C-story.

The A-story is about a trio of WW2 Japanese soldiers abandoned on Pacific Island, holding desperately onto the order demanded by their rank and culture to keep going in hopes that someday they would be able to return home victorious to Japan.

The B-story is some kind of Sunset Blvd. type yarn, wherein an aging actress endlessly rewatches reels of her incomplete film opposite a hunky Hollywood guy who’d left her. Her daughter is kept virtually a prisoner of her obsession, and the guilt of her own pregnancy and birth (which caused the film to stop production, never to be resumed) leads the daughter to acquiesce to the mother’s madness.

The C-story is… I think some guy has a farm? Or something. Doesn’t want to sell it but maybe has to?

C-story resolves with the guy selling the farm to hippies for a knock-off Woodstock, I think.

B-story resolves with the daughter meeting an attractive guy; mom thinks she can use him to finish the film, for herself, if nothing else, and give up on the Hollywood hunk who left her years ago. The guy likes the girl enough that maybe he’ll help out mom.

A-story resolves with an American Astronaut washing up on shore, telling the stranded Japanese that the war is over, it’s a new day! The nearly naked, half-dead, three-quarters-starved, seven-eighths-mad Japanese draw their swords, shout “Banzai!” and hack him to pieces.

I did enjoy story A and story B on their own terms, even if I was unable to engage the triptych of The Holdouts as had Reed had intended. Story A was especially moving, with the Private who longed for human contact but was restricted by hierarchy from opening up to his companions, the Captain, who felt the same way as the Private, but needed to maintain order by his rank to keep them alive, both ultimately separated by the Lieutenant who was caught in between, motivated by self-preservation and a desire for power and advancement that could never be realized in their current straits. Story B, like story A, had very human characters who you could at least pity, if not always sympathize with. Story C had a farmer.

Um… I guess you could say that the Japanese held out to the very end? I’m not looking deep enough into this story to draw the meaning that I’m sure is there and I’m sure that Kit Reed wanted me to get, but I don’t want to work that hard for something appearing in a book with a space whale flying into a supernova on its cover.

Short Reviews – My Boat, Joanna Russ

My Boat was published in the January 1976 issue of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I know I haven’t finished all of the stuff from June 1977 yet, but this was fresh in my mind and I wanted it to follow my previous review of The Horse Lord.  I do plan on finishing reviews of June 1977 issue this week.

While Lisa Tuttle’s The Horse Lord captures everything that is right and good and wonderful about Lovecraftian Weird Horror, Joanna Russ’s My Boat embodies everything I can’t stand about ::fingerquotes:: “Lovecraftian Weird Horror”.

My Boat turns a fictionalized account of the Central High Integration* into a magical negro story with a bunch of Lovecraft titles and places name dropped to show some Lovecraft cred. The story is told in one of those annoying first person one-sided conversation perspectives, with the narrator recounting his tale in between pitches to his agent for a new series.

The narrator, in that “tell me I ain’t crazy!” voice recalls those days at Central High where he and a buddy (obsessed with HP Lovecraft, natch) befriended one of the young black girls who was part of the integration. The girl’s mother is an ultra conservative and restrictive christian while her father was killed in front of her by angry white men; shy and quiet, and seems always afraid, though she is an absolutely brilliant and natural actor, and *gasp* has extensive knowledge about the history of the east Mediterranean, including “correct” pronunciations! Despite her quirks the girl becomes close with the narrator and his nerdy friend.

One day, she invites them out to the lake to go on her boat which she has christened “My Boat”. What follows is a flight of fancy as the boat progressively becomes more fancy, as does the magic black girl, who turns into a resplendent princess. A lot of Lovecraftian locations get name-dropped (Celephais, Kadath, etc.), and they’re going to set sail and visit the Queen of Sheba (properly pronounced “Saba”, our magic black girl reminds us). Oh, we’re going to places wonderful and terrible just like out of the pulp rags your friend reads! Off to Atlantis! The narrator gets a sudden case of the scared-white-boys, hesitates for a moment when a “redneck” cop shows up and is all ‘whachudoin, boy?”, and turns around to find the boat is gone!

The narrator tells us how he is unable to convince the black girl’s mother that his friend didn’t abduct and rape her daughter, and is messed up about the whole thing. Twenty years later, he runs into his old friend again, who hasn’t aged a day. ‘Oh, I’m just on my way to my house, I have to pick up the Necronomicon before I get back.’ But it’s not the Necronomicon, but the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath! Moogahboogahlovecraftwasright! And the friend disappears, and the house disappears and the neighborhood disappears and the freeway goes through where it all ways now, and was it real or not or is he crazy?

When I talk about terrible Lovecraft fan-wankery being the reason why I don’t read a lot of modern weird fiction and am wary of any writers who cite Lovecraft as an influence, this is the kind of story I’m talking about. If you actually like this kind of thing, you’d probably like this. Me? I hate it.

Lovecraft was immensely influenced by Lord Dunsany, particularly his dark quasi-arabian mythology established in Gods of Pegana. But I can guarandamntee you that we wouldn’t even be talking about Lovecraft today if he’d written The Doom that Came to Yun-Ilara, The Call of Trogool, or The Dream Quest of Unknown Aradec. Come up with your own damn dream worlds and stop name dropping Ulthar, Celephais, and Kadath. Or if you’re going to name drop Lovecraft stuff, be subtle about it. Use a sniper rifle, not a gatling gun. Best Lovecraft drop in a book ever? Foucault’s Pendulum has six hundred pages of historical, philosophical, and theological conspiracy theories being bandied about both in jest and in all seriousness, but when the Rosicrucian obsessed occultists, free masons, new agers and Thelemites kidnap one of the characters, right before the climactic bloodbath, someone shouts “Ia, Cthulhu!” Perfect cherry on top for a story about people who are obsessed with occultism and can no longer tell the difference between occult history and fiction.

Less is more, none is best, My Boat is full of leaks.

*The National Guard are not present, no state is mentioned, and it is 5 black students instead of 9, but as it does take place in the south in the 1950s, “Central High” and “Integration” are a dog-whistle to any Arkansan.

Short Reviews – The Horse Lord, Lisa Tuttle

Lisa Tuttle’s short horror story The Horse Lord appears, like everything I’ve done a Short Review of so far, in the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  It maybe bears mentioning that the “Short” in “Short Review” refers to the length of the subject matter rather than the review itself.  I retcon this claim to be true.

I love Lovecraft’s weird fiction. Not just his mythos stuff, but his ‘weird New England’ stuff, where the oldness of the land and the mystery about what took place where nothing but oral traditions passed down the stories of spirits that inhabit the land. A lot of writers try to emulate Lovecraft by simply throwing together a monster with an unpronounceable name, toss in the boilerplate about “unknowable horror” and “unspeakable cosmic” whatnot, but those folks are missing the real magic. Lisa Tuttle does not. She understands how to weave a story of suspense and terror.

First, you establish a sense of dread with tone and setting. Then, you provide the underlying justification for that feeling of dread by providing just enough background to confirm in the reader’s mind that something terrible is going to happen and hint at the possible nature of that something. You let the dread build, raising the blade of the guillotine, until the very end when you let the rope go. This is what Lisa Tuttle does in the Horse Lord with enough skill and nuance that one can’t say that she’s emulating Lovecraft’s weird horror but rather she is improving upon it.

The Horse Lord takes place in a grim and desolate patch of land in upstate New York where a family has just moved. The protagonist is a fairly recently married woman, Marilyn, who wanted children someday but now suddenly has several: a step-daughter and four recently orphaned nieces & nephews. Unable to afford space for such a brood in New York City, the family moved to an old home that had been in her husband Derek’s family for years relatively unused. After quickly painting Marilyn’s situation, her character and the rural isolation of the bleak homestead and nearby barn (locked and boarded up, naturally), Tuttle gives us our underlying justification: a gruesome and inexplicable unnatural death nearly a century ago. We learn from Derek that his “Old Uncle Martin” had been torn apart and eaten by his own horses in that barn. The land was cursed and local Indian warnings had gone ignored.

The story goes on to juxtapose Marilyn reading and finding out more and more about the supposed “curse”, the local Indians, the grisly death of Uncle Martin (a kind man, who’d been good to his horses), and nightmares about bones being snapped by the giant teeth of angry equines with the children’s eerie determination to fix up the old barn and catch the horse that must certainly be running wild on the property (what else could be making that terrifying screaming sound in the hills at night?). Never has the old adage of “every little girl wants a pony” been so frightening. We know (because it is a horror story) that Marilyn and Derek are doomed, and we slowly learn why and can eventually make some decent guesses as to how, but nothing quite prepares you (except for a spoileriffic review like this!) for that moment when they are eaten alive by their own children.

Lovecraft’s typical protagonist is a boring asexual scholarly type who winds up in some horrible predicament that ends with him going crazy or being torn to pieces. The horror lies primarily in the situation itself with little empathetic fear, as we don’t necessarily relate or connect to the typical Lovecraftian protagonist (though friendless, family-less archivists and librarians might, I don’t know). Tuttle’s hero here is in a Lovecraftian situation, but we can relate to her and her real life fears about safety of her family, fear for her children, fear of failing as a parent in addition to the unknowable horrors. And then to be killed by that which you loved, feared for and wanted so desperately to protect? It is the unheimlich all over the place!