Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Sentinel (1948)

by Arthur C. Clarke

The Sentinel,” by Arthur C. Clarke is famous for being the starting point of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like so many great science fiction stories, it was conceived long before man had ventured into space. Written in 1948 and published three years later as “Sentinel of Eternity” in 10 Story Fantasy in England, it was then anthologized in the collection Expedition to Earth in 1953. The story opens with a description of the Moon, in particular “a small, dark oval . . . the great walled plain, one of the finest on the Moon, known as the Mare Crisium . . . three hundred miles in diameter, and almost completely surrounded by a ring of magnificent mountains.” The first person narrator states that the site hadn’t been explored until 1996. It’s an interesting date for Clarke to pick. Even though Sputnik hadn’t been launched yet when the story was written, routine Moon exploration could easily have been a feature of late twentieth century life. And the narrator implies as much about the mission itself. “It was an uneventful routine. There is nothing hazardous or even particularly exciting about lunar exploration.” If there’s an element of the story that doesn’t jibe with late twentieth century sensibilities, however, it’s this. “Half a dozen times a day we would leave our vehicle and go outside in the space suits to hunt for interesting minerals, or to place markers for the guidance of future travellers.” With space travel costing billions of dollars, it’s highly unlikely that any country would decide to waste that much money on a mission so nebulous.

The narrator describes getting eight hours of sleep every day, with the astronauts shut inside their land roving craft while the sun blazes outside, then getting up and fixing breakfast in the morning. “It was sometimes hard to believe that we were not back on our own world--everything was so normal and homely, apart from the feeling of decreased weight and the unnatural slowness with which objects fell.” But all of that changes one morning. Looking out the window of the craft the narrator sees something reflecting light from the distant mountains. He goes up to the observation telescope, but still can’t make out exactly what it is, though it seems as if it must be fairly flat to reflect the light in the manner it does. It takes all day, but he finally convinces the rest of the crew to drive the craft over to the mountains so that he can take a look and see if he can find whatever is there to find. For the narrator, named Wilson, and his partner Garnett, the climb is strenuous but not impossible, and Wilson has absolutely no expectation that what he finds will be anything out of the ordinary. “The thing that had lured me over these barren wastes . . . would be, almost certainly, nothing more than a boulder splintered ages ago by a falling meteor, and with its cleavage planes still fresh and bright.” When he at last he sets sight on the twelve-foot high pyramid shaped monolith rising from a flat, level plain, however, Clarke describes the man’s reaction in an absolutely wonderful turn of phrase. Wilson had been almost sure it would turn out to be nothing. “Almost, but not quite; it was that haunting doubt that had driven me forward. Well, it was doubt no longer, but the haunting had scarcely begun.”

That’s really all there is to the story, and it’s probably that fact more than any other that led to its initial rejection when Clarke submitted the story to the BBC for a writing competition in 1948. But the lengthy denouement is where the heart of the story lies, and in a post Star Trek--Star Wars world it takes a little bit of mental readjustment to really see things from the narrator’s point of view. Those films are just fiction. In reality, man has yet to find evidence of intelligent life in the tiny fraction of the Universe that he has thus far explored. That is the genius of Clarke’s story. The description of the pyramid-monolith makes the implication of its discovery crystal clear.

          I have said the plateau was scarred by meteors; it was also coated inches deep with the cosmic dust
          that is . . . upon the surface of any world where there are no winds to disturb it. Yet the dust and the
          meteor scratches ended quite abruptly in a wide circle enclosing the little pyramid . . . I picked up a
          fragment of splintered rock and tossed it gently toward the shining enigma . . . but it seemed to hit a
          smooth, hemispheric surface and slide gently to the ground.

Wilson’s initial though is that the pyramid must have been the remnant of a civilization that had existed on the moon before Earth itself had spawned life. But, of course, that’s impossible, “and my pride would not let me take the final, humiliating plunge.” One of the postulations that Clarke makes early on in the story is that the Moon was originally very Earthlike, covered with water that eventually evaporated. But that hardly makes sense on a dead satellite that has little atmosphere. Though scientists have recently come to believe that the atmosphere of the Moon was once much thicker than it is today and lasted for millions of years, its surface certainly had nothing like the “tideless ocean . . . a half a mile deep” that Clarke’s narrator claims once existed there.

The “humiliating plunge” that the narrator finally undertakes is to accept that the pyramid could not have been built by ancient beings that were somehow associated or connected to the Earth and had once inhabited the Moon. “I knew then that I was looking at nothing that could be matched in the antiquity of my own race. This was not a building, but a machine, protecting itself with forces that had challenged Eternity.” Even at this point Clarke is not in a hurry to get to the shuddering implication of this machine, but the understated way in which he unfolds it is magnificent. Of course man can not find a way in to examine the pyramid and must resort to atomic weaponry, the most crude and unsophisticated method there is, and naturally destroys the machine in the process, leaving them with tantalizing fragments of something created by extraterrestrial life. But even that is not the most chilling aspect of the story. The narrator finally calls the pyramid what it is, a sentinel, and the slow unraveling of Wilson’s conclusion is a pleasure to read and consider. Because in the end, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” is not a science-fiction adventure story but a thought-provoking intellectual question: Does the existence of a race of highly advanced beings millions of years old--a race that may even be extinct--make man less alone in the Universe . . . or more so.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Long Odds (1886)

by H. Rider Haggard

One of the enduring characters of Victorian literature is the adventurer Allan Quatermain, created by H. Rider Haggard. This adventurous hero first made his way into print in the novel King Solomon’s Mines in 1885. One of the interesting things about Haggard’s works about Quatermain is that they appeared completely out of chronological order, coming in whatever order the writer was inspired to put his adventures down on paper. In that first novel the character is fifty-five years old. “Long Odds,” from the following year, however, comes from near the end of the great adventurer’s life. Shortly after telling this story to the narrator, “the death of his only son so unsettled him that he immediately left England, accompanied by two companions, his old fellow-voyagers, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good, and has now utterly vanished into the dark heart of Africa.” The story was first published in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1886, and later included in a collection of stories entitled, Allan’s Wife and Other Tales, the following year. Haggard wrote only a handful of short stories about Quatermain, preferring to chronicle most of his adventures in the novels that followed.

The story begins as a reminiscence by Haggard’s famous protagonist, Allan Quatermain, as an old man. But not right away. The actual narrator first tells how he was even in a position to hear the story after spending a few days at the old adventurer’s home.

          He had eaten his dinner and drunk two or three glasses of old port . . . It was an unusual thing for
          him to do, for he was a most abstemious man . . . Consequently the good wine took more effect on
          him that it would have done on most men, sending a little flush into his wrinkled cheeks, and making
          him talk more freely than usual . . . Generally he would not, for he was not very fond of narrating his
          own adventures, but to-night the port wine made him more communicative.

Walking about his study, looking at his many trophies, Quatermain stops before the head of a lion and claims the beast is still giving him trouble. The narrator asks him to tell the story and he obliges. The year was 1879, and Quatermain was in Africa and heard about quite a lot of ivory that was being brought out to the coast from the interior. “It was a risky thing to go into the country so early, on account of the fever, but I knew that there were one or two others after that lot of ivory, so I determined to have a try for it.” Haggard’s description of the countryside in the grip of fever is wonderful, with mists and smoke all about personifying the dreaded disease.

          I used to creep from the waggon at dawn and look out. But there was no river to be seen--only a long
          line of billows of what looked like the finest cotton wool tossed up lightly with a pitchfork. It was the
          fever mist. Out from among the scrub, too, came little spirals of vapour, as though there were hundreds
          of tiny fires alight in it--reek rising from thousands of tons of rotting vegetation. It was a beautiful place,
          but the beauty was the beauty of death; and all those lines and blots of vapour wrote one great word
          across the surface of the country, and that word was ‘fever.’

At one point he comes upon a deserted village and after uncovering the body of a dead woman he goes inside one of the huts. There were five dead natives inside, including a baby, but on the way out he sees a pair of eyes in the corner and hears screaming as he leaves. It turns out to be an old woman left for dead. Quatermain feeds her and takes her to the next village before continuing on his journey.

His first meeting with the lion comes as his group has stopped to rest for the night. When the driver of the wagon comes back with only one of the oxen, named Kaptein, after putting the others out to feed in the grass, Quatermain is furious and sends two men out to find them. Eventually it gets dark, and when the ox begins to get restless the hunter goes out to take a look around without his gun. In the next instant the great lion is on the back of Kaptein biting his neck. Quatermain trips going for his gun, and is forced to play dead while the lion sniffs at his leg. There’s nothing he can do but wait while the lion feeds, and when the animal roars after finishing, it’s returned by another roar close by which he realizes can only be his mate. “Hardly was the thought out of my head when I caught sight in the moonlight of the lioness bounding along through the long grass, and after her a couple of cubs about the size of mastiffs.” The four of them continue to eat, and presently one of the cubs begins licking Quatermain’s leg. “The more he licked the more he liked it, to judge from his increased vigour and the loud purring noise he made.” It’s only after he begins praying for forgiveness of his sins that the men come back with the oxen and scare the lions off.

The next day, the hunter’s dander up, he decides to hunt down the lions. “Like a fool, I determined to attack the whole family of them.” A few hundred yards from the wagon, he studies the terrain and determines that, if they are around, they would be hiding in the reeds near a water hole, “as there is nothing a lion is fonder of than lying up in reeds, through which he can see things without being seen himself.” As for how to flush them out, he decides that fire will do the trick. The wind was up and heading away from the wagon, so he and his partner, Tom, set fire to the reeds while Quatermain runs around to the opposite side out in the open to wait for them to emerge. “It was a risky thing to do, but I used to be so sure of my shooting in those days that I did not so much mind the risk.” After the false alarm of a reedbuck jumping out first he begins to hear the roaring of the lions. They wait on the edge of the reeds, reluctant to come into the open, but soon the heat becomes too much for them. “I never saw a more splendid sight in all my hunting experience than those four lions bounding across the veldt, overshadowed by the dense pall of smoke and backed by the fiery furnace of the burning reeds.”

This is where Haggard ratchets up the suspense. Quatermain has a clear shot of the male as the group is running for the nearby trees. “I was on, dead on, and my finger was just beginning to tighten on the trigger, when suddenly I went blind--a bit of reed-ash had drifted into my right eye. I danced and rubbed, and succeeded in clearing it more or less just in time to see the tail of the last lion vanishing round the bushes.” Needless to say, after all he had been through, “If ever a man was mad I was that man.” Now the hunter throws all caution to the wind and heads into the trees after them. “I was determined that I would either kill those lions or they should kill me.” But the trees and scrub brush afford the lions much more cover than the grass and Quatermain has to move slowly and methodically. Then one of the cubs makes a break for it and, turning quickly, he manages to shoot him in the spine while his partner Tom finishes him off. But that’s when the trouble begins.

          I opened the breech of the gun and hurriedly pulled out the old case . . . when I tried to get in the new
          case it would only enter half-way; and--would you believe it?--this was the moment that the lioness,
          attracted no doubt by the outcry of her cub, chose to put in an appearance . . . Slowly I stepped back-
          wards, trying to push in the new case. It would not go in, so I tried to pull it out. It would not come out
          either, and my gun was useless . . . The lioness was creeping forward on her belly without a sound, but
          lashing her tail and keeping her eye on me; and in it I saw that she was coming in a few seconds more.

Quatermain tries to push the bullet in until his hand slips and the case cuts his wrist--brandishing the scars on his wrist for the narrator to see--all the while waiting for the lioness to pounce on him. It’s then that he hears Tom yelling from behind him, warning him that he’s been backing up toward the wounded cub all along and that he needs to change directions, which he does. Finally, when she realizes he’s not going toward the cub, the lioness bounds off back into the trees. Tom desperately tries to get Quatermain to call off the hunt, but he’s having none of it. He tells Tom to climb up a tree if he’s scared--which he does--then he wraps a handkerchief around his bleeding wrist and heads back into the trees in search of the other three lions.

Armed now with two bullets in his double-barreled rifle, he throws a rock into the bushes and out comes the other cub. The hunter expertly dispatches it with a shot to the heart. Then the lioness comes out after the cub and he puts the other bullet into her ribs. While he reloads the lioness attempts to kill him before she bleeds out, but by then Quatermain puts another bullet into her heart and finishes her off. “Naturally I was considerably pleased with myself, and having again loaded up, I went on to look for the black-maned beauty who had killed Kaptein.” For the next hour the hunter goes up onto the brush and rocks looking for the lion making sure not to miss a spot, but finds nothing. Finally, he decides to give up for the day, and turning back one last time he suddenly sees something. “On the top of the mass of boulders, opposite to me, standing out clear against the rock beyond, was the huge black-maned lion. He had been crouching there, and now arose as though by magic.”

          But he did not stand long. Before I could fire--before I could do more than get the gun to my shoulder--
          he sprang straight up and out from the rock, and driven by the impetus of that one mighty bound came
          hurtling through the air towards me . . . Without a sight, almost without aim, I fired . . . Next second I
          was swept to the ground, and the lion was on the top of me, and the next those great white teeth of his
          had met in my thigh--I heard them grate against the bone.

Fortunately for Quatermain, the bullet hit home and the lion had only enough energy to stand up once before collapsing on top of him. He was also lucky that the lion hadn’t crushed the bone in his thigh. Nevertheless, “I need scarcely add that I never traded the lot of ivory at Sikukuni's. Another man got it--a German--and made five hundred pounds out of it after paying expenses. I spent the next month on the broad of my back, and was a cripple for six months after that. I have been lame ever since, and shall be to my dying day.”

In terms of literary merit to the story, there’s very little. And that’s exactly the point. This is an adventure yarn from start to finish, and the only goal is to make the readers’ pulse beat quicker and heart pound harder as Quatermain faces certain death. Of course today there’s something unseemly in the protagonist’s hunting down of animals out of pure spite, and his bravery a hundred and fifty years ago now seems like little more than unchecked ego. He was Hemingway before there was Hemingway. But putting that aside, this is a view into a world of adventure that captivated Victorian audiences. Africa was the wildest and most mysterious place on earth. The animals were exotic and sometimes ferocious. “It was wonderfully exciting, work, for I never was sure from one moment to another but that he would be on me. I took comfort, however, from the reflection that a lion rarely attacks a man--rarely, I say; sometimes he does, as you will see--unless he is cornered or wounded.” Unlike Joseph Conrad’s more pessimistic--and more realistic--view of African colonialism later on, H. Rider Haggard presented readers with an escape from their stuffy drawing rooms and hum-drum lives by taking them on adventures that, in the days before cinema, were the most exciting thing imaginable. And on that score, H. Rider Haggard’s “Long Odds” doesn’t disappoint.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Gift of Cochise (1952)

by Louis L’Amour

This is the reason I love Louis L’Amour. Though “The Gift of Cochise” is a simple story, I would argue that it is deceptively simple and is actually quite impressive in the things that it does. First published in Collier’s Weekly in the July 5, 1952 issue, it’s the story of Angie Lowe who finds herself alone with her two children in West Dog Canyon in New Mexico in 1878. Her husband Ed has gone south to get supplies in El Paso, but hasn’t returned in four months. Outside her door is a group of Apache Indians, led by Cochise, who is appraising this oddity on the frontier. “Three times the warriors of Cochise had attacked this solitary cabin and three tines they had been turned back. In all, they had lost seven men, and three had been wounded . . . A lone woman with two small children had fought them off . . . and she was prepared to fight now.” When Cochise states the obvious, that her man must be dead, he asks why she doesn’t leave. Angie replies, “Leave? Why, this is my home. This land is mine. This spring is mine. I shall not leave.” This is why I love Louis L’Amour. To understand why, you only have to look at another story, this one by Zane Grey.

In the “The Missouri Schoolmarm” Grey has a group of cowboys arguing about who has been writing to the teacher they’re all in love with. One of them, apparently, broke ranks and wrote to her on the sly. Looking at her return letter, one of them tries to argue that she simply wrote it on her own. “How do we know that?” asked Tex suspiciously. “Shore the boss’ typewriter is a puzzle, but it could hide tracks. Savvy Pards?” Really? Savvy Pards? It’s difficult to slog through even one page of this kind of writing, with characters named Tex and the like. Tex? How many cowboys with that name are there roaming around the West? All this kind of writing does is deal with stereotypes, two-dimensional characters with Southern drawls and clichéd language. But when Louis L’Amour has Angie Lowe tell the Apache leader, “I shall not leave,” there’s a dignity to the language which then translates to the character. There’s a respect to giving characters this kind of language that is light years from something like, “I ain’t a-goin’ anywheres, Chief. Ya git me?” This respect for character, which really gives them humanity, even extends to the natives that L’Amour writes about, and this is what sets even the simplest stories he writes apart from the rest of the pack.

After Angie stares down Cochise with a shotgun in her hand, he respects her strength and fighting spirit and what she’s done. But he still believes his people should be able to drink from her spring and says she is unnecessarily depriving them, to which she replies,

          “Cochise speaks with a forked tongue,” she said. “There is water yonder.” She gestured toward the hills,
          where Ed had told her there were springs. “I have no wish to fight your people. I live in peace when I am
          left in peace. But if the people of Cochise come in peace they may drink at this spring.” The Apache
          leader smiled faintly. Such a woman would rear a nation of warriors.

From that point on, his people not only leave her alone but leave her gifts after drinking from her spring. At this point L’Amour provides backstory on both Angie and Ed. Her father was from New York and her mother a Cajun from New Orleans. She was born en route to Santa Fe and married Ed Lowe after her parents died when she was only seventeen. They had travelled south looking for land and Angie picked out the spot, “Here there were grass, water, and shelter from the wind . . . The house was built in a corner of the cliff, under the sheltering overhang, so that approach was possible from only two directions, both covered by an easy field of fire from the door and windows.”

L’Amour writes the story from the omniscient point of view, with the first section going back and forth between the thoughts of Angie and of Cochise, and later between Ed and Ches Lane. After providing the backstory, the second section deals with Ed Lowe. Angie wasn’t sure she really loved him, but he was nice enough, and felt bad for him because he missed the conversation of other people. So when he gets to town and buys his supplies, he heads for a saloon and some pleasant conversation. When an argument breaks out at a poker table, Ed becomes interested. It turns out Ches Lane was unknowingly playing cards with three brothers of a man he had killed in a fair fight. Too late he realizes they deliberately cheated him in order to provoke an argument and be able to kill him just as fairly. But then, “Ed Lowe moved suddenly from the bar. ‘Three to one is long odds,’ he said, his voice low and friendly. ‘If the gent in the corner is willin’, I’ll side him.” Ed’s hope was that making the sides more even would get the brothers to back off, but one of the brothers fired first. All three of them died in the fight, but unfortunately Ed took a shot to the stomach. His dying words were of Angie. The only thing the bartender knew is that he had lived up north, in Apache country. And then Ches Lane makes a fascinating decision. “A man had died to save his life, and Ches Lane had a deep sense of obligation. Somewhere that wife waited, if she was still alive, and it was up to him to find her and look out for her.”

Ches takes along Ed’s horse, loaded with the supplies, and his own and he heads north to look for Angie. “Actually, West Dog Canyon was more east than north, but this he had no way of knowing.” If there’s a spot in the story that strains credulity it’s here, where Ches winds up fighting Indians all along the way and never gives up.

          He rode north, and soon the Apaches knew of him. He fought them at a lonely water hole, and he
          fought them on the run. They killed his horse, and he switched his saddle to the spare and rode on.
          They cornered him in the rocks, and he killed two of them and escaped by night . . . Grimly, the
          Apaches clung to his trail. The sheer determination of the man fascinated them. Bred and born in a
          rugged and lonely land, the Apaches knew the difficulties of survival; they knew how a man could
          live, how he must live. Even as they tried to kill this man, they loved him, for he was one of their own.

But eventually his luck runs out and after falling asleep hard one night, he was too late waking up and found himself surrounded by Apaches. Ironically, their leader was Cochise. L’Amour does a nice job here of creating suspense because of what the audience knows and the characters don’t. Cochise knows Angie. In fact, he had been to the cabin recently to tell her she should give it up and live with their tribe. Though it was obvious by now that Ed was never coming back, she couldn’t leave. Had Ches told Cochise who he was looking for the story might have been resolved there, but Ches had no way of knowing that. When the Indians take him to a hill of red ants to tie him down and torture him to death, he confronts them with everything he can, calling them women and insulting them in order to die an honorable death. Finally, his words hit home. “‘Give me a knife, and I will fight!’ Ches turned on Cochise, as the Indians stood resolute. ‘You are afraid! Free my hands and let me fight!’ He demanded ‘If I win, let me go free.’” Cochise finally agrees and one of the brave picks up a knife to challenge him. But Ches has no illusions, as Cochise says, “I promise you nothing but an honorable death.” Now Ches knows, “He had not only to defeat this Apache but to escape.” He wins the fight, but decides not to kill his opponent. When he get on his horse the Apache’s don’t let him leave, though they let him keep his knife. Then they begin taking him somewhere and refuse to tell him the destination. Finally they show up at Angie’s.

The conclusion to the story is another delight. This, then, is the title of the story. Ches is the gift that Cochise gives to Angie, and though this offends our Western sensibilities of love, L’Amour does a beautiful job in ending the story in a way that makes perfect sense and leaves the reader incredibly satisfied. This story is less a typical “western” than it is a frontier story, which is also what makes it so good to read. L’Amour doesn’t spend any time on the battles that Ches Lane has with the Indians as he makes his way north, because that’s not the point. One of the other nice aspects to the story is the verisimilitude in using Cochise, an actual Chirichua Apache from southern Arizona. The Apaches had a fierce reputation as killers in the Southwest, but then that is only from the perspective of the white man. As Cochise himself said when he finally gave up his battle, “When I was young I walked all over this country, east and west, and saw no other people than the Apaches. After many summers I walked again and found another race of people had come to take it. How is it? Why is it that the Apache wait to die?” For so many natives, fighting back against white incursion was the only choice they had if they weren’t going to completely give up and, in the words of Cochise, “wait to die.” Louis L’Amour’s “The Gift of Cochise” is a tremendous piece of writing, and one of my favorites of his stories.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Man Who Knew How (1932)

by Dorothy L. Sayers

This isn’t usually the kind of mystery story that I like to read, but I recently acquired The Complete Stories of Dorothy Sayers and thought I would delve into it. I decided to begin with some of her stand-alone stories rather than those featuring Lord Peter Wimsey or Montague Egg. “The Man Who Knew How” was first published in Harper’s Bazaar in February of 1932. It’s something of an amateur sleuth mystery that begins on a train with a Mr. Pender who is trying to read a mystery novel but is distracted by a man sitting across from him. No matter what he does, he can’t seem to concentrate because of the way the man is looking at him, so he puts the book up directly in his face to avoid giving him the satisfaction of knowing he’s disturbed his concentration. “He gained the impression that the man saw through the maneuver and was secretly entertained by it. He wanted to fidget, but felt obscurely that his doing so would in some way constitute a victory for the other man. In his self-consciousness he held himself so rigid that attention to his book became a sheer physical impossibility.” It’s this kind of moment that let’s the reader know this is a British story.

Eventually Pender can no longer keep up the charade and finally asks the man if he wants to read his book. “‘Thanks very much,’ he said, ‘but I never read detective stories. They’re so--inadequate, don’t you think so?’” The man is not talking about their literary merit, however, and it takes Pender a few moments to realize that the stranger is discussing real murders. Eventually he finds out the stranger believes he knows how to commit the perfect murder. Pender is completely taken aback by this, and presses him to divulge his secret, certain that the other man isn’t serious. At first he plays it coy, but in their conversation he comes out with the name of a drug, sulphate of thanatol, and how it is delivered by putting it in the victim’s bath water. “It’s the action of the hot water that brings on the effect of the stuff, you see. Any time from a few hours to a few days after administration. It’s quite a simple chemical reaction and it couldn’t possibly be detected by analysis. It would just look like heart failure.” A moment later he muses, “It’s very odd how often one seems to read of people being found dead in their baths,” the implication being that they must actually be murders. As they reach the stop at Rugby, however, he says he has an appointment and leaves the train before Pender can question him further.

Back at home, when Pender reads of a man who died in his bath in Rugby, he wonders offhandedly if his friend from the train was aware of it. But that’s just the beginning of what gradually becomes an obsession. As he reads through his daily paper, the word bath begins to jump out at him, “at once relieved and vaguely disappointed if a week passed without a hot-bath tragedy.” When one of these bath tragedies happens in his own neighborhood, however, Pender suddenly finds himself face to face with his friend as he’s out for a walk. Again, the man says he has business here, and that his business takes him all over the country. As they reach Pender’s house he invites him inside on a whim and during their conversation Pender suddenly realizes his whisky glass is full, but he didn’t refill it himself. “Now Pender came to think of it, it had been a very stiff whiskey. Was it imagination, or had there been something about the flavor of it? A cold sweat broke out on Pender’s forehead.” From that moment Pender begins to suspect the man--Smith he called himself--of somehow trying to kill him, but the only reason he would have to kill him is because he knows his secret: that Smith is somehow responsible for the bathing deaths.

It’s here that the true obsession begins. Pender attends the coroner’s inquisitions in all of these deaths, looking for Smith. When he finds him, he immediately calls a policeman over and tries to have Smith arrested. But Smith shows the cop a card and he winds up taking Pender to the police station, where they all think he’s gone a little nuts. This only leads to an increased fixation on what Smith is doing, and to the wonderfully twisted ending. Sayer’s story is a popular one and was reprinted on several occasions through the years. The first was in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1942, and a couple decades later it was selected for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s anthologies, Spellbinders in Suspense in 1967. In fact, the ending is perfect for the kind of story Hitchcock liked. It was collected in Sayers’ own book of short stories, Hangman’s Holiday, which was published in 1933. “The Man Who Knew How” is an amusing story, something of a black comedy, that demonstrates Sayers’ gift for British humor and an ability to develop character in a minimum of space while plotting a nice little mystery.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Whole Town’s Sleeping (1950)

by Ray Bradbury

I’ve never really been enamored with Ray Bradbury’s writing. For me he has always occupied a strange middle space between genuine horror fiction and hard science fiction that never seemed to pay off for me in the end. He also seems to indulge in that most damning of criticisms, purple prose. Yes, it is very descriptive writing, but almost to its detriment, and for me the excessive description is actually a distraction. “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” is a case in point. First published in McCall’s Magazine in September 1950, this particular story occupies a space that I would call women’s fiction, similar to what film studios like RKO were doing in the previous decade in Hollywood. The setting is early evening in the summertime, while the sidewalks are still hot and crickets and frogs are just beginning to sing. Lavinia Nebbs is on her front porch waiting for her girlfriends to walk with her to the movies, a Charlie Chaplin picture. Francine shows up first, and they head out together talking about the murders that have been taking place over the last few months by a killer known only as The Lonely One. “Hattie McDollis was killed two months ago, Roberta Ferry the month before, and now Elizabeth Ramsell’s disappeared . . . all of them, strangled, their tongues sticking out of their mouths, they say . . . Maybe we shouldn’t go to the show tonight . . . The Lonely One might follow and kill us.”

It’s then that the two women, on their way to the home of their friend Helen, must cross the ravine where the river flows through town. But before they can cross it they find the body of Elizabeth Ramsell. After calling the police, and staying around to tell them the circumstances of finding the body, they make it to Helen’s house an hour late. While Francine wants to turn back and call it a night, Lavinia is determined to see the movie and cleanse her mind of the frightful sight she has just witnessed. Before they go in, however, they stop at the drugstore and the clerk is apologetic because he wasn’t thinking that afternoon when she was in and told a strange man who thought she was beautiful her name and where she lived. Francine, of course, is horrified, but Lavinia is strangely unemotional about it. “Lavinia stood with the three people looking at her, staring at her. She felt nothing. Except, perhaps, the slightest prickle of excitement in her throat . . . ‘If I’m the next victim, let me be the next. There’s all too little excitement in life, especially for a maiden lady thirty-three years old, so don’t you mind if I enjoy it.’” There is some excitement at the movies when Francine thinks the man is behind them is the killer, but then they walk home without incident and Lavinia drops the two women off before starting on her way home back through the ravine by herself.

One of the most fascinating things for me about this story is the juxtaposition with the story “Cigarette” by Cornell Woolrich. Both stories are primarily suspense stories, but where Woolrich has streamlined his story to nothing but action, Bradbury is effusive with his descriptions, building his suspense slowly and then not unleashing it until the very end. “She took a step. There was an echo. She took another step. Another echo. Another step, just a fraction of a moment later. ‘Someone’s following me,’ she whispered to the ravine, to the black crickets and dark-green hidden frogs and the black stream. ‘Someone’s on the steps behind me. I don’t dare turn around.’ And before long she’s running headlong across the ravine toward the safety of home. “She told her legs what to do, her arms her body, her terror; she advised all parts of herself in this white and terrible moment, over the roaring creek waters, on the hollow, thudding, swaying, almost alive, resilient bridge planks she ran, followed by the wild footsteps behind, behind, with the music following, too, the music shrieking and babbling.” It’s a terrifying scene, every bit as suspenseful as Woolrich, but in a completely different way, one that emphasizes description and character over plot.

Though Bradbury packs a lot into his story, there are some omissions that, while not particularly glaring, are still troublesome. One is the fact that when Lavinia is hearing the echoes of the man she thinks is behind her and begins her run across the bridge to the other side of the ravine, she never once thinks of her shoes as being something that would prevent her from eluding her pursuer. Once at home she thinks, “It stands to reason if a man had been following me, he’d have caught me! I’m not a fast runner.” But nowhere do her shoes, with their fifties heels, much narrower even than those from the forties, come to mind. The other thing is that when she is leaving the other women at their doors, they don’t hug. “‘I don’t want you dead,’ sobbed Francine, the tears running down her cheeks. ‘You’re so fine and nice, I want you alive. Please, oh, please!’” And yet no hug after this? It’s a small thing, but a very noticeable omission to me. One description that does stand out, however, in looking at this as a woman’s story is this one of Lavinia walking on the hot sidewalk.

          Lavinia heard the old women’s door bang and lock, and she drifted on, feeling the warm breath of
          summer night shimmering off the oven-baked sidewalks. It was like walking on the hard crust of
          freshly warmed bread. The heat puled under your dress, along your legs, with a stealthy and not
          unpleasant sense of invasion.

That’s a nice image--with its frisson of sexual implication of rape, something that is never mentioned about the murders--and rings true, though it would need a woman to say for sure if it really is or if it is simply a man’s fantasy. In the context of the story, however, it could also be seen as a foreshadow as well as the female fantasy of Lavinia, a “maiden lady” who has apparently missed out on the possibility of marriage and by association, given the strict morality of the day, sex. But then the story as a whole can be seen as a commentary on the fifties, even though the decade had barely begun when it was published and was no doubt written in the forties. The title of the story comes from the idea of isolation that came about after World War Two, when people moved out of apartment buildings and into single-family homes. And even though the small town world Bradbury describes was already like that, that residential trend in the country was ubiquitous. Where once people looked out of their apartment windows, used the fire escape as another room, sat on the front stoop and visited with friends and passers by in the neighborhood, now people retreated into their own individual homes, locked away from the outside world.

          Now the lights were going, going, gone. The little house lights and big house lights and yellow
          lights and green hurricane lights, the candles and oil lamps and porch lights, and everything
          felt locked up in brass and iron and steel, everything, thought Lavinia, is boxed and locked and
          wrapped and shaded. She imagined the people in their moonlit beds. And their breathing in the
          summer-night rooms, safe and together. And here we are, thought Lavinia, our footsteps on
          along the baked summer evening sidewalk.

As much as I’m ambivalent about Ray Bradbury’s writing, there is an awful lot to like about this story. For those who like this sort of thing, he collected this story and several like it and tied them all together to create his 1957 novel Dandelion Wine. But the story stands alone, and while the fact that the novel is set in 1928--the Charlie Chaplin film in question is The Circus--would appear to defeat much of the fifties analogy on a literal level, it doesn’t have to on an analytical level. In fact, this happens all the time in film, where a 1936 movie on the Crimean War starring Errol Flynn can also be seen as an allegory for world affairs in Europe at the time. The fact is Bradbury wrote many of the stories in the novel during the early fifties, and while they were based on his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, there is still much that can be associated with the time period in which they were written. “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” is a case in point. The numbing effects of consumerism, the isolation of suburbanism, the reactionary implementation of a more Victorian morality after the liberalized standards of the war years--a similar reaction that happened at the end of the twenties--all point to a way of seeing the fifties through Bradbury’s subconscious, and in that respect it’s actually a more honest and truthful representation of the period than many stories written about the period.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Cigarette (1936)

by Cornell Woolrich

One of the things I’ve always liked about Cornell Woolrich’s crime stories is that they are almost never about private detectives and policemen. There were still plenty of murders and graft, but because he stayed away from detectives it forced him to come up with all sorts of interesting protagonists. The other thing he liked to do in his early stories was come up with interesting ways of murdering someone, usually through some sort of gadget or device that could be given to someone else, unknowingly, and thus remove the murderer from suspicion by providing a rock-solid alibi. “Cigarette” was published in the January 11, 1936 edition of Detective Fiction Weekly, and features a naïve errand boy named Eddie Dean who found himself in prison with a mob boss. The Boss takes a liking to him and gives him a job running errands for him that are not necessarily illegal in and of themselves, but are typically part of a larger overall scheme that Eddie knows nothing about. This time the Boss gives him a cigarette case, even though Eddie doesn’t smoke, with explicit instructions to make sure a Mr. Miller--a guy Eddie’s already been ordered to get close to--gets the first one in the case.

Eddie follows orders like a good boy and heads for the bar where Miller hangs out. Woolrich has been called the Hitchcock of the written word, and for good reason--not to mention the fact that Rear Window, arguably Hitchcock’s best film, was adapted from a Woolrich story--because he builds suspense in a way that few other crime writers ever managed. On his way to the bar Eddie sees a man who just missed getting into the drugstore for cigarettes before it closed and begs Eddie for one, which Eddie gladly gives him. The man puts the poison cigarette in his pocket and heads back to his apartment while Eddie continues on his way to carry out his mission. Once he is done he calls the boss but his henchman Tommy, who thought he’d be dead by now, goes crazy and threatens to throw Eddie in jail for murder if someone else dies from the cigarette. So the race is on to get the cigarette from the guy he gave it too. He runs as fast as he can back to the guy’s apartment, only to find out he’s still alive but gave the poison cigarette to a friend of his who lives in the suburbs. Then it’s into a cab and a race to find the friend before he inhales the deadly smoke. Eventually suspense turns to comedy as he discovers the friend’s wife threw it out of the window of the car, and the great twist ending completes the effect.

Though pulp stories aren’t particularly known for the quality of the writing per se, there are some interesting descriptions that jump out as the story begins. The most vivid one is of Tommy, the right hand man of the Boss. “Tommy the Twitch, who was always with the Boss, shoved forward a chair, like an executioner, for Eddie. A bullet had done something to his spinal cord and he never stopped shaking.” And that’s all we get, but it’s enough. Eddie gets about the same. “The thin, inoffensive-looking young fellow they both called The Errand Boy dropped the newspaper he had been pretending to read and got up without having to be told twice. He looked a little scared. He always was when the Boss sent for him like this.” But even those two descriptions are more than the Boss gets, which is nothing except for the fact that he likes to smoke imported cigars. Instead, the emphasis is on plot. In this case characterization takes a backseat and the characters are no more than types, to be put through their paces by Woolrich. Eddie’s frantic attempt to recover the cigarette is the action that propels the story forward, and Woolrich ratchets up the tension when Eddie is told over the phone what is in the cigarette.

          Only the narrowness of the booth kept Eddie from falling to his knees with fright. Terror of Tommy
          and the Boss was still uppermost in his mind though, ahead of another terror . . . He didn’t want to
          kill anyone; he didn’t want to become a murderer. He wouldn’t even have given it to Miller if he’d
          known ahead of time . . . “For God’s sake let me look for it first and then tell him if you hafta!” His
          voice trailed off into a groan and he replaced the receiver with an arm that was shaking more than
          Tommy ever had in his life.

Fortunately Woolrich isn’t relentless with this kind of description, and toward the end of the story he injects some realism into Eddie’s frantic search. “The long chase had blunted some of the edge off his terror, but he was still worried and plenty scared. He was no longer at the pitch of frenzy in which he’d torn from the hotel to the Adams flat. But he had to get that cigarette back to the Boss.” If there’s a criticism to be made it’s the racism inherent in Woolrich’s writing that seems to be absent from many of the other big names at the time. In one scene toward the end when a black man has inadvertently picked up the cigarette he’s described in an abundance of derogatory ways, beginning with “the big vagrant,” someone Eddie felt, “he could dominate mentally, if not physically.” Later, as Eddie offers him a dollar bill for the cigarette, “the round, white eyeballs protruded toward it, as though it were a magnet drawing them half out of the roustabout’s skull,” and of course the stereotype becomes complete when he grabs the money and runs. Yes, it’s part and parcel of the times, but no less disturbing for it and something that is all the more disappointing for how unnecessary it is to the story.

Through it all, though, the good and the bad, one thing the reader notices instantly about Woolrich’s fiction is its vibrancy. Unlike the downbeat mood of the detective fiction of the period, Woolrich’s stories come alive and he creates a palpable feeling of suspense that is unlike the other great hard-boiled writers that were his contemporaries. The story is contained in a brilliant anthology of the author’s uncollected works called Night & Fear. Unfortunately sales were so dismal that it was never even issued in a paperback edition. Nevertheless, Cornell Woolrich stands among the best of his day with a style of writing and an emphasis on story that is all his own. “Cigarette,” while an early example of that style, still manages to be vintage Woolrich.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Sire de Malétroit’s Door (1878)

by Robert Louis Stevenson

I came to this story through the Universal film, The Strange Door, starring Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. But before I let the hacks on Universal’s writing staff ruin the story for me forever, I wanted to read the original. “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” was first published in 1878 in Temple Bar, a British literary magazine that also published stories by Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Arthur Conan Doyle and E.F. Benson. The story was later collected in Stevenson’s first book of short stories, New Arabian Nights in 1882. While the first section of the book was devoted to modern stories that owed a stylistic debt to The Arabian Nights, there were also four unrelated stories at the end of which “Malétroit’s Door” was one. This is one of the few stories in which Stevenson would use his numerous trips to France, designed at first to improve his health, as background for his tales rather than his native England. This collection of stories is considered by some critics to mark the real beginnings of short fiction in England.

The story concerns young Denis de Beaulieu who is traveling in Burgundy during the Hundred Years War. A veteran of the army who believes himself quite fine indeed, he has a note of safe passage but it will do him little good alone on the street in the dark if he should run into troops. After dining he sets out to visit a friend and on the way back becomes lost in the dark. At the top of a hill he reaches a dead end that looks out over the village, but on his way back hears soldiers and retreats into an alcove. Behind him is a door that is ajar and he takes refuge inside, but the door locks closed on him and, even after the soldiers leave, he is unable to open the door. The room is pitch black and Denis is certain that there are others waiting nearby to cause him bodily harm. As his eyes adjust he sees some light at the top of the stairs and follows it into an opulent but sparsely appointed room. There he meets an old man, The Sire de Malétroit. The old man greets Denis like a friend. Denis tries to tell him that he is mistaken, no doubt expecting someone else, but the old man intimates that the young man’s presence there is not an accident. Finally Denis has had enough, but when he declares his intentions to leave, he is angrily informed that he will not be leaving. “‘Do you mean I am a prisoner?’ demanded Denis. ‘I state the facts,’ replied the other. ‘I would rather leave the conclusion to yourself.’”

Then Malétroit tells Denis about his niece, Blanche, and when he calls the young man “nephew” it is clear that he wants him to marry his niece and stay there voluntarily. A priest then comes into the room to discuss the niece with Malétroit, and the three then proceed into a small chapel that is connected to the house. There Denis meets the young woman, dressed for a wedding and visibly upset, “‘That is not the man!’ she cried.” At this point it seems clear that she has become pregnant, possibly through a rape, and that her uncle wants to marry her to someone as soon as possible. Though Blanche makes it clear that she would prefer death to continued existence, the Sire shouts her down, telling her that if she cannot seduce Denis in the next two hours her next choice of grooms may not be as appealing. Left alone, she tells Denis the story of meeting a young captain at church, and her rendezvous with him. After the story is finished, Denis politely brings her into the drawing room and tells Malétroit that he declines the offer of marriage. But the old man is amused. “‘I am afraid,’ he said, ‘that you do not perfectly understand the choice I have to offer you.’”

The choice, it seems, is marriage or death. Denis naturally begins to draw his sword when a door is opened by the priest, revealing several soldiers ready to fight at Malétroit’s bidding. When the old man leaves, Blanche rushes to Denis saying that she will of course marry him, but Denis is not so eager, saying, “What you may be too generous to refuse, I may be too proud to accept.” The fact is, he finds her beautiful, but resents being forced into the thing, and eventually becomes resigned to death at the hands of Malétroit. At this point the two are able to talk freely, Denis of his own arrogance in youth and Blanche of her desperate desire to be loved. But she, too, has scruples and declares to him, “I too have a pride of my own: and I declare before the Holy Mother of God, if you should now go back from your word already given, I would no more marry you than I would marry my uncle’s groom.” The two then spend the rest of their time together waiting for the dawn and their sentence of death, and it’s here that Stevenson gives the story a not unexpected, but still satisfying, twist at the end.

In some ways, the story is reminiscent of the short works of Rafael Sabatini, though Stevenson lacks the joie de vivre to pull it off. But Stevenson’s tales are far different in intent than the swashbucklers of the former. One of the things Stevenson does so well in the opening of the story is to isolate Denis de Beaulieu in the narrative. Though he arrives at a public house and dines first, it is mentioned merely in passing. The leaf-blown streets, empty in the night, are the real setting of the story. Even his visit to a friend is glossed over to get to the nightmare journey back through the dark streets. “The night was as black as the grave . . . It is an eerie and mysterious position to be thus submerged in opaque blackness in an almost unknown town.” But once inside the door the blackness is even more complete. “The darkness began to weigh upon him . . . Since he had begun to suspect that he was not alone, his heart had continued to beat with smothering violence, and an intolerable desire for action of any sort had possessed itself of his spirit. He was in deadly peril, he believed.” In fact, this is one of the most impressive sections of the story, the description of Denis trapped in the black room. But nearly all of his lengthy descriptions are impressive, including the one of Malétroit himself, or this one from his entrance into the small adjoining chapel.

          The windows were imperfectly glazed, so that the night air circulated freely in the chapel. The tapers,
          of which there must have been half a hundred burning on the altar, were unmercifully blown about;
          and the light went through many different phases of brilliancy and semi-eclipse. On the steps in front
          of the altar knelt a young girl richly attired as a bride. A chill settled over Denis as he observed her
          costume; he fought with desperate energy against the conclusion that was being thrust upon his mind.

The other noticeable aspect of the story is the way that it deals with the idea of fate. In the opening paragraph the narrator states that the visit to his friend, “was not a very wise proceeding on the young man’s part. He would have done better to remain beside the fire or go decently to bed.” In this respect there is the sense that Denis is charging headlong into his fate without realizing it, or that only the intercession of chance could have changed his destiny. When he meets Malétroit and realizes he is a prisoner he thinks to himself, “What absurd or tragical adventure had befallen him?” And then shortly after, the narrator informs that “Denis had resigned himself with a good grace—all he desired was to know the worst of it as speedily as possible.” The interesting thing is how the two characters, the strong-willed young nobleman Denis de Beaulieu and the hapless beauty Blanche de Malétroit, find themselves in the same predicament, both of them powerless to control their fates save acquiescing to death. “‘I feel your position cruelly,’ he went on. ‘The world has been bitter hard on you. Your uncle is a disgrace to mankind. Believe me, madam, there is no young gentleman in all France but would be glad of my opportunity, to die in doing you a momentary service.’” And when Denis is talking to Blanche just before dawn he speaks at length about the irony of his misunderstood youth.

          Life is a little vapor that passeth away, as we are told by those in holy orders. When a man is in a fair
          way and sees all life open in front of him, he seems to himself to make a very important figure in the
          world . . . It is not wonderful if his head is turned for a time. But once he is dead, were he as brave as
          Hercules or as wise as Solomon, he is soon forgotten . . . Death is a dark and dusty corner, where a
          man gets into his tomb and has the door shut after him till the judgment day. I have few friends just
          now, and once I am dead I shall have none.

It’s not a lengthy tale, and not a terribly inventive one, but it does engage the reader with all of Stevenson’s talents of description and character. Atmosphere is everything in “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” and makes it well worth reading.