Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Another Obscure Ace Double: Sanctuary in the Sky, by John Brunner/The Secret Martians, by Jack Sharkey

Ace Double Reviews, 94: Sanctuary in the Sky, by John Brunner/The Secret Martians, by Jack Sharkey (#D-471, 1960, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

I've read some weak Ace Doubles lately, so I tried to improve my fortunes by picking one with a John Brunner half. I can almost always count on Brunner for entertainment with a thoughtful edge. Brunner (1934-1995) of course was one of the field's greats, a Hugo winner for Stand on Zanzibar (1968). He had a bifurcated career a bit like Robert Silverberg's: beginning around the same time as Silverberg he was extremely prolific early in his career, publishing a lot of quickly executed and competent work; and then sometime in the early to mid '60s seems to have consciously raised his level of ambition, beginning with novels like The Whole Man and The Squares of the City, and continuing to his famous quartet of long novels, beginning with Stand on Zanzibar, then The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider. But that distorts the case a bit -- for he remained very prolific, producing a whole series of shorter novels at the same time, some highly regarded (I like Total Eclipse a great deal, for instance), and some not as good (I was quite disappointed by The Infinitive of Go). He died fairly young, and shockingly -- at the 1995 World SF Convention in Glasgow.

As for Jack Sharkey, he was a near contemporary of Brunner's, born three years earlier and also dying three years earlier. He began publishing in 1959, and was active only until about 1971, publishing four novels, an Addams family novelization, and a fair quantity of short stories, many for Cele Goldsmith's magazines (Amazing and Fantastic). Indeed, his career in the field really ended in 1965, when Goldsmith (by then Cele Lalli) left the magazines after they were sold. Sharkey only published three further SF/Fantasy stories. Apparently he concentrated on plays after that.

The cover to the Sharkey novel is by Ed Valigursky, I don't recognize the artist on the Brunner novel -- it's not really a good representation of any scene in the book, looks almost Flash Gordon-like, or trashy TV serial anyway. The ISFDB tentatively suggests Basil Gogot, a name I've never seen, though Todd Mason informs me that they must really mean Basil Gogos.

I have said before that in comparing Brunner and Silverberg, I like early Brunner better than early Silverberg, but late (or middle) Silverberg better than late Brunner. I really do enjoy Brunner's early novels, many of them Ace Double halves -- they are all of course quite short, and sometimes show signs of hastiness (especially in their conclusions), but they are generally good fun, with interesting ideas and some real thoughtful speculation. Sanctuary in the Sky isn't one of my favorites of this group, alas, but it isn't bad either.

A group of people from different planets come by spaceship to Waystation, a huge space station serving as a sort of neutral point between a group of competing planets. The planets are Cathrodyne, a warlike planet which oppresses the people on Lubarria and Majkosi; Pagr, a likewise warlike matriarchy which oppresses Alchmida; and neutral Glai, which controls Waystation. The people are Ferenc, a fanatical Cathrodyne officer; Ligmer, a Cathrodyne scientist; Dardaino, a Cathrodyne assigned as a priest to the Lubarrians; Mrs. Iquida, a Lubarrian; Toehr, a Pag of high status; Vykor, a young Majko steward; and, most important, the mysterious Lang, who comes from "out of eye range" -- that is, a planet whose Sun is not visible from any of this local group of planets.

The main character is Vykor, who is working as a spy of sorts for the Glaithe people, hoping that this will lead to independence for his Majko people. Vykor is also sort of in love with Captain Raige, the Glaithe woman who is heading the Waystation staff and who is Vykor's contact. But most of the action is set in motion by Lang, who has the knack of mysteriously appearing almost anywhere, and of asking the sort of questions that greatly discomfit his listeners. We get glimpses of the political questions central to this planetary group; and of the scientific questions, mainly centering on the question of "Who made Waystation"; and of the odd nature of Waystation, with its reconfigurable spaces and secret passages. (I was strongly reminded of Robert Reed's Great Ship*.)

The plot mainly turns on the chaos caused by Lang, and on the question of his true identity (which is pretty easily guessed, mind you). The resolution, as usual for early Brunner, is a bit rapid, but it's also fairly thoughtful, and to some extent easy answers are avoided. As I said, not really one of my favorite Brunner stories, but decent work.

The Secret Martians, on the other hand, is a pretty silly mess. It opens promising to be a bit of a romp, and as such it might have been OK. Sharkey worked for a while in advertising, and his hero, Jery Delvin, is an advertising man. His special talent is as a "spotter" -- he can always see through the deceptive claims of advertising. Except when distracted by beautiful girls. Evidently that talent gets him chosen, by the Brain, a huge computer which helps run the government, to be sent to Mars along with the Amnesty, a badge that gives him authority to do anything, and with a collapsar, the weapon reserved for governement Security, in order to solve the problem of the disappearance of a bunch of Space Scouts -- young boys who had been on a trip to Mars.

His main problem is a gorgeous girl with the implausible name Snow White, elder sister of one of the presumably kidnapped Space Scouts. Her ability to distract him allows her to steal his Amnesty, and he vacillates between anger at her and helpless lust. He keeps trying to solve the main problem, even without his Amnesty badge, and he ends up encountering some of the lizardlike aliens, the sugarfeet, who are regarding as mere animals. Of course, they aren't, and the plot descends into real stupidity, with the Devlin, Snow, the sugarfeet all cooperating to some extent, and with the title "Secret Martians" assuming a somewhat ambiguous role, while the villains are a rather obvious group. Will the Space Scouts be found? Will Jary and Snow get together? Will the sugarfeet get the recognition they deserve? Will the bad guys be thwarted? Will anything make sense, either plotwise or science-wise? Do you really need to ask?

So -- in the end, another pretty mediocre Ace Double, but just sufficiently redeemed by the fairly decent Brunner novel.

*SPOILER for Sanctuary in the Sky

... it turns out that Waystation is even more like the Great Ship than we originally realize. I really do wonder if this novel might have been at some level an inspiration for Reed's conception.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Not a Bestseller, once perhaps forgotten: Party Going, by Henry Green

No Longer Really Forgotten: Party Going, by Henry Green

A review by Rich Horton

This novel was not, I think, a bestseller, but the writer, Henry Green, did apparently have one novel that brushed the bestseller list in the US, Loving, from 1945. Party Going, his third novel, was published in 1939. It and Loving are generally considered his best.

Henry Green was a pseudonym for Henry Vincent Yorke (1905-1972), the son of a wealthy industrialist in the North of England, and the grandson (via his mother) of a Baron. Yorke was a near exact contemporary of Anthony Powell, and the two were friends at Eton and Oxford. Yorke was also close to Evelyn Waugh (whom he knew at Oxford), and knew others of that notable generation at Eton, such as Cyril Connolly and a certain Eric Blaire, who, like Green, became much more famous under his pseudonym. Little celebrated there or at Oxford, Green became the first of his cohort to publish a novel (Blindness, in 1926). He left Oxford without a degree and took a position at his father’s firm, which made machines for making beer bottles, among other things. (Yorke used to claim they made toilets, which as some wag pointed out made for a rather unusual case of vertical integration along with the beer bottles.)

His life story, on the whole, is rather sad, or so it seems to me, though on the other hand perhaps it’s unfair to project my notions of it on him. He married his second cousin (a grandchild of the same Baron), Adelaide Biddulph, called “Dig”. They had one son, Sebastian. Yorke had countless affairs, not always happy (one woman, referring to his habit of giving his novels gerunds for titles, said “Your next novel should be called Hurting.”) He was a heavy drinker, and eventually lost his position in the firm when he was discovered to be drinking pure gin at a meeting, passing it off as water. His last novel was published in 1952, and in the ensuing two decades he published almost nothing, apparently starting and abandoning at least a play and a memoir of his time on the Auxiliary Fire Service during the War. One assumes his inability to write was tied to his alcoholism, but, again, who knows? He spent the last seven years of his life as a recluse, essentially never leaving his home.

Despite the apparent modest success of Loving (likely his most accessible book), his novels do not seem to have sold well on the whole, and  according to Wikipedia, at any rate, they soon fell out of print. However, as Roger Allen suggests in the comments, there is reason to doubt the assertion in Wikipedia -- I have just bought a 1967 reprint of his last novel, Doting; and I know of a 1964 reprint of Concluding. I would suggest that he more likely remained generally in print (at least in the UK), but that sales were glacial. 

He was generally treated well by critics when active, and, after he ceased writing, his books, almost forgotten by the wider public, seem to have achieved almost cult status among their aficionados, mostly other writers. Terry Southern, who conducted a 1958 Paris Review interview with “Green”, famously called him not a “writers’ writer, but a writers’ writer’s writer”. Other admirers included old friends like Powell, and younger writers or critics such as Sebastian Faulks, Brooke Allen, and John Updike. There was almost a sense, for a while, that to discover Green was to join an exclusive society. However, a variety of attempts with varying degrees of success have been made to revive general interest in him, including several versions of an omnibus edition of his three perhaps best known novels, Loving, Living, and Party Going. (I have one of those editions, the 1978 Penguin trade paperback (with an introduction by Updike), and the combined title always brings forth an earworm of Led Zeppelin’s “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid – specifically the lyric “Livin’, Lovin’, she’s just a woman” – but don’t mind me!) Perhaps the Dalkey Archive editions (around the turn of the millennium) were most successful, and while I’m not sure how much of Green’s work is in print now, his novels do appear fairly readily available, and I'd say that he has attained an established place in the canon of 20th Century British writers.

Green wrote nine novels in all, a few short stories, and a well-regarded memoir, Pack My Bag, published just before the War (as he was convinced he might die). His prose is highly individual, evolving from the curious decision to all but abandon articles in his first mature novel, Living, through the flowing, almost careless-seeming, constant POV-shifting of Party Going, to his last two novels, Nothing and Doting, written almost entirely in dialogue. He was known in his life as an aristocrat (of sorts) with considerable sympathy for the working class, who wrote two novels (Living and Loving) largely centered on working class characters (factory workers in the first case, servants in the second) – but many of his novels (including Party Going) were more closely centered around upper class characters.

Well, that’s a lot about the author. What about the book? Party Going is a striking and involving novel, with essentially no plot. It’s about a group of wealthy young English people, sometime in the ‘30s, ready to take a train to a house party in the South of France. The novel takes place during a few hours as the party waits, in the station and at a hotel, while the train is delayed by fog.

The main action of the story follows a couple of threads. One is mainly centered on the group’s host, Max Adey, who is thought by his friends to be interested in one of their number, Julia Wray, and who has abandoned his current lover, Amabel, to run off to France with Julia and a few other friends: Clair and Robert Hignam, a married couple; Alex, Evelyn (or Evelyna) Henderson, and Angela Crevy, who is not quite part of their set, but who perhaps is also of interest to Max. Amabel, realizing what Max is up to, manages to track them down and attach herself to the party. There is a lot of time spent inside the rather shallow heads of the characters, their various insecurities, Julia’s interest in Max matched with a fear of his sexual advances, Amabel’s manipulative nature and her half-desperate, half-knowing sensuality, Angela’s feelings of inferiority as an outsider.

Another thread revolves around Clair’s maiden aunt, Miss Fellowes, whom we meet first, picking up a dead pigeon and for some reason cleaning it. She is at the station to see her niece off on her trip, but she falls suddenly ill – or perhaps she has drunk too much? – and she spends most of the book in a hotel bed, attended off and on by a pair of nannies and by the women of the party. And there are a few scenes among the servants of the travelers, stuck in the station while their employers have retreated to the relative comfort of the hotel.

There are a couple of striking set pieces, most notably an extended scene of Amabel taking a bath. There is an ongoing somewhat comic, and never really explained, series of scenes involving a curious man who seems unusually interested in Miss Fellowes, and who speaks in an ever changing set of accents. Another subthread concerns “Embassy Richard”, an acquaintance of theirs who has got into a bit of trouble over his habit of showing up at parties, even state parties, uninvited. All this is often quite comic. Somehow, though nothing quite terrible happens, and though the tone is, as I said, often comic, there is a sense of darkness to things. Partly it’s just the fog. Partly it’s that this is a set of awfully spoiled and shallow privileged young people – though there is no real sense that they are any worse than other people, just not any better either, and with less excuse for their shallowness and insincerity and insecurity.

The prose, as I’ve noted, is loose (in a good way), flowing, constantly shifting. It’s a very interesting novel, fascinating despite the shallowness of every character and the lack of real action or plot. It reads, I would say, true. I read Loving with much enjoyment several years ago, and I like Party Going – I shall soon, I think, be reading more by Henry Green.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Edith Wharton Stories: "Roman Fever"

Just one more story I want to cover, and that’s probably Wharton’s most famous short story, “Roman Fever”. This was first published in Liberty for November 10, 1934. As such it comes very late in Wharton’s career: she died in 1937, and the common view is that her last major novel, if probably her best, was The Age of Innocence, from 1921. She was still a prolific writer, at all lengths, however, and “Roman Fever” is evidence that she could still do remarkable work in her 70s. It is sometimes dismissed as an effective but fairly trivial story, and it is true that it turns on a killer last line, and that the concerns of the story, at a first glance, aren’t earth-shaking – the rivalry between two wealthy widows, both of whom will still be comfortably situated no matter the events of the story, may seem a minor thing. And so it is, perhaps, but that’s missing the point. It’s also true that the story is shortish for Wharton – most of her major short stories are at least 7000 words, often 10000 or more, and “Roman Fever” is not quite 5000 words long. Again, not important.

The story is set in Rome, presumably about at the time of writing. (Wharton wrote it in 1934, after a trip to Rome.) Alida Slade and Grace Ansley are the main characters, two women who have know each other for a very long time, who were neighbors in New York, and who lost their husbands within months of each other not too long before. They are visiting Europe with their daughters, each of whom is in her early 20s. The daughters go running off together at the start, leaving “the young things” (their mocking term for their mothers) to “their knitting”.

Slowly we learn a little more about the women, mostly through the lens of Mrs. Slade’s thoughts. It seems that Mrs. Slade made the more brilliant marriage, to a dashing lawyer. And Mrs. Slade fancies herself to have been an important ally of her husband, especially in social circles. Mrs. Ansley and her husband are both regarded as sort of colorless, though she acknowledges that Grace was a beauty when young. And, she has to acknowledge, much as she loves her daughter, Barbara Ansley is the more impressive figure …

Eventually the conversation turns to their last mutual visit to Rome, when both were unmarried, though Alida and Delphin Slade were courting. It seems that Delphin also showed some partiality to Grace, enough so that Alida became terribly jealous. As all this goes one we realize that Alida still harbors dislike for Grace Ansley (enough so that we must color her evaluations of Grace accordingly). And then Alida reveals to Grace that, in fact, a certain letter that Grace had received from Delphin on that last trip to Rome had in fact been written by Alida – she pretended that Delphin was inviting her (Grace) to a tryst on a chilly night at the Colisseum. Alida hoped that Grace would contract “Roman fever” (that is, malaria), which would take her out of the running for Delphin – or perhaps that her reputation would be ruined. And, in fact, Alida did take ill and was rushed away … (I should add that this plot point is to some extent a deliberate allusion to major events in Daisy Miller, by Wharton’s close friend Henry James.)

Alida has her own secrets to reveal, of course – the most devastating given in the famous last line, which I’ll leave to the reader to learn.

Like many stories with great last lines, there is a tendency to regard this as a stunt, or something trivial, but I don’t think that’s fair in the case of “Roman Fever”. The story is exquisitely constructed, and beautifully written, and rereading it after learning the trick ending opens it up immensely. Minor details take on greater significance, and subtle early lines now seem stunning. Much is made in the critical literature, for instance, of the fact that only Grace Ansley knits … Much is made, and should be made, of the way the story looks at the relationships of women. Or of the implications it makes about the changes in social mores in the preceding decades, and how they affect women. Even, perhaps, of the changes in medical care. It’s not my favorite Wharton story (that would probably be “Autres Temps …”), but it’s close, and I think it’s a great story, and a great introduction to Wharton.

So, that’s the end of my brief survey of my favorite stories from R. W. B. Lewis’ selection of his favorites of her corpus. I’ve skipped a couple more stories I like quite a lot, particularly “Kerfol”, another ghost story, in this case about ghost dogs, haunting an old French house that had been the site of a strange death centuries earlier; and “After Holbein”, not quite a ghost story but almost, about two elderly people, a man and a woman, reenacting their social roles as they seem at the cusp of death.  Lewis misses the boat a couple of times as well, particularly in choosing “All Souls”, one of Wharton’s very last stories, and another supernatural story, but a great disappointment to me, in the thudding and silly revelation as to what was “haunting” a wealthy woman in her remote country house.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Largely Forgotten Ace Double: The Games of Neith, by Margaret St. Clair/The Earth Gods are Coming, by Kenneth Bulmer

Ace Double Reviews, 93: The Games of Neith, by Margaret St. Clair/The Earth Gods are Coming, by Kenneth Bulmer (#D-435, 1960, 35 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

Here's an Ace Double featuring a couple of authors I've discussed before. I bought it partly because of that -- both writers have proved enjoyable in the past, St. Clair often more than that, and, partly, frankly, because of the quite gorgeous Emswhiller cover on the St. Clair book, which for some reason reminded me of Wendy Pini's cover for the June 1975 Galaxy.

I wrote before about Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) as follows: "she was one of the more noticeable early women writers of SF, but somehow her profile was a bit lower than those of C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Andre Norton. Perhaps it was simply that those writers did just a bit more, and were just a bit better (taken as a whole) than her, but it does seem that she's not quite as well remembered as perhaps she deserves. One contributing factor is that she wrote some of her very best stories pseudonymously, as "Idris Seabright". 20 or so of her 50+ short stories were as by Seabright, including some of the very best (such as "Short in the Chest" and "An Egg a Month from All Over"). She also wrote 8 novels (four of them published as Ace Double halves). Her career in SF stretched from 1946 to 1981. Her husband, Eric St. Clair, was also a writer (of children's books), and the two became Wiccans more or less when the Wiccan movement started."

Reading this book made clear to me another reason St. Clair is not as well remembered as Moore, Brackett, or Norton -- she was much weaker at novel length than at shorter lengths. At least, that is, based on those I've read. The Games of Neith was a terrible disappointment to me -- it's really just a bad, silly, book.

It's set on Gwethym, a planet colonized by a mix of Chinese, Norwegian, and French settlers, who seem to have been united by belief in a god named Jovis. But now, a long time later, they have adopted belief in an avowedly made up goddess, Neith. The main character is Anassa, the chief priestess of Neith. Her lover is the physicist Ehr-Li Wan. There have been recent problems -- rumors of a place in the ocean (this is a mostly water world) where people lose energy and seem wholly listless; and also a renewal of belief in Jovis, and especially in human sacrifice. A couple of attempts have been made on the life of Anassa, some thwarted by her cyon, a dog-like creature native to Gwethym.

Wan has learned that the energy loss phenomenon might be explained by a leak of energy from our universe to a parallel universe, caused by the use of the space warp to travel between planets. He believes there is a leak, located on Gwethym, near where people have reported listlessness, and further he believes the Old Ones, who formerly lived on Gwethym, had a way to stop the leak. He convinces Anassa to accompany him.

And so it goes, in an oddly episodic fashion. (One wonders if St. Clair had a hard time plotting at greater than novelette length.) They find the Old Ones' material, but also learn some horrible things about their predecessors on the planet. They somehow manage to bring a creature from another universe onto Gwethym -- she manifests as a goddess, and is immediately taken as the true Neith. There is an incident with human sacrificers, and with other nasty people, including a corporate type who doesn't want the space warp blamed for the energy leak. There is the mystery of where the Old Ones went (you'll guess the answer). And finally there is a wrenching decision to do with the various consequences of actually stopping the leak once and for all (one consequence being cessation of all space travel).

As I said, it's terribly episodic, and not in a good way. The science is ridiculous. The plot is a string of convenient happenings. The prose is fine, and the characters are OK. But as a novel, it's a disaster. But don't give up on St. Clair -- her shorter work is often very good.

Kenneth Bulmer, born in England in 1921, was a very prolific writer from the early '50s, under his own name and many others, most notably "Alan Burt Akers", the name under which he wrote the Dray Prescot series for DAW. He was primarily an SF writer, but also did a lot of work in other genres. He was editor of the New Writings in SF anthology series after the death of John Carnell. He died in 2005.

I've read a few of his novels, and they tend to be competent adventure fiction, but not at all distinguished. The Earth Gods are Coming is more or less typical of his work. It opens with a man charged with releasing one of the Prophets of Earth over another planet. These are androids who deliver the message of the rational and peace-loving Earth religion to other planets. However, the man is accidentally ejected from his spaceship with the Prophet, and rides it down to the surface.

Then we switch back to Earth, where Roy Inglis, a Space Marine officer stuck in a desk job after his marriage to a rich woman, is suddenly recalled to service. It seems there have been encounters in deep space with inimical aliens, who attack ships without warning. They are dubbed the Evil Ones, and Roy is sent on a fishing expedition hoping to find them. He finds this a relief in some ways, as his marriage is unhappy.

Roy's ship is attacked as well, as they reach a distant planet. He and a few others manage to reach the surface -- again, this planet is a water world, in which the intelligent aliens live in floating cities of ships. After some time desperately surviving in their barely seaworthy lifeboat, they encounter the aliens, who welcome them aboard. By now Roy and a lovely lieutenant are making eyes at each other -- just in time for an interlude on Earth where we see his wife jumping at the chance to divorce him on the presumption that he's been killed. Then a mysterious alien spaceship descends projecting hypnotic messages, and both the humans and the natives of this planet are brainwashed into worshipping the "evil ones". What if they are captured? The Evil Ones will easily learn Earth's location...

Luckily, rescue is on the way. But what can overcome Roy's brainwashing? And what about when the Evil Ones return? Well, remember how the story opened ...

I kind of enjoyed myself reading through the book, even though it's kind of implausible and silly. And one does have to wonder, what's the difference between the Evil Ones mission to various planets, and the human "Prophets of Earth"? In the end, another fairly weak book.

One point to make about both novels this time ... besides both being set on a water world, both feature a lot of (mostly implied) sex, and certainly a lot of interest in descriptions of beautiful women. SF in that time frame had a reputation as being still somewhat prudish in content, but I don't really think that was the case. Not that these rise even to the level of soft porn -- not at all -- but they aren't what one supposed was regarded as kids' stuff, either.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Edith Wharton Stories: "Xingu"

The next Edith Wharton story I’ll talk about is a bit different to those preceding – it’s laugh out loud funny. This is “Xingu”, which first appeared in Scribner’s in 1911. It’s a satirical look at lady’s discussion clubs – they had book clubs in the early 20th Century, it seems. As the story opens: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of those ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as if it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other indomitable huntresses of erudition”.

For their next meeting they have invited the celebrated novelist Osric Dane, author of The Wings of Death. All the members dutifully read the book except Mrs. Roby, who is continually a sad disappointment to her fellow members – for instance, when one of them mentions the pterodactyl to a biology professor, Mrs. Roby “confusedly murmured: ‘I know so little about meters –‘”. And for this meeting Mrs. Roby confesses that instead of reading Osric Dane she has been reading Trollope – and why? Because he amuses her. “Amusement is hardly what I look for in my choice of books,” says Mrs. Plinth.

When Osric Dane appears, she seems a bit offputting – somehow none of the members seems to be able to respond to her ripostes to their pretentious responses to her book. But then Mrs. Roby brings up another subject – Xingu. What, she wonders, does Mrs. Dane think of Xingu? And she begins to ask Mrs. Roby about it – and Mrs. Roby describes it in deliciously but totally undescriptive terms. This is very funny stuff, especially once you get the joke …

I don’t want to give it away any more – but the story is lots of fun. It’s not terribly deep (unlike Xingu!), and it’s target is kind of a case of fish in a barrel, but that’s not the point. It’s just funny.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Forgotten non-Bestseller: The Van Roon, by J. C. Snaith

A Forgotten Novel from the 1920s: The Van Roon, by J. C. Snaith

A review by Rich Horton

This week the book I consider does not seem to have been a bestseller, and its writer seems quite close to forgotten. At least, that is, by Wikipedia. I was able to discover another blog, Wormwoodiana, writing about an interesting-sounding early Snaith novel, William Jordan, Junior (1908) ( And there were the expected Gutenberg copies of a few of his books. And not much else.

Except, as seems to happen surprisingly often, for the wonderful Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which notes that Snaith wrote quite a lot of early SF: the novels An Affair of State (1913), The Council of Seven (1921), and Thus Far (1925) all seem real SF, and rather dark in tone. He also wrote a Ruritanian-style romance (Mrs. Fitz (1910)) and a fantasy about the Second Coming (The Coming (1917)).

J. C. Snaith was a prolific English writer. He lived from 1876 to 1936, and wrote in a wide variety of genres and modes, as far as I can tell. According to Mark Valentine at Wormwoodiana, other novels to have received some praise are The Sailor (1916) and a novel about cricket, Willow, the King (1899). According to the SFE, much of his work was more sentimental romances, and it is to that category that the novel at hand, The Van Roon, belongs.

This was published in 1922 according to the copyright notice in my copy, which I found slightly confusing. My copy is from D. Appleton & Co. of New York and London, and the copyright page first says Copyright 1922 by D. Appleton and Company, but lower on the page says “Copyright 1922 by the Curtis Publishing Co. Printed in the United States of America.” Were D. Appleton and Curtis related somehow? Was Curtis the publisher of the first edition and the Appleton edition a reprint? I don’t know. [Update: I am informed that Curtis was the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, and that The Van Roon was first serialized there.] My copy seems to have been bought as a Christmas present three years later – at any rate, it is inscribed “Geo. D. Miller, Dec 25 – 1025”.

The novel opens in a mode that seems to promise a light romantic comedy, and that is mostly what it is, though it takes a somewhat odd melodramatic turn towards the end. We begin in a small London antique shop, S. Gedge Antiques, operated by Simon Gedge, an aging and rather miserly man. He has an assistant, young William, who has become increasingly important to the business as Gedge gets older: William has a good eye for a bargain, but also an exceptional eye for art, and a lot of a ability, as well as extreme honesty (to the point of unworldliness). Yet Gedge still pays him a pittance. This day he is surprised by the arrival of his orphaned niece, June, who has no one else to turn to. Gedge is not very willing to help her, but agrees to take her in if she will take over the cleaning – it seems Gedge, who has no toleration at all for women, is on the outs with his char. And June, a sensible and hardworking girl, agrees.

William comes back with a couple nice things that S. Gedge can sell, as well as something he bought with his own money – an ugly daub of a picture. But William thinks he sees something interesting underneath the paint, and despite Gedge’s expressed opinion that he’s wasting his money and time, he begins trying to restore the painting. Meanwhile June, a pretty girl herself, and William make their acquaintance. And when William's efforts seem to bear some fruit, June, aware that her uncle will try to cheat him, begs him to give her the painting – which William innocently does. Of course, as we have all guessed, the painting is revealed as most likely a “Van Roon” – he being a painter of the Flemish school of whose works only a few survive, including one stolen sometime previously from the Louvre.

Once Gedge realizes that, he tries to buy the painting from William for a small sum … William refuses to sell it, but tries to convince June to give it to her uncle – surely the honest old man, William thinks, only wants the painting because he truly appreciates a lovely picture. Meanwhile June is becoming a bit jealous of a beautiful young rich lady who visits the shop occasionally to buy stuff she takes a fancy too. And Gedge is mad enough at June to decide to fire her … So June looks for a new job and innocently decides that a chance-met man’s offer to use her as a model is a nice opportunity – she is innocent enough not to realize what “in the altogether" means, nor that his main interest in her is her best asset, a “rather nice chest”. And Gedge finds a couple of potential buyers for the putative Van Roon …

So the plot thickens rapidly, and what had been a light romantic comedy swerves sharply in the direction of melodrama. This part of the book really didn’t work for me, and nor, to be honest, did the quite sappy conclusion that resulted. A shame, really, as I was enjoying the first half or so of the book a fair bit – June is a nicely depicted character, half innocent, but a mostly sensible person. And William, though an implausible paragon, is worth rooting for. And even S. Gedge, for all that he’s pure cliché, is a fitfully amusing character. It’s a book that suggests an author who could entertain, and probably did well enough with his career – but in itself The Van Roon is a very minor piece. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Another Edith Wharton ghost story: "The Eyes"

Another Edith Wharton ghost story: "The Eyes"

Now to another effective ghost story. This is “The Eyes”, which first appeared in the June 1910 issue of Scribners’ Magazine. The frame has the narrator joining his friend Andrew Culwin, a “confirmed bachelor” (and yes that means exactly what you think it means), with 6 other men at Culwin’s house for dinner and conversation. The youngest of the men is Culwin’s latest “protégé”. All of them tell a ghost story except for Culwin. Finally, when the narrator and Phil Frenham, Culwin’s new young man, remain alone, they prevail upon Culwin to tell a story, and he does – a true one.

Culwin tells first of an experience many years before, when he was thrown into association with a young, plain, cousin, Alice Nowell (“She was neither beautiful nor intelligent—poor Alice Nowell!” says Culwin), and somehow Culwin, who thinks women “are necessary only because someone has to do the cooking” finds himself having offered to marry her, despite a complete lack of physical or intellectual attraction. Then one night he wakes to see a sinister pair of eyes looking at him … and he comes to the conclusion that he must flee Alice Nowell.

His next experience with the eyes is in Rome. He has taken a young man, Gilbert Noyes, under his wing (at Alice’s urging) ... Noyes wants to be a writer, and Culwin sees immediately that he has no talent, but he keeps him on for some time, continuing to encourage his efforts. He tells himself he’ doing it for the boy’s sake – but it’s fairly obvious he doesn’t want to give up the boy’s attentions – until the eyes appear again, and Culwin realizes he must disabuse Noyes of any illusions about his talent.

And that’s the end of Culwin’s story – we return to the frame, and a conveniently placed mirror allows the narrator (and Culwin) to see Culwin’s own eyes in the proper context – while young Phil Frenham, the latest protégé, is crushed, realizing, perhaps, what he is to the older man.

So what is the real meaning of the eyes? Obviously they are Culwin’s – and they seem to warn him away from doing more wrong – but always after he has done some wrong already. Looked at most simply, Culwin is something of a vampire figure, latching on to young men (of some talent, presumably, most of the time), and enjoying them while they are young (“juicy”, one character says). If this is the case, perhaps the eyes are simply warning Culwin that the likes of Alice Nowell and Gilbert Noyes are not worthy of his attention. Indeed this could be given a positive spin – one online writer tried to do so – the eyes only appear when Culwin is acting against his better nature. There is a suggestion that most of Culwin’s protégés benefit from his attentions. On the other hand, here’s how Culwin describes the eyes: “they seemed to belong to a man who had done a lot of harm in his life, but had always kept just inside the danger lines. They were not the eyes of a coward, but of someone much too clever to take risks;”. Not a good thing. And Culwin’s treatment of, say, Alice – indeed his inability to appreciate her (or any woman) – seems another wrong. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Somewhat Forgotten Moderate Seller: The Man Who Got Away, by Sumner Locke Elliott

The Man Who Got Away by Sumner Locke Elliott

A review by Rich Horton

Here’s a book that probably wasn’t a bestseller, but might have sold OK. Sumner Locke Elliott was reasonably well-known, prominently published, had a a couple of books made into a movie. But he doesn’t seem that well known these days. (Jo Walton introduced him to me, and she writes of him as almost a private pleasure – a writer nobody else she knows has read.) 

Elliott was born in Sydney, Australia in 1917. His mother, also a writer, Helena Sumner Locke, died from complications of his childbirth, and he was raised by his two aunts, who fought a bitter custody battle (lightly fictionalized in his first novel, Careful, He Might Hear You). He was a fairly successful playwright in Australia until after the War, when he moved to the United States, and became a prominent writer of teleplays during the “Golden Age” of live television, the ‘50s. In the ‘60s he turned to novels. He was also a closeted gay man, coming out only with the publication of his last novel, Fairyland, a year before his death in 1991.

The Man Who Got Away, from 1972, is arguably SF, which is why I chose to try it. In the end I think it qualifies as an interesting borderline case that I think I’d call not really SF, and the reasons for that might be illuminating.  As a counterexample, I’d consider Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, which has a somewhat similar premise, SF, just on the other side of that fuzzy border.  Here’s why, quickly: in The Man Who Got Away, the SF premise is entirely an enabling device, a narrative construct, used to propel the novel backwards in time.  It could have been told in a series of flashbacks, though I think that Elliott’s choice is much better.  Also, nothing is made of the SF device, either “actually” (there is no suggestion that this experience is useful or repeatable) or metaphorically.  The arguments pro-SF would say, I think, that for all that Elliott makes his SF device “real”: the narrator really =does= disappear from “present-day” life, with no other explanation possible.  And, pro-SF, there is one bit of Sfnal frisson, one place where something happens that is outside the realm of “narrative device”.  Nonetheless … In the case of Time’s Arrow, contrariwise, I would argue in favor of SF mainly because of the real metaphorical use Amis makes of his backward in time narration: mainly the Nazi Doctor bringing his “patients” back to life.  I could certainly understand an argument that suggested that all the tricks in Time’s Arrow are just as much “narrative devices” as those in The Man Who Got Away, though.

The Man Who Got Away is rather interesting, but to my mind not quite successful.  It opens with a chapter from the POV of Ruth Wood, whose husband, George, just disappears one day.  Then the novel proper starts, from George’s POV, from the time of his disappearance.  He soon realizes that he is experiencing significant events in his life backward in time.  At first he seems to be a moderately successful, moderately happy, somewhat rich, somewhat likable, guy, a television writer/producer.  As we move backward in time, we realize that most of this is outward appearance: he’s not very happy at all, he’s not all that successful, and if outwardly likable, he’s really an incredible asshole.  He’s also tormented by mysterious events in his past: his bitter relationship with his mother, his broken friendship with the actor Archer Cook, and his hatred of the poet John Citadel.  As we go back in time we get more evidence of George’s worthlessness, and failure, and more hints of the reasons.  All is finally explained in the end, but not in a way that, for me, justified George’s failings. (Which I should say may be exactly what Elliott intended.)

This is a very well written novel, and readable, and absorbing, but it didn’t quite work for me.  I had two main problems: 1) the main character is an irredeemable jerk, and it can be hard to put up with that for the length of a novel, and 2) the eventual “explanations” were a bit shallow, and anti-climactic, and unconvincing.  Also, George’s childhood seemed almost wholly disconnected, culturally and economically, from his later life, and the accompanying picture of American life in the '30s doesn't convince.  I’m tempted to suggest an Aussie not “getting” the US, in some way -- although he does better with the '50s  and '60s (when, of course, Elliott lived in the US). Still, as I say all that, from the perspective of nearly 20 years, I still remember the book, and I still think it intriguing, with a few moments of real beauty. So my first reaction may have understated its value a bit.