Saturday, January 8, 2022

Fantastic fiction by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (Miss Kelly and 3 F&SF stories)

 Fantastic fiction by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (Miss Kelly and 3 F&SF stories)

I discovered the great mid-century noir writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding several years ago when I ran across a copy of her Ace Double The Blank Wall/The Girl Who Had to Die in a Kansas City antique mall. I had never heard of her, but I soon learned that she had a major reputation as a writer of noir fiction -- though, like many noir writers, especially women, that reputation had been dimmed for many years before something of a revival in the past couple of decades. Here's what I wrote back then about her:

She was born in 1889, died in 1955. She began her writing career as a romance novelist, but switched to mysteries during the depression. Her novels sold fairly well, and she was well-praised. She wrote at least one YA fantasy, Miss Kelly, which Anthony Boucher praised in the pages of F&SF. But she did seem to be mostly forgotten after her death.

That said, The Blank Wall, generally considered her best novel, had already been filmed in 1949 as The Reckless Moment (starring Joan Bennett and James Mason). It was filmed again in 2001 as The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton. (This was pretty much Swinton's "breakout" film, "breakout" here being relative to Swinton's career -- that is, she didn't become a major movie star, she just moved from a well-respected indie actress to an even more respected Hollywood actress, who would contend for Academy Awards (and, indeed, eventually win one).) More recently, a number of Holding's books have been reprinted by Persephone Press and by Stark House (the latter, neatly, are double editions). The Blank Wall was even featured in a Guardian list, in 2011, of the "Ten Best Neglected Literary Classics". She has been called "The Godmother of Noir". So she's not forgotten, and indeed I think her reputation is slowly increasing at last.

The Blank Wall, in particular, is first rate. But naturally I was intrigued by her fantastical stories, so I found copies of her one fantasy book, Miss Kelly, which is actually a middle grade book; and of the three issues of F&SF which feature stories by her. I suspect she was "recruited" to contribute to F&SF by editor Anthony Boucher, who was also, of course, a writer of crime fiction and a very prominent reviewer of crime fiction. I wonder how much additional fantastical work she might have done had she not died somewhat young in 1955. Here are some short reviews of those stories, plus one additional story cited in the ISFDB, even though it is not fantasy.

Miss Kelly

Miss Kelly is a a middle grade book, published in 1947 by William Morrow. It is illustrated by Margaret S. Johnson. It runs about 19,000 words. 

It is a talking animal story. Miss Kelly is a cat, living in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, their two children, and their Black cook Janet. She is very happy with her family, and with Janet, and with their dog, Rover. (This was the era in which "Rover" and "Spot" seemed the default dog names.) Miss Kelly can understand and also speak English, as well as of course the language of animals, though her mother strictly warned her never to let humans know she can understand them, and especially not that she can also speak. Then the circus comes to town, and Miss Kelly is very interested, but of course cannot go herself. Her dog friends warn her, anyway, that circus animals can be dangerous, especially the tigers, which they describe as like Miss Kelly, only 100 times bigger.

But then, coincidentally, a tiger escapes from the circus, and comes right to the Clinton home, on a night where the parents are out and Janet is babysitting. It crashes into the house and threatens the children. Miss Kelly intervenes, and manages to talk the tiger down, as it were -- it seems he hates the circus (understandably) and want to kill as many humans as he can in revenge. She convinces him not to do so, and leads him outside to the woods, hiding him and promising to help.

But before Miss Kelly can return with food or additional help, the tiger is captured, and given to a zoo. Miss Kelly has become a celebrity, for saving the children from the tiger. But she feels compelled to live up to her promise and find and help the tiger. In the end she realizes she must disobey her mother's instructions, and talk to Mr. Clinton and convince him to take her to the zoo. And this, of course, leads to further and further complications: the Clintons are somewhat discombobulated (as her mother warned) by her speech; and when she gets to the zoo she eventually realizes that all the animals there need her help. Holding accepts her premise and works things out as logically as possible ... with an ending that is not exactly what Miss Kelly might have originally desired for her life but which seems to fit her responsibility.

It's an enjoyable read, but I don't think I liked it quite as much as Boucher. In part, even with Miss Kelly's input the zoo seems still not a great place for animals (I think zoos have improved greatly in intervening decades -- perhaps a result of Miss Kelly's influence? :) ) The book never seems to have been reprinted, and Holding wrote no more children's books. 

"Friday, the Nineteenth" (F&SF, June 1950)

This a striking darkish fantasy. Donald Boyce is tired of his wife Lilian, and ready to have an affair with Lilian, his best friend's wife Molly. The story details the couple's friction, and Donald and Molly flirting at a couple of gatherings. The overall picture of Donald is not complimentary ... whatever issues he has with Lilian seem more a product of his attitude than her failings. Anyway, Donald and Lilian make a date for a drink after work one Friday, and agree to a rendezvous for more than just a drink the next day ... and then things get strange. For next day is Friday again ... This is a pretty fine story, with a real touch of eeriness by the end.

"Shadow of Wings" (F&SF, July 1954)

This is a rather curious science fiction story, fairly dark in its implications. One day, apparently, all the birds disappear. Which means they stop eating ... which of course will lead to ecological disaster, and all kind of trouble for humanity. This remains a complete mystery, until one man decides to try to follow the flocks of birds that are still seen sometimes ... and he finds -- well, I won't give it away. The actual solution is highly implausible in a number of ways; and it ends up involving aliens who want to take over the Earth, and who think humans unworthy of this planet. That message -- which is left unvarnished -- is disquieting, but the mechanics of the story, and the resolution, are rather clumsy.

"The Strange Children" (F&SF, August 1955)

This is a story that begins rather eerily, with Marjorie babysitting at the house of a couple unfamiliar to her. The children, who are nice enough, act very strangely. They won't have anything to do with her ... eventually she learns their story. They have a visitor, a youngish man named George, who comes and plays with them, but won't come for anyone else. Eventually Marjorie is also able to meet this young man, who tells her that he's a ghost -- he died five years earlier. The explanation eventually comes out, and this part resolves as a somewhat routine (but believable) crime story involving the children's mother and a lover; and the resolution turns rather darkly on the mother's character. All the parts of this story are pretty cool, and it's a good way to use a fantastical element (the ghost) to tell a crime story. Somehow for me they didn't quite fit together as well as I hoped, but I think it's solid work.

Boucher's blurb for this story mentions Holding's death, in February of 1955, and laments that this will be the last of her stories they can publish. And I regret that too -- her metier was the crime story, but I think she might well have continued to produce the occasional dark fantasy to good effect.

"The Married Man" (Munsey's Magazine, December 1921)

I'm adding a bit about this story, from early in her career, only because it is listed in the ISFDB, though it is not SF or Fantasy by any stretch. I can only assume they included it because they include the entire contents of a 2014 anthology called Psychology: A Literary Introduction, edited by Laura Kati Corlew and Charles Waugh. That anthology has a story by Philip K. Dick ("Second Variety") plus a couple more SF or SF-adjacent stories from the mainstream ("The Country of the Blind" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" for example,) which must be why it's in the ISFDB.

"The Married Man", subtitled "A Modern Comedy of Enlightened Thought", is about an ordinary '20s married couple, Andy and Marian, in their mid-30s, with three young children. But Marian, who presents herself as a very dutiful and perhaps somewhat dull wife, not interesting in literature or anything else intellectual, realizes her husband is not happy. And, indeed, on their 10th anniversary, instead of a present, he proposes that they separate. Not, he says, because he doesn't love her, nor that she has been unsatisfactory as a wife, nor that there is another woman. No, he has simply come to realize that men are not suited for marriage -- marriage is a prison for the modern man. Marian is crushed, but she agrees to go to her mother's house for a time, and she engages a babysitter for the children, while Andy goes off to give his lecture on "Marriage from a Man's Point of View". The rest of the story shows what happens to Andy's life without Marian -- in essences, he is pestered by other women who are perversely excited by his rejection of marriage, and who paradoxically seek to lure him into marrying them. Three women are presented: an innocent very young woman who decides that Andy would be an improvement on her conventional fiance, an immoral married woman who wants to start an affair with Andy, and the very modern babysitter, who wants to marry Andy and raise the children by her unconventional lights. We see where this is going from the start, with the inevitable conclusion as Marian returns and sets Andy's life back in order, so that he realizes how much he needed her.

It's actually kind of funny, and Marian is an interesting character (Andy is kind of a pompous nothing.) Very much a story of its time, and a touch hackneyed, but not badly done.

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