1950s, 1957, Anthony Boucher, Arthur C. Clarke, fantasy, ghost story, Gordon R. Dickson, Horror, James Blish, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, magazine, Mildred Clingerman, Poul Anderson, science fiction, short fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The People, urban fantasy, Zenna Henderson
Nuts and Bolts
In a little under two years, longtime editor Anthony Boucher would take a step down from editing F&SF, but in early 1957 he’s still going strong with no signs of slowing down. Boucher’s career reviewing mysteries and SF works for the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times Book Review left him with specific ideas for where to take F&SF, and that was in a more literary direction. While still beholden to its editor’s eclectic tastes, the magazine about got there.
The magazine’s style is based on that used by literary digests, so it lacks many traditional elements of digest fiction magazines… such as interior artwork (none), a letters column (also none), and columns (just one, the Recommended Reading book review corner). The magazine’s ads are also scarce; other than those for F&SF subscriptions or other Mercury Publications magazines, there’s one for Pick-A-Book (any of these $5.00 science fiction novels for just $1.50 each! From the people behind Gnome Press, which is where most of their content comes from) and the obligatory back-cover ad for the Science Fiction Book Club. All of the prose falls into a two-column layout, which has been a magazine staple for ages.
Most early F&SF covers featured rocketry on alien landscapes, and this is no exception. By Paul Blaisdell: “On the planet of a double star beyond the Horse Head Nebula, an alien spaceship.” That explains the purple haze and yellow sky, the giant net-dome and the dildo-shaped rocketship. I’m not a huge fan of their ’50s cover style, typically barren planetoids lacking atmospheres but sprouting rocket-ships—I prefer F&SF‘s ’60s covers, where Ed Emsh was did some wonderfully pseudo-surreal covers. And I’m not sure these represent the magazine’s contents, other than screaming “SCIENCE FICTION” at the newsstands. But the editors thought it represented the magazine well, and evidently at least some of the readers liked them. (Though, without a letters column, who’s to tell.)
Wilderness – Zenna Henderson – novelette
The third story in Henderson’s People series is both the lead and cover story of the issue. It was also the longest in the series to date, which may be either good or bad depending on your view. These “People” would be intergalactic refugees, aliens with psychic superpowers who live scattered across Earth in small communities after their ships broke up in Earth’s atmosphere. The emphasis on super-human powers makes it sound like a better fit for John Campbell’s Analog, but Henderson had a delicate hand for literary prose, and fit just fine into the mold F&SF was creating for itself.
Henderson was a schoolteacher who lived in Arizona, and her stories evoke the harsh beauty of the desert. This story, like the others, is set in the same part of the American Southwest, and features a schoolteacher as its protagonist. She’s struggling to maintain her composure since she realized she can feel out the emotions of her students (amongst other things)—the fears of Tommy, whose parents are fighting to the point where his father’s run off; the moments of crazed fury that dominate Lucine, a “special needs” 12-year-old first grader—and wonders if she’s going crazy. By chance, one of her fellow tenants, Lowmanigh, happens to be one of the People, and they share a connection between their super-human abilities.
Our protagonist reveals her secrets a bit easily in my opinion—I guess instead of paranoid of being found out, she’s relieved she’s not nuts—and most of the story’s drama is very low-key, a kind of internal drama within the protagonist’s head. Also, budding relationship between her and Low is a major theme, which ends with a standoff due to Lucine and her anger issues. Henderson was a very humanist writer, and that’s where this story’s strengths lie, rich with compassion and insight. Its weaknesses are in its slow internal melodrama that’s a bit confusing at first, and while the story’s rich in character and has a strong feel for setting, it lacks punch and drags on a bit long. Not Henderson’s best, but not without merit; I’m noticing that the People stories can feel a bit same-y, but they do show the progression of a greater narrative, which I enjoy.
“Wilderness” was collected several times with the rest of the People stories. Part of the point of this project (reading my magazine collection) was to find authors and stories I liked enough to want to track down, and thankfully NESFA Press makes that with their publication of Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson.
The Dead Sexton – Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – short
The first of two Christmas ghost stories in the issue; this one’s by a leading ghost story author of the 19th century (Le Fanu’s works include Uncle Silas, the semi-famous lesbian vampire novella Carmilla, and The House by the Churchyard). This one was picked since it had been reprinted once since its first printing in 1871, and was only republished in an obscure British collection in the ’30s. A small English village’s sexton dies under mysterious circumstances; closer inspection finds the sexton was up to no good. Well, he wasn’t a terribly likable man while he was alive, either. The supernatural part starts when a mysterious stranger arrives at the inn and tavern where the sexton’s corpse is under lock and key.
Very atmospheric, though also very much a product of the 1870s—the writing has moments of beauty, but the pacing, prose, and even the level of “supernatural” phenomenon reveal its origins in what modern readers may consider an antiquated age. If you haven’t read a lot of 19th century lit it may be a bit of a slog; I liked it, though writing sure has changed in a hundred and forty years. I can see Le Fanu’s influence on later ghost story authors like M.R. James, and the man’s reputation is well-deserved. Now free on Project Gutenberg. Recommended if you’ve read a bit of Victorian-era fiction, otherwise be warned that it’s a world apart from modern fiction.
Venture to the Moon – III: Green Fingers & IV: All That Glitters – Arthur C. Clarke – Shorts/Serial
Compared to Galaxy or Astounding in the ’50s, F&SF had fewer serials—when it did run them, they were choice picks by big-name authors. From what I own, this is as close as I’ve seen it come to a serial, though I do know of several earlier novels serialized in F&SF; regardless, this is the middle of a cycle of interlocked short stories detailing a joint Russo-Anglo-American moon landing project. These are more a series of related vignettes than a serial, and I don’t want to detail too much for fear of giving things away. The first deals with a Russian botanist who’s sneaking off alone, something that goes against practice given the dangers of space; the other is about an American who got into geology due to his wife’s love of diamonds.
Interesting anecdotes which display Clarke’s sophisticated foresight, as they are fairly realistic depictions of moon exploration despite dating a decade before humanity stepped foot on the moon. Short, sweet, and entertaining, though it was Clarke’s depictions that interested me most—it brought to mind images of 1969 and the real-world moonwalks. I don’t have the issue that detailed the moon landings, and I’m not sure how these moon explorers set up their moon bases so fast, but they have a quaint nostalgia to their detailed science. Along with the other “Venture to the Moon” stories, these were reprinted in Clarke’s collection The Other Side of The Sky.
New Murders for Old – John Dickson Carr – short
The second Christmas ghost story, the “new” one of the pair that dates to 1939 from one of the greatest writers of the so-called “Golden-Age” mystery story (locked-room whodunits). The story’s about a businessman who goes on vacation due to stress, but keeps encountering weird occurances, things that he doesn’t remember but others claim as true. He returns home to England to find his death reported by the papers. Things like that. You can see the influence from M.R. James (and Le Fanu) in his writing; while it’s a typical mystery that can explain some of its riddles, there’s a few that leaves you with the assumption of the supernatural. Carr’s style is very ’30s British; formal to the point of being dry and a bit particular, and it’s done as a frame tale: the story is being told by the police chief to a mysterious guest. An interesting piece to contrast with Le Fanu, but not my cup of tea. Well constructed but too dry.
Rescue Mission – Gordon R. Dickson – short
When Swenson and Timberlake landed because of the SOS distress call, they thought the planet was home to intelligent and civilized humans; humans it had, with knowledge of Earth’s past, but in their superstitious eyes the would-be rescue party are devils emerging from their metal beast. Now an unarmed Timberlake has been set free to bring warning to other devils, and Swenson is being prepped for the cooking pot. With naught but the aid of the rescuees—two alien children, one as rigid and logical as a Vulcan and the other a passionate dragon-like being that’s educated itself using naught but romance novels—Timberlake has to save Swenson and get everyone off the planet.
My experiences with Dickson so far have been more miss than hit-or-miss, but this story was pretty good. Not a classic by any means, and the jokes weren’t the greatest—a few great moments but nothing as hilarious as the editor’s intro makes it out to be—but as a short little adventure story with a sense of humor, it does more things right than wrong. Worth reading. Later included in the collection Forward!.
In Memoriam: Fletcher Pratt – James Blish – prose
A short poem by James Blish, memorializing Pratt who’d died in June of 1956; its heavy use of Norse myth alludes to Pratt’s role as co-creator of the Compleat Enchanter series with L. Sprague de Camp.
Recommended Reading – Anthony Boucher – article
We start with Hunt Collins’ Tomorrow’s World and Eric Frank Russell’s Three to Conquer, both hardbacks from “new” publisher Avalon Books, and both win decent praise from Boucher. Basically he says they’re so immersive that you should overlook any minor flaws. Not so for the other books. Margaret St. Clair’s The Green Queen is “unclear and hard to follow, with many loose ends and little of the St. Clair-Seabright evocativeness.” Joseph E. Kelleam’s Overlords From Space “sets the standards of inept implausibility in the old theme of the revolt of enslaved earthmen against their alien masters, but does contain occasional glints of vivid imagination and visualization.” William Tenn’s short story collection The Human Angle, mostly Galaxy stories from 1954-55, “seems a mite disappointing because Tenn can be wonderful. This time he’s merely good.” Ouch.
Donald Wollheim’s collection The End of the World is “a passable but unnecessary anthology” whose “title-theme is a good idea, but developed without the pattern-shaping skill of a [Groff] Conklin or [Judith] Merrill.” Boucher’s main complaint is that half the stories (including those by big-name authors Clarke and Heinlein) had already been reprinted twice, while the other three are (to condense) “a good Coppel, an interesting if dated Hamilton, and an unspeakable item by Amelia Reynolds Long.” I haven’t read it but fellow blogger Joachim Boaz has. The last item is Rosemary Timperley’s Child in the Dark, three tales of young girls whose ideals are destroyed by evil adults. The tales are “short stories in content, short novels in length,” and are soundly thrashed because their “plots are the routine cliches of the conventional British ghost story, resolved by flagrant mechanical contrivance.”
The work of master book critics, and the beauty of their clashing, harsh words enthralls me; Boucher was no Damon Knight, but he knew damn well how to exalt (or tear asunder) a book.
Operation Salamander – Poul Anderson – novelette
Anderson’s created a world much like the real-life 1950s, except that the existence of God has been scientifically proven, and resurgent magic has become an acceptable addendum to science. Steven Matuchek, werewolf, is pining for his love Virginia: due to a geas cast against student/teacher relationships, their romance never will be. Matuchek is drowning his sorrows at the local college football game, spying on Virginia and her date, Abercrombie; the cheerleaders summon up a salamander—an elemental of pure fire. Of course, it manages get loose, and threatens to burn down the town if something isn’t done about it.
This is the second in a series of four tales set in the same world, all collected in 1971 to form the fixup novel Operation Chaos. Anderson’s got a bit of tongue-in-cheek vibe here. Some of it is rather canny ’50s social satire riffing on cultural norms (religion in specific) under the guise of broomstick-riding witches and alchemists teaching science courses. Some of the humor was too droll for me, such as referring to the “200-dragonpower” engine of a car, or the epithet “how on Middle Earth!” which I found eye-rollingly tacky… Though, in 1957 the Tolkien reference would have been a more obtuse gesture for in-the-know fans than it is today (the original 1954-56 US Lord of the Rings print run was 1,500 copies).
Still, Anderson’s unfettered creativity is impressive; the prose is excellent at evoking the hybridized “1950s gone Harry Potter” setting, and the tale is engaging and quite memorable. Plenty of action, and the showdown with the salamander is choice. Thumbs-up.
The Wild Wood – Mildred Clingerman – short
Every year, Margret’s family goes to the same store to buy a Christmas tree. It’s not Margret’s first choice because the owner is a despicable creep who gives her unwanted advances; not only does he unnerve her, but the first time he felt her up, she fazed into a dream-state that showed a snippet of his history. But, her kids love it, and she never told her husband about her hatred of the owner, so her family compels her to return. A twisted page-turner that’s unsettling in its surprisingly sexual nature; disturbing, chilling, and the most effective supernatural Christmas story in the issue by far. I think the reason it works so well is because of the weapon it uses: loss of self and control. Don’t read it alone at night.
I have the feeling it will disquiet or alarm many readers, but it was well-written and the horrific revulsion it creates was immaculate. I’ve already picked up Clingerman’s collection A Cupful of Space, in part due to this story and in part due to its Richard Powers cover. “The Wild Wood” was reprinted both in that collection and The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction, 7th Series.
The Bottom Line
The cover hides a medley of holiday horror. Don’t forget, in the realm of print periodicals, the issue’s date is its expiration date, not the month it was released, hence the inclusion of two Christmas Ghost stories and one Christmas-time horror tale. Both the Le Fanu and Carr entries are more traditional ghost stories, and show Boucher’s talent for picking reprints of a more unique nature. Neither were heavily anthologized, before or since. The Clingerman is a story I won’t soon forget. I’m glad I read it in the middle of a warm June day, not a dark December night; it’s damn unsettling.
As with the August, 1954 issue, I’m noticing F&SF was the outlet for women writers compared to its contemporaries. Astounding had several female authors in the ’40s (Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore saw print there) and even in the late ’60s/early ’70s (several by James Tiptree, Jr.), but I haven’t seen any in the ’50s; Galaxy was similarly male-dominated. Both Zenna Henderson and Mildred Clingerman were amazing writers, whose capable prose is rich in content and imagery, succinct and poignant. Neither was very prolific—Henderson topped out at two collections and some forty stories, Clingerman with one collection and 19 stories—and both published almost exclusively in F&SF.
The issue doesn’t have a real standout story, but each entry is above-average: a well-rounded issue, even if none of its stories are the greatest in the genre. Several of them have their flaws—the Henderson is weaker and too same-y compared to the other People tales, the Clarke are neat if insubstantial vignettes, and the humor in the Dickson and Anderson entries is hit-or-miss—but I’d say all of them are worth reading. I’m not sure what my favorite would be. Contenders include the Clingerman, but that may be because I read it last and its twist is a standout; the Anderson and Dickson works, which were enjoyable romps; and the Le Fanu, because of my love of the Victorian gothic.