Stories I’m Reading

  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

#9. B. W. CLOUGH “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.” Short story. First appeared in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, June 1988.

   This was Brenda Clough’s first published story, and it’s a good one. Most of her work since then has been fantasy, but even though it’s told in the style of an rural fantasy, this one’s definitely science fiction.

   It’s about the owner of a comic book store — one who also carries other popular culture memorabilia, as most owners of comic book stores have to do in order to survive — and he’s realizes that he’s found a pot of gold when he begins to get repeat orders, many times over, for the aforementioned memorabilia.

   Not comic books, but X-Men bumper stickers, fuzzy dice, lawn trolls, iron-on decals of Disney characters, commemorative liquor bottles, Deely-Bobbers, and anything at all associated with Elvis, including plush floppy-eared dogs that you could wind up to play … you guessed it.

   Thinking that his new patron– who pays only in cash, brand new twenty-dollar bills — must be a reclusive millionaire, and having never met a reclusive millionaire before — makes the trek out to the wildest part of West Virginia mountain country to pay him a visit.

   What he finds there is the crux of the story, and obviously I dare not tell you. I think I’d react differently than does the teller of this story, but on the other hand, maybe just maybe he’s on to something.


Previously from the Wollheim anthology: FREDERIK POHL “Waiting for the Olympians.”

  LOU SAHADI, Editor – An Argosy Special: Science Fiction. One-shot reprint magazine. Popular Publications, 1977.

#3. LEIGH BRACKETT “Child of the Green Light.” Short story. First published in Super Science Stories<, February 1942; reprinted in the April 1951 issue. Reprinted in Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age, edited by Terry Carr (Harper & Row, hardcover, 1978). First collected in Martian Quest: The Early Brackett (Haffner Press, hardcover, 2002).

   There are science fiction stories so vast in scale it is next to impossible for the human mind to comprehend them, and even though this tale takes place within the orbit of Mercury in our own solar system, this is one of them.

   Son is a living creature — a mutation, perhaps — capable of existing in space without protection, the only living being in a junkyard of wrecked ships that his own space craft is part of. Nearby and at the center of this story is the Light, burning green in color, and the Veil, on the other side of which is Aona, a creature such as himself but obviously female.

   Coming to investigate the Light is, for the first time in a place where time and aging have no meaning, is a ship of seven humans and other intelligent aliens. It seems that a Cloud has passed through the solar system, changing the metabolism of all the creatures it touched. Destroying the Light is the only means of survival for billions of people.

   What has happened to Son to make him the being that he is? Is there any way for him to cross through the Veil to become part of the parallel universe where Aona is? And what about the one of the seven who sees Son as someone with powers that, if had them and the Light were destroyed, could rule the solar system?

   Whew! One thing you can say about this story is that has a cosmic Sense of Wonder, the secret ingredient of stories such as this one, and is the absolute epitome of Super Science.


Previously from this Lou Sahadi anthology: CHAD OLIVER “The Land of Lost Content.”

MAY EDGINTON “The Eyes of Countess Gerda.” Short story. First published in The Story-teller, UK, December 1911. Reprinted as “Johnnie Luck” in Pearson’s Magazine , US, March 1912. First collected in The Adventures of Napoleon Prince (Cassell, UK/US, hardcover, 1912). Also included in Johnnie Luck and Napoleon Prince: The Expanded Adventures (Coachwhip, paperback, February 2015). Reprinted in The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler (Black Lizard, softcover, 2017).

   When it comes to old and mostly forgotten stories such as this one, I usually rely on Otto’s introductions in any of the huge doorstop collections he’s done in recent years. He let me down with this one, though.

   Most of the introductory material is devoted to the author, whose full name was May Helen Marion Edginton Bailey (1883-1957), and the various stories she wrote that were turned into movies, such as “Purple and Fine Linen,” which became Adventures in Manhattan in 1936.

   Sometimes, though, ignorance is underrated. It may actually have helped in this case, not knowing exactly who Napoleon Prince was, nor his (apparently) two assistants, his sister (?) Mary and Johnnie Luck, who is also quite taken with the former. (Otto calls the sister Gerda, which is clearly in error, and the latter Dapper, which if true, the reference does not come up in this tale.)

   Which is an absolute gem in storytelling. When the three protagonists move into a rooming house together, separate rooms, they happen by chance to make the acquaintance of a young woman living in her own flat alone. Her eyes remind Prince of those of a woman he knew long ago, and eventually he gets around to telling Johnnie the entire unembellished story.

   Where the story is going from here is not exactly clear, bur the reader knows in general that something is in the works, but who is preying on who, and how? Those are the questions. This is an old-fashioned story, charmingly told, and all the pieces fit together beautifully, like clockwork. I called it a “gem” a bit earlier, and indeed it is.

Bibliographic Note:   The Cassell collection from 1912 contains 12 stories, while the much more recent volume from Coachwhip has 18, or all of the known Napoleon Prince stories.

CLIFF FARRELL “Sign of the White Feather.” Short novel. First published in Fighting Western, March 1946. Collected in The White Feather as “The White Feather.” (Five Star, hardcover, 2004; Leisure, paperback, March 2005).

   Fighting Western is generally considered one of the second- or even third-rank western pulps, but this particular issue is filled with a bunch of better western writers. Besides this long tale by Farrell, there are four shorter ones by gents such as Giles A. Lutz, William J. Glynn, Thomas Thompson, and Joseph Chadwick, of whom only Glynn is completely unknown to me.

   As you can probably guess from the title, “Sign of the White Feather” is the story of a man considered a coward but who in the end redeems himself. It seems that in order to make a hurried trip to Salt Lake City to raise money to save his estranged father from bankruptcy, he had to forego a fight with one of the men working for his father’s ruthless competitor in finishing a coast-to-cast telegraph line.

   A contract is a contract, and a deadline is a deadline, but it’s even harder when thugs, gunmen and outlaws are working for the other side. Even Kelly’s fiancée is starting to wonder how much courage the man she is engaged to marry actually has. It does not help in that regard when she learns that the only person who has agreed to give Kelly the loan he needs is a woman, and what’s more, she’s coming back with him.

   The story is non-stop action, starting with a rough and bumpy stage ride back to Salt Lake City, then up in the mountains cutting down logs to be used as poles — just as the winter season is ready to settle in. The enemy is suitably vicious, the romance suitably up in the air, and while the characters are not deeply developed, I found myself rooting for them all the way. Is Kelly Brackett a coward? Far from it!


MICHAEL GILBERT “The Unstoppable Man.” Short story. Inspector Hazelrigg. First US publication in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 1954. First published in John Bull, UK, 19 November 1949, as “Amateur in Violence.” First collected in Amateur in Violence (Davis, US, paperback, 1973). Reprinted many times. Film: The Unstoppable Man (Argo, UK, 1960), reviewed here.

   “… never tangle with a wholehearted amateur.”

   Those are the final words of Michael Gilbert’s Inspector Hazelrigg in this tale, and if you have ever read this oft anthologized story, you will have little trouble recalling them. In fact, they likely have the same impact now as you recall them they did when you first read them in one of the best known stories in Gilbert’s long career.

   I suppose there are some who think of Gilbert as primarily a quiet writer, a British solicitor who wrote a certain kind of story, a far cry from his more violent American contemporaries. Of course that isn’t true. The truth is, Gilbert always wrote with a quiet savagery that belied his civilized settings and background. He had a fine eye for the darker, hidden side beneath the civilized soul of his fellow Brits, whether they were spies, solicitors, school masters, actors, prisoners of war, or policemen.

   Gilbert not only produced fine puzzles and character studies, but when he wanted to, he could chill to the bone, producing nerve wracking suspense and high adventure. Think of some of those icy Calder and Behrens stories, some of the adventures of Patrick Petrella, and no few of the novels, that could suddenly go as dark and violent as any of their American cousins.

   This was the first story of Gilbert’s I ever read, and I was a devout follower ever after.

   “The Unstoppable Man” first appeared in this country in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in February 1954 in an issue that touted it contained no reprints. Among the all-new material were an Anthony Boucher story, one by Victor Canning, and others by Roy Vickers, Zelda Popkin, Phyllis Bentley, and Youngman Carter. Even in that company, though, Gilbert’s tale sticks out.

   It’s a simple story. It opens with the Inspector describing the sort of man who would frighten him as a pursuer.

   “He’d be English … Anglo-Saxon anyway, getting on for middle age, and a first class businessman. He would have some former experience of lethal weapons — as an infantry soldier, perhaps in one of the world wars. But definitely an amateur — an amateur in violence.”

   The amateur in question is Mr. Collet, managing director of a shipping firm who son has been kidnapped and wants to know whether or not kidnappers can be trusted to return their victim alive. Mr. Collet is in troublem and the kidnappers have his son.

   The kidnapper is Joe Keller with his gang. Keller is a man who has kidnapped and tortured children before. He is holding Mr. Collet’s son and the police dare not rush the place for fear they will kill the child.

   Mr. Collet has one request of the police, get him and his kit into the bedroom with his son before they rush the house. He will take care of the rest, though he doesn’t let on how, since he doesn’t want a gun. The police agree and get Collet into the room with his son. Their chances are slim as Keller and his gang will go for the child as soon as the police move in. There is no reason for them not to kill father and son at that point.

   All that stands between the child and death is Hazelrigg’s “amateur in violence,” the quiet but strangely assured Mr. Collet.

   I won’t spoil if for you if somehow you have missed this little gem from Mr. Gilbert from his Inspector Hazelrigg series. It’s such a good ending that Gilbert used variations on it in a couple of books, including a crossover novella with Calder, Behrens, and Patrick Petrella, and one of his early novels. I should point out that every time Gilbert delivers the goods, but perhaps never with quite the impact of this version.

   I can only say without giving it away, that the ending is a corker, savage, shocking, and memorable.

   You may never read Michael Gilbert quite the same way again. Whatever else you won’t forget Gilbert’s “amateur in violence.” You may even find you feel a little pity for Joe Keller and his gang … they never had a chance.

 MARTIN H. GREENBERG, Editor – Deadly Doings. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, 1989.

#5. WILLIAM CAMPBELL GAULT “Never Marry Murder.” Short story. First published in Dime Mystery Magazine, December 1949, as by Roney Scott. Not collected or reprinted elsewhere.

   Most readers of this blog will recognize William Campbell Gault as the author of two long-running series of private eye novels, eight with a fellow named Joe Puma and fourteen with Brock “The Rock” Callahan, both working cases all over the southern California landscape.

   Less known is the fact that Gault also had a long career writing detective and crime stories for the pulp magazines, well over a hundred of them, starting with “Crime Collection” in the January 1940 issue of 10-Story Detective Magazine.

   Some of them featured PI’s or wanna-be PI’s, but “Never Marry Murder” is not one of them. (That the byline on the story is Roney Scott is due to the fact that Gault had another story in the same issue under his own name, “Slay You in My Freams,” a common practice in those days.)

   No, this one’s a straightforward domestic crime tale, one that would not be out of place in, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Magazine, back when it started after the success of the TV show; that is t= say, a story that depends on a surprise ending, a unexpected twist, if you will.

   A man who’s made his fortune by killing his first two wives has decided to settle down with the woman of his dreams, until, that is, he finds out that she’s been seeing another man. He doesn’t hesitate a minute. She has to go, victim number three.

   Unfortunately I knew exactly what was coming well before the ending, long before the protagonist did, and you may, too, with only the information I’ve given you. The story’s well told — you could say the same thing about everything Gault ever wrote — but when the story’s as predictable as this one is, I think editor Martin H. Greenberg might have found a better one. He certainly had plenty to choose from.


Previously in this Martin Greenberg anthology: SUE GRAFTON “The Parker Shotgun.”

  LOU SAHADI, Editor – An Argosy Special: Science Fiction. One-shot reprint magazine. Popular Publications, 1977.

#2. CHAD OLIVER “The Land of Lost Content.” Short story. First published in Super Science Stories, November 1950. Collected in A Star Above It and Other Stories (NESFA Press, hardcover, 2003).

   Of the many SF writers of his day, Chad Oliver certainly had the credentials for the job. He had a PhD in anthropology from UCLA and was a fixture in that department at the University of Texas for nearly 50 years, including twice being chairman. He didn’t write a lot of science fiction, but as they say, what he did write was choice.

   My favorite of the nine novels he wrote, some of which were westerns, was The Winds of Time (1956), in which a race of aliens who came to Earth thousands of years in past decide to go into suspended animation to wait for a civilized mankind to evolve.

   “The Land of Lost Content” was Oliver’s first published story, and frankly, while certainly quite readable even today, it doesn’t show him at his best. The story line is unfortunately a very familiar one, that of a group of underground survivors of a nuclear and/or germ-based catastrophe on the surface of the Earth deciding generations later to break all of their dying society’s laws and see if they can make it to the land above.

   The last few lines sum it up: “Could they succeed where gods had faltered? He shook his head. Probably, almost certainly they would fail. But they would try. For that was what it meant to be a man.”


Previously from this Lou Sahadi anthology: ROGER DEE “First Life.”


H. BEDFORD-JONES “The King Makers.” Novelette. Vincent Connor #6. First published in Short Stories April 25, 1932. Collected as the title story in The King Makers: The Adventures of Vincent Connor (Altus Press, The H. Bedford-Jones Library, trade paperback March 2015).

   Any attempt to cover H. Bedford-Jones’ career in the pulps is virtually doomed by the sheer volume of it. Writing in virtually every major pulp available (including Weird Tales), and with stories covering every historical era imaginable, he was the acknowledged King of the Pulps for much of his career, one of the highest paid writers in the field, and one whose work regularly was reprinted in hardcovers, whether it was his popular John Solomon stories written as by Allan Hawkwood, his Westerns, Mystery novels, historical novels, adventure fiction …

   He somehow even found time for a bit of poetry and non-fiction.

   Among his many series, one of the most popular featured Vincent Connor, a ne’er do well playboy American in China who would seem to be a jovial fool, but who in reality is one of the quickest minds and best fighters in Asia, “…an energetic young man who mixed largely in political affairs—not for his own interest, but for the good of China.”

   Not PC by any definition, in fact, another white man saving the natives, but these were the pulp magazines, and that was unfortunately the standard. Thankfully Bedford-Jones is too good to just settle for that.

   From the native city, bandits and alleged patriots had flooded into the Japanese quarter of Tientsin to kill and rob. Native mobs were being shot down, and all Tientsin was in alarm and uproar.

   Connor is in Tientsin waiting for his friend Earl Stanley when the rioting and violence break out in the Japanese quarter. A phone call from Stanley quickly summons him to an obscure restaurant in the French quarter where Connor finds the source of all the commotion “…This young native in the sweater and spectacles was Henry Chang-yin. He was the last of the line of the great Nurhachu, founder of the Manchu empire, and the throne of the Yellow Dragon was his by rights.”

   Henry is a quiet studious type who has been living in the Japanese quarter in a sort of separate peace with them, happy to let them use his status to their own needs so long as there is no violence, but now he has escaped, and in short order Connor and Stanley convince him to make a run for Manchuria where he can claim his throne and lead the advance to run the Japanese incursion out of China.

   1932, when this was written, was early in the Japanese imperial adventure in China that would become one of the bloodiest and deadliest in history, and Bedford-Jones can be forgiven in using it for a background for high adventure and political skull-duggery as it would be in countless stories, books, and films of the period. It’s only been in the last thirty years or so that the whole story of the Japanese war crimes in China has been fully exposed.

   In 1932 it was still possible to use the tragedy as a background for exotic adventure.

   The battle is bloody and hard fought with Colonel Honzai, the tough but honorable Japanese officer pursuing them. Bedford-Jones was an expert at orchestrating this kind of tale and pulls out no stops here.

   Despite the lack of political correctness, Bedford-Jones is far to good a writer to deal in the usual stereotypes. There are no evil Asian masterminds here (even when he did that trope he managed it with finesse), and both the would-be emperor, Connor’s driver, Wang, and their Japanese nemesis are written as intelligent and capable men, which doesn’t hurt the sense of adventure and action one bit, and even adds to it.

   The story ends with a nice ironic twist, with Connor’s dream of playing king-maker in China is lost, but not before undergoing a solid adventure tale in the old style by one of the masters of the genre.

       The Vincent Connor series

A Prince for Sale (ss) Argosy Jun 13 1931


House of Missing Men (ss) Argosy Jul 4 1931
The Tomb-Robber (ss) Argosy Aug 1 1931
Diplomacy by Air (ss) Argosy Sep 19 1931
Connor Takes Charge (nv) Argosy Dec 19 1931
The King Makers (nv) Short Stories Apr 25 1932

   All six are included in the Altus Press collection.

 MARTIN H. GREENBERG, Editor – Deadly Doings. Ivy, paperback original; 1st printing, 1989.

#4. SUE GRAFTON “The Parker Shotgun.” Short story. First published in the PWA anthology Mean Streets, edited by Robert J. Randisi (Mysterious Press, 1986). [See Comment #3.] Reprinted many times, including The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories, edited by Tony Hillerman & Rosemary Herbert (Oxford University Press, hardcover, April 1996). First collected in Kinsey and Me (G.P. Putnam, hardcover, 2013). Winner of the Macavity and Anthony awards.

   I don’t know, but maybe someone reading this does. When Sue Grafton wrote the first Kinsey Millhone story, “A” Is for Alibi, way back in 1984, was she planning ahead? Did she have any idea that the series would continue on all the way through the letter Y before sadly she died late in 2017?

   Along the way, if my count is right, she wrote nine short stories about Kinsey, of which this is probably the most well known. In it she tackles a case that the police have given up on, that of the death of her client’s husband, a man known to have been dealing in cocaine. He had given it up when he married Kinsey’s client, but the police have taken the easy way out and chalked it up to just another drug deal gone bad.

   Kinsey, as always, tells the story herself, in her usual chipper fashion, even though some of the people she meets along the way do not belong to the nicest people in society. The titular shotgun, as expected, was the murder weapon, but not expected is that it’s a classic, a collectible worth in the vicinity of nearly $100,000, which is a nice area to be in, to be sure.

   Kinsey makes short work of the case, maybe too short. I’d have liked a little more meat to the tale myself, but as a fine example of a PI at work in the short story form, you shouldn’t need to look any farther than this one.


Previously in this Martin Greenberg anthology:JACK FINNEY “It Wouldn’t Be Fair.”

  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

#8. FREDERIK POHL “Waiting for the Olympians.” Novella. First published in Asimov’s SF, August 1988. Reprnted in What Might Have Been? Volume 1: Alternate Empires, edited by Gregory Benford & Martin H. Greenberg (Bantam, paperback, August 1988) and The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories, edited by Ian Watson & Ian Whates (Perseus, softcover, April 2010). First collected in Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories (Tor, hardcover, December 2005).

   In terms of his influence on the field, Frederik Pohl had a career in science fiction as long as almost anyone, one that lasted well over 70 years, first as a fan, then as an award-winning editor many times over, an agent, and yes, as a writer. He often had a wicked, satirical view of the world in much of what he wrote, and if you were to call that a subgenre of SF in and of itself, “Waiting for the Olympians,” would fit right into it.

   It’s told from the point of view of a hack SF writer named Julius — his friends call him Julie — and his latest work, for which he cannot repay the advance, is rejected because it makes fun of the Olympians, a collection of alien races sending representatives to Earth to invite the planet’s inhabitants to join their ranks.

   That something feels off about the early part of the story is made a whole clearer when Julie sits down to write a replacement novel with stylus and blank tablets. Tablets that stay blank because his head has run completely day of new ideas.

   His friend Sam (Flavius Samuelus) suggests that he write an “what if” story based on the premise that the Olympians are not coming, but Julie, hack writer that he is, simply can’t get his head around the idea at all. Then the unthinkable happens. Transmissions from Olympians suddenly stop completely, indicating that they have changed their minds and are really not coming. Why on Earth why?

   This is a very cleverly constructed story, with a lot going on between the lines, including the ending itself, which answers the question above, if only the Julie and Sam could figure it out, which they can’t, a devastating indictment of their world on both counts. An excellent story.


Previously from the Wollheim anthology: TANITH LEE “A Madonna of the Machine.”

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