Stories I’m Reading


SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


MANLY WADE WELLMAN “Ever the Faith Endures.” First published in The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series VI, edited by Gerald W. Page (Daw #297, paperback original; 1st printing, 1978). Collected in The Devil is Not Mocked and Other Warnings (Night Shade Books, hardcover, 2001).

   I love this type of atmospheric horror story. One in which a man goes in search of his roots in either the United Kingdom or New England and discovers some shocking family secret. That, or something far more sinister, ones in which a sense of slowly creeping dread permeates the entire story.

   Such is the case in Manly Wade Wellman’s “Ever the Faith Endures.” From the title, one might expect that the faith references would be Christianity. But let me assure you: that is far from the case. The faith that plays such an important role in the story is a pagan one. Specifically, the worship of the god Baal. The connection between that old god and the story’s protagonist becomes evident soon enough, particularly because his name is Wofford Belson. His original family name back in England was Belstone. As in Baal’s stone. You see where this might be going.

   Not only does the story tie in Wofford Belson’s quest to learn about his family’s distant past and to visit their original home back in England (Belson is an American), it also brings him face to face with a long distant cousin. She’s nice enough, and Belson takes an immediate liking to her. But she’s adamant that she can’t leave England and return to the States with him. You see, she’s been tasked with guarding something inside the Belstone estate. Something grotesquely evil. A being that could just as easily come straight from the imagination of one H. P. Lovecraft.

   Recommended.

MICHAEL F. FLYNN “Nexus.” Lead (and cover) novella in Analog Science Fiction, March-April 2017.

      Nexus: a connection or series of connections linking two or more things.

   This is a time-travel story taking place in the present that packs a series of multiple punches, each centered around one of the several characters involved:

    … a time traveler from the future who is trying to track down where his particular timeline has gone off the track, dooming billions of people; a woman who is immortal and who met the time traveler once before back in the Byzantine times; a member of a hidden alien race on Earth on the track of a possible invader that may have followed them here: a five-legged spider-like creature alone on Earth that hopes to use the time traveler’s machine to repair his/her/its spaceship; a female android who, inadvertently connecting the pieces of the plot together, wonders if the immortal woman could be another of her kind; and a woman with telepathic abilities who overhears a conversation that brings her into the tale as well.

   That all of these players meet at one crucial time in this planet’s history may happen by a series of striking coincidences, perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.

   Michael F. Flynn has been around as a strong proponent of hard science fiction for a while now, but this is the first work of his that I’ve read. This had to have been a difficult story to write, pulling all of the threads together as he does in a clear, concise fashion, with a light touch every so often as it’s needed. I’m impressed, and I’ll see what I can do to find more of his short fiction to read. Long SF novels are pretty much beyond me any more, I’m afraid.

EDMUND CRISPIN “Beware of the Trains.” First published in The (London) Evening Standard, 1949. Lead story in the collection of the same title (Gollancz, UK, 1953; Walker, US, 1962).

   Is it possible to tell to tell an “impossible crime” mystery in ten pages and get away with it? The answer is yes, and “Beware of the Trains” is a fine unadulterated example.

   Crispin’s primary detective character, Gervase Fen, is by profession an Oxford professor, but he has a decided penchant for running into — and solving — all kinds of unusual crimes. In this story he is once again luckily on hand when the engineer of the train he is on mysteriously disappears, even though the police have the small station surrounded, hoping to nab a notorious burglar whom they suspect was on the train, but who is not.

   That the thief may never have been on the train means that the latter part of that previous sentence is not an impossible crime, but where is the driver?

   Fen uses his wits, does some searching, and comes up with the answer, all neatly and tidily done. Another author who specialized in short story impossibilities was Edward D. Hoch, some of whose efforts along these lines have been collected, but not enough of them to suit me.

ISAAC ASIMOV “The Cross of Lorraine.” First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 1976. Collected in Casebook of the Black Widowers (Doubleday, hardcover, 1980; Fawcett Crest, paperback, March 1981).

    The Black Widowers were a men-only dining club that met once a week in a private room of a Manhattan restaurant. Each evening one of the members brings a guest, who after dinner is questioned as to the reason for his existence. In the conversation that follows, a problem the guest has invariably comes up and is tackled by the members as a group. The solution to the problem, however, also invariably comes from Henry, the waiter.

    There were 66 of these stories altogether. Five collections of twelve stories each were published in Asimov’s lifetime. Some of the stories were original to each volume, otherwise all but two appeared first in EQMM. The last six plus eleven reprints were collected in The Return of the Black Widowers (Carroll & Graf, 2003).

    “The Cross of Lorraine” is the first story in the third collection, and it follows the pattern of all the others. While the guest, named Larri, is only a so-so magician, his fame comes from exposing phony mystics, and a lot of discussion takes place involving sleight of hand and misdirection, which is where Larri’s problem comes in.

   It seems that he lost track of a woman whose company he was enjoying on a bus ride. When he fell asleep, she got off at her stop, and his only clue is a young French lad’s assertion that he saw the double-barred Cross of Lorraine when she did so, but retracking the route, Larri could find no such symbol along the roadway.

   The solution is simple but exceedingly clever. You probably can’t read too many of these in a ow, and shouldn’t even try, but at a slow pace of only one at a time, these old-fashioned and clearly told puzzle stories, for that is what they are, are a lot of fun. They were among Asimov’s own favorite stories to tell as well.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


H. G. WELLS “The Magic Shop.” The Strand Magazine, June 1903. First collected in Twelve Stories and a Dream (Macmillan, UK, hardcover, 1903) and The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (Thomas Nelson, US, hardcover, 1911). Reprinted and anthologized many times. Adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour by John Collier, 10 January 1964, with David Opatoshu as Mr. Dulong. Readable online here.

   One of the many tropes in early science fiction was that of a shop or a building that is there one day, but gone the next. The very notion that one could randomly happen upon a commercial establishment one day and that it would be literally gone the next day is one of those quirky concepts that speculative writers play with so well.

   So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that when I began reading H.G. Wells’s “The Magic Shop,” that one of the first things I thought of was whether the eponymous shop would exist one day and vanish the next. Lo and behold, I was not disappointed. For in this rather whimsical tale, a father and his son visit a magic shop in London wherein they discover a wide array of magical and mystical items for sale. The father, a skeptic, and his son Gip encounter a proprietor who may not be lying when he tells them that he deals in real magic.

   There is something charmingly innocent about this story. The dialogue in particular harkens back to an almost fairy tale like innocence. Indeed, it’s Wells’s ability to conjure up a sense of wonder that makes this story about a magic shop doing its own disappearing act a short, but pleasurable read. Recommended.

ANDREW KLAVAN “All Our Yesterdays.” Lead story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March-April 2017.

   The story begins with a horrific view of life (and death) in the army trenches in France in World War I, then tells the story of a survivor identified only as Brooks, as he recuperates in a make-shift hospital facility in Gloucestershire.

   Suffering from uncontrollable blackouts, he finds a friend in Dr. William Haven, to whom he confides his fears that life will never be the same. Brooks believes that the Victorian era was the best time in the world to be alive. Standards have fallen. Women wear trousers now.

   But then when a girl is found brutally murdered, Brooks also fears that he is the one responsible, and we have at last the reason this story was chosen as the lead for this issue, with the life of a young barmaid named Nancy at stake — a tale perfectly told.

   Author of some 30 novels, Andrew Klavan has been nominated for the Edgar Award five times and has won twice, first for Mrs. White in 1984, which he wrote under the pen-name Margaret Tracy, as Best Paperback Original, then for The Rain in 1990 in the same category, a book he wrote as Keith Peterson.

NINA KIRIKI HOFFMAN “Vinegar and Cinnamon.” Lead (and cover) story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January-February 2017.

   In a world in which magic exists, but not everyone has the same ability to cast spells, one family undergoes a small tragedy when the twelve year old sister transforms her fourteen year old brother into a rat. It was in fit of anger, and once done, she does not know how to reverse it.

   Luckily Sam decides that he likes being a rat. His sense of sense of smell is enhanced tremendously, for example, even though his vision is restricted to seeing only objects nearby.

   Even emotions have smells: “vinegar surprise, hot-pepper anger from Ma; baking-bread love from Pa; and caramel love and salt-water dismay from Maura.” Maura does her best to change Sam back again and he finally agrees to let her try. Does she succeed? Read this delightfully enjoyable homespun sort of tale and find out.

   Nina Kiriki Hoffman has written 17 novels, some for pre-teens and young adults, including The Thread That Binds the Bones, reviewed by Barry Gardner here on this blog. Her short story “Trophy Wives” won a 2008 Nebula award.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


ROBERT BLOCH “The Chaney Legacy.” First published in Night Cry, Fall 1986. Reprinted many times, including Witches & Warlocks, edited by Marvin Kaye (SF Book Club, hardcover, 1990).

   How does an actor become a monster? What method does an actor have to utilize, what magic must they conjure up in order to become a cinematic fiend? Bela Lugosi didn’t just portray Dracula; he became Dracula. What about Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre? How did they become the characters they portrayed? And what of Lon Chaney, the famed silent film star who portrayed monsters, grotesque villains and strange looking men?

   That’s the obsession plaguing a character named Dale in Robert Bloch’s gripping and creepy little tale, “The Chaney Legacy.” Dale, a researcher of Hollywood lore, is faced with a choice: does he decide to live in a Hollywood Hills bungalow once inhabited by Chaney or does he maintain his romantic relationship with a local broadcaster named Debbie Curzon. True to his obsession with Chaney and the late actor’s films, Dale chooses the house.

   As any fable reminds us, it can be dangerous to pursue a question and a line of inquiry to its rightful conclusion. In his obsessive quest to understand how Chaney became the characters he portrayed, Dale stumbles upon a secret that would have better been left in the past. The secret comes in the form of a makeup kit with a mirror, the very makeup kit that Chaney apparently utilized to “become” the characters he portrayed in the silent films.

   But as any good student of horror fiction knows, sometimes secrets are dangerous. That’s definitely the case in this sublimely bizarre short story by Robert Bloch. Recommended for horror fiction and film fans alike.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


STANLEY ELLIN “Robert.” First published in Sleuth Mystery Magazine, October 1958. Reprinted several times, including Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962) and Ellin’s story collection The Blessington Method and Other Strange Tales (Random House, hardcover, 1964; Signet D2805, paperback, 1966).

   Frequent visitors to this blog are likely familiar with the work of Stanley Ellin (1916–1986). A prolific mystery writer and the winner of three Edgars, Ellin sold his first story, “The Specialty of the House” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948. Several of his works were adapted for film and television.

   One of Ellin’s stories, simply entitled “Robert” has, as far as I know, never been adapted to stage or screen. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t vast potential there for such an adaptation. A work of horror and suspense more than a mystery tale, “Robert” concerns the interactions between a schoolteacher named Miss Gildea and the eponymous Sixth Grade student. Robert is not like the other kids. He’s a bit … different. And his difference seems to stem from his having uncanny, if not almost psychic, powers.

   Students and schoolteachers often don’t get along. And there’s always one troublemaker in particular that seems to have it in for the teacher. But Robert really has it in for Miss Gildea, so much so that he confesses that he wished he could kill her. This leads the frantic schoolteacher to rush to the school principal. Big mistake. For from the moment that she makes young Robert her adversary, things start going downhill for her. And fast.

   Overall, “Robert” doesn’t explain why things are happening so much as depict a scenario in which such bizarre things could possibly occur. While the resolution to the story is somewhat anticlimactic, getting there is a thrilling little ride.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


MORRIS HERSHMAN “Pressure.” First published in Manhunt, February 1958, as by Arnold English. Reprinted under his own name in Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962).

   Sometimes all that a compelling crime story requires is a scenario, a mere vignette in which two characters face off in primarily one location. This works best in “short and taut” stories, those that focus on a single character’s dilemma and are of a length of no more than 2,000 words or so.

   Such is the case in Morris Hershman’s “Pressure,” a tense, albeit not overly memorable, tale about a gangster’s final confrontation with the police. Hershman conjures up the character of Dapper Phil Rand, an aging gangster from the Prohibition Era who has managed to survive well into the late 1950s. Rand’s gone to jail before and isn’t particularly afraid of going back. The one thing he simply won’t do is rat on the Syndicate.

   Enter “Coffee,” a cop who is willing to offer Rand a deal of a lifetime: protection and relocation to South America if he’s willing to name names. But Rand’s not willing to do that, so Coffee decides he is going to have to play hardball and apply some pressure, albeit not the physical kind. Rather, he tells the press that Rand’s singing like a canary, that Rand is spilling the beans on the Syndicate. Then he lets Rand out of the police station.

   What happens next tells us a lot about Dapper Phil Rand. Will he return to Coffee and catch a plane to South America or will he find a way to convince the Syndicate that it was all a ploy? What happens next is a portrait of a greying gangster under pressure.

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