Stories I’m Reading

RICHARD SALE “The House of Kaa.” The Cobra #2. Short story. First published in Ten Detective Aces, February 1934. Reprinted in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, November 2007). Collected in The Cobra: The King of Detectives (Altus Press, 2009).

   The pulp magazines were filled with all kinds of detective heroes, from cops to PIs and pure amateurs, but in their midst were numerous self-appointed vigilantes, long before Don Pendleton and Mack Bolan came along. Such a one is Dean Bradley, a common enough name, but in his guise as “The Cobra,” his penchant for killing the villains he meets is enough to instill the fear of sudden death into the minds of countless others.

   His favorite method of disposing of the various criminals he tracks down? Cobra venom, administered by poisoned darts propelled from a blowgun disguised as a cigarette holder. The miscreants in “The House of Kaa,” busily smuggling priceless jewels from India to England in the stomachs of royal pythons, are no different, and they are hardly a match for The Cobra.

   As for Richard Sale, the author, he later became well known as both a novelist (Lazarus #7) and screenwriter (Suddenly). Everyone has to start somewhere!

        The Dean Bradley aka “The Cobra” series —

Terror Towers (ss) Ten Detective Aces Jan 1934
The House of Kaa (ss) Ten Detective Aces Feb 1934
The Grinning Ghoul (ss) Ten Detective Aces Mar 1934


CLEVE F. ADAMS “Flowers for Violet.” Violet McDade #6. Novelette. Published in Clues Detective Stories, May 1936. Cover by Norman Saunders. Never reprinted. Included in Hard-Boiled Dames, edited by Bernard Drew (St. Martin’s Press, 1986). See Comment #1.

   Violet McDade in a night-club was as conspicuous as an elephant in an aquarium.

   With the exception of some tough newspaper women working alongside the likes of Daffy Dill or a female op helping Cardigan, there weren’t a lot of female driven series in the hard-boiled pulps so, like Theodore A. Tinsley’s Carrie Cashin, Violet McDade is a bit different than the usual pulp fare.

   I really don’t know if Violet came before or after Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool, but she certainly owes more to Bertha than Rex Stout’s tough smart and attractive Dol Bonner. Violet is fat, rude, and tough as nails, and as “Flowers for Violet” opens she is being rude and pushy in a nice night club called the Green Kitten, where she is trying to dredge up clients for her and her chief operative, Nevada Alvarado, a slim, attractive girl who is getting sore feet dancing with all the stiffs Violet steers toward her.

   “…trouble with you, Nevada, is you don’t appreciate what contacts mean to a couple of female dicks like you and me.” Violet chides her junior partner.

   When Violet spies Assistant D. A. Stephen Wright in the Green Kitten, she smells trouble. Mike Donelli, who runs the club runs illegal gambling upstairs and has a backer in state Senator Hymes, and D.,A. Alvin Foss is no fan of either. Violet smells trouble and maybe money, and she is seldom wrong about either. Donelli is married to Rose, who does a routine clad “mostly in brilliants”, and Violet chides Mike for staying in the rackets.

   “You think a lot of Rose don’t you, Violet?”

   “No, you ape, I don’t. I think she’s an empty headed little tramp. I think she was a sap for marrying a guy like you. But,” … Violet’s greenish little eyes got a far away looks that somehow always brought a lump to my throat … “but Rose’s mother was damn white to me back when she was on top and I was the fat lady in the same circus. I … I kind of owe Rose something for that.”

   And with that, you know the stage is set for fists and bullets to fly as Violet and Nevada find Rose on their doorstep still clad in “mostly brilliants” and the news Mike Donelli just shot someone and is gunning for Rose and then their apartment gets fire bombed.

   True to the breed, Violet plays fast and loose with the law letting the fire department think she and Nevada (sometimes called Mex — political correctness was not one of Adams’ strengths) are trapped in the rubble while they get a head start on the case as she and Nevada and Violet’s little chauffeur Sweeny go gunning for Mike Donelli with a protesting Rose in tow.

   District Attorney Foss has been shot, and it adds up that Donelli probably did it, but nothing is ever that straight up in these things. A Violet and Nevada bull into the case, things and people prove to be more complicated than they expect, especially when Violet’s favorite cop, Lt. Belarski gets his skull clipped by a bullet and Sweeny ends up in jail.

   The detective work is pretty good, although it is less in the classic tradition than the hard-boiled one where every violent encounter leads to another step toward the truth, which involves high level shenanigans, political corruption and ambition, and not so honest fall guys.

   The Violet McDade stories are fun, a bit out of the screwball school as Adams’ Rex McBride stories also were: violent, fast moving, and reminiscent of what many of us started reading hard-boiled pulp fiction for in the first place.

   Adams was in the second rank of the classic hard-boiled school, and that isn’t a shot at his often entertaining tales, just a recognition that he perhaps didn’t work as hard at originality as he might have, and for all his word savagery, he just missed the first rank. That “elephant in the aquarium” is no “tarantula on a piece of angel food cake.”

   But second rank in that particular school wasn’t a bit shabby, and if you are looking for a fat lady to sing this particular aria, you could do worse than to accompany Adams and Violet McDade.

      The Violet McDade series —

Page Violet McDade! (nv) Clues Detective Stories Jan 1935
Shrinking Violet (nv) Clues Detective Stories Jul 1935
Mexican Bargain (ss) Clues Detective Stories Aug 1935
Framing the Picture (nv) Clues Detective Stories Nov 1935
Vision of Violet (nv) Clues Detective Stories Feb 1936
Flowers for Violet (nv) Clues Detective Stories May 1936
The Voice (nv) Clues Detective Stories Sep 1936
Compromising Violet (nv) Clues Detective Stories Oct 1936
Important Money (nv) Clues Detective Stories Dec 1936
Violet to Orchid (nv) Clues Detective Stories Feb 1937
Murder City (nv) Clues Detective Stories Apr 1937
The Black Door (ss) Clues Detective Stories Sep 1937
Bloody Bullets (nv) Clues Detective Stories Nov 1937

  LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

   #7. ROBERT L. DAVIS “Teratohippus.” Novelette. First appeared in Worlds of If, November-December 1972. Never reprinted elsewhere.

   If you looked to see who the author of this story was and couldn’t recognize his name, all is forgiven. No one else reading this review will have either — you can bet on that. This was the only SF story that Davis ever had published. The only other story that comes close was “Once Upon a Were-wolf,” which appeared in the November 1969 issue of an obscure horror magazine entitled Coven 13.

   A teratohippus is a gigantic slug-like creature the size of a football field which by means of several external layers of armored exo-skeleton is the only creature that can survive the now frigid climate of the once totally temperate planet of Betul.

   Not much is known about the creatures, but for some as yet unlearned reason they seem to take long migratory treks across some of the most inhospitable expanses of the planet. and of course when a skimmer filled with members of a scientific exploration from Earth is forced to come down in such an area, they do not know how lucky they are that a teratohippus is making such a journey nearby.

   Perhaps I am revealing more than I should, but I will tell you anyway. What they do is to find a refuge in a cavity inside the creature. What’s more, they discover they can change the direction the teratohippus is going from working inside it. This causes a huge dilemma, of course. Saving their lives will come at the expense of the creature’s, not to mention its soon to be born offspring.

   I can’t tell you that I believe all of the alien biology that’s involved, but that’s only the superficial trappings of a good, solidly-told story that happened to catch Lester de Rey’s eye, if no one else’s at the time. And now mine as well, even at this late date.


Previously from the del Rey anthology: R. A. LAFFERTY “Eurema’s Dam.”

  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.

#4. GEORGE ALEC EFFINGER “Schrödinger’s Kitten.” Novelette. First published in Omni, September 1988. Published in a single volume by Pulphouse Publishing, hardcover/paperback, February 1992. First collected in Budayeen Nights, Golden Gryphon Press, hardcover, September 2003. Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette of the Year.

   The story begins with a young twelve-year-old girl waiting in an alley at festival time in the Budayeen quarter of the same unnamed Middle-Eastern city where several other works by George Alec Effinger take place. Her purpose: to kill the boy she knows will rape her.

   She does not know the boy, who he is, or anything about him. She knows what will happen only through the visions she has been having, many times over. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he does not. Sometimes she dies, sometime she lives. When she lives, sometimes she dies alone, after a bitter life of prostitution, sometimes she is rescued.

   And these visions alternate in the telling of the story with futures in which she become a noted nuclear physicist, working alongside the likes of Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, in the era of Einstein, Max Born and Max Planck as they feverishly try to find the mathematics that correctly describe quantum physics.

   It’s quite a mixture. Jehan also has a hand in keeping the Nazis from succeeding in their experiments with the atom bomb. As it turns out, as experienced SFnal readers will quickly deduce, these not exactly visions that Jehan is having while she waits for her would-be rapist in the alley. I think most such readers will catch on very quickly, even before Effinger reveals their secrets, that these are glimpses of parallel worlds. Worlds that are created at every single fraction of a second, and have been since the beginning of time, branching out with the each of the billions of possibilities, continuing on now and the future.

   This is heady stuff, well told. It is no wonder the story won both a Hugo and a Nebula. It was well deserved.


Previously from the Wollheim anthology:   JOHN SHIRLEY “Shaman.”

  LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

   #6. R. A. LAFFERTY “Eurema’s Dam.” Short story. First published in New Dimensions II, edited by Robert Silverberg (Doubleday, hardcover, 1972). First collected in Golden Gate and Other Stories (Corroboree, hardcover, 1982). Co-winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

   While he had written some short fiction before then, Lafferty is best known to me for his first three novels, which came out in 1968, almost all at the same: Past Master, Space Chantey, and The Reefs of Earth, and his exuberant and truly one-of-a-kind way of telling a tale.

   While his stories were nominated several times for various major awards, “Eurema’s Dam” was the only one to win one of the major ones. To me, at this much later date, the story is a mere trifle, but when it was first published, it garnered considerable acclaim from SF critics and fans alike.

   This is the life story of a unique individual named Albert, and let’s let Lafferty tell you what you need to know about him, starting from the very beginning of the story:

   He was about the last of them.

   What? The last of the great individualists? The last of the true creative geniuses of the century? The last of the sheer precursors?

   No. No. He was the last of the dolts.

   Kids were being born smarter all the time when he came along, and they would be so forever more. He was about the last dumb kid ever born.

   How dumb was he? He was so dumb about arithmetic that he was forced to invent a pocket calculator. He could not tell his right hand from his left without noting the direction of whirlpools and which side a cow is milked on. He even invented a machine that would help him not be afraid of girls.

   When he had a hunch that he would never be good at hunches, he fabricated a machine to help him with that, and he called it Hunchy. Of all the machines and other devices he invented, and there many of them, all of them built on logic, this is the one that he discovers he needs the most.

   It may be that science fiction fans in 1972 could see a lot of themselves in Albert. If so, I can certainly understand that. There is one thing that is for certain. Only R. A. Lafferty could have written this story, and I’m glad he won a Hugo for it.


Previously from the del Rey anthology: FREDERIK POHL & C. M. KORNBLUTH “The Meeting.”

  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.

#3. JOHN SHIRLEY “Shaman.” Novelette. First published in Asimov’s SF, November 1988. Not reprinted elsewhere.

   John Shirley’s science fiction falls largely in the cyberpunk genre, but he’s also written award-winning horror fiction, movie tie-in’s (Alien, Batman) and as John Cutter, many books in the long running men’s adventure series “The Specialist.”

   “Shaman” takes place in a very dystopian future Manhattan, as four young adventurers, Quinn, Chico, Bowler and Zizz, decide to take on the impossible task of rescuing their friend Deirdre from the Fridge, a “wall-to-wall biomonitoring facility” in which the prisoners are completely restrained “on IV medifeeds and spinebox.”

   Their path, as it happens, must go through the area controlled by the Funs (Muslim Fundamentalists), a tricky venture at best, and success is far from guaranteed. Along the way, many strange things happen, and Quinn in particular learns a lot about himself and the world he lives in. (The word ‘strange’ is an understatement here.)

   This bare-bones outline of the plot does not do justice to its colorful if not outright mystical telling. If words fail me, they certainly don’t John Shirley. Even if I don’t follow all of the foursome’s adventures completely, I certainly enjoyed the ride.

   “The buildings were picked out with a little starlight, and with the soft edges of firelight from clearings in the rubble: smudges of red on the black-pocked wall of night. Fragments of Arabic and Farsi and Lebanese reached them and faded away as they moved through Lower East Manhattan.”

   What follows is a brilliant melange of psycho-drugs, pseudoskins capable of transmitting continuous porno shows on one’s body, and the basic setting of people all around the world in a panicked search for a sense of community through basic tribalism.

   And there is the moral to the tale. “… there were a thousand million people using all of civilization’s technology without understanding it; the children of the new illiteracy, living electronics the way a Cro Magnon had used fire; assuming it was magic.”

   It’s difficult to imagine Donald Wollheim, whom I think of as being a staunch defender of traditional science fiction, picking this over-the-top cyberpunk tale as one of the Year’s Best, but I’m glad he did.


Previously from the Wollheim anthology:   STEVEN GOULD “Peaches for Mad Molly.”


NORMAN DANIELS “The Great Ego.” Novella. First appeared in Startling Stories, Spring 1944. Never reprinted.

   The first story by Norman Daniels I ever read was one of his John Keith, Man from A.P.E. spy stories from Pyramid. I didn’t know who Daniels was at the time and knew nothing of his pulp connection, but I knew I liked the book enough to look for more by him, which proved fairly easy to do as he was an extremely prolific writer for most of his entire career, from his early days in the pulps to the Gothic romances written with his wife as Dorothy Daniels. The only trick with his work was discovering which pseudonyms he was writing under other than his own name, and which genre he was writing in.

   But I confess I never really thought of him much in terms of the Science Fiction genre, which is why I was a bit surprised to see his name on the cover of Startling Stories with the lead novella illustrated by no less than the great Virgil Finlay, the work in question, “The Great Ego.”

   The story, as you might expect from Daniels and Startling, opens with a hook designed to keep you turning pages. The extremely meek and retiring Mr. Rodney St. George (…in manner of dress he might be almost dainty) is a clerk at a bank, and his superior, young and handsome Jim Downing, has asked Miss Pam Brooke, an attractive clerk at a rare book store, to identify St. George as a man who buys rare volumes at her store.

   Two marked notes, part of a large sum embezzled by a recently caught clerk named Foster, one who definitely would not be found in a rare book store, showed up at her store. To make things even more mysterious, it turns out the meek Mr. St. George has spent some $8,000 on rare books in recent months. This is certainly not a sum he earned at the bank no matter how carefully he lived.

   Like any pulp hero worth his name, Jim Downing is determined to investigate more deeply, something he soon finds he wishes he kept his nose out of. But before he can follow up, Mr. St. George foils a bank robbery, apparently by accident. Asked to identify the captured bank robber, St. George visits his cell, where magically a cute kitten appears just as the bank robber who had pleaded with St. George to free him drops dead, much the same way the embezzling clerk Foster did, from no apparent cause.

   There is much more to Mr. St. George than meets the eye, and he is ready for Jim Downing’s nosing around.

   Meanwhile Pam Brooke has been doing a little detective work on her own. She has discovered St. George has spent thousands of dollars in rare bookstores around the city. So when Downing goes to visit St. George he suspects there is more to the story than he’s been told and willing to confront the man. At which point St. George turns him into a kitten and himself into a large black cat.

   Of course Daniels manages to give the whole thing a thin patina of science since this was Startling Stories and not Weird Tales, but basically this is the sort of thing you would find in John Campbell’s Unknown, though told here with a straighter face and without the more literary efforts of a Heinlein, Leiber, De Camp, or Williamson.

   St. George can turn anyone into any animal, but he prefers cats, and his house full of cats, all former humans (including Foster and the bank robber), but he needs Downing because it turns out St. George isn’t the only one with this power. He has a rival, a deadly one, Dr. Michael Jamison.

   Downing manages to become human and escape, but no one will believe him but Pam, so he tries to enlist Jamison only to find himself ironically allied with St. George against an even madder scientist/sorcerer, the two men vying for an ancient scroll that will make one of them a virtual god.

   This fast-moving tale has a momentum of its own, despite the absurdities and proves to be a fun story as Downing and Pam find they are mankind’s last hope as the two self proclaimed gods feud with man’s fate in the balance.

   Daniels manages a nice bit of jiggery-pokery here, keeping the tale moving despite the built-in absurdity, and even allowing the hero to outwit the two madmen with a clever bit of observation about the nature of their abilities, bringing the thing to a fine apocalyptic head.

   “The Great Ego” is a well-written and playful tale, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still seriously enough to involve the reader in the fate of the attractive hero and heroine, if you are willing to give into the spirit of the thing.

   Startling may not have been in a class with Astounding, but over the years it was the home to some of the more gifted writers in the field, including Leigh Brackett, Stanley Weinbaum, Manly Wade Wellman, Ray Bradbury, Edmund Hamilton, Henry Kuttner, (Captain Future, too) and other major names, and in “The Great Ego” an unquestioned pulp — if not SF — master pulls off an entertaining tale as wild and furry as the cats that populate it.

  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.

#2. STEVEN GOULD “Peaches for Mad Molly.” Novelette. First published in Analog SF, February 1988. Nominated for both the Hugo (2nd) and Nebula Awards.

   Another author whose work this is the first time I’ve read. Looking ahead at the rest of the Wollheim anthology, that is going to be a very common thread connecting these stories. Gould is best known for his popular series of “Jumper” novels, books for Young Adults about a teenager who is able to teleport from one place to another.

   As for this story, some time in the Earth’s future, it is presumed, many (if not most) of the planet’s inhabitants live in apartment buildings two kilometers tall. Some who do not, and there are a few, live on the outside of the buildings, much like the homeless people of today live on sidewalks under bridges.

   Some do so by choice, however, either for a sense of independence or the thrill of adventure. Such a one is the unnamed narrator of this story, a man who climbs up and down the outside of the building using ropes and grapples and with a whole lot of flair. On the occasion of Mad Molly’s birthday, he decides to surprise her by going down and fetching her some fresh peaches. It means, however, crossing the floor 520 to 530, claimed by the Howlers as their territory.

   This is a very picturesque tale, and it has a huge amount of visual appeal, but when it comes down to it, our hero is the same person at the end as he was the beginning. One new friend, perhaps, and a lot of dead enemies, both of which I concede are all to the good.

   But what, if I dare ask, is the difference between this story and a western in which the hero must cross a territory claimed by the Comanches to find a store on the other side that carries and sells peaches. Peaches wanted by a dear old lady who would like to be surprised by some?


Previously from the Wollheim anthology:   DAVID BRIN “The Giving Plague.”

GEORGE HARMON COXE “Murder Picture.” Novelette. “Flash” Casey #8. First appeared in Black Mask, January 1935. Reprinted in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, softcover, November 2007).

   The count above is of Casey’s story appearances in Black Mask. The first novel he appeared in didn’t come out until 1942 when Silent Are the Dead was published by Knopf in hardcover.

   I imagine quite a few of you already know that Casey was a news photographer and that he was sometimes also known as “Flashgun.” He was a rough-edged kind of guy, though. He may have been the only news photographer who carried a gun — not all the time, mind you. Only when the occasion called for it, and that it definitely does in this story when his assistant named Wade is kidnapped by a gang of thugs as a means of getting their hands on a photograph Casey has taken.

   There are too many people in the story, both good and bad, and not many who are in-between. We don’t get to meet the girl Wade is soft on, however, one who Casey thinks is up to her neck in the criminal activities the people she works for are involved with, and that’s too bad, as she’s the only whiff of a feminine presence anywhere in the story.

   I confess that I didn’t (couldn’t) follow the plot all that well, but I didn’t have to in order to enjoy all of Casey’s fast-thinking maneuvers he uses to learn where Wade is being held, and from there on, it’s fast-paced action all the way.

  LESTER del REY, Editor – Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Second Annual Edition. E. P. Dutton, hardcover. 1973. Ace, paperback, December 1975.

   #5. FREDERIK POHL & C. M. KORNBLUTH “The Meeting.” Short story. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1972. First collected in Critical Mass by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth (Bantam, paperback, 1977. Co-winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

   Most science fiction readers of his era considered Cyril Kornbuth to be of the most gifted writers of them all — myself included — and considered his early death in 1958 at the age of 34 to be an absolute tragedy. He was known largely for his short fiction, starting at the age of 15, but before his death he wrote two novels on his own, plus several more in collaboration with others. “The Meeting” was a story that was finished by Frederik Pohl, working from notes Kornbluth left behind.

   A married couple named the Vladeks have a young boy with severe developmental disabilities, and they have just moved to a new town to find a school specializing in students like him. Most of the story takes place during the first PTA meeting of the year, after which Mr. Vladek has a brief moment to talk to the principal about how nine-year-old Tommy is doing. His wife had to stay home, as Tommy has too many emotional issues to be left with a baby sitter.

    What makes this a science fiction story comes very nearly at the end. There is a possibility that an experimental brain transplant procedure will solve Tommy’s problems, but a decision has to be made right away. The story ends with Mr. Vladek reaching for the telephone to tell the doctor what they’ve decided.

   I don’t think anyone has had any doubt what that decision was going to be. This is a very sentimental, old-fashioned story — the portion that Kornbuth wrote was written in the 50s, after all, with Pohl finishing and polishing it up in 1972. It’s a good, well-structured story and was awarded a Hugo at the time, but I don’t believe it would today.


Previously from the del Rey anthology: ISAAC ASIMOV “The Greatest Asset.”

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