Tag Archives: Robert Bloch

International intrigue, overpopulation and spelunking: books read

John LeCarré’s MISSION SONG is the most disappointing novel of his since The Naive and Sentimental Lover. The protagonist, Bruno Salvo, is a Congolese/Irish mixed-race translator with a flair for African languages. A client in British intelligence hires Salvo to attend a conference at which a visionary Congolese leader will build an alliance with Western power players to unite his war-torn country and restore Freedom and Democracy … eventually. When Salvo realizes the conference does not have his people’s interest at heart (which I’m pretty sure anyone who’s read it figured out as fast as I did) he tries to do something about it but runs headlong into the corrupt British forces involved. Just as the last third of Absolute Friends recycled war on terror cliches, this book feels like a Cold War thriller of 60 years ago (just switch out the corrupt business interests for Commies). Even LeCarré’s writing couldn’t hold me on this one.

Robert Bloch’s THIS CROWDED EARTH is set in a dystopian late 20th century world where curing disease and age has led to massive overpopulation: skyscrapers are hundreds of stories high, elevators can take an hour to deliver you (to say nothing of how crowded they are) and having one room to live in is luxurious. The protagonist finally snaps and gets sent to a mental hospital — but with space at such a premium, why does it have private rooms and spacious grounds? Why do the nurses keep jumping his bones? It turns out he’s part of the big and secret plan to save the world, but there are a few bumps along the way …  This comes off less as the dystopian fiction I expected and more a metacommentary on dystopian SF, showing the usual solutions won’t work (we can’t colonize the Solar System to drain off the crowds), the Resistance is half-assed and incompetent and all the predictions about dystopia from the 1950s (this was a late-1950s novel) turned out wrong. Given Bloch’s usual cynicism, I’m surprised he actually offered a happy ending; overall this was more interesting than good, and it’s very sausage fest-ish (two hot nurses and one mom in one scene are all the female presence we get).

In the Silver Age, spelunking adventurer Cave Carson headed an adventure team on the lines of the Sea Devils or the Time Masters but he never got his own series. Nevertheless, he has popped up several times since that era, and finally landed a starring slot with Gerard Way, Jon Rivera and Michael Avon Oeming’s CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE: Underground. His glory days over, Cave now works on underground drilling vehicles for the powerful EBX tech and struggles to rein in his rebellious daughter Chloe (Mom, a subterranean princess, has passed away). When it turns out EBX is up to no good, Cave, Chloe and the obscure superhero Wild Dog (yes, the prototype for the guy in Arrow) must work together to save the lost race of Muldoog and stop EBX from unleashing a demonic monster. Hardly up to the level of Way’s Umbrella Academy, but fun as a weird pulpish underground adventure (certainly better than Paul Chadwick’s The World Below).

#SFWApro. Art by Bernard Bailey, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Fear Today, Gone Tomorrow (#SFWApro)

6057817Robert Bloch’s FEAR TODAY — GONE TOMORROW collection is annoying because Bloch’s such a good writer. When his work falls short, it’s a lot more frustrating than when a total hack writes something bad.

The best story in this collection is probably “The World Timers,” a satiric piece about how rejiggering who people are allowed to sleep with could create utopia. The worst is easily “FOB Venus,” which while it was a familiar enough theme at the time (women really run things) still comes off highly misogynist (women are taking over! They have all the power! OMG, and the terrible reason is …).

Though even in that one, the sequence of events is nicely constructed, for whatever that’s worth. And while message stories (or “western union” as I sometimes call them) aren’t my cup of tea, Bloch manages to make his way more readable than most. But not readable enough.

The ones I’m particularly focusing on are “The Hungry Eye,” in which a cynical stand-up comic who thinks he’s a realist discovers what reality really is; “The Gods Are Not Mocked,” in which a small-time drug dealer and cynic learns that cultural icons do not like being parodied; and “The Funnel of God” in which a man searches for truth, discovers most truth-seekers are phonies, and therefore the world is irredeemable and must be destroyed. The third of these made a huge impact on me when I first read it, as I’d rarely seen such sweeping, cynical satire before (I know now that says more about my reading habits than anything else). The other two disappointed me, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.

Rereading, I figured it out. Bloch, who was in his forties when he wrote these (they’re almost all from the 1960s) comes off like a cranky old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. Kids these days, with their stand-up comedy, their drugs and premarital sex, their bumper stickers, their jejune cynicsm, their mockery of squares and cultural icons—which is apparently much less worthy of respect than Bloch’s mockery of them. Not that youth doesn’t sometimes deserve mockery, whether it’s Beatniks or ironic hipsters (who would fit quite comfortably into “The Hungry Eye”), but I don’t think making fun of Smoky the Bear or Dracula is in itself an offense for which someone should be struck down (as happens in “Gods are not Mocked”).

“The Hungry Eye” seems to suggest that the conventional square lifestyle would pass Bloch’s muster, but “Funnel of God” doesn’t even manage that. Everyone sucks. People who live for sex and sensation are shallow. People who claim to be fearless truth seekers are all self-deluded. Nobody’s ever willing to look at the truth honestly. And this is a massive, massive failure on humanity’s part, to the point the Black Skelm can’t see any point to keeping the human race going.

I’m reminded of Edmund Burke’s quote that “A conscientious person would rather doubt his own judgment, than condemn his species”—that is, if you can’t find any good in human beings anywhere, possibly the problem is you (as with James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen).

(All rights to image with current holder)

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Books (#SFWApro)

(In case you’re wondering, we had house guests last week so no movies to review just now.)
ATOMS AND EVIL shows Robert Bloch’s funnier side, starting with the first story (“Once there was a sane scientist who had an ugly daughter.”) though in a lot of cases, it hasn’t aged well—the satirical comparison of marriage to buying a car in “Wheel and Deal” now comes across as painfully sexist. “You Could be Wrong,” however is a great one as the protagonist begins questioning not only the truth in advertising (advertising during the 1950s was regarded with a kind of morbid fascination by people as it became obvious how much it influenced our purchases) but the truth of everything. “Dead-End Doctor” may be unique in having a psychiatrist as the good guy, Bloch not being a fan of the profession. Overall, a good collection.
CRUCIBLE OF GOLD: A Temeraire Novel by Naomi Novik has Laurence and Temeraire no sooner get reconciled to their exile in Australia than they’re recalled to stop Napoleon waging war on Brazil (thereby pressuring Portugal to prevent Wellington landing there). Even getting from Australia to South America proves difficult, and their landing has them mired in Inca politics (the imperial dragons having massacred the conquistadors, the Incans are still doing fine in 1800). A good entry in the series, which Novik has announced has only two books left to run.
WHERE ARE THE CUSTOMERS’ YACHTS or A Good Hard Look at Wall Street by stockbroker Fred Schwed Jr. is a 1940 Anti-Investment Guide that concludes, as countless later books would that there’s absolutely no miracle secret, strategy or predictive skill for mastering the stock market, despite the claims of countless pros (“A depressing number of people study the past thousand spins of the roulette wheel on the assumption that they can divine a pattern. Worse, they usually find it.”). Schwed’s conclusion is that the further you stray from conservative investments, the greater the certainty you’ll lose your shirt, though he argues it’s more a matter of incompetence than outright fraud (“A great many losers in the crash of ’29 found it more plausible their money went to their broker than that it simply disappeared.”). Enjoyably wry, and still relevant.
SWORDS OF MARS is one of Burroughs more conventionally SF stories as John Carter’s efforts to root out the Assassin’s Guild of Zodanga (by going undercover as a wandering sell-sword) is almost immediately forgotten in favor of a space flight to one of Mars’ moons in a computer-operated space-ships. Though of course, ERB doesn’t avoid the usual thrills of swordfights, kidnapped women (I must say I’m surprised the princess who falls for John doesn’t show the usual insane jealousy) and weird alien races. A standard entry for the series, but standard here was never as low as in Tarzan (maybe because the setting had much more flexibility)
ARCHITECTURE: A Crash Course by Hilary French jumps rapid-fire from Egyptian pyramids through Greece, Rome, Gothic, Palladian, Neoclassical, Neogothic, Baroque and Rococo architecture and on into the modern area as architecture constantly careens between Formal and Rational principles and Natural and Free-Flowing ideas. There are lots of spots where the details aren’t as clear as they should be (or the visual examples should be better) but as a condensed reference, pretty good.

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Books

VANISHED KINGDOMS: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations by Norman Davies looks at nations that were once world powers (Aragon, Burgundy and the Lithuania-Poland axis, plus the USSR), mixed in with nations that only existed as the result of Great Power geopolitics (Galicia), the one-day republic of Carpatho-Ukraine and Montenegro which died at the end of WW I (absorbed into what eventually became Yugoslavia) but now lives again.Davies’ general theme is that we tend to look at history in terms of today’s Great Powers and assume some sort of manifest destiny (or in the case of Germany, imagine a direct route from Prussian militarism to the Third Reich), when in reality Burgundy or Poland could just as easily have wound up in the winner’s circle. Davies also sees this as a warning for the future, arguing that it’s only a matter of time before the UK completely splinters (he doesn’t seem optimistic about Italy either, seeing it as almost as artificial a country as Galicia). Interesting though very dry—even at 700 pages, covering so much time and geography reduces long stretches of this to the strings of names and dates that make people recoil from history class.
THE YEAR’S FINEST FANTASY by Terry Carr shows the shift in Big Names between his 1960s NEW WORLDS OF FANTASY and this late seventies volume, which doesn’t have RA Lafferty or Robert Sheckley but does have Stephen King, Robert Aickman, Harlan Ellison and Howard Waldrop (though both collections include Roger Zelazny, and this also has Jack Vance, a Name in both eras). A good collection regardless as a bored businessman makes love to Emma Bovary, a probability storm engulfs a bar, a mother reluctantly admits that her children are growing very, very large (“Growing Boys” is one of the few Aickman stories that really worked for me when I first read it, mostly because the boys aren’t any more horrible than the protagonist’s generally dysfunctional family) and a young boy finds the secret of perpetual youth. Show<s Carr still had the touch.
In the seventh Barsoom book, A FIGHTING MAN OF MARS tells Edgar Rice Burroughs (like Patchwork Girl of Oz the book uses radio to explain how the author can get the story without Dorothy Gale or John Carter visiting in person) how his desperate efforts to free the kidnapped, snobbish aristocrat he loves led him to discover a plot to conquer all Barsoom with disintegrator weapons (I think it shows the pre-Hiroshima era that this is presented as a crime against military honor rather than a general horror at civilian death). Alongside him is a tomboyish young woman who becomes his best and closest friend—seriously, why else would he feel he’d rather die than let her come to harm (three guesses who he ends up with, not that you’ll need them). A good one, showing Burroughs’ eye for detail (ancient Barsoomian buildings are recognizable because they don’t have flat space on the roof for flyers to land) and a tougher heroine than I’d expect (though her devotion to the hero gets a little much).
CHAMBER OF HORRORS is a collection of mostly straight mysteries by Robert Bloch, nicely written but too heavy on the twist endings (most of which have an Of Course feel to them—not to mention the same twist gets used twice). The best in the book is the elaborate hypnosis scheme “The Screaming People” (which strikes me as right in line with the brainwashing fixations of the 1950s) and the creepy “Frozen Fear.’ Minor Bloch, at best, though way better written than his early Lovecraft knockoffs.

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Books

John LeCarre’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY brings the retired George Smiley back to center-stage for the first time since A Murder of Quality as a group of agents recruit him to investigate a defector’s claim there’s an Ultimate Mole in the highest levels of the Circus (as LeCarre now identifies Smiley’s brancy of British intelligence). A book that manages to be absorbing (this is more compulsively readable than I usually find LeCarre) despite having lots of talk and very little action; I suspect one reason it’s LeCarre’s most adapted work is that it’s neither as dark nor as heavily Cold War as Spy Who Came in From the Cold so it doesn’t age as badly. This also introduces Karla, a mastermind of Soviet intelligence who met and outwitted Smiley years earlier, and remains the running foe for two more books.
Someone in marketing screwed up the cover for Robert Bloch’s PLEASANT DREAMS as the back cover completely misidentifies the contents. Fortunately, what’s actually inside is excellent, including a creepy haunted house (“The Hungry House”), a pair of accursed spectacles (“The Cheaters”), the gory little “The Mandarin’s Canaries” and “I Kiss Your Shadow” (which now looks like a tale of a female stalker, but back when it came out would have seemed like a twisted take on how women catch and “tame” men into husbands). The weakest stories are “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (standard story of a mentally handicapped man tricked into committing murder) and “Sweet Sixteen” (relies too much on then-current fears of juvenile delinquencey to work now, even though the same fears recur generation after generation).
THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER by John Brunner is a 1975 novel set in a dystopian future (heavily inspired by Alvin Toffler’s Nonfiction Future Shock) where relationships are all transitory and “plug-in” and surveillance is omnipresent (both enabled by what amounts to a form of Internet), a situation an escapee from a Think Tank of Doom hopes to change (like Zelazny’s My Name is Legion he’s a chameleon who can escape detection even in a world of massive data-gathering and omnipresent surveillance). Although the lead is interest, this is unfortunately one of those Novels of Ideas where people are forever debating their Brilliant Theories about How To Fix The World rather than acting (and the issues are dated, even though the underlying theme of overwhelming change has hardly gone away)
FRANK R. PAUL: Father of Science Fiction Art by Stephen D. Korshak is a collection of cover paintings by the Golden Age artist, along with a short and interesting biography. While I haven’t always been a huge fan of Paul, this collection of massive spaceships, weird monsters and alien landscapes makes me appreciate him a lot more. Thanks to my friends MLR and freemonkeys for giving me this.
PEACE was Gene Wolfe’s first novel, a magical realist piece in which a retiree slips into his flashback booth while taking time trips to visit his dead doctors and wondering why his house seems to be growing. Unfortunately, the more fantastic aspects don’t leaven the endless mundane reminiscences of his childhood and his family enough to hold me (Neil Gaiman’s afterword insists that the closer we read this, the more amazing it gets, but it’s just the sort of book I’m more inclined to skim). More a case of mismatching writer and reader than an actual bad book, I think.

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MYSTERIES OF THE WORM is a collection of Robert Bloch’s Lovecraftian work, starting with his first, “Secret in the Tomb” which as Bloch admits in the afterword is a dreadful mess. As with Opener of the Way, it’s remarkable and kind of inspiring to see how far he come from such a dismal beginning, finding his own voice by “Fane of the Black Pharaoh” and even more in “Notebook Found in a Deserted House” (which is like “Whisperer in Darkness” from a 12-year-old’s viewpoint). It’s also interesting how fond he was of inserting himself—er, a Weird Tales writer—into multiple stories (“Shambler From the Stars” is the best known but there’s also “Shadow From the Steeple,” “The Sorcerer’s Jewel” and to some extent the late “Terror in Cut-Throat Cove.”). Despite the flaws, worth reading.
THE CIVIL WAR AS A THEOLOGICAL CRISIS by Mark Noll deals with the attempts by both pro- and anti-slavery forces during the Civil War (and the run-up and aftermath) to explain how slavery clearly is (or isn’t) the Will of God and how the outcome of the war shows Divine Providence at Work (even Southerners found God Is Scourging Us As He Scourged Israel preferable to believing God’s Side Lost). Noll shows that the main abolitionist argument—that slavery flies in the face of the Bible’s spirit—fell flat with most Protestants when confronted with the Southern response that the letter clearly approves of Israelite and Roman slavery. The counter-argument that neither system was restricted by race (among other differences) fell flat because pro-slavery Protestants simply fell back on the “obvious” inferiority of blacks (which let them ignore that this didn’t count as a Biblical justification). Specialized by interesting.
THE HIGH PLACE by James Branch Cabell has a descendant of Jurgen make a pact with a devil (more or less) to awaken a Sleeping Beauty-princess he’s been obsessed with for years, only to discover—typically for Cabell—that getting what you want inevitably leads to disillusionment (Cabell describes this as the flip side of Jurgen, who rejects his ideal women in favor of his nagging but ordinary wife). This starts well and has a great supporting character in the pagan saint Hoprig, but Cabell shortchanges us on plot in favor of way too much discussion of Ideal vs. Reality.And given that Florian is, after all, a multiple murderer and adulterer, Cabell should have punctured his delusions he holds some sort of moral high ground (I guess that would have interfered with the pontificating). Middle of the pack, but only because Cream of the Jest occupies the bottom.
SHAZAM FROM THE 40s to the 70s is an old collection of Captain Marvel stories (Fawcett Comics’ character, not Marvel Comics’ several characters of the same name!). This shows how orphan Billy Batson becomes Captain Marvel, then introduces us to the “Marvel Family” of Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel along with their various arch-enemies (Sivana, Aunt Minerva, King Kull, Mr. Mind). At its best, the series had a superb flare for whimsy, but it was also quite good at straight-superheroics, as in the book-length saga from Captain Marvel Adventures #100. A great read.
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HOUSE OF MYSTERY: Desolation wraps up the comics series by Matthew Sturges and Luca Rossi earlier than expected (one story in the collection laments that we don’t get enough time with any of the guest characters) and given constant scenes of Figg Keele typing away, I suspect it would be an It Was All In Her Head ending—but no, this ends up quite satisfactorily as we learn the goals of the Conception, Figg saves the omniverse and the authors finally explain how the House got away from its owner, Cain. A shame it didn’t run longer, but a good finish.

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The Opener of the Way


THE OPENER OF THE WAY is a 1946 collection of Robert Bloch short stories (this is the 1970s paperback edition) ranging from the eponymous 1936 story—his first published work—through “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” from 1943. It’s interesting on several levels. (EDIT: It wasn’t his first. I’ll get to the first in the next Bloch book I read in a few weeks).
First off, most of the stories are entertaining (like a lot of anthologies, they’re not all gems). The Ripper story is a classic of horror, “The Cloak” is a slightly humorous story of vampirism and even Bloch’s first story is readable, albeit heavily soaked in Lovecraftian prose (Bloch was one of Lovecraft’s many proteges and the influence shows). Aside from that, the stretch of the stories over seven years shows Bloch developing his own style fairly fast—”The Cloak” came out in 1939 but his style is much more polished (there’s as yet no sign of the farcical humor or cynical polemics that appear in later work, though).
Two aspects of the stories work less well. First, there’s the old Lovecraftian cliché of something that has a vaguely, indefinably horrible air about it but for no real reason (as in Bloch’s “Seal of the Satyr” here). Rather like having an air about him, it’s cheap, asserting a feeling without justifying it. Lovecraft could make it work (most of the time, anyway), but few other people can.
Second, there’s the climactic ending reveal, as in “The Dark Demon.” A Lovecraft-esque writer reveals that his eerie stories are actually based on dream visits to other planes, and his fear that a monstrous demon is about to possess his body. Narrator scoffs, but at the end he realizes—the demon has taken over the man’s body! It’s all true! Aaaagh!
Stories leading up to an ending or climactic shock are hard to bring off. As Fritz Leiber once wrote, it’s hard because everything else (characterization, plot logic) becomes subordinate to setting up the big reveal. It’s even harder to do with an It’s All True ending because it’s never really a surprise: Did anyone reading “The Dark Demon,” even when it was fresh, anticipate an ending where the narrator was right and the writer was crazy?
It doesn’t help that this is another Lovecraftian attempt trying to impress us with visions of cosmic horrors. Bloch couldn’t do that stuff as well as HPL, though he did work some good variations on Lovecraft in his other HPL-influenced story (I’m starting a reread of my Bloch collections, so I’ll get to those eventually)

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And more books

I’m not sure a writer as associated with horror as Psycho-scripter Robert Bloch could get away with publishing a low-brow comedy such as IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND these days. The plot involves a mechanical tool for psychoanalysis causing a nerdy collegian to manifest his inner conflicts such as sex drive (he can teleport women’s clothes off), primal instincts (he becomes an ape) and the death urge (vampirism!). Fun, though hardly P.G. Wodehouse.
THE BATMAN CHRONICLES Volume Nine runs through the spring and summer of 1943. During this period, we get a couple of so-so Joker stories, a fair Penguin story, some topical tales (a battle against pirates preying on fishing boats emphasizes that fish provide vitamins our soldiers need to stay strong!) and two notable debut. One is Crime Doctor Matthew Thorne, a surgeon and criminal thrill-junkie (easily the best of several Moriarty-like crime planners they used in the early 1940s) and the other, Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s new butler and amateur detective. If not the best of Batman, this is still a fun era.
THE FOREVER PEOPLE trade paperback collects the weakest of Jack Kirby’s “fourth world” series from the early 1970s, the story of a quirky band of “hippies” from New Genesis (I wondered at first why everyone saw their super-hero style outfits as hippie chic, then I remembered that to have shoulder-length male hair in that era screamed “counter culture”) battling Darkseid’s schemes to get the Anti-Life Equation and reduce all living things to slaves (this series spelled out explicitly that life is making choices and exercising free will; if you lose or give that up, you become part of Anti-Life). The first eight issues strike me as an arc to that effect (culminating in Darkseid’s near success), followed, unfortunately, by two issues attempting (at DC’s insistence) to reboot the super-hero Deadman (didn’t work for either Deadman or the Forever People) and then a final issue. Even the opening arc is weaker than Mr. Miracle or New Gods, without their more focused narrative (we get a whole issue of time travel that comes off as pure filler). And why would inhabitants of New Genesis recognize Abe Lincoln or read 1984?
I will, however, give Kirby credit for having young free spirits as his protagonists: For most comics creators of his generation, youth culture (and hippies, and leftists) was something to wag fingers over, not celebrate. Not to mention that Kirby’s energy can infuse even a battle with Mantis (Spider-Man’s foe Electro with delusions of grandeur) and make it feel larger than life.

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