Birthday Reviews: Keller, Leiber

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone. —Rod Serling (1924-12-25/1975-06-28)


David H. Keller (1880-12-23/1966-07-13)

“The Thing in the Cellar” (Weird Tales, March 1932)

Ever since little Tommy was a baby, he’d reacted strangely to the kitchen of the house his parents had moved into, which was connected to an unusually large cellar, separated by an unusually massive door. Now a boy of six about to go to school, his parents have had enough of his strange and unmanly ways and consult a doctor for advice on what to do about it. Since the boy’s fears are irrational, the doctor decides, his parents should make him confront them so that he can learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

This story, though short, is a little long and labored in getting to the point we’re all expecting, but it is a more effective psychological horror story than anything else, as it touches on the horrible things parents and society can do to children… for their own good, of course.[1]

Fritz Leiber (1910-12-24/1992-09-05)

“The Oldest Soldier” (F&SF, May 1960)

Fred’s a liberal who used to be a pacifist but, being a liberal and thus able to see both sides of every issue, he’s become interested in military affairs. He’s become a regular at a liquor store bar where he’s tolerated as the token civilian and has become friends with Max who tells taller tales than even the rest of the ex-soldier regulars—claiming to have been in Napoleonic wars and even Martian ones. But when he and Fred both become aware of a large black shape with glowing red eyes spying on them, they find themselves in a night of terror and Fred develops a new perception of reality in a couple of ways.

While not an award winner and not usually on lists of great stories, so far as I know, this is one of my favorites. Whether Leiber is letting creative whimsy show through when talking about the “screwballistics” of the bar folk, or making the store in Chicago seem vividly real with talk of plate glass windows and Fred’s attempts to rationalize the glowing eyes as reflected tail lights or cigarette butts blown by the wind, or describing the mindless actions Fred takes to control his fear as he tries to wait out an only vaguely understood disaster, all of it works. The narrative which moves deftly from present to past and back more than once also keeps the story taut and moving while allowing room to create depth. The protagonist’s issues with war and peace, bravery and fear, and his night of crisis is compelling of itself even if it weren’t a powerful horror story at the same time.

[1] And I can’t help but think of “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” by the Ramones.

Birthday Reviews: Heinlein, May, Wyndham

This week’s tales provide entertainment while also showing the good and bad that can arise when we go out there or when things come here.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-07-07/1988-05-08)

“Columbus Was a Dope” (Startling Stories, May 1947)

A salesman is in a bar celebrating his sale of steel to a professor who wants to build a starship and he, the professor, another salesman, and the bartender get to talking about why people would build a starship. After the professor has left, they also discuss the odds of anyone on the ship surviving. At this point, the subject of Columbus, the explorer who found a New World, comes up and the salesman provides the title which is soon undercut. Without spoiling the specifics, the story ends with clever irony which reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Firefly, when Wash mockingly dismisses something by saying, “That sounds like something out of science fiction!” His wife tells him, “You live in a spaceship, dear.” Not getting her point, he replies, “So?” In a way, this is a minor story for such a major author but it has a very big theme in a small package and demonstrates many of his virtues, such as economically making the far-out and futuristic utterly common-place and believable.

Julian May (1931-07-10/2017-10-17)

“Dune Roller” (Astounding, December 1951)

In her first tale, Julian May takes us to the alien world of Lake Michigan for an adventure I can’t believe wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie. After an introductory scene of a meteor striking the lake long ago, we cut to Dr. Ian Thorne, who is playing in a shore pool, recording the statistics of the various critters therein, when he notices something gleaming attractively. He collects the golden elongated teardrop which sets in motion a chain of events which includes some discovery and some death and destruction. All this is told in a very understated and leisurely way (which includes some effective humor) which exhibits the storytelling confidence of a veteran (though there is a sequence where all the characters are a little too quick on the draw for plausibility). The milieu is made both concrete and vivid but also, as I said, very strange. The main character and his friends (including both a non-scientist and a fellow scientist), as well as his new girlfriend, all have their distinctiveness. Finally, this particular Thing from Another World is effective and memorable. Good stuff.

John Wyndham (1903-07-10/1969-03-11)

“The Asteroids, 2194” (New Worlds #100, November 1960)

Much of this feels like a very mainstream tale with plenty of layers in the narrative onion to peel. A journalist is visiting an island where he meets a man who seems rather odd. By way of explanation, another local tells the story of a freighter captain who collided with a derelict. He discovers three bodies in the other ship but only one is dead. The other two are not yet dead, but in cryogenic suspension, though the revival process is often fatal. And perhaps that’s a good thing for some people. Though the story features multiple characters and settings, it’s about almost none of them but actually about one person who no longer has a place and feels he has lost even more than that. Either way, the colorful and well-told layers have their intrinsic interest (and serve their thematic purpose) and it ultimately gets to its thoughtful point (whether one sympathizes with it or not).