This final installment of the weekly Birthday Reviews brings us another six-pack from a large birthday gang (of a large week) and these fall in pairs: two reprints from earlier reviews, two reviews of colorful debuts, and two phobic tales from Allan and Allen, the birthday boys of the nineteenth.
Robert E. Howard (1906-01-22/1936-06-11)
“Pigeons from Hell” (Weird Tales, May 1938)
[Adapted from my 2019-10-30 review of Margulies’ anthology Weird Tales.]
While the anthology is good as a whole, Howard’s tremendous “Pigeons from Hell” wrecks the grade curve. The second-longest tale of the book opens with two New Englanders on a jaunt to the South ending up spending the night at a deserted mansion. One wakes up from what he tries to convince himself was a nightmare only for things to go from bad to worse, resulting in a mad dash from the house. I don’t want to spoil even the opening section but perhaps some flavor of what happened can be given by quoting a piece from when the surviving traveler, Griswell, returns to the house with Buckner, the local sheriff.
He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.
“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner.
In the second section, the two men meet with a voodoo man and fill in some details of what Buckner knew of the sordid family history of the mansion’s last inhabitants before moving to the final section and the nightmarish showdown with a “zuvembie” monster. My only complaint with this story is that the first section is so powerful that the remainder, while also powerful and maintaining suspense and interest, can’t quite match that opening. Still, that prosaic opening and initially very basic horror, straightforward narrative and stylistic approach, and skillfully joined antebellum relics and imported voodoo combine to make this effective for a likely majority of readers. Highly recommended.
Katherine MacLean (1925-01-22/2019-09-01)
“Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, November 1958)
[Adapted from my 2017-08-29 review of her collection The Trouble with You Earth People.]
“Unhuman Sacrifice” deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.
A. Merritt (1884-01-20/1943-08-21)
“Through the Dragon Glass” (All-Story Weekly, November 24, 1917)
A. Merritt made his debut with this Sehnsucht story which involves one man telling his friend of his amazing experiences with a supernatural “dragon glass” which has a triple layer of the glass itself, the compelling world within (or through) it, and the sort of gnostic foundation interpenetrating and encompassing that. It actually lacks a truly satisfying dramatic arc but is filled with enticing glimmers of substance in its colorful description.
C. L. Moore (1911-01-24/1987-04-04)
“Shambleau” (Weird Tales, November 1933)
C. L. Moore made her debut with a very different, but equally colorful story. Northwest Smith is a sort of anti-hero of the spaceways who rescues an alien girl from a multi-species Martian mob bent on destroying her. He finds himself simultaneously drawn to and repelled by her but, after a night of strange dreams, he experiences a night (and nights) of erotic pleasure and horrific revulsion and learns that old myths have their roots in reality. This story is crisply plotted until an overlong denouement throws things a little out of proportion and ends the powerful blending of disparate psychosexual elements with a sort of sputtering effect until recapturing some of the momentum at the very end and it’s odd in that Northwest Smith is introduced as a mover and shaker of a main character, yet he takes a backseat first to the girl and then to another character. Also, while not a structural problem, there’s a sort of puritan streak running through this one despite its amoral complacency about Smith’s extra-legal activities. All that aside, this is an extremely vividly imagined and memorable tale of great intensity and rightly made Moore immediately famous.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-01-19/1849-10-07)
“The Cask of Amontillado” (Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1846)
This is a good example of Poe’s theory of the short story in which everything is directed toward producing a single effect. This doesn’t mean that everything is monotone but, rather, that a great variety of things can be deployed as long as they have the same vector and accumulate power. The premise is simply that a once rich and/or powerful man has been wronged by one who is still rich and/or powerful and, having received an insult of some kind on top of these injuries, has formulated his revenge and exacts it in the story. The plan is clever and insanely forceful. Examples of the variety of elements (mostly twistedly funny) are the way the narrator ensures he will not be bothered by servants, the victim saying he won’t die of a cough (which is more true than he realizes) coupled with the bit about masons and the trowel, the discussion of the coat of arms and, perhaps best of all, the screaming scene. This is a masterful piece of black humor and ironic art.
Allen Steele (1958-01-19)
“The War Memorial” (Asimov’s, September 1995)
Allen Steele shares a birthday and (almost) a name with Poe but doesn’t generally share much else, generally writing somewhat optimistic fiction which is often literally light years removed from the gothic, but this example of “anti-military SF” has some unusual similarities with the preceding one. The protagonist is fighting a battle on the moon, encounters some serious technical difficulties with his combat armor, and eventually contributes to an unusual “war memorial.” This is a much more sober tale but is also short, powerfully focused, dark, and effective.
 I started this in 2020, which was a 366-day year and 52 weeks only covers 364 days, so this last installment covers nine days (I should have posted it yesterday). Ironically, the birthdays only kick in on the nineteenth, so only cover the last six of those nine. In that sense, it’s a short week.