I got sidetracked by a bookshelf relocation project that cast my books to the four corners, but now that the lost manuscripts are rediscovered and painstakingly reconstructed, I'm once more wending my solitary way through these short story anthologies, thusly:
From Dangerous Visions:
The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World by Harlan Ellison. RIP Harlan. As a youth I was fascinated by his most famous short story, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, but soon discovered that most of his work was like being cornered by a garrulous drunk. Also, for some reason, I read a whole book of his film reviews. He spent a lot of time whining that Gremlins was a bad movie on the grounds that its ad campaign was misleading (Bait: heartwarming. Switch: scary monsters.) Lots of parents' groups were unhappy about this at the time too, but hardly anyone talks about it now, so I suppose it didn't really traumatize that many tots.
This story, which is far less kid-friendly than Gremlins, is a sequel to the preceding Robert Bloch tale about Jack the Ripper gettin' transported to the far future. In that story, Jack's brand of from-the-heart viciousness trumps the decadent rich-girl cruelty of the future world's Murder Eloi. In this followup, Jack turns out to be pursuing a religious false-flag mission to raise awareness about the sufferings of the urban poor via committing spectacular crimes in urban poor territory. Meanwhile, Ellison pulls back to reveal that the future world has matters in hand, and is keeping Jack around for intense, immersive entertainment, much to Jack's humiliation. The future world's decadent pleasures and cruelties are presented with baroque, phantasmagorical imagination.
Perhaps this story influenced Neil Gaiman's Sandman story arc about a serial-killer conference; that ended with the hero humiliating a bunch of smug murderers by revealing to them just how pathetic they were once their vainglorious narratives were stripped from them.
The Night That All Time Broke Out by Brian W. Aldiss. Aldiss' critical history of science fiction literature, Billion Year Spree, includes a close comparison of the prose styles of Tolkien and Mervyn Peake that helped me understand how fully a prose style can color writing. On that basis, I expected more compelling prose from Mr. Aldiss, but this story reads as though it was manufactured too briskly for literary niceties.
It concerns an all-too-stock suburban couple that runs afoul of the new household necessity, time gas. This gas has been discovered deep in the earth, and, in controlled quantities, allows you to re-experience the past. The immersiveness of this proves dangerous to one's sense of the now, and ultimately to one's very identity. Regression to earlier ages and stages is a risk, and once the time gas starts leaking, watch out.
It's clever enough, and the effects of too much time regression are deployed with farcical results. The prose seems purloined from slick magazines of the mid-century, though, with banal characterizations and adverbs like mildew. Perhaps this says less about Aldiss' capabilities and more about the pressure of being a high-throughput writer for one's bread.
From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:
The First Third by Neal Cassidy: A letter from Kerouac's muse that suggests just how much of Kerouac's from-the-hip/heart/groin writing style issues from Cassidy. A nasty, misogynistic account of a woman who has sex with Neal and is therefore a perfect woman, and a woman who refuses sex to Neal, and is therefore an evil monster. This sloped-brow broishness is presented with the high/low eloquence of a casually wrought, jazzy linguistic performance that might just be worth reading 2 pages of mean-spirited dick worship for. Or might not.
Off the Road by Carolyn Cassidy. Neal's wife suggests that her husband's proto-redpill rhetoric is empty bluster, and that he was a more sensitive and anxious man that his writing dared admit. She initiates a conflicted affair with Kerouac, who also comes off as more bashful than in his self-presentation. Despite her worries for the feelings of both men, Carolyn soon has a tentative upper hand in this Jules and Jim style relationship. That's one way to bring misogynists to heel.
Go by John Clellon Holmes. I never heard of this Holmes guy, but if you regard yourself as any (literary) variety of emo or goth, you might wanna check him out. An excerpt:
"We said goodbye when we met the first secret time... We come together rarely and then like two infected lovers in some contagious ruin, we lie down together only so that we might die warm."
You like this or you don't. Later there's an examination of "coolness" in the 50s sense of the term that essentially describes the symptoms of either crippling depression or heroin addiction. It speculates that the pathology of coolness may break free of the circumstances of its inception and become communicable, a distressing speculation worthy of further literary exploration.
From Best American Short Stories:
Christmas Gift by Robert Penn Warren: Don't let the title fool you; This ain't no Hallmark movie. It's about a timid country boy from an unrewarding family situation who has to go into town to fetch a doctor on behalf of a pregnant sister. He meets a bunch of townfolk who mostly treat him with diffidence shading into restrained kindness, with the exception of one loser who subjects him to as much hazing as the other townies will stand for. The snow is dirty gray and mud-mixed.
The first time I read this I thought it was an utter bummer, probably because the title led me to expect at least a little cheer. A second reading revealed the subtle (almost concealed) kindnesses and austere beauty that I expect from Warren. An overlooked Christmas treat for the tough-love demographic. Share it with a miserable hillbilly child, along with some baked cinnamon apples, or a hand-rolled cigarette if you prefer to honor the text.
Bright and Morning Star by Richard Wright. A proud African-American Communist Party operative needs to figure out which honky-ass party members she can trust with her son's life, and which ones are going to get him lynched. Every character, black or white, talks in a thudding dialect that kept pumping the brakes on my effort to read this, but, like problematic fave H. P. Lovecraft, Wright's vision is so compelling and horrifying that it rewards those who power through the stumbling prose. As in Lovecraft, shrill racism and misanthropy roll together into a bolus of psychotic hatred, only here it's not the narrator who's racist, but his villains, labor-busting white degenerates.
Wright's angry dissection of racist evil is the reality-based flip side of Lovecraft, who was a passive and persnickety cohort of the racist thugs who bring this tale to a more grueling, protracted, horrifying conclusion than that of any "horror" story I've ever read. This story posits that serving the interests of the downtrodden will get you murdered, and the best you can do is stick to your values, never give in, and murder 'em back.
I really needed the next two stories to plug me back in to some hopefulness, and thankfully, they did.
From Calling The Wind:
Miss Cynthie by Rudolph Fisher: Miss Cynthie has left her small town for the first time and taken a train to New York City to visit her grandson David, but it soon becomes evident that David has a secret. Where does his wealth and fame come from? Is he a criminal?
Spoiler: he's a successful song-and-dance man, and he's secretive about it only because he knows that Miss Cynthie regards the theatre as the antithesis of church. She lets herself be dragged to a performance, and even though she's unhappy with the scanty costumes and show-biz razzmatazz, she's won over by her grandson's performance of a song she taught him in his youth.
Country culture both resists and is appropriated by city culture, and traditional entertainment carries on in new forms. Wright's communist struggle gets nice old ladies and the young men in their lives killed, but Fisher's show-biz enriches similar nice old women and young men, bringing them together in the kind of cheer I wanted from that Christmas story.
The Gilded Six Bits, Zora Neal Hurston. A charmingly happy married couple almost lets their love get ruined by a cheezy roll-flashing Lothario. Hurston is absolutely persuasive about the love, the loss, and the reconciliation that brings this tale to an end as joyful as its beginning. Like Wright, she puts all the dialogue in dialect, but she makes it swing; the characters are practically singing and dancing through life. Hurston's prose becomes highflown and ornate to describe powerful emotion, which might seem like a creaky old-fashioned affectation from a less deft storyteller, but Hurston made me believe that her down-home characters' emotional lives deserved the intensity of such heavy-laden language.