"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The moon is heck: Two stories by Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones appears on T.E.D. Klein's canonical list "The Thirteen Most Terrifying Horror Stories."

As a reader I place a great deal of confidence in Klein's critical judgment. In the early 1980s while in high school I bought every issue of the magazine he edited: Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine. Cheaper and more efficient than college, though it has given me impossibly high genre standards: so much so that most current horror fiction is unreadable for me.

Today I read "Stay Off the Moon!" (1962) by Raymond F. Jones, which was on Klein's list. It is dated, written in 1962 and about moon survey probes preceding the Apollo missions. Not dated in the scattershot and charming way of 30s and 40s SF, but dated in some very precise and concrete details that anyone once obsessed with the Apollo program will notice.

Jones gives us these discoveries and conclusions by the man running a mobile drilling rover on the moon:

"What's the matter? Isn't it working right?" Sam asked anxiously.

Jim hesitated. "It indicates the presence of several silicates, some carbonates, and a high percentage of oxides. These are mostly of sodium, calcium, and iron, as you might expect. But there's something wrong with your calibration. The atomic and molecular characteristics aren't coming through right."

"....If the atomic weights are different, and the energy levels are different, they have to be different elements. It doesn't make sense."

"....It means the moon just doesn't belong, Sam! It means the moon is completely foreign to anything in the Solar System, in the whole galaxy—in any galaxy we have been able to analyze. It means the moon has come from somewhere else, from a region of space where atoms and electrons are not even the same as atoms and electrons here. It must be a somewhere that's so far away it's beyond the edge of space as we know it!"

Eventually the scientist drawing these conclusions, and some even more alarming ones, is fired and blacklisted.

He tries a press conference.

....Eddie Fry called him two days later. Eddie was the reporter who knew him best. "They killed the story," said Eddie. "We had to clear it with government sources, and they persuaded every press association and newspaper that knew about it to kill it. They said it would destroy the national economy that was being built up on the space program. We tried to make them believe it, Jim, but we couldn't do it. It was hard enough to be convinced when we were listening to you. Second hand, it just wouldn't go over. You really can't blame them....

The scientist, his colleague, and their spouses move to northern Canada. It's an interesting choice made by Jones: taking characters who have been indoors throughout the story and shoving them into wide open and unprotected spaces.

....In Canada that winter, Jim was sure the wolves howled on cold, moonlit nights more than ever before. And something new was happening to the moon. The silver light was taking on a faint tint of orange. The radio told of a very learned report by some astronomer who spoke obscurely of changes in albedo and percentages of atmospheric dust and angstroms of sunlight. Any fool could see the moon was changing color.

Jim listened to the wolves howling in the forest, and he thought of Cramer's Pond when he was a boy, and of a machine tumbling into a crevasse where a terrible darkness lay, and he wondered how long it would be.

I have skipped over the most tantalizing discoveries made concerning the moon menace. They straddle the absurd/sublime borderline, and seem very rickety upon reflection. The writing style Jones employs, similar to the mainstream midcentury slick style of a Jack Finney, muds-over our second thoughts as we go along.

After "Stay Off the Moon!" I moved on to "The Moon Is Death" (1953), from the collection The Non-Statistical Man (1964).

This is slightly more hardish SF, with men from a space station in lunar orbit trying to figure out why no one has returned from any of the moon landings. Men have landed on Mars and returned, but not from our own satellite.

And this is not just landing three men at a time. This is trios of atomic rockets landing hundreds of men. Real John W. Campbell stuff. And none return. Their radio reports are normal. Until the crisis begins, usually on day three. Then nothing.

It's a lovely ghostly tale of skeletons in space suits, weird clues, and dead men's dying diary entries.


3 May 2018

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Sallust. Gregory Sallust.

Below are a few "reading notes" links. I've read the first seven Sallust novels (in narrative chronological order),and am taking a break for a while.

2 May 2018


The Scarlet Impostor

Faked Passports

The Black Baroness

V For Vengeance

Come Into My Parlour

Traitors' Gate

The devil you know: Traitors' Gate by Dennis Wheatley (1958).

Traitors' Gate by Dennis Wheatley (1958).

....'You've got to lunch somewhere, and this is just the day to lunch up on the mountainside among the birchwoods. Come along!' She was already sitting up; taking one of her hands, he stood up himself and pulled her to her feet. Then he added, with a grin, 'If we were alone in a sandy cove I'd give you a good spanking for being so obstreperous.'

She smiled at that. It called up another memory. They had gone for the weekend to a small hotel on a little frequented part of Lake Balaton. A good-looking American had been staying there on his own and had tried to get off with her. Gregory had told her that he did not want to have to take the fellow outside and give him a lesson; so she must not encourage him by returning his glances, and that if she did he would give her a spanking. She was not the least interested in the American, but out of devilment she had smiled at him that night as they were leaving the dining-room. Gregory had not appeared to notice, but he had suggested a walk in the moonlight and taken her down to the little cove a good half mile away from the hotel. There, after a brief struggle, he had got her in a wrestler's lock with his left knee under her stomach and his right leg crooked over her calves to keep her legs down. Then he had torn off her drawers and spanked her until she had yelled for mercy. It had really hurt, but all the same she had loved it; and when, with tears still wet on her cheeks, he had made love to her afterwards that had been absolutely marvellous....

That's a typical bit of Wheatley gormlessness, though I'm sure it was piquant in its time.

Wheatley has no sense of irony about his characters or the ideas they defend. His heroes just express his politics: there is no daylight between creator and created on that score. Not that that decreases the effectiveness of the tales' dramatic thrusts.

In Traitor's Gate Sallust is sent to Budapest. He is investigating whether the Hungarian ruling class is willing to revolt against Hitler.

There he meets again with Sabine, whom we last saw in Contraband (1936), a concise little thriller that puts Sallust's gargantuan World War Two adventures to shame.

Sabine is now the mistress of Ribbentrop. And she knows no capitalist ruling class ever revolted against its fascist defenders.

....Gregory shrugged. 'Oh, we aren't all woolly minded idealists. Quite a lot of us, and myself included, were all for Franco in the Spanish War. If he had lost, Madrid would be controlled from Moscow by now. Franco has proved a cleverer man than Musso, though, in keeping out of the present struggle. By remaining neutral the Duce had all to gain and nothing to lose. He could have turned Italy from a poor in a rich country by putting his whole population on to manufacturing the goods and growing the food that they could have sold to both sides for pretty well any price Italy liked to ask; whereas he is now committed to maintaining armed forces which will bankrupt his country, and when the end comes he'll be lucky if he gets away with his life.'

'There you go again with your absurd idea that the Allies are going to win.' Sabine gave him a slightly pitying smile. It really is only wishful thinking, and Mussolini knew quite well what he was doing when he threw in his lot with Hitler. He couldn't expect to get something for nothing, but now he will get Malta as a stepping stone across the Mediterranean, and Egypt, the Sudan and Kenya; so he'll have the whole of North East Africa and Tripoli to Zanzibar as a new Roman Empire.'

'He won't while Churchill has a kick left in him,' Gregory declared firmly. 'But we are getting away from the point.'

'At least we are agreed that Communism is the great Evil.'

'Yes, I'm with you there. But Hitler is nearly as bad.'

'The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know; and Hitler is by no means all devil. About many things he is a great idealist. Anyhow, much as we Hungarians would like to enjoy complete independence, Hungary will be a paradise with Hitler as her nominal overlord compared to what she would be under the Soviets. That is why we must stick to Germany and do every mortal thing we can to speed her victory. Only one thing matters. The complete and utter destruction of Communist Russia. If we fail in that it wilt be the end, not only for us here in Central Europe, but sooner or later for you in Britain too.'

Sallust's mission cracks-up when coincidence puts him and Gestapo supremo Grauber in the same nightclub lavatory at the same time. From there Sallust and Sabine are on the run, hiding and evading Grauber's goons.

Without spoiling the plot, I can only say that once Sallust and Sabine get back to England, the improbabilities really accumulate.

We'll leave it at that.

1 May 2018