Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Birth of a Monster" by Richard Stark

I found a small collection of old digest-sized science fiction magazines in a thrift shop last summer and I finally took a serious look at them this past weekend.  The first magazine I picked up was the August 1959 issue of Super-Science Fiction.  It included eight stories with beautifully lurid titles—“Planet of the Angry Giants,” “Monsters That Once Were Men,” “Man-Hunting Robot,” “Which Was the Monster”.  And even better, the magazine is subtitled: THIRD MONSTER ISSUE!  Of the eight stories included, an even half were written by Robert Silverberg and published here under various pseudonyms, and another, which is the one that caught my immediate attention, was written by Donald E. Westlake and published as by Richard Stark.

The Stark story is titled, “Birth of a Monster”.  It is the story of a doctor who receives a late night call from a man whose wife is in labor and, even though the soon-to-be mother isn’t a patient, the doctor agrees to rush to the couple’s home and deliver the baby.  When the doctor arrives he discovers something a little unusual.

“Birth of a Monster” is a decent little pulp story.  It runs only about six double column digest size pages, and it is straight up horror, 1950’s style (i. e. heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone without the social commentary).  While it is a relatively pedestrian story, Mr Westlake played with the tropes a bit (to tell how would ruin the tale and I shall remain mum).  The language is a tad stilted and very sharp, which doesn’t devalue the story, but rather adds to the unease it generates with the reader—

“He hung up, hurried back to the bedroom and dressed.  He knew the estate, at the end of Larchmont Road.  Empty for years.”

“Birth of a Monster” reminded me a little of an early Richard Matheson story, although not quite as vibrant and polished—it appears to be straight forward, but a little twist at the climax reveals the true complexion of the story.  And while it is not as mature and solid as Mr Westlake’s later work (he was only 26 when it was published) it is a story that will bring a smile.  
This review originally appeared on the now defunct blog Dark City Underground July 6, 2010 in significantly different form.  I will be moving a few other reviews from DCU to Gravetapping over the next several weeks.  I will also be posting some ori


Ed Gorman said...

I'm sure that was one of the magazines I snuck into Catholic school and read behind whatever book we were supposed to be learning from. I learned a lot more from the wisdom of SUPER SCENCE FICTION! Great post, Ben. Thanks.

Ben Boulden said...

If I had only known about these terrific older science fiction stories when I was sneaking reading material into school. My sneak ins were the Mack Bolan books from the 1980s, and I'm not sure I learned much from them, except I liked 'em.