Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Nina" by Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch is a legend. He is popularly known as a horror writer, but his production was wide and impressive. He wrote extensively in the crime, science fiction and horror genres. He had a particular skill at taking the style of one genre—hardboiled crime—and mixing it with the theme and expectations of another genre—horror. Think Psycho.

I recently read his short story “Nina” and I was impressed (to say the least). Nolan is an American running a plantation in the wild country of Brazil. The closest city: Manaus. The plantation’s only access is by boat, and Nolan isn’t completely comfortable with the workers. It’s not that they don’t work well, but rather it is their ceaseless drumming during the night. Add the heat. The humidity. The mosquitoes. And Nolan is a miserable man.

His life on the plantation changes when a woman appears. She is unknown to the local workers, and Nolan’s translator, Moises, calls her an “Indio” and “savage.” She soon becomes Nolan’s bedmate, and when his wife and child arrive to visit, Nolan’s world is shaken on its head.

“Nina” has all of the elements of a terrific horror story: a foreign and exotic location; a creepy and dark fabric; mysticism; outright strangeness; and a violent, and very peculiar, loss. It is very much horror, but it is brilliantly delivered with hardboiled prose, which provides a raw power—not to mention forward momentum—many horror stories lack:

“After the lovemaking Nolan needed another drink.

“He fumbled for the bottle beside the bed, gripping it with a sweaty hand. His entire body was wet and clammy, and his fingers shook as they unscrewed the cap. For a moment Nolan wondered if he was coming down with another bout of fever. Then, as the harsh heat of the sun scalded his stomach, he realized the truth.”

“Nina” is one of the better genre stories I have read. Its power is heady and visceral with a shadow-like quality; the narrative creates a shifting, soft focus, of the events. The characters feel real and the narrative is perfect. It captures the essence of the story and delivers it with an impressive blend of force and jaded subtlety most writers never achieve.

“Nina” originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1977. I read it in the anthology The Best Horror Stories Volume 1 edited by Edward L. Ferman and Anne Jordan. It was published by St Martin’s Press in 1988.

This was originally posted February 6, 2009, but since I have read a few Robert Bloch short stories recently, and reviewed his fantastic “The Hell-Bound Train” I thought it would be interesting to find some of my prior writings about Mr Bloch’s work. I also reviewed his stories “The Real Bad Friend” and “Lucy Comesto Town” in 2014.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"That Hell-Bound Train" by Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch, at least to the small but select audience of this blog, needs no introduction. He is one of the great writers to graduate from the mid-Twentieth Century pulp racket, and—like all true pulp writers—if it sold, he wrote it. He worked several genres including crime, horror, science fiction and fantasy. He is best known for his fine novel Psycho—later transformed into its faithful film adaptation Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—but his work has a depth and quality rarely seen. If Mr Bloch wrote it, it is likely pretty great.

On the far side of great is his 1958 story “That Hell-Bound Train”. It won the 1959 Hugo Award, and it is the best science fiction story—short or otherwise—I have read in a long time. It features a young bindlestiff called Martin. His father “walked the tracks for the CB&Q” until he met with a drunken accident and his mother ran off with a traveling salesman. He skipped the orphanage and drifted with the rails. He tried his hand at crime, and on a cold and lonely November midnight he determined to go straight—

“No sir, he just wasn’t cut out for petty larceny. It was worse than a sin—it was unprofitable, too. Bad enough to do the Devil’s work, but then get such miserable pay on top of it!”

Martin’s dream of a straight life is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of an unfamiliar running train. The windows dark. Its whistle “screaming like a lost soul.” The conductor who steps from its forward car is off—the way he drags a foot when he walks, and his nonstandard technique of lighting his lantern with his breath. It takes only a moment for an offer of a ride to be tendered, but Martin negotiates a deal. He will gladly ride for a single wish in exchange. He wants, at his own choosing in a moment of happy contentment, to stop time. The conductor accepts the bargain, and Martin is certain he fooled the devil. He finds a job in the nearest town and plots his own happiness, looking for that moment where he wants to spend forever.

“That Hell-Bound Train” is brilliantly executed. Its narrative is seemingly simple, but the simplicity is misleading. A study of misdirection, really. It shows the reader enough to make a conclusion (incorrectly) about where the story will finish, fulfilling that expectation in a way, and then taking it further. And that final step takes the story from pretty good to great. It is very much like the best of The Twilight Zone, and a shame it was never treated in an episode.

“That Hell-Bound Train” was originally published in the September 1958 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I read it in the anthology The Hugo Winners, Volume 1 edited by Isaac Asimov and published by Fawcett Crest in 1973.                   

Monday, March 23, 2015

A CASE OF NEED by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton was a writer who knew how to write, and what he chose to write seemingly meant something to him.  His later novels tended to deal with science, technology and ethics, and his early works—particularly the novels written “as by”—dealt with both youth and culture in a strikingly simple and meaningful manner.  His 1968 novel A Case of Need written as by Jeffery Hudson is not only the best of his early works, but it is also arguably his best novel.

John Berry is a pathologist at a Boston hospital and the novel opens with a heart surgeon ranting about losing a patient on the table.  Berry doesn’t pay much attention because this is how the surgeon deals with the stress and anger of a lost patient.  The rant, like everything in the novel, has the subtle feel of reality and prepares the scene for the main crux of the novel: an abortion gone wrong.  A procedure that was illegal when the novel was published and no less controversial than it is today.

Dr. Art Lee is an OBGYN and an abortionist.  He is also one of John Berry’s best friends.  When a young woman dies in an ER hemorrhaging from a botched abortion, Dr. Lee is the primary suspect.  This sets the novel in motion—John Berry is certain his friend didn’t perform the procedure and he wants to clear Dr. Lee’s name, but his motives become less clear as the novel unravels.

A Case of Need is a crossroads novel between Mr Crichton’s early pulp adventure novels and his larger, more complex modern novels.  It is something like a DMZ between the John Lange thrillers and The Andromeda Strain.  It features many of the hallmarks of his later works, particularly cultural and medical ethics, but it is wrapped in a damn terrific mystery.  It won an Edgar in 1969 for best novel and it represents Crichton’s talent at its highest.

What truly separates A Case of Need from the herd is its setting, theme and dialogue.  The setting is the world of medicine.  It clearly focuses the reader’s attention on not only what it is like, or was like, to be a work-a-day physician, but it also thematically explores the ethical decisions that lurk in the industry.  It gives a murky representation of abortion and its relation to both physicians who perform the procedure and those who do not. And the dialogue is vintage Crichton; it moves the story forward in quick and linear fashion.

There really isn’t anything about the novel that is weak or underdeveloped.  The prose is strong and vivid—

“All heart surgeons are bastards, and Conway is no exception. He came storming into the path lab at 8:30 in the morning, still wearing his green surgical gown and cap, and he was furious.”

The mystery is plotted perfectly and the suspense is built as well as any novel I have read.  It begins with what appears to be a moment of subterfuge—the angry heart surgeon—but ties the seemingly out-of-place opening scene perfectly into the theme of the story; the imperfect surgeon struggling with his own limitations and balancing the imperfections of society with the needs and demands of his patients.

A Case of Need is a terrific novel that is as relevant and entertaining today as it was forty years ago.  In a sense it is very much a novel of its time, but it also has a timeless quality in that the questions it never quite answers will continue to debated generations from now.  And it very well may be the evidence we need to prove Michael Crichton was from another world.  He really was that good, and this novel proves it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


I have been reading an unusually high number of westerns recently, and older westerns at that. I continued the trend with an ACE Double—one-half of an ACE Double—published in 1967; The Action at Redstone Creek by Merle Constiner (G-638). Mr Constiner’s work was unfamiliar to me—it was recommended by Ed Gorman—and I found it unusually literate, if not a bit odd, for an old genre western.

Mark Townsend is a gladly out of work tracker, but as the novel opens he is sitting at an ax-cut table in his rustic home staring at his final three silver quarters. He isn’t overly worried, but he is realistic—he doesn’t care for money, but he knows there are necessities only coin money can buy. His money problems only last a page or two until a dandy walks into his home and offers him a job.

The dandy, a man named Joe Teague, wants him to find his son who disappeared on his way to an engineering job at a mine in Idaho. The pay: one hundred dollars. Townsend takes the job, but quickly realizes Teague was less than honest with him, and the job is much more dangerous and involved than simply tracking a man. In fact, it isn’t too far into the story that he runs into a pair of toughs who have ill intentions towards Teague directly and Townsend indirectly.

The Action at Redstone Creek is vintage ACE. It starts with a bang and hurriedly moves from one scene to the next. There are gunfights, intrigues, cattle rustling, dueling ranchers, and lonely frontier dwelling men. The difference, or what separates it from most of the other ACE westerns, is the writing. It is fresh with a witty sense of humor. The prose and dialogue—not to mention a few of the situations and character relationships—is sharp, realistic and, at times, damn funny:
“It was midafternoon. He was staring at the quarters, trying to think of them in terms of cornmeal and fat pork, but thinking mainly what nice conchos they’d make, when the man stooped down and came through the door. 
“‘No offense meant,’ said the stranger, ‘but for a white man’s shack, this place has a sort of stink, a little like Indian smell.’ 
“‘Thank you,’ said Townsend. ‘Maybe some kindhearted Indian sometime will say as much for you.’”
The story doesn’t do the expected, and the characters are never typical; they dress and walk like the typical western character, but their actions, language, and responses tend to shy away from genre norms. An example is Townsend. He is far from the archetypal hero in both appearance and form. He is described as: “thirty-four, short, a little humped, big nosed, almost lizard eyed, and pretty ragged for the gaze of any white man.”

The Action at Redstone Creek is different, but its unusualness separates it from the herd. It is a story that will appeal to readers of traditional westerns, but its quirky nature will also appeal to others who are less inclined to read a western.

When I read Redstone Creek I did a little research on the author and I was saddened by what I learned. He died broke (the plight of many pulp writers) and alone. His life reminded me of Townsend's, particularly the opening scene when Townsend is staring at his final three quarters.

There is a detailed article at Pulp Rack about the life and work of Merle Constiner. It is titled “TheHunt for Merle Constiner” and written by Peter Ruber. Read the article, and then find one of Constiner's novels.

This is another repeat. It originally went live November 14, 2009. Since I wrote this post I have read several more Merle Constiner novels, and he has become one of my favorite writers of western pulp. I few years ago I reviewed his fine novel Death Waits at Dakins Station.

I will have some original content soon. I have a few posts started, but nothing finished, but with a little luck things will settle down at work and home and I will soon have a little more time for blogging. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

"Don't Look Behind You" by Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown is a writer I have heard much about, but a writer whose work I have only sampled. I have read a few short stories, and no more. I recently read his short story “Don’t Look Behind You” and was impressed by its style, reach and cleverness.

Justin and Harley operate a small printing shop on Amsterdam Ave in New York City. The two only take enough business to keep the facade of legitimacy in place, but their real business is the printing of counterfeit five- and ten-dollar bills. A business that is doing quite well until Harley is murdered in an Albany hotel and Justin is called in and held by the police. The cops seemingly care less about Harley’s murder and more about the counterfeit shop the two men operate.

When the police finally release Justin he discovers the police are not alone in their interest in the Amsterdam printing shop—Harley had partners who want the printing plates, and they treat Justin as poorly as the upstate cops did. In fact, they don’t seem to care much what happens to Justin if it leads them to the plates.

“Don’t Look Behind You” is a cleverly plotted story that takes you in one direction only to quickly and smoothly swerve into another, and then another. It opens with a raw slash of narrative:

“Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.”

It is told in first person with a twist—the narrator isn’t necessarily who you think it is and the story doesn’t necessarily lead you where you think it is will. The prose is spot on; re-read the passage above and if you don’t want to read more you’re crazy. But the best part of the story is its plot and the affect it has on the reader. The narrator speaks directly to the reader—not as an audience member, but as a principle character—and it has a chilling effect that made me shudder with bliss in the closing paragraphs.

“Don’t Look Behind You” was originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in May 1947. I read it in the fine anthology A Century of Noir edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.

I have been slowly cleaning up some of my older reviews—blogger tends to mess-up the formatting from time to time—and I decided this one should have new life at the top of the blog. It is truly a wonderful story.