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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Review: The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair (2 of 3)

“The World of Arlesia” [first appearing in F&SF] is another too-complex story that requires rereading to get what has actually happened. (I do love complex stories, but they require more set up.) A couple attend a double-header [Didn’t they called them double features? Perhaps she means to highlight the sports-like nature of what they are attending] “movie” [anticipating virtual reality?] where they go to an underwater world. However, the wife witnesses an entirely different world.

One example of writing infelicity [the guide is trying to con our narrator into becoming one of many recumbent women, although what is happening to the women is never clear—perhaps something Matrix-like]:

“I won’t,” I said. “You’re trying to do something to me, something to my mind. I won’t go in there.”

“Ah, well,” she said. She dropped my wrist and was silent.

So we have a vague menace [“something”] that is easily dispatched. The next time a mad scientist has a vague evil plan or a cut-throat thief tries to steal something he’s not sure about, just say, “I won’t let you” and that will take care of everything. Despite this, it’s still worth a gander.

“The Little Red Owl” first appeared in Weird Tales and was reprinted by Peter Haining. Uncle Charles tells frightening stories to his nephew and niece—a story where the little red owl, their hero, dies. The children, aghast, deny this has happened. The uncle is forbid from telling new stories, but he plans revenge, having professionally made a sweet coloring book that tells the same story.

It is a little spooky, adding a necessary change in point of view that some will take issue with, which also takes the key dramatic moment off-stage. It would probably work best on the screen—an anthology of horror stories like Cat’s Eye or Tales from the Crypt—the trick being to make an owl look both sweet, heroic, and terrifying.

A rather moving and ambiguous piece, “The Hole in the Moon” [first appeared in F&SF—printed and reprinted by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas], is simple yet ambitious. Men have been destroyed by a disease that sits dormant in women, but kills men although one can tell a woman who is diseased by her pitted skin. A machine or robot woman arrives (at least, she suggests this in her description of her “sisters”) and she can only be made real if this man loves her. He is conflicted by wanting to love her and drive her away, threatening violence. She leaves. A narrative gap allows a few different events to have happened—intriguing possibilities. And his decision may lead to a few different consequences—none of which exclude his final, moving decision. The editor, Ramsay Campbell, points out the ambiguity that the protagonist could be insane, but that’s not the most interesting of possibilities. The minor flaw in this tale is that his loneliness and desire should have been set up immediately—not to mention nigh magical nature of her construction (via his desire—see this discussion of genre romance). Still, it’s surprising that this tale has not been reprinted more often.

In yet another genre bar story, “The Causes” [first appeared in F&SF, also appears in Greenber’s edition of her Best-of, and reprinted Darrell Schweitzer, George H. Scithers (an SF bar anthology) and Robert P. Mills] has one character after another describe why the world seems apocalyptic to the “main” character, George—going through Greek, Christian, and other causes. The ending saves the story, but if you aren’t a fan of world apocalypses, it’s skippable. Maybe read the first tale and skip to the ending to get the gist. However, Robert P. Mills seems to beg to differ in the tale’s quality by collecting it in a ten-year retrospective for F&SF. Introducing the tale, he wrote, “No collection of fantasy and science fiction can be considered representative if it fails to include a superior example of the bar-fantasy.” In other words, the above editors all included it because it was a bar story. It is a decent example, but what about superior examples of the Rana pipiens fantasy?

From the pages of Weird Tales, “The Island of the Hands” has an intriguing premise about seeking his wife’s lost ship. His plane goes down at her last coordinates and he wakes from unconsciousness. The island was invented to recreate things lost, so they find people dancing with simulated partners, simulated babies, simulated gems—none of which have much reality. He goes down to the mists to create the wife he lost.... The tale is stirring up until he wanders the mist, and it seems to lose itself there, wandering too long, which seems an unusual lapse for St. Clair. The tale finds itself—or a version of itself—but it becomes something else, ambiguous in a bad sense. Campbell, in the introduction, latches on to secondary characters for what the tale is up to. I also suspect that the true protagonist is not the main character but not the one he selected. If true, it’s a more interesting, ambitious and ambiguous in a good sense although that would mean that island doesn’t have the rules it was said to have (even in a straight reading, where the main character is the protagonist, the island breaks the rule of what it said about the mist).

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