Thursday, May 29, 2008

Darkest Before the End

F&SF has never been afraid to go dark when the situation calls for it, and "Thrilling Wonder Stories" is a chilling attack on nostalgia by Albert E. Cowdrey. The very title evokes a strong sense of nostalgia in sf fans: Thrilling Wonder Stories was published by Hugo Gernsback after he was kicked off of the seminal sf magazine, Amazing Stories. Thrilling ran between 1930 and 1936. It wasn't even a product of the "Golden Age," this was pure pulp.

Reading that sort of thing, it's no wonder that a young boy in the South, listening to his parents yelling at each other, decides that his father must be a Martian. It's easier than imagining that his cuckold of a father is really his dad. However, that's not the least of this kid's psychoses. He's also got the pre-pubescent beginnings of a very unhealthy Oedipal complex. As his parent's relationship deteriorates further, resulting in his mother briefly abandoning the boy and her husband for the boy's biological father, he also shows signs of schizophrenia. When she comes back, having been thoroughly shamed and kicked out by her former lover, the boy devolves all the way into psychopathic violence. (All the psych terms are mine, of course. They didn't necessarily have all those labels back then, at least not for this kid's social class.)

Whew, yeah, those were the Good Old Days. People may yearn for a "simpler time" when everyone had "family values," but there were costs to pay. When a married man can't acknowledge a bastard, and a single, pregnant woman has to find a husband pronto, the resulting child is unlikely to grow up in a healthy environment. Maybe the lucky ones could simply escape into pulp fiction before escaping into a "normal" life, but for the unlucky, unstable ones, life might end up a much, much darker place.

As seen in "The Overseer," Cowdrey has an unflinching ability to get into some dark places in the human psyche. His stories are mighty unsettling, but also potent examinations of the roots of human evil.

Another story with a dark edge involving children is "Traitor" by M. Rickert. In this story, a young girl is being brought up in unusual circumstances. She seems very patriotic, but her mother has a secret room that seems to be dedicated to some sort of resistance movement. The bed time story involves the mother surviving when many other people were killed, and her dedication to staying alive. Terrorism of some nature is implied to be involved, and this little girl may not be the first child her "mother" has raised. There's a lot here that is obliquely implied instead of described. Rickert leaves hints and clues and lets the reader fill in the back story. The core of the story is the emotional relationship between the mother and daughter, and like "Thrilling," it's not a healthy one. This story is less specifically horrorific than Cowdrey's, but the ending is dark and intense.

Finally we wind up the issue on lighter ground. "Circle" by George Tucker is about building condos in Miami. The Circle condo construction project is plagued by accidents. Only one guy seems immune, a native Seminole named Billy Black. He's just doing his job, trying to save up money to buy an ancestral plot of swamp, but he comes to the attention of the developer's executives. Now he has to balance his duty to his Native American ancestors with his need to get by in the modern world. It's not a straightforward path to walk, needless to say, but the resolution of the story is a satisfying one. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution to all the problems of Native Americans, but it works for Billy and that's OK. With a good sense of humor, this story deals with a delicate issue and does it well.

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