I've been re-arranging this thread, so here are my story comments from Nov 7, 2007 to May 26, 2008, plus new comments for "In Fear of K".
"Emissary From Hamelin
" was first published in 1977 and is about one of the descendents of the Pied Piper visiting California in 2076. He insists on talking to a certain reporter who then reports about the boy drowning all the rats of New York by playing his flute. The child also has a request: "We want everyone to stop what they are doing to make this a bad place, or we will take the place away from you." Harlan not only makes reference to the fairy tale, he also makes the boy look like the Little Prince, which is where the characterization seems to come from.
I would suppose that the story was written specifically for Edward Bryant's anthology 2076: The American Tricentennial
. The ending, or rather, the moral, is rather standard-issue, I'm afraid, similar to what Harlan later did more effectively in "On the Slab", among others. It's a pessimistic story with the distinction of not being dark, and it's actually become even more relevant in times of major ecological challenges. People need to change, and they know it, but they just don't make the changes. If someone tells them they're going to die if they don't change, they rather not believe it than make any real effort.
While there is something for adult readers to enjoy, it would also be interesting to read this to a child as an encore after Grimm or Browning. My rating: Art by Dario Campanile
" (1975) is a story in the vein of Lovecraft and Poe, though it deals with more modern concerns and attitudes. The first-person narrator has called two friends to attend to an abortion. He has impregnated yet another woman who lied to him about the pill. When the fetus is flushed down the toilet, the woman has a sudden change of mind and demands that he go after it. That means he has to go down to the street and climb into the sewer. The sewage system holds a few dangers and surprises for him while he reflects about the life he leads.
As Harlan notes, this is a story "about being responsible". Not that it makes much difference, but I would say it's about being irresponsible and about the effects of that - in this case, unwanted pregnancies. The protagonist is going through a transition. He feels bad about what he's done, and it's really a feeling of guilt that makes him climb into the sewer. It's one of those stories in which a character defect leads to the main character getting what he deserves in an unexpected way made possible by the genres Harlan works in.
The second half is based on an interesting bit of fantastical speculation and written in horror mode. At the end, which has a lot of fine and suggestive prose, Harlan weaves in a famous historical event. I'm not sure if it helps make sense of what the protagonist finds or if it mainly gets in the way, drawing attention away from the character and his issue. The connection between the historical event and the protagonist is decidedly indistinct, as far as I can tell.
As a result, I would call this a horror story written around an ethical question. If seen as a horror story, it actually looks better because it's preferable to have a horror story with substance than a personal, meaningful story that needs alligators and historic references to consider itself satisfying. For a better look at abortion and responsibility look at "Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine". Addendum
: This story was inspired by a painting by Dario Campanile which was published alongside the story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1975.
"The Diagnosis of Dr. D'arqueAngel
" (1977) is another tale of dark fantasy. Charles Romb is an unhappily married guy who visits a woman doctor called D'arqueAngel to receive small shots of death over a period of time in order to become immune. The story is mainly about the relationship between the doctor and her patient and about what Romb does with his immunity.
This is quite an original idea, well-executed for the most part. It's a bit of a throwback to his idea fiction of the late 50s. I only wished he could have focussed a little more on the basic concept and its implications as the additional story elements have been done to death by Harlan and others. I'm particularly thinking of the husband planning to murder his wife, the ancient woman who looks young and beautiful, and the magic coorporation demanding a high price for granting you your wishes.
The ending works fine, and I don't think anyone one could see it coming. Unfortunately, though, by that point Harlan was getting a little sloppy, having D'arqueAngel deliver an explanation that unintentionally raises question after question. Nor is it clear why Charles would keep experiencing deaths every day. There is also a wrong note in Charles' reaction to the revelations. I don't see the reasons for the reaction as self-evident, although it's understandable. He's a cardboard character throughout.
The ideas in the story are all interesting, notably the notion that people need different amounts of love. MYSTERY featuring "Killing Bernstein"
" (1976) is a puzzle story. The narrator works for a toy manufacturer and is in love with his beautiful collegue, Dr. Netta Bernstein. One day, after having spent the night with her, he is taken aback by her rudeness. He recognizes in her a natual enemy and feels he has to killer her, which he does. Nonetheless he finds her in her office the next morning, as if nothing had happened.
In these stories from the mid-70s Harlan surely doesn't hide where he's coming from. The thinly motivated, well-described murders are straight out of his pulp period, only the prose has gotten a lot better. The only notable thing about "Bernstein" is that it may have been one of the first stories to use the scientific concept of cloning. Today you can just see it coming. It's still a good story, though, as the narration goes back and forth in time, revealing one thing at a time until we catch up with the characters. Harlan has also done some research about toy manufacturing that paid off by allowing him to create a convincing backdrop to the story.
Again, the explanations raise new questions, in this case regarding areas that I feel should have been featured instead of neglected. I can't believe that only one of the Nettas would fall in love with the narrator while the others don't care for him one bit. Doesn't that deserve some attention? What did the other Nettas think about the behavior of the one that was in love. Did they have lovers of their own? Harlan had set up narrative time jumps, the only thing missing was an interest in answering questions like these. Closing info: Harlan wrote a script based on the story but has been unable to get it produced.
In "Working with the Little People
" (1977) a successful sf/fantasy writer suddenly runs out of ideas at the age of 27, and while he's still thinking about how to deal with this problem, small creatures have taken over his typewriter and started writing his next piece.
This is another minor piece written in a bookstore window in London. Harlan, who has never had writer's block, creates a fantasy story around just that notion, using his inside knowledge of he writing process and the social role of writers to give it an air of reality and to give the readers something extra. It's a straight-forward entertainment piece, clearly written by someone who knew what he was doing. Like I noted earlier, Harlan's late 70's stuff is generally enjoyable and easier to read than his more psychologically intense stories of earlier years. On the negative side, the story doesn't have an edge to it at all, nor a lesson, and you'll soon forget it. I certainly read this before and forgot it, along with the vague main character.
Harlan consulted on a similar story that was done for THE TWILIGHT ZONE (80s), called "Personal Demons" by Rockne O'Bannon which is superior.
In the introduction Harlan notes that he was trying to live by the rule of writing a story a day, an advice given to him by a great fantasist. Whenever this comes up, it raises the question where all those stories go. If it's true, he must have been writing a mountain of unpublishable crap every year. It's probably not a bad thing, artistically speaking, that Harlan had to slow down pretty soon after STRANGE WINE. The Olympia SM9
" (1977) is about a Jewish man haunted by the ghost of his mom after her funeral. His greatest wish is to be left alone and able again to lead his own life.
This is a story that sounds much better in concept than in execution, an amusing one-line idea that Harlan turned into a one-note story. While there is some wit, the comedy doesn't work. First of all, there is no build. The guy is annoyed from the beginning ("Why me?"), the rest is an exercise in annoying the reader as much as the protagonist. When he finally gets what he wants at the end, it's not through his own cleverness, but someone else did it and tells him about it. The mother just vanishes from the stage. I'm not sure this can be called a loving portrait of Jewish mothers, it's more of a critique of annoying cultural and religious traditions.
I wasn't surprised Harlan wrote the beginning at a party and the rest in a book store window. It probably could have been better with more preparation. While it's not bad, it's certainly mediocre. Interestingly, Harlan proovides a glosssary for the Yiddish terms he uses, as he had done when he wrote "Looking for Kadak". In the 80s, Woody Allen did a funny short film about another Jew and his mom, which appeared in "New York Stories". I went out today, exposed myself and Julie (the dog) to pollen and to a story called
"In Fear of K
" (1975)A man and a woman, Noah and Claudia, are trapped in a circular alien pit much like a well. They live in fear of K, a creature living in a maze of tunnels, blocking their only hope of escape.
This is mainly a story of lifetime imprisonment under strange circumstances. Both the situation and the characters are very much in line with previous stories, especially with the great classic of imprisonment, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. The situation the characters are in is immediately compelling and could well have sustained a longer story than this. In fact, it’s a bit of a problem that some aspects are considerably underdeveloped.
Let’s start with the characters. From what little we learn about them, I certainly wouldn’t expect well-rounded people, but there’s definitely something missing. I must admit a slight annoyance at seeing these characters go at each other practically from the get-go, the only explanation being a thin layer of implied psychology which does not justify this extent of mutual hate. As a result, they come across as just too people of extremely bad character. Are we supposed to care about them? When they make love later, it’s almost as arbitrary as their battles. Considering the implied backstory, I can’t believe both things happen so easily. They grew up together, like bother and sister, right? They depend on each other’s cooperation, right? Things aren’t as easy as Harlan paints them to be. As a reader, I ask for something a little more complete.
There’s a scene in which the monster attacks, and thanks to their defense system the humans manage to make it retreat in pain. First of all, how can this be the first time they’ve seen K? Why the discussion about their defenses only now? How are we meant to reconcile all this with a sentence like, “For perhaps the millionth time since they had been in the chamber, they had saved themselves”? I frankly don’t get it.
Much, much better than this is the portrayal of the creature whose death is very poignant. Harlan keeps doing alien creatures well.
The rest of the story mainly sabotages what substance is left. Earlier the characters kept talking about wanting to get out and away from each other, but now it takes them a very long time to realize that with K dead, the tunnels are free of menace. “And even longer for them to do something about it.” Sorry, I don’t think that’s sound psychology. Then Harlan goes on to pretty much ignore the maze of tunnels he set up and provides fairly obvious closure to characters we don’t care about.
I certainly like the idea of the creature meaning no harm to the humans but falling prey to their fear of it. Whether that fear is justified or not is something Harlan is not very clear about, but it does seem justified although the creature's main crime is to keep the two of them as prisoners. Needs, particularly those that get you into trouble, have always been central to Harlan's work.
The notion of fear has become very relevant in recent years – it seems to be America’s steady companion. What it makes people do is certainly worth writing about, though this particular story only makes a most basic point about it. “All the Sounds of Fear” seemed to be a little more interesting in that regard. A creature feeding on fear had been done before, and it's what the creature appears
to be doing. To close on a positive note, the story was written with great style and authority, like most of the other ones.