Saturday, September 25, 2021

Into the Fourth Dimension by Ray Cummings

Into the Fourth Dimension is a 1926 short science fiction novel by Ray Cummings.

New York-born Ray Cummings (1887-1957) was one of the pioneering writers of American pulp science fiction. From 1914 to 1919 he had worked for Thomas Edison before turning to the writing of fiction. He is best known for his 1922 novel The Girl in the Golden Atom (expanded from a 1919 novella that had appeared in All-Story Weekly).

Into the Fourth Dimension begins with the appearance of the first of the ghosts in 1946, in Vermont. This is not just your usual report of a ghostly apparition. Hundreds of people see this strange ghostly figure. One of the eyewitnesses approaches closely enough to try to hit the ghost with a plank of wood (which has no effect at all on the ghost).

Soon ghosts start appearing all over the world.

The narrator is 26-year-old Rob Manse, one of the eyewitnesses to the first ghostly sighting.

Rob’s closest friends had been chemist Wilton Grant and Wilton’s sister Beatrice. After the sighting Wilton and his sister, for no apparent reason, refuse to see Rob until one day Wilton contacts him out of the blue. He tells Rob that Beatrice has been ill.

He has more to tell Rob. He and Beatrice have been working on some scientific theories involving time and space. They had come to the conclusion that there is another world, a different dimension of existence. They were not surprised by the appearance of the ghosts. It was what they expected. The ghosts are visors from another plane of existence.

And the ghosts are a threat. A terrifying threat.

Wilton has devised a method of travelling to that other plane of existence. Having successfully done so once he now must return and Beatrice and Rob must go with him. They must prevent the Earth from being invaded by another realm.

That other world is a very strange world. It is a world of pure thought. It is a world inhabited by beings that seem rather human but it turns out that this is misleading. They appear human because humans like Rob and Wilton can only interpret reality in human terms. It is human perceptions that make these beings seem like men and women. In reality they are very different.

Cummings indulges in some speculation about time and space and about the very meaning of existence. Writing in 1926, he has obviously been influenced by the revolutionary new theories in physics, Einstein’s theories and quantum mechanics. But he has also clearly been influenced by Freud’s ideas about the unconscious. And he has attempted to combine all these new theories of both physics and mind. Cummings is also obviously interested in the idea that the world as we understand it is a product of our own perceptions. Perhaps what we call reality is simply a product of our own perceptions.

It’s really quite an ambitious and brain-bending little novel.

It’s also a kind of alien invasion story, with the aliens being thought creatures whose nature challenges human sanity.

There is plenty of action in the story, and at the same time there is no action at all. The action takes the form entirely of battles of the mind. They are epic battles in their own way, battles fought for the highest stake, but they do not take place in what we think of as the material realm.

Into the Fourth Dimension is highly imaginative thought-provoking stuff.

Cummings’ prose style is slightly odd. Even taking into account that it was written in 1926 it seems slightly archaic but this gives the book a certain flavour. And this book does have a distinctive flavour. This is after all science fiction from almost a century ago, when the conventions of the genre had not yet solidified. It was writers like Cummings who were creating the conventions of the genre.

While there is no space travel and no high technology Cummings has certainly created a very alien world indeed, much more alien that most of the worlds of outer space created by later science fiction writers.

This is also very definitely science fiction. While the inter-dimensional world Cummings imagines might be far-fetched and outlandish in 1926 it would have seemed no more outlandish than the latest theories being propounded by physicists (in fact it still seems no more outlandish than those theories) and Cummings has been quite bold in his use of outré scientific thinking in the service of fiction.

Into the Fourth Dimension is a strange book but you have to admire the author for pushing boldly into unknown realms. Recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Jack Williamson’s lost world sci-fi novel The Alien Intelligence in one of their excellent double-header paperback editions. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Jonathan Craig's Alley Girl

Jonathan Craig is best remembered for his 6th Precinct police procedural novels set in New York. Alley Girl, published in 1954 (and later re-issued as Renegade Cop) is a standalone cop thriller that slightly precedes the 6th Precinct series.

Alley Girl establishes its hardboiled credentials right from the start. Lieutenant Steve Lambert is a homicide cop and he’s a nasty piece of work. Steve has a very pretty 18-year-old girlfriend named Jean. You’d think that a guy with a hot 18-year-old girlfriend would go to sleep with the girl in his arms, but not Steve Lambert. Steve goes to sleep with a whiskey bottle cradled in his arms. Jean wouldn’t bother with Steve but the sex is really good, unless Steve is too drunk to manage it.

On this particular morning Steve has to get up early because he’s working on a big case. He has breakfast (a slug of whiskey followed by a beer) and then Sergeant Dave Kimberley picks him up. Steve despises Dave Kimberley as a Boy Scout while Dave is horrified by Steve’s brutal methods.

They’re working a murder case. A guy named Tommy Nolan is accused of killing a florist in a bungled robbery. Steve doesn’t understand why he isn’t allowed to just beat a confession out of Nolan. He doesn’t know if Nolan is guilty or not and he doesn’t care, he knows ways to get guys to confess to things even if they aren’t guilty.

Steve’s first call on this fine morning is at the apartment of Mrs Nolan, who turns out to be about twenty years old and drop-dead gorgeous. Steve explains to Mrs Nolan how things stand. Her husband is going to go to the electric chair for the murder, but there is a way she can save him. All she has to do is have sex with Steve and Steve will tell the D.A. that Nolan isn’t guilty. Since she doesn’t have much choice in the matter Mrs Nolan agrees.

As far as Steve is concerned the case is progressing nicely. He can keep forcing the beautiful young Mrs Nolan to have sex with him by holding out the promise of getting her husband off. At the same time a man name Edmonds has offered him a huge bribe to make sure Tommy Nolan goes to the chair. And there’s no way either Mrs Nolan or Edmonds can force him to keep his side of either agreement.

Of course there’s always that Boy Scout Dave Kimberley but Steve has no doubt he can handle that problem.

Just when you think the sleaze factor can’t get even more extreme the author throws a whole new sleaze angle in. There are so many characters who are sexually depraved or unhealthy, all of them in different ways. In this story sex is always dirty and dangerous.

In fact pretty much everything in the story is dirty and corrupt. Steve Lambert is a spectacularly vicious corrupt thug of a cop but nobody worries very much about his methods. It’s taken for granted that cops can do whatever they like. Steve is certainly one of the least sympathetic protagonists in noir fiction - there are more vicious and more violent protagonists but they have the excuse of being crazy. Steve is quite sane. He’s just a louse. He is however a memorable louse.

The characters who initially seem to be reasonably decent human beings turn out to be either morally corrupt or totally deranged. You can’t accuse the book of misogyny. The male characters and the female characters are equally twisted.

This was 1954 so you don’t get any graphic descriptions of sex or violence. It’s the squalid atmosphere and the terrifying amorality of the characters that provides the shock value. You feel vaguely unclean after reading this book.

It has to be said that it does have an impact. Jonathan Craig writes fine hardboiled prose. There’s a mystery which in 1954 most readers would not have seen coming although a modern reader might have an inkling of the solution.

Alley Girl is strong stuff but if you like tough sordid nihilistic crime stories then it’s highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Sheldon Lord's Kept

Kept is a 1960 sleaze novel by Sheldon Lord (a pseudonym used by Lawrence Block before he achieved fame and fortune as a crime writer).

One of the intriguing things about the sleaze fiction of the late 50s and early 60s was that quite a bit of it was written by people who actually write. People like Robert Silverberg, who went on to be one of America’s leading science fiction writers (and who is regarded as being somewhat towards the more literary end of the science fiction genre). People like Donald Westlake, who became a highly respected and very successful crime writer. And of course people like Lawrence Block. At a time when they were still aspiring young writers they had to find a way to keep body and soul together and writing sleaze fiction paperbacks was a more congenial way to do this than waiting tables. It was also a good way to learn discipline and economy as a writer.

They churned these sleaze paperbacks out very very quickly but it’s still evident that they’re the products of guys with genuine talent as writers.

Lawrence Block wrote many such books and has never been embarrassed by that fact.

Kept begins with Mark Taggert trying to thumb a lift. He’s a 28-year-old drifter. He doesn’t know why he’s heading to New York. When he gets there he’ll get a job for a while and then move on. That’s been the pattern of his life.

He’s done plenty of hitch-hiking and he knows it can take a while to get a lift. From long experience he knows the kinds of guys who give lifts to hitch-hiker. They’re always much the same. He is therefore rather surprised when a very pretty obviously very rich young woman in a Cadillac convertible gives him a ride. Very rich and very beautiful young women never give lifts to hitch-hikers, and no-one who drives a red Caddy convertible ever gives hitch-hikers lifts.

Her name is Elaine Rice. To pass the time while she drives (and he notices that she drives extremely well) they play a harmless game. He has to guess her life story. She’s slightly disturbed by the accuracy of his guesses.

They get to New York, to her very swank apartment, and she invites him in for a nightcap. They end in bed together and it’s fabulous for both of them. Mark figures it’s just a one night stand but Elaine has other ideas. She wants him to move in. She’s incredibly rich so she can pay all the bills. Mark is shock and appalled at the idea of becoming a kept man. There’s no way he’s going to become a gigolo for a rich woman. But he agrees to her scheme anyway.

Pretty soon Elaine is running his life for him. His life is actually going well because she knows what she’s doing. She turns him from a bum into a successful man about town. It’s not that she doesn’t want him to work. She understands that if he doesn’t get a job he’ll feel like a gigolo, so she gets a really good job for him. In fact he really is still a kept man. His financial contribution to their little household is minuscule and irrelevant. In practice she owns him.

What makes the story more interesting is that she’s not a calculating rich woman who makes a habit of keeping men. She’s crazy in love with Mark and she just can’t bear the thought of not having him with her all time, and she can’t bear the thought of not having him in her bed every night. But while she’s motivated partly by lust she really does care about him. It’s just that for Mark it’s like being kept as a pampered lap dog.

Mark’s job is so ridiculously easy that he he and his secretary Sarah have lots of free time. Sarah is twenty-one and gorgeous and the first thing he noticed about her was her spectacular breasts. And he just keeps noticing those luscious breasts. Mark’s love life is obviously about to get really complicated as he is torn between two women.

There’s plenty of sexual activity in this novel but it’s handled in a remarkably coy manner, even for 1960. When Mark and Elaine make love we’re told that they’ve made love and it was wonderful, and that’s as far as the descriptions of sex go. The sleaze quotient in this book is very very low.

Which is interesting because as I read more of these 1950s/1960s sleaze paperbacks I’m

getting more and more of a feeling that many of them are in fact romance fiction. They’re romance fiction in which people sleep together without being married and we’re told that sleeping together rather than having it hinted at. Which may have made them mildly risqué at the time. But many are pretty much romantic melodramas. I can’t help wondering if these books attracted a larger female readership than I’d previously assumed.

Kept is a novel I would definitely put in the steamy romance sub-genre of the romance fiction genre. It’s not even mildly pornographic. Not even close to it. It’s not even actually sleazy. The characters have plenty of sex but there’s nothing sleazy about. It’s wholesome healthy love-making

There are however a couple of elements that explain why a book such as this would have ben consigned to the sleaze category in 1960. It’s very honest about sex, and very honest about female sexuality. Elaine and Sarah are not femmes fatales or Bad Girls or scheming conniving spider women. They’re both genuinely very nice young women. And they’d both like to get married and have children one day. But in the meantime they do have sexual desires and they satisfy those sexual desires. At the time Elaine picked up Mark on the road she was divorced and had been sexless for quite a while and she really wanted a man to share her bed that night. Any man who was reasonably presentable and pleasant would have been fine. She just really needed sex, for all the complicated reasons women like to have sex including in this case pure physical need.

Sarah’s attitude to sex is similar. She wants to find the right man to marry, but until he comes along she’s quite happy to make do with uncomplicated sex as long as the man concerned is a nice guy. Elaine and sex both want True Love, but if they can’t have True Love then hot sex is better than nothing. They’re honest and straightforward about it but in 1960 a novel that was honest and straightforward about sex was going to be considered sleaze fiction, even though the sex in this book isn’t the slightest bit sleazy.

Kept is mostly just a story of the complications of love between a group of people who are actually pretty nice people who just happen to enjoy sex. It's a love story for grown-ups. And it’s a pretty well-written love story.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Honey West - Girl on the Loose

Girl on the Loose was the second of G.G. Fickling’s Honey West private eye thrillers. It was published in 1958.

G.G. Fickling was actually husband-and-wife writing team Gloria Fickling (1926-?) and Forrest “Skip” Fickling (1925-1998).

The 1965-66 television series starring Anne Francis is now better remembered than the books. The TV series toned down the violence slightly and toned down the sleaze quite a lot. The Honey West character of both the books and the TV series is pretty similar. She’s a lady private detective who took over her father’s private detective agency when he was murdered. In both the books and the series she’s sublimely self-confident to the point of recklessness, she has formidable martial arts skills and she’s quite prepared to use her considerable sex appeal when she deems it necessary. She carries her revolver in a garter holster.

Girl on the Loose hits the ground running. Within the first few pages a guy has been cut in half by machine-gun fire and Honey has been stripped naked. It won’t be the last time in the book that she’s stripped naked.

There’s a Honey West look-alike running around and she’s involved in the kidnapping of a millionaire’s baby son. There’s also a female Marine Corps officer whom Honey is forced to impersonate, there’s a murder of an old friend of Honey’s in San Francisco and there’s a husband out for revenge. There’s even an encounter with UFO cultists. The Ficklings throw in just about everything you could want in a pulpy private eye thriller including a considerable helping of sleaze.

The revenge-seeking husband has a theory that the kidnappers are heading for Mexico and he persuades her to help him set an ambush. Honey thinks his theory is a bit wild but it’s the only decent lead she’s got.

The plot is rather wild and woolly with lots of convolutions but there’s a decent twist at the end. It turns out to be a crime that only a woman could solve. Which is a nice touch - if you’re going to have a female PI you might as well let her make use of her knowledge of female psychology.

There’s quite a lot of violence and some of it gets fairly graphic. There’s no graphic sex but Honey is always aware of her sexuality and all the male characters are aware of it as well (and of her very impressive body measurements). And she does take her clothes off frequently.

The Ficklings belonged to the “if in doubt throw in another murder” school of hardboiled fiction. The pacing is fast and the action is constant.

The Honey West novels are a bit on the trashy side but they’re trashy in a good fun way.

The Ficklings wrote nine Honey West novels between 1957 and 1964 and then two more in the early 70s. There were also three early 60s Honey West novels written by Erik Marsh (about which I know nothing) and there have been several attempts to revive the character.

I’ve previously reviewed the first book in the series, This Girl For Hire, and the third, A Gun For Honey. And the TV series (which is wonderful in its own way).

Honey West is very much the model for most of the female PIs, cops and secret agents (in print and in television and movies) that would appear in subsequent decades - sexy, smart and dangerous. She was in fact the prototype of the kickass action heroine.

Girl on the Loose is moderately hardboiled, pulpy and throughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Lester Del Rey’s Pursuit

Lester Del Rey’s novella Pursuit appeared in the magazine Space Science Fiction in May 1952.

Del Rey (1915-1993) was a prolific American science fiction writer, particularly of juvenile titles.

Pursuit is all about fear. Wilbur Hawkes is a mathematician. Wilbur wakes up one morning and automatically reaches for a cigarette. Which is strange, since he doesn’t smoke. Or at least he didn’t smoke. Maybe he does now. Because Wilbur cannot remember anything of the past seven months of his life.

The one thing he is aware of is the fear. They are determined to get him. They have been pursuing him relentlessly. And now he’s sure that they’ve found him again. He flees from his apartment, and just in time. He has no sooner reached the street when his apartment explodes in a ball of fire. He runs for the subway, and the subway entrance is demolished in another fire ball.

Wilbur thinks they have a heat ray. He’s not sure why he thinks that, but that’s what he thinks. He’s actually not at all sure that such a thing as a heat ray is possible.

He has no idea of the identity of the people pursuing him. He’s fairly confident it’s not the police. The young man in the old grey saloon car that he keeps seeing is probably one of them. He’s not sure about the fat man. Or about Ellen. Ellen turned up at a sleazy cold-water apartment Wilbur had apparently rented although he has no memory of having rented it. Ellen claims to be the same Ellen he knew as a kid. Maybe she is. Or maybe she’s one of them. He has to trust somebody and he thinks he can trust Ellen, but then again maybe he can’t.

He has considered the possibility that this is an alien invasion. It makes sense. He’s dealing with monsters that can levitate cars and have other terrifying powers.

The fear helps. It always seem to warn him when he’s in danger. But eventually they will get him. He can’t run forever. But he has to keep running.

The paranoia is very nicely done in this little tale. Wilbur isn’t just facing terrifying enemies - he’s facing enemies he doesn’t understand. If he could just remember a few things, but he can’t remember anything.

Del Rey makes us wait until very near the end of the story before giving us the big reveal, and the reveal is pretty satisfying. And even when we know what is going on, even when Wilbur Hawkes knows what’s going on, it doesn’t solve the problem. Wilbur still doesn’t know what to do. But maybe he can find an answer in time. Maybe.

This is a rather nifty little tale, very tightly constructed and very fast-moving and with some genuine overtones of existential terror. Pursuit is highly recommended.

Pursuit is paired with Paul Ernst’s Rulers of the Future in a two-novel paperback from Armchair Fiction.