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.

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