So, right up front, there’s some doubt about the name of this story. It is consistently called “The Hell-Bound Train” wherever mentioned in The Hugo Winners, Volume I. Wikipedia credits it as “That Hell-Bound Train,” matching the folksong from which it takes its name. Isfbd.org agrees with Wikipedia.
Robert Bloch is perhaps best known as the author of Psycho, the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thriller of the same name was based, and of Psycho II, the novel on which Richard Franklin’s less-famous thriller of the same name was… not based.
Bloch’s work nearly always includes elements of horror, but he is known for science fiction stories as well, including the Star Trek episodes“Wolf in the Fold,” about Jack the Ripper, “Catspaw,” about the fabled civilization whose science is so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic, and “What Are Little Girls Made of?”, about the killer androids created by a dread (and dead) civilization.
No surprise, then, that his first-and-only Hugo-winning short is not really a science fiction story, but a variation on Faust and many other tales of mortals trying to outwit the devil.
The other day, I talked about why I don’t like fiction in the fantasy genre. I admitted that I was using a rather specific definition of fantasy, and I went over a specific example of a fantasy story that didn’t work for me.
So what does work for me? I would say that I’m capable of enjoying any successful piece of fiction. Ah… but what is “successful fiction,” and how does one know if one’s creating it?
Writing successful Fiction comes down to the question of “What’s in it for me?” “Me,” in this case, being the reader.
Or so I believe. I wouldn’t trust me, as it’s quite arguable whether or not I’ve ever written a piece of successful fiction.
(Or…Why I Don’t Like Fantasy, Explained, Part One)
I don’t like fantasy.
“But all fiction is fantasy… waaaaaah…”
Stop that. You know what I mean. Well, maybe you don’t. I know what I mean.
I mean Tolkein. Conan the Barbarian. Shanara. Xanth. Hell, I have trouble getting into Heinlein’s Glory Road, although I’ve read it three times. All good works, but I don’t like their flavor. Except Glory Road. (What is “Fantasy?” Stay tuned next week.) For whatever reason, I’ve just never cared for fantasy.
So, when I sat down to read the latest entry in Isaac Asimov’s The Hugo Winners and realized it was largely fantasy, I read with an extra critical eye. As a result, I gained some insights about what elements fantasy as a genre often contains—or does not contain—that make it a problem for me.
After promising a weekly blog, I posted on two successive Fridays, then skipped two Fridays and did a Monday. I started this one resolved to miss only one week, assuming I posted it by Friday, August 26th. Then I realized that I needed to do a lot of background research to write this piece, and that was not a realistic date. I did another review in the meantime, and now, here’s the piece I intended to run. Hopefully I’ll be back on a weekly track through the Fall.
I missed a few postings because I went to Scotland. It was an eight-day trip. We left on a Thursday, on a 10 PM flight. Which meant getting to Dulles International by 7 PM. Which meant leaving home about 5:30. We rolled in the door of our house a little after 7:30 PM the following Thursday.
But this isn’t a travelogue. I’m writing about one particular part of our trip, and how it got me thinking. What better part of a trip is there?
We went to the Highlands by bus from Edinburgh, ostensibly to see Loch Ness. Our guide for the charter was Rose, a Scottish National Storyteller (a seanchaidh, in Scottish Gaelic. The Internet disagrees, but she pronounced her calling “Sen.uh.shee”). It’s a prestigious title. I believe Rose said there are less than 100 of them. She has interned for 20 years, has just finished her 20 years of practice, and will now mentor for 20 years.
This week, while working on a blog post about Scottish politics (not kidding—just got back from Scotland and was fascinated by some comments made by an excellent tour guide),
I decided to take a detour into nostalgia. I quaffed down a Slurpee and inhaled a couple cans of Pringles and re-read a favorite comic book. Okay, I read a comic book. The other stuff will stay a pleasant memory, because, while 11-year-old me had the metabolism of a blast furnace, 57-year-old me gains eight ounces just by typing the words “Cheese Waffles.”
I’ve read this issue probably a hundred times—99 of them, sadly, before I was 15, and the last this week. From the depths of a long box in my office, it’s been calling to me, “Please read me again!” Finally, I did. Why that particular comic called out to me, I’ll get into at the end.
This story has always haunted me. They made us read it in 8th grade, and my almost-next-door neighbor Brian had told me the story of the film. He told me the stories of lots of films. He was two years older than I, and far more worldly. The novel was on the shelf at our school library, where I spent most of my recess periods. The cover is one of the things that haunted me. It depicts a Rorschach inkblot, with some flowers laying on top of it. When I was 10 or 11, I didn’t know what a Rorschach test was. I thought the cover was some Avant Garde representation of a brain, suggesting the torturous horrors of opening up a skull and performing surgery on the brain within. (I didn’t know what Avant Garde was either, but it describes the gist of my impression then.)
How’s that for a glimpse of my psyche? Ironic that, like the hero of the story, I had no idea what a Rorschach test was; but, unlike Charlie Gordon, I was quite capable to taking one.
This is my second time reading this book. Actually, the first time I read it in two parts. The publication history is confusing. Rissa Kerguelen was published in Hardback in 1976. The Long View followed the same year. In 1977, both books were released as a single, 630-page paperback, confusingly also titled Rissa Kerguelen.
It’s been a while since I blogged. When I started blogging weekly, a decade ago, I did reviews of books, comics and movies, with occasional essays on overall themes from science fiction and popular culture. I also occasionally talked about politics and social issues. In the years following my father’s death, I talked about the house that he had started building in 1967 and my work to move it toward completion.
Around 2019, life… happened. It took turns I did not expect, many of them. While I kept writing, I didn’t have the energy or the confidence to continue sharing my thoughts with the world.
Now, I’m trying to get back to blogging. I’ll start by doing what I used to—reviewing what I’m reading. Here goes.
I picked up The Hugo Winners, Volumes 1 & 2 at a used bookstore in Liverpool, PA about two weeks ago. It was the only book I picked out that day. That is unusual for me, but I had a six-year-old—my grandson—dancing about my feet as I browsed, wailing that he was hungry, that he was bored, that I needed to help him explore the crawlspace in the bookstore’s basement. He had already picked out a book for himself—The Encyclopedia of Chess—and his work there was done. In the interests of keeping my shins and wrists intact, I picked out one book I did not yet own (I was pretty sure) and headed to the checkout.
Many readers of my blog don’t keep up with social media—a healthy practice, these days. For them, here’s a capsule description of the events I’m writing about:
Renee and I are Deputy Chairs of an annual science fiction convention called Farpoint. We founded it in 1993. It’s a family endeavor that has included our parents, our siblings, and our children. It is not a profitable venture. Trust me. It’s a labor of love. There’s not enough money in the world to make us do this job if we weren’t doing it for love.
The last live event was held in February, 2020, and the team offered some virtual programming in Feburary, 2021, during the height of the Covid pandemic. We decided to return to in-person for 2022.
In November, 2021, Farpoint published its Covid-19 policy, created after much committee discussion, consultations with lawyers and health professionals, consultation with our venue, Delta by Marriott, Hunt Valley, and, of course, in accordance with Maryland State and Baltimore County regulations and CDC recommendations.
[SPOILERS AHEAD – I wouldn’t want to disappoint you before the movie itself does.]
“There’s a new movie on Netflix with Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio,” said my wife. That was enough for me. I enjoy the work of both actors. The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia, Titanic, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Said movie also starred Jennifer Lawrence and featured Timothee Chalamet. I like both of them as well, though neither name put a film on my “must-see” list. Said movie was directed by someone named Adam McKay. I did not know who that was. I do now. He’s a former writer for Saturday Night Live and the screenwriter for a whole passel of Will Ferrell movies.
About the actors I can only say, “I hope it was just a paycheck.” With a lot of Listerine, I can probably wash the taste of Don’t Look Up out of my mouth and continue to watch their films.
About Adam McKay, I’ll say, “Stick to low comedy. It suits you.”