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.
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.
[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.”
So, since this time last week, those of you who have been following my blog posts—particularly my Legion of Super-Heroes reviews, will have noticed that I’ve ceased my daily posts.
It’s been a time of great change for me. Most of you know I lost my father last year, which not only leaves a big hole in one’s life, (assuming one is lucky enough to have a relationship with one’s father) but changes the family dynamic. When a person is gone, you realize a thousand ways in which their simple presence, much less their direct actions, changed everything about them. My father was eccentric, stubborn, often emotionally distant. Who knew he was the heart of the family? He was.
My sons have moved out. They haven’t gone far, and one of them only moved into a dorm. He’s getting an apartment in a couple of months, though. He may still call our house “home,” but he’ll officially be living elsewhere. Renee and I are rattling around ten rooms by ourselves, alone together for the first time in 25 years, and this time with only one of our four parents in the picture.
I realize now that I’m in a new phase of my adult life—the third major phase. I’m not going to call it “Act Three,” because that’s bloody morbid. Nor is it appropriate. I’m not even a grandparent yet, although many of my peers are. Unless you’re in a Shakespeare play, “Act Three” is the last act. I’m not there yet, unless there are pages in the script I don’t know about.
In 1968, no film sparked the imaginations of viewers like Stanley Kubrik’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was released in the United States in the first few days of April, 1968, a year before Adventure Comics #380’s March 27th, 1969 release, and, initially not a financial success, MGM was convinced not to pull it out of theaters when young adults (rumor has It many of them on hallucinogens) began flocking to see it. Young, “mod” people who enjoyed psychedelia were exactly the audience DC Comics was after as the decade wrapped. So whether it was young Jim Shooter’s admiration for the film which inspired him to tell the story of a Legion space odyssey, or Editor Weisinger’s desire to hook an audience, this story seemed like a natural for DC’s most science fiction-oriented property. (By this time, Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern had left his job at Ferris Aircraft and become an insurance salesman, rendering him less spaceborne than before. And Adam Strange, though advertised in this issue, was only appearing in reprints.)
Unfortunate, this space odyssey is short on believability, and turns out to be one of the tiresome sub-genre of “trick” stories, which too many Superboy and Superman stories fell into.