Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Best of Robert Bloch

It seems to me that the genre of science fiction is, by its nature, generally optimistic. The general movement of plots is such that a challenge is met and overcome. To be sure, there are exceptions to this generality such as Brave New World and 1984, but I think these may be exceptions that prove the rule. Most dystopic science fiction ends up with the protagonist finding a way to a better life for himself, his loved one, or even the culture at large. And it is the unhappy conclusions of the other novels that give them so much power (and I have to admit that the conclusion of Brave New World is one of my favorites in all of literature). But for the rest, some intrinsic characteristic of man helps him to succeed, making the story something of a triumph

At the same time, I think horror writing is generally pessimistic: while the majority of the plot is spent trying to overcome some supernatural or horrible thing, and sometimes the protagonist succeeds, there is usually an indication that all is not really well and that the horror goes on. Again, there are exceptions—Dracula comes to mind—but generally there is implied that there are more Bad Things out there, coming to get us. The best Twilight Zone episodes, for example end in that fashion: the horror may have been temporarily stymied, but it's still there. H. P. Lovecraft's stories merely have the protagonists survive, because what humanity is fighting against is more powerful and more awful than can really be explained.

And so it is an interesting collection that includes stories from a writer who is so masterful at both genres, Robert Bloch, and observing how these ideas bleed into one another in his stories is fascinating. Let me be frank: this collection, though engaging and well-written, is not uplifting. But Bloch doesn't fall back on dystopic tropes; his stories are packed with a careful examination and evaluation of life in the mid-20th century (and with numerous parallels to our contemporary life) and decides that rather than deserving acclaim, man and his culture generally leave a lot to be desired. I don't often recommend such things, but it seems to me that Bloch's own afterword is better served by being read before the stories in the collection, since it explains the process he went through to select the stories he did.

The collection begins with two of his most popular stories, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" and "Enoch." Both of them are more horror than science fiction or fantasy and both of them are suitably chilling. But after these stories, the collection moves more towards science fiction and we can begin to see the melding of the two viewpoints of the two genres, perhaps mingled a little with a little cynicism that we all feel as we grow older and world-weary. The two stories that stand out best in this regard are "The Funnel of God" and "Learning Maze."

In "Funnel", the main character is born in South Africa, on the edge between the modern white culture and the traditional black culture that has its own legends and mythology. As a child, Harvey Wolf meets a figure out of African legend, the Black Skelm, who greets him as a fellow seeker for truth. He tasks Harvey with going out into the world and discovering Truth and then returning to him so they can share notes. After Harvey's parents die, leaving him a fortune, he travels the world and creates a bleak catalog of human hypocrisy and failed attempts to rise beyond the mortal weights that weigh down man's soul. On the one hand, Harvey's visits with great thinkers and his repudiation of them is interesting, but as it goes on and on for pages, it becomes clear that the truth is that man is self-deluded and vain. Harvey despairs and returns to the Black Skelm, and together eat from the seed of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, choosing to give up on humanity and try to find a better existence as gods. And then Black Skelm makes a momentous decision.

Similarly, "Learning Maze" catalogs man's foibles in a thinly veiled allegory. Humanity has realized that all of our problems come from the inefficient and ineffective relationships formed between child and parents and so children are raised entirely by machines with logic and ration as their guides. The machines understand and promote emotion, seeking to bring out the very best qualities of their wards as they interact in a physical labyrinth. Children are taught by examples on televisions and practice their lessons until the machines allow them to advance to another segment of the labyrinth or, alternatively, decide that the child is not meeting the conditions for moving and is subsequently dropped through a hole in the floor to never be heard from again. As the children mature, they are allowed to interact with the opposite sex and practice domesticity, apparently in preparation for their release from the labyrinth. But as the main character progresses, he becomes stymied near the end of the labyrinth as he watches groups of other inhabitants performing bizarre tasks which make no sense to him. To the reader it is obvious that these are representations of the kind of work that people participate in as adults but Bloch reduces them to their most absurd, hinting at the futility and unhappiness that underlies most of the workaday world. Finally Jon approaches the exit from the labyrinth but is asked to explain his discoveries in order to escape, but though he succeeds, he finds that his escape isn't everything he hoped. The climax to the story is a sharp denunciation of the kind of life that we accept as normal in the Western world.

This is not to say there is no humor in Bloch's stories, but that humor is generally a little black given its origin in horror. In "The Plot is the Thing", the heroine escapes from the real world by watching TV incessantly, to the point where her health is affected by her lack of eating. She is rescued from this trap by well-meaning doctors who examine her and then prescribe treatment to acclimatize herself to the world she should be living in. But as she travels that world, she finds uncanny symmetry between it and the horror movies she used to use to escape, ultimately finding herself a character in not one horror movie, but all of them. Perhaps the most humorous story in the collection is the Hugo-wining "That Hellbound Train", which describes a young rascal's deal with the devil (appearing as a train conductor) and his lifelong attempts to foil the devil's plans for him. The story has a surprising and funny twist at its end, turning away from the way that most deal with the devil stories end.

Optimistic or pessimistic, nearly every story in this collection is engaging. Bloch honed his craft over decades of writing hundreds of stories, plots, and screenplays, so the stories grab the reader quickly and flow without wasted word. I found them fascinating of themselves but also as mirrors of our expectations of how far advanced our culture and thinking is than that of a half-century ago (truthfully, it turns out we haven't changed much at all except in the details). And of course, they do also offer a different way of thinking about science fiction and its generally optimistic premise, a difference that is being exploited more and more by the stories that are perceived as more literary, in part because they just don't follow the expected path. In short, The Best of Robert Bloch serves the purpose I expected of it—it offers a relatively short but strong view of one of the genre's seminal and foundational writers. For me, that alone is enough to recommend it.

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