Friday, 18 September 2009

Uncollected short stories (Part 1)

One of the reasons I love Monash University's Matheson Library (at which I work) is because its Rare Books section houses the largest collection of pulp SF in Australia (probably the largest in the entire southern hemisphere). Every Friday I put work for a couple of hours in Rare Books, just helping sort and re-shelve materials. Last week I got distracted and started flicking through some issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and discovered a Gene Wolfe short story not collected in any of his short story volumes. This intrigued me, so I went away and compiled a list of his uncollected short stories, and I found that there are four at my library! So today, in my lunch break, I tracked down two of these. (The others will have to wait till next week).

Gene Wolfe, 'A Method Bit in "B",' Orbit 8, edited by Damon Knight, 1970.

I'm surprised that this story wasn't collected in any of Wolfe's early volumes, since it is quite good. Our narrator, a detective, is called to investigate disturbances at a manor (or castle) on the outskirts of his town. He curiously skips over describing what actually took place at the manor, and details an unusual experience he had in a bar later that night. In the bar he saw everyone 'unusual' in his town drinking beverages that looked alcoholic, but in fact had no alcohol in them, and acting in their most characteristically 'unusual' ways. He glosses over the shooting of a dangerous American werewolf by a werewolf-hunting occultist, and concludes the story with a description of him looking through one of his neighbour's windows to find the entire house empty inside, with dirt and shrubs where the floor should be. During the story, the narrator reflects on method actors, and how they become deeply immersed in their roles. We are left thinking that the narrator himself must be a method actor in a bad 'B' film - a peripheral character in a movie about werewolves and their slayers.

While not one of Wolfe's best short stories, it does leave you thinking for a while after reading it. Like most of his stories, you have to piece together what happened and solve the riddle Wolfe puts forth (though, admittedly, this one wasn't terrible difficult - it was kind of given away by the title). I think I liked it mostly because it's a pastiche of a 'B' film, like how 'The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories' and 'An Evil Guest' are pastiches of pulp novels.

Overall grade: B (get it?)

Gene Wolfe, 'Tarzan of the Grapes,' The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1972.

This story follows a reporter, Brown, as he accompanies a deputy, Prescott, and his colleagues, on a search a vineyard for an 'ape man' and his followers, believed to be living among the grapes. We are told that Brown and his boss, Culough, invented the 'ape man' story for their newspaper, but after it became widely read, copycats started living in the vineyard. The deputy and his colleagues find a ragged looking girl, who calls herself 'Jane', and take her into custody. A muscular 'Tarzan' then comes along and frees his 'Jane', but in doing so he is knocked down and handcuffed. The story ends with him breaking his bonds...

This very short story was surprisingly simple for Wolfe - unlike most of his fiction, we aren't really left with many questions as to what actually happened. The only real question is where this 'Tarzan' character came from, and how he gained his enormous strength. I see two possibilities: (1) he is just an incredibly strong man who took up living in the vineyard after Brown's story was published, or (2) he was living there all along and Brown's article was (unintentionally) true. Either way, the story doesn't have much of a SF or fantasy feel to it - and that's the primary reason I read Wolfe. The title (and perhaps the entire story?) is, of course, a play on Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914).

Photographs of the pulp that 'Tarzan of the Grapes' was printed in. I'm not entirely sure what 'CANCELLED' means in this context, but it's a terrible thing to do to a book - even an SF pulp!


  1. Thanks for the story summaries-- very useful. I hope you'll read and post on the other two your library holds. Nice to find someone who seems to enjoy Wolfe's writings as much as I do. Would you mind posting the list of his uncollected work that you've come up with?

  2. Uh, and I'm definitely posting under my wife's Google profile. Apologies.

  3. Hehe, no worries. I'll post my list of Wolfe's uncollected works later in the week, when I've had a chance to check it before releasing it into the wild to roam free among the internets.