Short Reviews – That Mess Last Year, by John D. MacDonald and Galactic Heritage, by Frank Belknap Long

Friday , 10, March 2017 12 Comments

That Mess Last Year, by John D. MacDonald and Galactic Heritage, by Frank Belknap Long appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find complete scans of this issue. If I do, though, or if someone else posts them, I’ll update with links.

I’ve said for a while now that one of the worst fates a writer can have is to immediately follow up a Leigh Brackett story. Even if that were not the case, That Mess Last Year would probably not have grabbed my fancy. I’ve never been a fan of first person stories written in dialect, because a lot of times this is used as an excuse to throw in a lot of “Crazy, ain’t it?” and “Boyshuckshowdylemmetellya” asides. That Mess Last Year not only starts out with a first person recollective dialectic narrative, it goes into a recollection of another guy telling the actual story in first person recollective dialectic narrative!

A guy is out in the western American deserts on a job and gets to know a dorky loser scientist at a bar. The dorky loser scientist has the hots for a dame who’d never notice him in a million years. To make a short story shorter, a lab accident blows him up and he goes King Kong with her.

Galactic Heritage, while still falling well short of greatness, was at least a bit more original. In this one, the protagonist is a circus midget. You REALLY don’t see many stories where the main character is a circus midget, in SF or elsewhere. The main character struggles with a lot of the daily issues of being a little person, both mechanical and social, but he’s befriended by one of the other carnies, a giant. Now, the giant is really weird and really forward, and the little person is kinda creeped out by it, but something, perhaps his desire for friendship and social connection, draws him toward the giant and causes him to be more forgiving of his awkward but earnest gestures of affection than he knows he should.

Then the giant shows the little person the big secret he’s been working on – he’s got a monkey strapped into a crazy contraption and starts ranting about the powers of the human mind and unlocking it’s unlimited potential. The giant scoops the little guy up, straps the helmet on him and fires up the machine; next thing the little guy knows, he’s halfway across the circus camp, naked and on top of the elephant. The giant apologizes and explains that his device allows people to unlock enough of their hidden mind to move matter – his subconscious mind thought ‘elephant’ and teleported him there!

One small disaster after another ends up with the giant on the run and leaving instructions for the little guy to use the machine think hard on a specific location. The little guy reluctantly follows the instructions and winds up at an abandoned spaceship. The twist is that the two circus freaks were actually aliens (and twins! like from the movie with Arnold and Danny DeVito); the midget had lost his memories, and the giant needed to finish his machine to try to unlock both the psy-physical means for them to escape from earth back to their homeworld and cure the midget’s amnesia.

The writing in this one was a bit clumsier than I would’ve liked, and by far fell short of Brackett’s beautiful prose, but it was a neat story that definitely wasn’t the same-old-same-old.


  • deuce says:

    Coincidentally, I was reading/skimming through a collection of Belknapius’ SF the other night. As usual, I wasn’t particularly impressed. If not for being HPL’s buddy, I think he would be basically forgotten today.

    • cirsova says:

      It was an interesting idea executed in a mediocre fashion. Part of why I combined these was I didn’t want to have a posts of a bad and a mediocre story back to back.

    • deuce says:

      “Interesting idea executed in a mediocre fashion” pretty well sums up FBL’s best stories. This is the guy who took an excellent dream fragment from Lovecraft and turned it into “The Horror from the Hills.”

      Yeah, I think you chose the right path in posting both. The pulps reached great heights at times because they usually allowed such a wide range of material and creativity. By the same token, there was a lot of junk.

      • cirsova says:

        After doing this for nearly 2 years, I’m more surprised when I find a bad story in the pulps given how good the average story is.

        The next two stories, which I’ve already read, were much better than these. Still, every story in this issue I’ve read so far has been a completely different subgenre, or at least style, of SF.

      • deuce says:

        It might be possible that, since I grew up reading good pulp lit from the age of 8 and quit reading most contemporary fiction 25yrs ago, that you may just be grateful for a story that has a good plot AND doesn’t preach at you. Then again, perhaps not. Everyone has different tastes.

        The general grasp of English tended to be better in the Pulp Era and there weren’t the various entanglements/prohibitions/lunacies we have now, but Sturgeon’s Law still holds: 90% of everything is junk. That doesn’t mean that isolated venues like Planet Stories didn’t have a higher rate of quality or that quality has gone UP since the Pulp Era, just that there was plenty of trash in the pulps as well. One has only to read an issue of Weird Tales which didn’t have REH, HPL and Smith all on the roster, look at some of the stuff that WAS printed and go back and see just how many of their tales Wright rejected to understand that the metric wasn’t optimal.

        The indie market is wide open now — and I’m glad of it — but is everything being self-published great? The pulps had to crank out a massive amount of product. Sometimes quality control wasn’t set high enough. Still doesn’t mean I don’t generally prefer fiction from that era or fiction inspired by it.

        • cirsova says:

          I very well could have gotten lucky with what issues I found, and for the most part, I’ve only been able to compare Planet Stories against other issues of Planet Stories. Despite having some big names side by side with Brackett, I thought the issue with Black Amazon of Mars was one of the weakest I’d read (I found neither Poul Anderson’s nor A.E. Van Vogt’s entries in that issue enjoyable).

          I’ve yet to hit a consistent bad stretch, though if I keep reading, I’m sure I will eventually.

  • Criticas says:

    If you’re into he-man detective stories, John McDonald’s Travis McGee series is well worth a look. In it’s day (60’s-70’s) it was as popular as Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. McDonald was a newspaperman (and Harvard MBA, and Army LtC in WWII, and …) with an inquisitive mind, and McGee is a contemplative soul.

    • cirsova says:

      I have a couple more detective pulps I need to get through first, but for whatever reason, I’ve found I have a harder time getting into detective stories.

      I really enjoyed what Agatha Christie I’ve read, and some of the space detective stuff I’ve read from Planet Stories and from Jack Vance (especially Dogtown Tourist Agency), I’ve really loved, but straight hardboiled detective stories haven’t been my cuppa – I always find myself thinking “This would be so much better if it were happening in space!”

    • John E. Boyle says:

      The Travis McGee books are pretty good; not quite as good as the Nero Wolfe books, but good stories with plenty of action. I recommend them if you’ve a taste for the gumshoes.

      That came out wrong.

  • icewater says:

    Some of Long’s shorter horror stories are pretty good, but his SF and longer horror (like aforementioned “The Horror from the Hills”, which is for some reason still touted as a classic among some Mythos fans) are generally meh.

    • deuce says:

      I like “A Visitor from Egypt” and a few others, but I can point to short stories from 30 forgotten authors that are just as good.

      For me, it doesn’t help that FBL talked trash on Robert E. Howard and then engaged in the necrophagy that was the “Genseric’s Fifth-Born Son” round-robin. For the money. A man who prided himself on being such a pure artist and denigrated REH as a “mere pulp” author and a “boys’ writer”.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Long was a good friend to Lovecraft; that and the Hounds of Tindalos and a few other Mythos stories seems to be the reasons why he’s remembered today.

    His trash talk aimed at REH seems to me to have been motivated by jealousy, of Howard’s friendship with HPL and of Howard’s raw talent with both prose & poetry. Long himself was supposed to have been a talented poet in his youth, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere.

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