So the previous post featured two very different short stories, a feminist SF fabulation and a moving romance, that both introduced me to authors I went on to read in depth. There are other authors where just a single story (or a small number) has moved me, yet their other works haven’t impressed. Yet.
Part of that is time, I loved Kij Johnson’s ‘Spar’ but haven’t got around to reading much more by her. On the other hand Connie Willis’ work at longer lengths just doesn’t grab me, but I did like ‘At the Rialto’ and ‘Even The Queen.’
All The Sounds of Fear — Harlan Ellison (1962)
There are those who dismiss Ellison as irrelevant, as much a dinosaur as the Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, or as of no literary interest because of his behaviour in other ways. I see their point but suggest that there are exceptions, and this is one.
This may be one of Ellison’s earlier ‘mature’ stories but it has aged much better than most of his œuvre. So surprising to me therefore that it isn’t included in The Essential Ellison.
‘All The Sounds of Fear’ is the story of Richard Becker, method actor. A man whose devotion to his craft is total.
Like the Chinaman in The Prestige, Becker ‘lives’ his role offstage as much as on. Living on the street for six months to portray a tramp, working in a foundry before a steelworker role, and so on. Until the night he’s found having brutally murdered a woman. Subsequently in the asylum he reverts through each role in reverse until … well, read the story. It’s a unique take on the Merlin Sickness.
Although told in typical intense, pounding Ellison prose, for once this fits the claustrophobic nightmare within. Ellison can’t resist one or two little jibes, at cinema for instance, but this is controlled which is why it stands out.
The New You – Kit Reed (1962)
Connie Willis introduces Reed’s collection Weird Women, Wired Women by remembering the first Kit Reed story she read. Likewise I retained a memory of ‘Automatic Tiger’ for ages before I found more. And what I found I frequently liked a lot. Not so much her novels, but dark short feminist SF like ‘The New You’
The idea of someone who gets what they wish for only to find it wasn’t what they expected is a standard throughout literature. Kit Reed has worked it into her stories for 50 years, but ‘The New You’ is probably her best example.
Her subject has consistently been the ordinary woman. Reed’s protagonists are the housewives of middle America, the working family women. They aren’t in the midst of big events, world changing stories, this is smalltown sff. Thematically Reed’s women often have esteem issues, body image fears, right from gut punching first story ‘The Wait’ in 1958 to most recent novel Enclave from 2009.
So when Martha sees an ad for The New You what she buys is a physical manifestation of her desire, and she believes it will save her marriage and boost her and her husband’s status. It’s standard fare made pointed by the language used; “dowdy”, “frumpy” and “shrill” all words used to criticise women reassigned here. The new Martha (Marnie) uses them on her old self highlighting the ways women like Martha constrain themselves to fit into societal images. It’s what Reed has done for half a century, more recently aiming her concerns at young women.
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