opening the windows: arthur porges, “the mirror and other strange reflections.”

Max Frey, Meerestiefe. 1927. (Courtesy of Monster Brains).

Max Frey, Meerestiefe. 1927. (Courtesy of Monster Brains).

I have been away from this blog for a long time. Something in the nature of seven months. In that time, I have not been smashed by an automobile, garroted, set aflame, tattooed to death, or suffered any other life altering incident that would prohibit maintaining an unpopular blog. I have been working the same old blue collar job and reading, mostly. Occasionally the exciting intervenes. But for the most part I have been reading novels and stories, and have written a few stories and poems, as well as a 6,000-ish word essay for the scholarly journal Aickman Studies, entitled “Beyond the Human Compass.” It is now in revision mode.

A few of the novels I read have been noteworthy. I finally read Dedalus’s reprint of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side. I read Gerald Kersh’s wonderful Fowlers End, courtesy of the valiant Valancourt. I found both of these marvelous, and both will be included whenever I open my mouth in response to the question of “favorite novels.” In process of reading John Fowles’ The Magus, and am soon to embark on Reggie Oliver’s new best of collection from Dark Subterranean, The Sea of Blood. 

This post, an instance of metaphorically airing out a stuffy apartment, is in response to Ash Tree Press‘ collection of short fiction by Arthur Porges, a lesser known writer and mathematics teacher who began writing fantasy, horror, and science fiction in the early 1950’s.

Porges is one of those writers whose mind operates as a compression device, reducing all of his tales to a length of three to six pages. What other writers say in five hundred words, he says in fifty. There may be something of style and panache lost in this reduction, but the ability is admirable and resulted in eminently sale-able pieces to Fantastic and other magazines. Regarding his own flaws as a writer, Porges says in his introduction that he is an idea man, and no great shakes with character. I am reminded of M. John Harrison’s statement of how some of his adolescent SF heroes were capable of head-fucking him like no other, but who possessed “the emotional range of mollusks.”

It is true that the characterizations in Porges’ stories are primarily either “nice guy wants girl” or “tough guy wants money,” with the odd seasoning of “scholar wants knowledge.” Given this deficit of character and prose style, most of the tales have little value in terms of re-reading, but there are a few tales that come through with genuine force and vividness. So much Silver Age SF and fantasy staggers along as if chained in prose’s foot-irons, unable to break free. It dances with vigor and admirable sinuosity, but seldom lets you forget the clanging of the chains on its feet. I’m reminded of a piece of cultural detritus from another world; the old-time fiddler Harry Kiker once described John Dilleshaw (a.k.a. Seven Foot Dilly) thusly: “He weren’t no extra singer, but he was real on the guitar. Them old-timers didn’t go in for foolishness, they went for the sound o’ them boxes.” Arthur Porges, a man with a mind of empirical and mathematical bent, was no extra prose stylist, but he went in for the stories.

And the stories have admirably versatile plots, always a feature I admire in writers (hello Tom Disch and Bob Leman). A few examples: in “What Crouches in the Deep,” a treasure-hunting submersible operator discovers that the Nazi commander of a sunken art-laden sub is still alive, but only in the loosest sense; in “Second Debut,” the mediocre brother of a famous biologist is injected with the DNA of a brilliant pianist who died in mysterious circumstances; “The Fanatic” features an obsessive who believes that many of the creatures we call ‘animals’ are actually predatory aliens engaged in reconnaissance work; in “Words and Music,” a story still smudged with mid-century Soviet scare, a failed musician receives the essence and thoughts of other people as classical compositions; the dissipated and homeless scientist of “The Moths” is visited by a species of moth that might hold the key to obtaining energy from the sun, but in a fit of pique and despair, lying in a filth and lice ridden bed at night, he crushes them in his fingers; the ironically titled “Mystery and Magic on the Steppe” is truly one of the most harrowing conte cruels I’ve read in years, revealing with unsparing and unsentimental detail the indifferent and contingent brutality of nature and humanity. Likewise, “The Mirror” is just as determined to annihilate and murder the innocent and shatter illusions, whether of civilization or of domesticity.

This is another thing to be said of Porges: he may have some of the grating whimsicalities of Silver Age authors, some of their disposable commerciality, but he also possesses a darker turn that he is unafraid to explore to its final conclusions. In this respect I am reminded of Basil Copper, but to do Porges justice, I think he goes farther than Copper at twisting the knife in.

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There are a few tales with a Jamesian flavor, but with more gruesome tendencies than James (“Count Magnus” notwithstanding). A characteristic excerpt, from “Solomon’s Demon”:

The carving depicted a scene of nightmare context on the deck of a ship. One man, presumably the captain, from his dress, was cringing against the rail with an expression of sick disbelief on his face. He was holding a small black box, the size of a brick. Before him, a sailor lay dead. He appeared to have been a giant of herculean build, perhaps cock of the fo’c’stle, yet one of his arms had been torn off at the shoulder, and his face was a shapeless ruin of mangled flesh.

Three other men were engaged in a gallant but obviously hopeless fight with a most appalling monster. It was tall, much taller than the biggest sailor, cadaverously thin, and fearfully banded with wire-like muscles. One huge taloned paw still clutched the red rags of the dead man’s face; the other was cramming the end of the severed arm into the gaping mouth. The creature wore a sort of tattered grey robe, through which its pale skin, sparsely dotted with green hair, gleamed obscenely…

The thing was earless, and had only a single moist pit for a nose, but its mouth was a jungle of teeth like great glass splinters, running far back into the mighty jaws.

Porges strays into very different territory with “The Forerunner.” It is a piece of mysticism with Christian undertones, wherein a tropical bird, likened to Joseph with his coat of many colors, makes the most appalling noises at night in a suburban neighborhood until it is shot by a disgruntled man. The narrator sneaks out to find the bird, and seeing that it is alive, smuggles it back to his house to nurse it. He gradually realizes that the bird’s song, although extremely dissonant and repetitive, is a song of triumph, of grand announcement. The bird withers under his care and soon dies, but not before shouting, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” in between the bars of its song. Who exactly is coming is left on a note of ambiguity, and the tale retains something stranger than the Christian didacticism it could be taken for. Doubtless Porges had nothing of the kind in mind, but I picture the bird squawking out some of Albert Ayler’s spiritual pieces…

Behind the prose shorn of style, behind the corny jingoism of some of the characters, the vestiges of McCarthyism, and the kitschy fantasy so common in Silver Age work (“$1.98,” “The Fanatical Ford”), there lurks a writer of the fantastic who nurses more darkness and possesses more cold clarity than was typical for his time. The end of “The Moths” has something of cosmic beauty and tragedy to it; “The Second Debut” would be a fine addition to any speculative fiction anthology themed around music; perhaps “Mystery and Magic on the Steppe” will make it into the anthology of the cruel tale I’d like to get around to compiling some day. It would rival even the Birkin pieces.

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3 thoughts on “opening the windows: arthur porges, “the mirror and other strange reflections.”

  1. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece on this book. I can tell you Arthur Porges would have been delighted with this write up, even with the criticisms. He was a realist and in his own words without false modesty.
    I am glad you liked “The Forerunner,” which had a curious effect on me, too. I once asked Arthur what this story meant. He replied it was a mood piece and he wasn’t sure himself what it was about!
    I published a follow up volume of Porges’ uncollected fantasy short stories in 2009, “The Devil and Simon Flagg and Other Fantastic Tales.”
    All the best,
    Richard Simms
    The Arthur Porges Fan Site

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