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April 2000
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by James Sallis

The Compleat Boucher by Anthony Boucher, NESFA Press (Oct. 1999) $25.00.

Word Made Flesh by Jack O'Connell, HarperFlamingo (June 1999) $24.00.

Science fiction has been blessed with great editors, men like John Campbell, Horace Gold, and Mike Moorcock whose visions again and again have defined, reinvigorated, and transformed the field. Anthony Boucher is probably best remembered today for having lent his name to the world mystery convention, Bouchercon, and as founding editor with J. Francis McComas, from 1949 to 1958, of this very magazine.

In his own time Boucher was ubiquitous. He turned out a stream of original radio plays for "Sherlock Holmes" and "The Case Book of Gregory Hood" in the mid- Forties, served as president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1951 and three times received that organization's Edgar award for criticism, edited True Crime Detective Magazine, half a dozen or more anthologies, and, from 1952 through 1968, three major lines of crime fiction: the Mercury Mysteries, the Dell Great Mystery Library, and the Collier Mystery Classics. The pace of his reviewing alone, under the Boucher byline and that of his penname H. H. Holmes, would over-commit many writers: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, theChicago Sun-Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Times. For the Times he reviewed not only books but music and opera as well.

Boucher became, in his regular columns for the Times, the first to review the original paperbacks that began making their appearance in the Fifties, lurching up out of the placcid world of "Father Knows Best" and Ike and Mamie Eisenhower like the Gill Man from his lagoon. In this capacity he was a champion of writers like Jim Thompson, Vin Packer, and David Goodis, recognizing early on that these novelists were on to something vital and new.

He also believed that science fiction was on to something vital and new. With his editorship of F&SF, and with the series of anthologies culled from the magazine's contents, Boucher began directing serious attention towards the genre, just as he had done already with the mystery.

F&SF brought to the field a light-heartedness and a light touch theretofore uncommon. Science fiction to that point had inclined towards earnestness, all get-this idea and gee-whiz effect. As editor, Boucher helped import the influence of classical fantasists such as John Collier and Gerald Kersh, to hone things down to a finer, more literary edge. In his other favored genre, wonderful comic mysteries were being written by Jonathan Latimer and Craig Rice, among others; he clove to their example as well.

Boucher himself wrote seven mystery novels and just over fifty stories. Some of the latter are mysteries, some of them fantasies about cute demons, curses, and unsuspecting werewolves, some fairly straightforward science fiction. Many, perhaps the most interesting and the most characteristic, are odd mixes. Boucher was forever in the best sense an amateur, one who participates from simple love of the activity, and as with that of most amateurs writing from sheer pleasure, Boucher's work revolved about pet interests and concerns: time travel, Catholicism, music, the many ways in which our desires create the world in which we live.

In a 1951 afterword to 1942's Rocket to the Morgue, a mystery set among science-fiction writers and fans, Boucher noted that, a devotee of science fiction for twelve years then, he had written the novel in part as homage:

In one way it was very badly timed: the readers of hardcover books had at that time never heard of science fiction, and the whole subject seemed a little unbelievable to them. In another way the timing was precisely right: I had the opportunity to present a first-hand picture of an important stage in the development of American popular entertainment. . . . I've managed to capture a moment that has some interest as a historical footnote to popular literature. This is the way it was in Southern California just before the war, when science fiction was being given its present form by such masters as Robert A. Heinlein . . . Cleve Cartmill, Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, and many others.
He had indeed captured an important moment in the genre's development, and much the same might be said of the stories included in The Compleat Boucher. With their tales of self-aware robots, Venusians in our midst, possession by aliens and possession of demons summoned to grant wishes, with their circumstantial twists, gentle satire and thoroughgoing good humor, these stories document an important stage in science fiction's history—an era, if you will.

Very much of their time, artifacts of a sort, Boucher's mystery novels were elaborately and unabashedly artificial—locked-room murders, puzzle plots comprised of jigsaw clues that never turn out to be or mean what they seem, and of a circle of suspects upon whom suspicion in turn revolves—the whole of it flavored with humorous set-pieces and peopled with stock characters of the time: stuffy or nutty- genius professors, charming, clever drinkers and intrepid detectives, conjurers who prove to be actual magicians, a nun who solves murders. The stories, similarly, are mannered, stylized, adamantly non-realistic, with a strong sense of game-playing, fakery and sleight-of-hand. They are small shining machines that, engaged, do the single thing they were built to do, then turn themselves off. Yet sometimes, in the best of them, magic spills from the dovetailed cards, cups and balls, shuffled coins. Quite likely a handful—"The Quest for Saint Aquin," "The Compleat Werewolf," "Snulbug" or "They Bite," perhaps—qualify among the genre's hundred or so classic stories.

The NESFA Press is to be commended for this collection, as for earlier volumes of Cordwainer Smith and C. M. Kornbluth. It's a great disappointment, however, that editor James Mann fails to provide the substantial introduction that The Compleat Boucher so richly deserves.

*     *     *

Science fiction and the mystery have much in common. Both are edge literatures, dealing with people in extremis, life's outriders, those who by choice or circumstance, literally or figuratively, have lit out for the Territory. Each of the genres attempts in its own way to lug the world into coherence: the mystery by circumscribing the world, sending an individual's life careening off course then, hurriedly unloading barricades and detour signs from its truckbed, bringing it back to keel; science fiction (pursuing a goal abandoned in much mainstream literature) by attempting to place some kind of framework around man's place in the universe. Much of the amazing energy released in both genres derives from discords, from irreconcilable contradictions, at their heart. Nominally social fiction, these genres continue the American romantic tradition, extending that frontier myth at America's own mythic heart, embracing the Deerslayer, outlaw, mountain man, cowboy, rugged individualist. Whereas the novel deals with man in society (as Richard Chase points out), the romance focuses on the individual, often the individual set against society. And because of this, however conservative the writer, however well deployed the machineries of genre expression, something wild, something nihilistic and untameable, keeps breaking out onto the page.

Genre fiction at its best is like the sound of thunder—lost and giving directions at the same time.

None more thunderous today than Jack O'Connell.

Like Pynchon before him, but far more accessibly, O'Connel has virtually created his own genre, an amalgam of the shabbiest and most powerful elements from science fiction, detective novels, westerns, horror tales, thrillers. As Jerome Charyn once said of himself, O'Connell is not interested in impersonation but in hallucination, in finding the magic. Like Charyn, he continually pushes scene and language to such extremes that they collapse, implode, become black holes with a terrible gravity, pulling small universes into themselves.

Coincidental with his accomplishment, O'Connell has created a city to reflect the hyper-realism, stark imagery and super-charged language of his novels. In Quinsigamond there is no normal. The city is peopled by misfits, exiles, criminals and madmen, the obsessed, the self-buried, the riddled and ridden, everyone "pushed right to the limit by their own particular joneses."

O'Connell's first novel, the stunning Box Nine, dealt with a new designer drug named Lingo that sped up language and perception to such full tilt that the world about one began to dissolve; his second, Wireless, with a cult devoted to jamming radio stations; his third, The Skin Palace, with a young artist's descent into a nether world of half-mad geniuses, new-world messiahs, blind pornographers and quests for suppressed movie footage.

In a 1998 interview for Para*doxa, the author himself described Word Made Flesh as "a grotesque romance about genocide, language, doubt, obsession, worms, epidermis, and sanctuary."

The novel begins with the guided tour of a flaying, and soon it becomes apparent that this is O'Connell's method: to strip away flesh and muscle, all padding and shrouding; to expose each bone and hard edge, every soft organ decaying in its hood of darkness.

There is enough substance here, enough in any of O'Connell's novels, to fill to bursting whole strings of others' books. Having created a fantastic, fantastically eccentric world—one composed, collagelike, of conventions harvested from many genres, webworks of bookish allusion, the corpselike ruins of the city and its citizens' various monkeys, joneses, and McGuffins—O'Connell then trowels in layer upon layer of physicality and texture to make this world intensely real. He's said that he works to construct a narrative environment that, for all its strangeness, becomes more real to us than the streets we walk down each day. If, as Marianne Moore counsels, the artist's task is to create real frogs in imaginary gardens, Jack O'Connell takes it another full step: real warts on imaginary frogs.

So it is that we have the story of the holocaust in Maisel, where the town's entire population was wiped out by a gargantuan tree shredder called the Pulpmeister; the interplay of Otto, a witness to the Maisel massacre, and his golemlike ventriloquist's dummy Zwack, who hijack the stage during open-mic night at a local karaoke bar; child artists kept in veal pens and forced to produce graphic novels; the second annual immigrant death match.

So, too, do we have the scene in which ex-cop Gilrein, refusing to divulge the location of a book about the Maisel massacre bound in its own author's skin, has his mouth sewn shut.

Kroger steps forward, runs a thumb over Gilrein's lips and then his eyelids, saying, "As you see nothing, it appears you have no use for the eyes. And as you have nothing to tell me, it seems to me, you have no use for the mouth." Gilrein tries to scream but it's as if his head is frozen in a block of ice. With one hand Kroger grabs the front of Gilrein's face between the expanse of his thumb and forefinger, then, with his other hand, he takes the sewing needle and punctures the bottom lip at the right-hand corner and as blood begins to flow down the chin, the needle and its attendant thread are forced through the upper lip, which likewise begins to bleed. "The eyes will be much worse," Kroger says, calmly. "There's no comparison. The lips are supple, plenty of give. But the eyelid, acht, you need to be extremely careful."
I cannot recommend Jack O'Connell's books highly enough. They are true originals, scooped sweet and dripping out of the great rind of the American Dream, O'Connell's Quinsigamond a world of remains and leavings: anatomical cross-sections cut from our own, fixed forever, alien, ghostly, us.

In The Skin Palace filmmaker Hugo Schick remarks that "I want the very synapses of the human brain to be accessible as my own editing board, the ultimate Moviola . . . More images, faster images, all the time. . . . And, finally, I want a way of editing any and all of this goulash together—life image, dream image, movie image . . . "

For O'Connell, the synapses and gaps and chinks in our minds echo precisely those of the world outside us.

In the distance, out over the city, you hear thunder. Lightning flashes in Quinsigamond and you want to avert your eyes but can't. Then it is dark again, dark as the interior of your own skull, and in the darkness what you saw in that split- second of intense light will not go away: it opens like a black flower there in the darkness of self and city.

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