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From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.

Mentioned in the footnotes of Steven Pinker’s tomelike The Better Angels of Our Nature was a book whose title and subject matter caught my eye, so as I do with dozens of books—maybe a dozen a month, actually—I tossed it onto my Amazon list then just thought, screw it, I’ll order it. And it only sat on my “to read” shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up and was immediately taken not just with its message, but with the author’s easy, readable style. In Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, Queens College professor Harold Schechter makes a case, like Pinker’s, that “the good old days” were not as good as some people would have us think. And this is reflected in the media of the time.

If you’re one of those people—and “those people” seem more and more to be “almost everybody” in the hyper-aware state of affairs that is America in 2018—who think that the world, or at least Western culture, is disintegrating under our feet, that discourse has reached an all time low, that the country if not the world is being ripped apart by escalating violence, and that things used to be better at some idealized point in the past, whatever that Golden Age might be for you, well…

You’re wrong.

Yes, you can see violence in media. Yes, you can see violence in real life—just turn on any TV news channel at any time on any given day. But in the same way that Pinker made a convincing case that real violence is continuing the sharp decline begun in the 1990s, so too does Schechter make a convincing case that violence in fiction of various media, especially fiction aimed at children, is actually on the decline as well.

At the end of the first chapter of Savage Pastimes, Schechter asks a question that, to my mind, is this book’s statement of purpose: the question he will then go on to try to answer:

The current uproar over media sensationalism rests  on two premises: that popular culture is significantly more vicious and depraved than it used to be, and that we live in uniquely violent times. Everyone seems to accept these propositions as the obvious, irrefutable truth.

But what if they were wrong?

He then begins to dig deeply into our shared mythic tradition, and it doesn’t take much digging to start to find the blood and guts that poured out of ancient myths and up through Grimm’s fairytales. Broadsides detailing real life murders, replete with gruesome drawings, were the mass market scandal sheets of the supposedly straight-laced Victorian era.

In what I think is the whole point of the book, Schechter writes, in Chapter Four, on a page that features an old woodcut depicting a crowd of people attending the autopsy of an accused killer as cheering spectators, guts spilled out on the floor to be lapped up by a dog:

Those who deplore the current state of American society and accuse the media of pandering to, if not actually creating, an unwholesome obsession with violence would do well to learn something about cultural history. A look at the cheap newspapers and crime literature so popular during the pre-Civil War era demonstrates quite clearly that things were no better in the past. Not only was violent crime rampant in the good old days, but the prurient need to hear every juicy detail was just as widespread and intense as it is now.

The book is short, and I’ll admit I found some of its reporting lacking perspective. For instance, in the margins next to this:

Their manners may have been crude, but in the area of ghastly violence medieval peasants were clearly connoisseurs, who appreciated nothing better than a nicely performed quartering, disemboweling, or beheading.

I wrote: “Okay… but WHY?”

In fairness, though, how can a literature professor writing in 2005 run a psychological profile of European peasant culture of seven centuries or so in the past? Still, I bet someone else has…

To this end, though, later in the book, Schechter cites George Stade, who wrote:

“People are fascinated by representations of murder because, in the first place, they want to kill someone and, in the second, they won’t. Surely one function of narrative is to allow in the imagination what we forbid in the flesh.”

And Schechter goes on to state that:

In short… fantasy violence isn’t a substitute for sex. It is a substitute for actual violence.

This matches with my own admittedly scientifically-lacking “study” of the effects of violent video games on American violent crime rates that shows an almost perfect match between the release of a violent video game to a decrease in the rate of violent crime in America. We are violent animals, but we’re also smart. We can replace war with football, actual torture with the Saw movie series, and actual violent crime rampages with Grand Theft Auto, and in effect we have.

The book makes it clear that while in the past, violent entertainment actually offered real violence done in the moment to real people: public executions and torture, the aforementioned public autopsy, bear baiting, and other animal torture shows…

That we react with such horrified incredulity to the mere description of the victim’s suffering is significant in itself, suggesting that—for all our exposure to virtual violence—we are actually quite sheltered from the real thing and have a very limited tolerance for it. Our popular culture may be saturated with synthetic gore, but at least we don’t spend our leisure time watching real people have their eyes put out, their limbs pulverized, their sex organs amputated, and their flesh torn to pieces with red-hot pincers.

Yikes. I second that.

When his overview of the history of violent media continues into the Penny Dreadfuls and Paris’s Grand-Guignol. This description of one such play brought to my mind the ending of Frank Darabont’s film version of Stephen King’s The Mist:

In The Final Torture, for example—one of the most famous and frequently performed of the Grand-Guignol plays—a French marine stationed outside Peking during the Boxer Rebellion has his hands cut off by the Chinese. Making his way back to his besieged embassy, he displays his mutilated stumps to the head consul, D’Hemelin, and—with his dying breath—describes the unspeakable atrocities being perpetrated against foreigners. To spare his daughter a fate worse than death, D’Hemelin shoots her in the head—only to be rescused by allied forces, who burst into the embassy seconds after the unfortunate diplomat executes his beloved child. D’Hemelin promptly goes insane.

Everything old is new again, eh?

Harold Schechter’s point is that violent entertainment has always been there, and the purpose it appears, at least, to serve is to give us both an outlet for violent fantasies and a safe experience of violence that actually has the opposite effect from the feared “desensitization” we’re so often warned of, reality be damned.

In my online horror courses, both the Horror Intensive and the new Advanced Horror course, as well as in my Pulp Fiction Workshop, I try to keep the question of violence and gore open. Each individual author is free to find their own comfort zone when it comes to the content of their fiction, be it violence/gore, explicit sex, language, and literally anything else. That’s not for some Board of Review to decide, and though there are publishers that have created their own set of guidelines, and individual agents or editors that will have their own unwritten rules—their own comfort zones—guiding their decisions on what to represent or publish, thankfully there is no Board of Review in the publishing business, so your comfort zone, whatever it may be, will find an audience with a similar comfort zone—or an audience willing to read outside that—and we’ll all be able to stake out our own claims as authors and readers. I’m glad we have books like Savage Pastimes to remind us that we aren’t descending into anything as a culture, but that we share some tendencies with our parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors—and those tendencies don’t always look like Care Bears.

—Philip Athans

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Do I really have to write a post in response to “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists”? Does that need to be critiqued again? Am I required to jump all over him like a lot of the Internet has already done in the past week or so?

Let’s answer all those questions with no, then, taken in order: …but I’m going to anyway; …so I won’t critique it but will try to add and/or clarify as best I can, not being Jonathan Franzen, myself; and …I guess I sorta did already, responding to some tweets from Chuck Wendig then feeling bad about it after seeing some more tweets from Joe McDermott.

I’ll come at Franzen’s rules from a place of love. If you haven’t read them, they can be found at Lit Hub. G’head and read through them if you haven’t already then come back.

Many, if not most of the responses to this I saw online fell back on the idea that there are no rules for fiction—or any creative endeavor—and anyone who tries to impose any rules on anyone in any context is terrible and should be shamed into silence. A few people were just kinda having a laugh about it. And some people picked through and did what I think we should all do, which is take them in the spirit in which they were offered, either in response to a direct question or as an effort to help, and, y’know… just try not to be pricks about it.

And as for that first group, those who feel there are not now nor shall there ever be rules for novelists, I both agree and disagree with you. After all, working through a similar list of “commandments” from novelist Henry Miller, I offered my own list of rules. Here they are again:


  1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.
  2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.
  3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.
  4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.
  5. Write something… anything… but write!
  6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.
  7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday, in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.
  8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.
  9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.
  10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

Mine are based on Miller’s, meant as a direct response to that list. But at the same time I think you’ll see me working reasonably hard to walk back from the strict interpretation of the word “commandment.” I try not to engage in “you always have to…” or “you can never…” when talking about creative writing. Maybe the problem started for Mr. Franzen with that word: rules.

“Commandments,” to me, anyway, from both myself and Henry Miller, felt hyperbolic enough that it came with an implied sense of the ridiculousness of applying a strict set of rules to a creative endeavor, much less a creative life. If that article had been called “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Pieces of Advice for Novelists,” I’d like to think he would have seen less pushback. In fact, that’s really the way I read them—at least the second time.

I think, also, that trouble came from his lack of context or further explanation, so we’re left to puzzle through what he actually means by “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” That can be read as all fiction that isn’t “frightening” (horror?) is bad, but I’m sure that’s not what he meant. Is he talking about something like I wrote about in terms of sometimes having to peer into your darkest corners? What does “You have to love before you can be relentless” have to do with writing a novel? I honestly don’t understand.

I’d like to find a few that I agree with, or that, at least, I can interpret as something helpful—and that’s much, much more important than any otherwise unknown intent on the part of Jonathan Franzen. Take this list not as some author whose books you may or may not have read or may or may not have liked demanding that you write only a certain sort of book in a certain sort of way—I honestly don’t see that there anyway—but as free-floating ideas that you can play with on your own, bending, stretching, or discarding as you see fit.

And by the way, you don’t need me to give you permission to do that, any more than you need Jonathan Franzen to tell you when, exactly, to use “first-person voice.” And anyway, in that rule (#4) he’s pretty much saying: third person unless you want it to be first person in which case, first person, which is easy enough to take as: think for yourself, but do things in your writing as a result of thinking not just because you think you’re supposed to or because someone told you you’re not supposed to so here comes that second person future tense epic fantasy novel!

See how I twisted that around to serve my own purposes? Like that.

So then here’s one I think he got right:

The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Everything you write, including fiction, and including genre fiction, is inherently autobiographical because you are the only person you know, for sure, how to be. Your emotions are the only emotions you are absolutely qualified to experience. Everything else, everyone else, you have to observe, interpret, and invent. Whether or not this constitutes a rule, per se, I’m not sure. I think it ends up being true—it’s a default position with which I agree, but if it serves as advice it’s to remind you to be yourself and not think you have to provide some kind of literal transcript of a character’s life.

I think?

Now I’m actually getting confused.

What if I just boiled it down to…

I agree with 1, 4, 6, and 8.

I disagree with 3.

I’m not sure I understand 2, 5, 7, 9, or 10.

Whatever. Your list might be completely different.

Look, rules are good for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. Learn those rules and break them as you wish, but on purpose, not because you just don’t know. Other “rules” or “commandments” from anyone, including me, should be taken as suggestions, as inspiration, as food for thought, and so on. Don’t fall into lockstep, but also don’t shit on them. We’re just trying to help as best we can.

—Philip Athans

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I owe the lion’s share of my own creative education to three men, all of whom, as of yesterday, are no longer with us. In reverse chronological order, those men are Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games in general; Harlan Ellison, the greatest American author of all time; and Stan Lee, creator of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine: Fantastic Four, and an entire universe of science fiction and fantasy that is more popular today than it’s ever been.

Though I worked at TSR, it was long after Gary Gygax had been removed from the company and I’m sad to say I never had a chance to meet him. I wrote here, after the passing of Harlan Ellison, of my brief encounters with him. Now, though I wish it were under better circumstances, I’m happy to share this, my one encounter with Stan Lee.

Just a few years ago I was on my way back home from a writers conference in Los Angeles, waiting at my gate at LAX. I noticed someone else waiting there—he looked familiar, but I tried not to stare. Then it hit me: Paul Dano. There he was, in the flesh, one of the great character actors of his generation and star of a handful of my favorite movies including There Will Be Blood. I surreptitiously took a blurry cellphone photo of him to text to my wife, who didn’t recognize him. But it never occurred to me to approach him, ask if he had a milkshake, or confess that I had abandoned my boy… even after a few teenage girls took a selfie with him. Give the guy his space.

Then the plane arrived at the gate and people started coming off the flight and I instantly recognized Stan Lee. He walked off the plane talking to another man—I got the feeling they knew each other—and he was walking fast. My thought process took all of one second, a “conversation” with myself that could be summed up: “If you don’t shake his hand you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

He was going to walk right past me so I stepped up to him with my hand out and said, maybe a little too loudly,” Stan Lee!” He noticed me, took my hand in a firm grip and smiled—still walking—and I said, “I’m a huge fan.” He said, “Thank you,” and I said, “No, thank you,” and he was gone, never having missed a step.

I think I stood there for a minute or so like some great dork, just basking in the fact that I had an opportunity to thank Stan Lee. I don’t think ever thanked Harlan Ellison, and I know I never had a chance to thank Gary Gygax. I guess I’ll have to content myself with that one out of three.

Stan Lee died yesterday at the age of 95, which goes back to a point I made here a long time ago that there might be something in the life of a science fiction and fantasy author that they live a long time because, like Stan Lee, they’re—we’re—doing what we love.

What else can I say about a man who has had, whether or not you feel superhero comic books should be taken at all seriously, so massive an impact on American popular culture for the past 57 years? When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Stan Lee told the New York Times, “When I’m gone, I really don’t care.”

Well, I do. Excelsior, Stan Lee!

—Philip Athans

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Before I even start reading the next story for this series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online, I’m getting nervous about what sort of retrograde colonialist ideology is going to launch itself at us from this very short story by E. Hoffman Price—but then, let’s try not to pre-judge, and just dive into “An Oriental Story” from 1925. Ready or not, here we go!

A quick look back at the author first and here we find one of the few in this issue of Weird Tales that had a significant career and is still being read today. The E stands for Edgar and his Wikipedia page identifies him as “an amateur Orientalist,” which certainly shows in this story. “The Rajah’s Gift” was actually Price’s second published short story, so we’re seeing an early example of a career that stretched well into the 1980s. He was a friend and collaborator of fellow Weird Tales author H.P. Lovecraft and received the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Not too shabby.

Then a note on the word “Oriental” in this context: My mother is of the generation that used that word in place of the currently preferred Asian, in the same way that my mother-in-law stuck with “Colored” into the first decade of the 21st century. You can take the people out of the times but you can’t always dislodge the times from the people. We also don’t refer to Asia itself as “the Orient” anymore because… it’s a continent named Asia? From what I can find it took until 2016, ninety-one years after this story was published, for the word “Oriental” to taken out of federal law so change sometimes creeps along. Let’s just let this story be in 1925, I guess, but then… hmm… How do we unpack that first paragraph?

It’s hard not to see this for what it is: E. Hoffman Price establishing the rajah as better than the average example of his kind since he’s managed to adopt “a thick veneer of European culture.” God knows you can’t get very far until you’ve got that locked in. So, yeah, it’s 1925 and non-white people might be able to sort of sometimes take care of themselves as long as they get with the colonial program. Gotcha.

As we go into the second page of the story, note this example of telling rather than showing. Maybe in a very short story you have to fall back on this a little, not having the word count necessary to cover this backstory more organically, but even then, I’ll ping Mr. Price on this. He starts off telling us about the rajah and his friend Zaid, then they have a short “inciting incident” conversation then it’s telling us (not showing us) how Zaid met the rajah. If I were his editor I’d ask E. Hoffman to go ahead and give himself the word count necessary to break this up.

But we do learn that Zaid, as a young peasant boy, was awed by “the pomp and splendor” of the rajah’s parade, which gave him the motivation to go out and make something of himself. This I find interesting in the abstract. Is there a moment in your story where we learn—hopefully sharing that experience rather than being told about it like this—in what moment a significant character was set off on the trajectory that puts that person into this story? Not everyone has a moment like this. A lot of people sort of fall into jobs and things like that, but I think many of us can still look back to the moment we decided, the moment we realized, the moment we knew that… What? I’ve said in the past—and it’s still true, of course—that the moment I read the story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison I knew I would tell stories for the rest of my life, that the pursuit of the possibility of putting the feeling I had reading that story into some distant person with a story of my own locked me into this, for good or ill.

Our characters deserve moments like that, don’t they? Is there a character in your work in progress who can honestly say, like Zaid does here: “For twenty years that vision has haunted me. Much has happened since then; much have I seen and experienced, but through it all, this mad desire has persisted.”

Then here, in true pulp fashion, we have a statement of purpose from one character that is immediately batted back in his face by the other—an obstacle has been put in Zaid’s way, a threat of extreme danger, and a reversal of a promise. E. Hoffman Price drops that fast, hard, and without the slightest hesitation. I love that Zaid stays firm on this, though—sort of like I did in my determination to be the next Harlan Ellison. Still, working on that, by the way, but the journey’s the thing!

An aside here regarding the occasionally weird scene breaks in these old pulps. There is no change in time, place, and/or POV between “…you know the result.” and “Suddenly the rajah arose.” So then why the line space and the drop cap? I don’t get it. I wonder if editor Farnsworth Wright just thought we needed a pause there—a pause after so many words, or some number of pages? No idea!

Let’s cleanse our minds of that question with the pure pulp adventure story imagery here:

And Zaid was led through subterranean vaults, treasure vaults full of gilded arms and armor, trays of flaming jewels, great chests of gold, the secreted plunder of a hundred generations.

Okay—I’m back in the story! (Even if Zaid is unimpressed.)

Oh, look, the first (and, it turns out, only) female character to appear in the story is some kind of sex slave. Two things a contemporary story might have done different is to make her an actual character but then still go into more detail on what follows than this:

What allurements, what sorceries, what fascinations Nilofal used to entice the fancy of Zaid during those three days, we shall never know. Suffice it to say that she failed in her efforts to separate the Persian from his madness.

Not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey. But going back over the whole sordid subject of sexism in the pulps, and the cover art that often showed women in bondage, etc., here’s an example of how the content of the magazines sometimes did match the lurid covers (though not the case with this particular issue, which has a rather less than lurid cover) with women portrayed as playthings, victims, or villains, but not too often as, y’know… humans. Deep breaths, people. It’s been a long ninety-three years where feminism is concerned.

So anyway, the rajah has attempted to distract Zaid from his desire for a parade in his honor with threats to his life, treasure, and prostitutes. I’d have relented on the first one, been disappointed to find out I missed my chance to be bought off with the secreted plunder of a hundred generations, and would have proceeded to step three only if my wife told me it was okay. Which means I’d never know what Nilofal had up her sleeve. And let’s be honest: three days? There ain’t enough Cialis in the Orient!

And… moving on…

Despite her best efforts, Nilofal couldn’t seal the deal so now there is a proper scene break, cutting to the next day and Zaid is up on an elephant and ready for his big moment. I like that the rajah gets on his friend’s side at this moment. It shows a certain largesse we don’t tend to see in this kind of colonial fiction, wherein the “natives” are rarely so “woke.” Though as the scene goes on and the rajah makes clear the distinction in his head between people of his own rarified class and ordinary men—suffering over the changes that Zaid has in store for him, changes that can never be properly realized so he’ll be a peasant with a quick trip into the aristocracy. To the rajah, then, it’s better for Zaid not to know what it’s like to be a rajah—it can only make the peasantry feel bad about themselves.

Get over yourself, Rajah.

But then the rajah is a character living his life, cultural baggage and all. On a similar note, in “How Postmodernism Undermines the Left and Facilitates Fascism,” Benjamin Studebaker wrote:

Some people stray outside of left wing frameworks by insisting that we can overcome capitalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression by demanding that individuals not affirm these ideologies. But this is not idealism because it does not recognize these ideologies as systems of belief—instead, it blames and targets individuals for having these beliefs. This doesn’t treat these individuals as part of ideological systems—instead it treats them as if they were independent of these systems. That would deny the core left wing premise. Blaming individuals who participate in systems of oppression for the oppressive ideologies they’ve acquired is no different from blaming the victims of oppression for the oppressive conditions to which they are subject—it treats individuals as if they were outside social systems when no one can be outside the social system.

Does this cover “amateur Orientalist” E. Hoffman Price as well? But in any case, his two characters are locked into a rigidly class based culture, and Zaid is disrupting the status quo by asking the rajah to do the same, though circumstance and tradition have other ideas:

“When indeed they do grant to a man the realization of his dream, they straightaway reach forth to snatch from him his prize, lest in his triumph he become godlike and gaily toss them from their lofty thrones.”

See? And you thought all this pulp fantasy was just about guys fighting monsters with magic.

This, by the way, is how you kill a character:

And the god, who but half an hour before had been Zaid, the Persian, toppled forward in the gilded howdah. The last roll of the gong had masked the smacking report of a high-powered rifle.

And then that final twist to reveal the villain of the story immediately followed by what Lester Dent called “The snapper, the punch line to end it.” Nailed it, E. Hoffman.

—Philip Athans

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Not that I feel obligated to continue this series looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online… it’s the title of next story!

I’m going to start my look at the short story “As Obligated” by Armstrong Livingston with a little research into the author. If feel as though I’ve been a bit remiss in that area so far, though at least one of the previous authors seemed to be a rather mysterious figure. And though Armstrong Livingston isn’t exactly a household name anymore, it turns out that he had a fairly long and reasonably successful career, though as I discovered in “Mr. Livingston, I Presume? Armstrong Livingston (1885-1948) and the Murder Racket” that:

By the depressed 1930s, however, Livingston’s writing career, like that of the admittedly more high-toned F. Scott Fitzgerald, had taken a downward turn, with only a few more novels by him ever appearing in print. By the time of his death, on February 7, 1948, when he was only 62, his occupation was given as “retired author.”

At first I puzzled over “retired author,” struggling with understanding that there could be such a thing. Then realized I know at least a few retired authors myself. Though I assume I’ll at least be scribbling some mad rantings on my deathbed… I guess you can retire from anything.

Livingston’s background reminds me of William S. Burroughs, himself the scion of wealthy family that did not like his chosen profession one bit, though Burroughs took “bad boy” heir to new levels—way beyond just writing the occasional popular crime novel. The fact that Armstrong Livingston’s father was a prominent criminal attorney surely fueled young Armstrong’s interest in the criminal underbelly of early twentieth century America. This is interesting to consider, the question of where authors come from and how that inspires the genres we’re drawn to. I touched on that here, for myself. If this gets you thinking “Why fantasy?” or “Why horror?” and so on—good! You might just find that bit of introspection of value.

For what it’s worth, I love that Livingston’s wife’s name was Gladys and in the story Sir Geoffrey is married to Henrietta. There are two names you don’t see much anymore. Looks as though the author’s marriage didn’t last, though, much into Livingston’s career as a crime author. According to that site, he published fourteen novels between 1922 and 1938, placing this 1925 short story toward the beginning of his sixteen-year career.

Looking into the author before reading his story makes me wonder how that will affect my enjoyment of it, or how I’ll interpret it, and so on. Will knowing he was a “poor little rich kid” push me into one idea or the other?

I don’t know. I do try to separate the art from the artist—at least when it comes to artists who lived and worked in the distant past, and for me at least, the better part of a hundred years ago tends to be distant enough. But even then, I’m not the type to be suspicious of anyone because their parents had a lot of (or a little bit of) money.

I don’t know… let’s read the story!

Okay… starts with a bald guy. I’m on his side already.

Hey. You have your biases. I have mine. Bald is beautiful!

Question: Do you really have to describe a tub as “his porcelain container” in order to avoid using the word “tub” twice in one sentence? No. No, you sure don’t, and you didn’t in 1925, either. What you do is remove the unnecessary semi-colon and make that two sentences, which is what they are already. Grammar lesson complete!

Ooh—he has a heated towel bar and at least two housemaids—here’s Livingston’s privilege right up front, eh? Well, it is Sir Geoffrey we’re talking about here.

I love the goofy little predicament Sir Geoffrey finds himself in at the end of the first paragraph. Don’t check to make sure there are towels out before you get in the tub or anything. What does this tell us about Sir Geoffrey?

“That’s one to Hodgkins!” he murmured good-humoredly. “I must tell the old chap about it the next time I see him. He’ll be tremendously bucked.”

Bucked? Have to look that one up.

Is this what he means?

3 [with object] informal make (someone) more cheerful: Bella and Jim need me to buck them up| [no object] (buck up) :  buck up, kid, it’s not the end of the world.

He’ll be “bucked up”?

Writing any version of historical fiction including alternate history? This is why you read fiction from that era if you possibly can. You’ll find little colloquial gems like this—if you’re lucky!

And if you’re not sure how a class-driven capitalist society works:

Of course the task of executing them had fallen to the lot of Hodgkins, the village plumber. Any other arrangement would have been manifestly improper. Hodgkins was a tradition. Ever since plumbing had been invented a Hodgkins had been plumber for a Coombe, just as a Stubbs had always supplied the meat and a Smith the groceries. The system worked excellently for all concerned: the village profited by the patronage of the Hall, and the Hall benefited by good meat and groceries and plumbing. Traditions, properly adhered to, have a practical as well as sentimental value.


You can always tell a tradesman by his “sadly maculate” fingers. Look it up—I had to!

Okay, so if the last story was a sort of early version of “torture porn,” this story is shaping up as a sort of “house porn” mystery. They need to turn this into the first HGTV Original Movie!

Now a letter from the Psychical Society. Hmm. Do go on…

I especially like that both Geoffrey and Henrietta are going into the whole concept of spiritualism with a healthy skepticism.

Is the little chapter title: 2. The Bell Bewitched a spoiler? I’d have cut it, myself, for that reason, though I suppose it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination that having put so much loving detail into the presence of the buzzer then introducing the Psychical Society that those two elements, in strict accordance with the principle of Chekhov’s Gun, will come together soon enough.

This little scene where Sir Geoffrey asks after the repairs to his bathroom bell is rich with gender and class bias that tells us a lot about these characters and the world they inhabit, though I’m not quite sure that was Livingston’s intent in 1925. Having established that Sir Geoffrey is rich, all this just kinda plays out as expected, but reading it in 2018 the old man comes off as kind of a prick. I was delighted to see the reaction from Mrs. Smith, though, on page 30 when he goes off on her and she’s offended, though doesn’t stand up for herself in the moment. And Henrietta let’s him have it, too. We’re seeing Sir Geoffrey’s true colors in time of stress and the ladies in his life aren’t having it… at least, not entirely.

But still, even if you were writing a story now and these were your characters and this time and place your setting, the conversation would really have to follow along similar lines, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, here’s where the story obviously turns:

“I was thinking of your Psychical Society,” she said dryly. “I thought you might like to tell them about your bathroom bell, because Hodgkins swears it is bewitched!”

This is an interesting if a bit ham-fisted example of how sometimes it works to allow a character to say out loud that thing that transitions from one plot point to the next. This is a sort of sequel scene—and I’ll recommend an interesting article on that concept by K.M. Weiland—where characters discuss some bit of action (the bell not working, then the letter, then the bell still not working despite efforts to fix it) that has happened then formulate some new “plan” in response, thereby moving the story to the next plot point.

The story does take an unexpected turn along with the turn in Sir Geoffrey’s health. It fFelt, to me at least, like a well-timed twist—and Hodgkins is dead! Shocked!

I’m being flippant, but honestly, that bit did actually surprise me. I see you, Mr. Livingston. Keep ’em coming!

So then Sir Geoffrey is called out on the mat by the widow Hodgkins, who has convinced herself her husband essentially died of embarrassment at not being able to fix the baronet’s bathroom buzzer. There’s a guilt trip, eh?

Ooh—nice. The creepy reveal of Hodgkins having heard the bell ringing as he died—the same night Sir Geoffrey fell ill in the bathtub and tried to ring the bell. What to make of that? These men are spiritually linked in some kind of elemental master/tradesman bond? That’s… weird.

Ooh, It’s a Weird Tale.

Get it?


Love the call-back to the Psychical Society with the letter at the end. And all in all I found “As Obligated” to be a fun, very old school, kinda gimmicky “surprise ending” story that keeps the supernatural elements in check, with everyone maintaining what I just called the persistence of the logical pretty much throughout. The “punchline” even hints that after a bit of a shock—maybe a brief case of the willies, Sir Geoffrey and Henrietta put the question of the plumber’s ghost out of their minds forthwith:

Sir Geoffrey, a little shaken, stared at the letter. He continued to stare until his wife reminded him that the eggs were getting cold…

Thank you, Mr. Livingston, wherever you are!

—Philip Athans

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