01 September 2010

SF, Not S/M

The House that Stood Still
A.E. van Vogt
Toronto: Harlequin, 1952

A few pages into The House that Stood Still, Allison Stephens, lawyer for Arthur Tannahill, stumbles upon a drama being played out in one of his client's many buildings:
Nine men and four women were standing in various tensed positions. One of the women, an amazingly good-looking blonde, had been stripped to the waist; her ankles and wrists were tied with thin ropes to the chair in which she sat sideways. There were bloody welts on her tanned back, and a whip lay on the floor.
Spicy stuff, it's little wonder that Harlequin exploited the scene for its cover. American publisher Beacon went even farther with the revised 1960 edition, replacing the original title with something more suggestive.

How long before folks who'd bought these books felt they'd been had? Sure, Beacon's pitch line, "I have come to pay my debt in the way I've discovered men prefer", features in the novel, but it's just about the hottest thing you'll find.*

The first third of The House that Stood Still reads like a noirish mystery. There's an encounter with a California cult, a groundskeeper is murdered, a woman is shot and an elevator operator is found stabbed to death. Stephens does his darndest to ward off an aggressive D.A. who seems intent on pinning at least one murder rap on Tannahill. But as the lawyer grows closer to Mistra Linett, the "amazingly good-looking blonde" he'd saved from further flogging, things get strange. Turns out she's hundreds of years old and that her swanky, ultra-modern apartment is really a spaceship. That whipping Stephens interrupted had to do with a disagreement over what to do in the event of an expected "atomic war". Should Mistra and her fellow Methuselahs try to prevent the conflict or relocate to their base on Mars? At the centre of all this is Tannahill's ancient radioactive house, which has somehow bestowed eternal life upon Mistra and the gang.

These revelations don't raise so much as an eyebrow with Stephens. A dim bulb, he's much more shocked by the murders than all that stuff about eternal life, imminent atomic war and a base on Mars... and I haven't even mentioned the ancient robot brain from another planet. This is not to say that Stephens isn't a thinker; he's forever thinking:
As they embraced, the thought came to Stephens: "Is she trying to buy my help with her body?" It was an idea he held only for a moment before dismissing it as irrelevant. In a way, it was true. But the fact was, temporarily at least, this woman was his without reservation. She was obviously caught up by love desire, and he was the fortunate recipient. He could even believe that she had not for years been stirred to such a response as she was making on him.

For a while, then, he had no thought, only awareness of the physical contact with her, and of a mounting feeling of excitement. Presently, he wondered, could a mortal man really love an immortal woman? Instantly, he didn't wish to think about that. This was now, not some future time when he would be grown older, and she still young and beautiful and eternally desirable. Here and now, this was an act of love between a virile man and a healthy woman, who, with every meeting, roved that they enjoyed each other immensely. It was pleasant to realize also that there had not yet been a prudish moment between them.

When they finally dressed...
How hot was that!

Our hero's greatest weakness is that for all his thinking he's incapable of reaching any real conclusions. As the novel progresses, Stephens is confronted by a growing list of events that he finds baffling. Though he moves with great purpose, breaking into private property, stealing documents and digging up graves, the lawyer is never able to figure out what the hell is going on... and neither can the reader.

The House that Stood Still is unintelligible. Blame lies, at least in part, with the original editor and all those who've followed. One simple example of the mess left behind: early in the novel, Stephens returns home and changes into his pajamas. Mistra, again in distress, appears at his door. Stephens helps her, returns to his bedroom, and changes into his pajamas. This error appears in the first edition, and is repeated right up to the most recent, published by Carroll & Graf in 1993. Back then van Vogt still had roughly seven more years to enjoy this mortal coil; it wasn't too late to whip things into shape.

I apologize for that last sentence.

Trivia: In 1976, Panther published an edition of The House that Stood Still under the title The Undercover Aliens. If anything, the cover is even more of a misrepresentation than those of Harlequin and Beacon.

I'll add here that the novel features no extraterrestrials.

Object and Access: The Harlequin House is the first paperback edition. None of the eight copies currently offered online is in particularly good shape; going by the descriptions, it's hard to figure out which of the bad lot is best. They range in price from US$10.95 to US$49.00. The American first - the true first - published in 1950 by Greenberg is more common. Decent copies start at US$24.50 and go all the way up to US$152. Condition does not account for the spread. The novel has undergone numerous reissues; copies can be had for as little as a dollar.

Personal note: Not being a sci fi guy, it wasn't until van Vogt's obituaries from ten years ago that I learned the man was Canadian. The writer lived in his home and native land until the age of 32, when he moved to California. I also admit that I had never heard of his birthplace, Edenburg, Manitoba. Here's an image of what it might look like from Mistra Lanett's spaceship apartment:

That's what I call a view!

* The actual line is "I've come to pay my debt... in the way I've discovered men prefer", but I'm no stickler.


  1. Ah, Van Vogt, one of the classic important-yet-unreadable Golden Age SF writers. The misrepresentative Panther cover is typical of their work. All SF had giant spaceships, preferable painted by John Berkley or John Harris, and all literary novels had topless women. You knew where you were wth Panther.

  2. I think you're spot on concerning Panther's cover treatments, which makes their treatment of Mordecai Richler noteworthy. There isn't a woman in sight, not even on their edition of Cocksure. "Outrageous, bawdy, savage, funny - a tour de force", claims the grey, text-heavy cover.

    Could it be that Panther didn't consider Richler a literary novelist?

  3. Thanks for the plot summary. Knew I was never going to read van Vogt but now I know what inspired the Harlequin cover.

  4. I always found his work quite readable, action heavy but with a dash of more literary complication.
    On a side note, he co-founded a quasi-religious group with one of his writer friends- L. Ron Hubbard, but they parted ways over matters of doctrine.

  5. bowdler, as I say, the scene occurs quite early. It's never repeated, though there is a later incident in which Stephens is tied to a tree and whipped by the immortals. Must say it strikes me as odd that such technologically advanced people would rely on rawhide as a means of coercion.

    (No pun intended.)

    Anon, I'll have to give van Vogt another try one day. I note that there is considerable disagreement as to the value of his work; Damon Knight was particularly harsh. That said, one of van Vogt's greatest champions was Philip K. Dick, whose own work I very much admire.

    Interesting to read about the link with Hubbard. I note that The House that Stood Still was first published in the very same year that van Vogt became involved with Dianetics.

  6. "The House that Stood Still is unintelligible".

    That, for me in a nutshell, is why I read van Vogt. I've only recently rediscovered him. Years ago I dismissed him a 'not very good' writer. I grew up reading SF and loved the 'Sense of Wonder' they gave me. I don't get that feeling any more - I've read too much since the wonder has been wiped away by experience. The nearest I can manage these days as a middle aged man is a 'Sense of Bewilderment' a feeling which positively feeds on experience. Van Vogt is a very bewildering writer. Things almost make sense.
    My current favourite of his books is The Beast (1964), another of his post-Slan evolving-superhuman stories and is, I think, him at his most gloriously bonkers.

    In the book the hero gets slugged unconscious four times, loses his memory twice - but lucky develops the ability to acquire other people's telepathically, looses two arms (not at the same time and it may be the same arm twice, I'm not sure) but grows them/it back, and, at the end of the book, renounced absorption into the Universal Wholeness for the love of a good woman. (His other wife has previously renounced her absorption with him so he can do this).

    This all sounds all pretty usual van Vogtian fare but add in - big deep breath - noiseless aeroplanes that can fly to (and crash on) the moon, multiple kidnappings, off-screen sex riots, gaol breaks, presidential elections, secret tunnels (at least two lots), an American president disguising himself with a lifelike 'flesh mask' and leading his all-women secret service agents on desert operations, two rival secret organizations: one of evil space Nazis, the other of possibly beneficent immortal human anti-vampires (they have the power to grant long life to normal humans by giving them a transfusion of their blood), a million year old Neanderthal who rules an underground city on the moon... and then cram it all into 160 pages....

    There are more stupidly bonkers ideas per chapter in the average van Vogt novel than most authors cram into a lifetime of writing. Of course, with all those bonkers ideas jostling for very limited space, there's not much left for luxuries like coherent plot development and character but what the hell, you can get those anywhere, by the yard; books with immortal sabre tooth tigers fed on a diet of cowboys are very rare and to be treasured.

  7. Junk, even without mention of the million-year-old Neanderthal sub-lunar ruler you'd have had me sold on The Beast. I see now that I'm over-thinking (or simply thinking), and that the trick with van Vogt is to simply accept everything and enjoy the insanity. You're right, of course, that things almost make sense. Was it that van Vogt just couldn't be bothered to work things out? Is it that he was incapable? Or could it be that in his own mind it all hung together?

    And so, you've convinced me to return to van Vogt. Many thanks.