01 September 2010

SF, Not S/M

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

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through


  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.