|William F. Nolan||William F. Nolan|
|Stealth Press, 470 pages (2001)||Popular Library, 158 pages (1963)|
|A review by Georges T. Dodds|
Impact-20 and Dark Universe (contents listed below) represent the alpha and the omega of William F. Nolan's short story output in book form. Impact-20, a 1963 paperback original, with an introduction by no less than Ray Bradbury, was Nolan's first genre book publication and reflects the influence of his association with the famous southern California writers' group centred around his close friend Charles Beaumont. Unlike Dark Universe, Impact-20, slated for reissue in hardcover from Gauntlet Press next year, is neither a best-of collection, nor a collection of exclusively horror tales. For example, Nolan, Beaumont and John Tomerlin were all avid car racing fans. The humorous tale "The Martians and the Leadfoot" shows how space aliens faced with a race car driver spewing such 50s "shop talk" as:
"Man, she handles like I carried my own set of rails. Bat her down the chute, drift the dogleg, whomp her through the chicane, climb on the binders, snap a downshift and crack her round the hairpin with your tootsie in the carbs."draw somewhat extravagant conclusions about the advancement of human technology. Similarly, other humorous tales including the very dated "The Amazon Kick," and "The Darenlinger Buildup" (with Deceivo-bosoms!), which obviously originated in men's magazines of the era, but which interestingly appear to draw from Nolan's personal experiences in the Hollywood writers' milieu, are there too.
The horror tales (some with SF settings) tend to fall in two categories, (i) suspense tales with murders and killers at different points on the sanity scale, and (ii) weird tales with a twist, in the Twilight Zone tradition, more subtly atmospheric than the suspense tales. A great exchange of ideas occurred within The California Group, so it isn't surprising that these authors' styles and subject matter rubbed off on each other. The excellent "The Small World of Lewis Stillman" (a.k.a. "The Underdweller" in Dark Universe) is a tale with clear parallels to Richard Matheson's earlier I Am Legend; "The Joy of Living" about an android wife has parallels with Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric"; the psychotic serial murderer stories like "In the Lion's Den" and "Dark Encounter" have parallels with Robert Bloch's similar novel-length tales.
The horror in Nolan's early horror tales has no supernatural elements, non-human monsters or development of atmosphere for the sake of atmosphere, as in the Algernon Blackwood style. Like Matheson, Nolan's writing is sparse and concise, with the story stripped down to the essentials, reflecting a movie script terseness. This makes for fairly short short stories (an average of 7 pages each in Impact-20) which read quickly. While the Twilight Zone-ish stories tend to have more meat to them, they too never seem padded or drawn out for effect.
Dark Universe is most interesting, besides the fact that it presents the best work of a top notch modern horror writer, because it presents the stories in chronological order, each with an introductory blurb from Nolan himself. Besides reminding us that many of these stories have been included in best of the year anthologies and much anthologized elsewhere, Nolan explains the genesis of many of the stories: long bus rides cross country ("The Ceremony"), dreams ("Lonely Train A' Comin'"), Richard Matheson's backyard ("The Pool"), a visit to a wax museum ("Stoner"). This temporal sequence also allows one to see where Nolan's horror writing has taken him, how, as Christopher Conlon suggests in his introduction "'The Waiting, Windless Dark': William F. Nolan's Universe," Nolan has moved beyond The California Group's influence to claim a voice all his own.
This has taken him, in stories like "The Pool" and "Lonely Train A' Comin'," an excellent tale of a living, breathing and carnivorous train, to where good ol' drooly, icky monsters supply the suspense and horror, not just the strictly realistic monsters within human society. While he has continued to write of these latter monsters (see contents below), his storytelling techniques have evolved from the standard 50s "let's spend a day inside the mind of a psycho" to more original plotting devices like the meeting of parallel stories which occurs in "Him, Her, Them," or the police evidence inventory of "The Francis File." Clearly Nolan hasn't been sitting in one spot, resting on his laurels for these 50 years of writing. Science fictional elements continue to be present, though never as the primary genre. Nolan even throws in a little Lovecraftian nugget in "Ceremony," which he pulls off rather well, sending the hapless protagonist to the remote hamlet of Doour's Mill, albeit without using "eldritch" or "tintinnabulation." Other stories, like the excellent "The Party" still maintain remnants of the Twilight Zone genre. "Major Prevue Here Tonight" and "On Harper's Road," while good horror tales in their own right, have a certain degree of Bradbury-ness which adds to their power -- Nolan certainly could have chosen few better to emulate in these stories. Nolan has even done a few somewhat experimental stories, the evocative, if plotless, "Vympyre," the drying reminiscences of a millennia-old vampire, and the semi-autobiographical "Kelly, Frederic Michael," this time the dying remembrances of a beleaguered spaceman.
With a whopping 41 tales by Nolan, Dark Universe is an excellent retrospective of his work -- perhaps a bit obsessive about killers hired, serial and/or psychotic, and certainly not in the atmospheric horror genre -- it reads quickly and easily, as the works of the California Group generally do, but still packs a good punch. Certainly, if you been raised in the Stephen King era of horror, this is your kind of material, and lots of it. With Impact-20, you have a book that was released the month president Kennedy was assassinated; you can't expect something that doesn't reflect the reality of the time.
Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.
|Table of Contents|
|Impact-20||Dark Universe||Androids||Cars and car racing||Dark near-future||Humour||Murder or violent death||Hired/
|Twilight-zonish||Hollywood writer's life||Monsters & other old standards|
|A Good Day|
|An Act of Violence|
|And Miles to Go Before I Sleep|
|The Amazon Kick|
|At Diamond Lake|
|The Beautiful Doll Caper|
|The Darenlinger Buildup|
|The End with No Perhaps|
|A Final Stone|
|The Francis File|
|The Giant Man|
|The Halloween Man|
|He Kilt It With a Stick|
|Him, Her, Them|
|In the Lion's Den|
|The Joy of Living|
|Kelly, Fredric Michael|
|The Lap of the Primitive|
|Lonely Train A'Comin'|
|Major Prevue Here Tonight|
|The Martians and the Leadfoot|
|My Name is Dolly|
|Nobody, That's Who|
|Of Time and Texas|
|One of Those Days|
|On 42nd St.|
|On Harper's Road|
|The Public Loves a Johnny|
|A Real Nice Guy|
|The Small World of Lewis Stillman
a.k.a. The Underdweller
|To Serve the Ship|
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