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November/December 2019
 
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The Arrogant History of White Ben by Clemence Dane (1939)

Clemence Dane excelled at everything literary. Winner of an Oscar, Dane delivered plays, naturalistic novels, detective novels, and some still-hard-hitting sf: rueful, satirical, elegiac. In White Ben, her oft-gorgeous prose, chronicling horrors, enwraps a sophisticated speculative armature, much as fancy garments draped on a makeshift frame enliven our hero.

Nineteen-fifties Britain has suffered from a long World War. On the eve of impoverished peace, something strange happens. Young Elly brings a scarecrow to life with a magic mandrake root and knowledge-conferring clothes. "He had been garmented with religion, diplomacy, the art of war, the art of healing; for he wore a priest's vestment, a soldier's gauntlets and civilian mackintosh, a gentleman's pleasure-hat, a surgeon's coat." His brain further supplemented by spending a night in a cemetery communing with grudgeful ghosts, White Ben, naturally obsessed with killing "crows," meets and seduces the human helpers he needs: Lord Bothering the press magnate; Ladimer the famous aviator; Illico the ad man. Soon the whole nation is spellbound by Ben's populist rhetoric. "The definition of 'crow' has been enlarged. At first we limited it to those of alien blood or...to those of no known occupation.... But it has recently been decided that any woman under forty-five who has been proved to live on the earnings of any other person save her husband is to be regarded as a bird of prey."

Foreshadowing Kosinski's Being There, White Ben closes beautifully, with the scarecrow's disassembling by innocent Elly, but only after he has served as a catalyst for the worst of humanity's hatreds and fears.

Paul Di Filippo

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