(John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1962 edition)
collated rating: 2.25/5 (Bad)
In my quest to bring to light the esoteric, the worthwhile yet forgotten, and to re-examine unjustly maligned works of science fiction I’m unfortunately more likely find incredibly average works than if I were to stick to the more well-trod path. Theodore Cogswell’s short stories attempt unsuccessfully to wed clichéd fantasy + horror elements — à la vampires, werewolves, broomsticks and all that drek — with science fiction staples, including alien invasions and alien visitations. I suspect there was, and still is, a market for such hybridity. I don’t have to mention the conveyor belt chunking out vampire/zombie excreta all over our modern bookstore shelves… (I apologize to anyone who’s offended or implicated by that statement). Almost all of Cogswell’s stories are lighthearted (besides ‘The Burning’), replete with heavy doses of whimsy, and in the few readable stories, some vibrancy.
Not my type of science fiction or fantasy.
The title story is the only one worth reading.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
‘The Masters’ (1954) (8 pages) 2/5 (Bad): The last human on earth is a very hungry vampire. He thinks he’s found a new victim when a very white/pretty woman appears a his castle. But in reality she’s an android made out of enamel preparing the way (i.e. exterminating all life on Earth) for The Masters. Inverts the schema of the “pretty victims.” Instead the vampire is a victim…. Warning: I’ve realized that my description makes the story seem so much more interesting than it really is.
‘The Specter General’ (1952) (54 pages) 2/5 (Bad): A rambling muddle of a story which clocks in at an unfortunate 54 pages. A battalion of space marines, one of an seemingly infinite number of battalions, spend their time literally plowing furrows by hand. What keeps the “hope” alive in the endless “conflict” is the idea that the great leader of the rebellion which must be defeated is still alive, the ex-number two man. The implication is that if he is caught everything will go back to normal. The story actually does an adequate job indicating the futility of the mission. However, neither the story nor the characters were involving enough to pique my interest — one of the few works I’ve given up on in the last few years of reading science fiction.
‘Wolfie’ (1954) (8 pages) 1/5 (Bad): Peter Vincent wants to commit murder so he consults Dr. Asoldi, a practicing warlock with a dusty office and pin-up girls photos… Dr. Asoldi gets all his secret technology and potions from a “non-human” entity. Vincent has a “foolproof” plan that involves turning into a werewolf in order to kill his cousin. Of course, the plan doesn’t go according to plan and Vincent turns into a little dog with a wolf-like temperament.
‘Emergency Rations’ (1953) (5 pages) 2/5 (Bad): Probably the silliest story in the collection — but, I did laugh, so I gave it an additional point. A hokey bunch of galactic invaders who practice cannibalism and want to conquer earth in order to eat the yummy human morsels come up with an “ingenious” plant to conquer an armed space station. They insert themselves into jars of lobsters, the rations of the space-station personel. Sneak in, kill the humans when the jars are opened. Instead, the space station chef pops the cans filled with the aliens into the boiling water, cooking their inhabitants. They dine on the would be invaders…
‘The Burning’ (1960) (5 pages) 2.75/5 (Average): The second best story in the collection — unfortunately, it comes off as a rather pallid retelling of Shirley Jackson’s famous short story The Lottery (1948). In a post-apocalyptical (I think) New York, a group of children decide to not go to the Mother’s day celebration — but, a celebration like no other. Take the narrator’s statement literally: “I still felt jumpy. Not that I wanted to go, mind you, in spite of what the Mother was always saying about it in developing character. Mothers were always talking about Character and The Flag and The Sanctity of American Womenhood and stuff like that, but I notice it’s always the little guys who end up getting burnt during Mother’s Day ceremonies. And I’m a little guy.”
‘Thimgs’ (1958) (13 pages) 2.75/5 (Average): Albert Blotz is a disreputable “investigator” whose crime “solving” business collects money from the desperate and dispenses false hope to those in need. In short, no actual crimes are solved. Before his eyes his crippled office girl is transformed into a beautiful woman after she discovers a small bottle. Blotz stumbles upon a Guardian who oversees the tapes, i.e. the lives of all humans. The Guardian cut and spliced the girl’s tape and thus inserted the object into her life that transformed her. Blot seeks to get the reward he thinks he deserves. A strange tale with potential… The third best in the collection.
‘Test Area’ (1955) (8 pages) 2/5 (Bad): Klen, the tentacled creator of a time machine, has his proposal to test his machine denied and starts to eat himself (his suicide is prevented, although he does comment that his backside tasted gamey). The Chief Coordinator gives into the suicide threat and the project is given a go. Standard miscalculations occur and bad things happen — disasters, mutation, missiles, stuff like that.
‘Prisoners of Love ‘(1962) (14 pages) 2/5 (Bad): An office operating Halbert Shirley, a rather inept and frightened private warlock third class, is reluctant to get involved when people summon his services. When his secretary finally forces him to put on his magician attire and get respond to the calls of a woman who drew a pentagram in her house in an effort to summon Baal, Halbert is accidentally made pulled into exactly the sort of dilemma he so adamantly wanted to avoid. The idea of magicians operating out of offices, with secretaries, filing cabinets, phones etc is humorous but certainly doesn’t sustain this silly fantasy number.
‘Invasion Report’ (1954) (14 pages) 2.5/5 (Average): In the far future technology allows virtually instantaneous transportation. A group of children transport to an abandoned derelict space craft and reenact epic space battles! And then a sensor goes off indicating another ship. In this case the twist ending is rather sweet + silly..
‘The Wall Around the World’ (1953) (26 pages) 3/5 (Average): In a world replete with weak forms of magic (lifting small objects, minor incantations) Porgie lives near The Wall — a glass structures that goes around the entire world. He daydreams of ways to traverse the obstacle. His teacher encourages him but warns about evil forces at play if he attempts the feat. An interesting but flat allegorical tale — and by far the best in the collection.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Wall Around the World, Theodore R. Cogswell (1962)”
“I don’t have to mention the conveyor belt chunking out vampire/zombie excreta all over our modern bookstore shelves…” – Never apologize for the truth.
Haha. Although, the experience of reading this piece of tripe is probably similar to reading urban fantasy/zombie/vampire/erotica….
Having waded through this mush, I return to the only strength that I found: the cover is remarkable!
I couldn’t agree more — but those stories were so awful…. I couldn’t finish at least three of them…
I have this book, but have not read it, and now I probably won’t read it! The Specter General is one of those old stories that seem to get included in sci-Fi collections meant for grade school kids put together by editors with little imagination.
One of the few stories I’ve quit in the last three years of reading. I really really could not get into it. Perhaps the last 20 or so pages hold some great sequence which elevates it above his other work — I highly doubt it.
What do Boucher and Pohl say in their introductions? They are both pretty famous for their SF criticism and/or editing; how do they justify printing the thing you just told us (persuasively) is pretty lame?
I skipped most of the intros — the portions I read were arguing about the merits of classifying his work as science fiction or fantasy. But, of course, in stilted early 60s pseudo lit crit terminology for 14 year old boys… I really have no desire to open that book again. I apologize….