Short Story Reviews: Richard Matheson’s “Pattern for Survival” (1955) and Margaret St. Clair’s “Quis Custodiet…?” (1948)

In Martha Bartter’s article “Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal” (1986), she explores the deep ambivalence within tales of future atomic war. Authors, and their characters, yearn to “build, a new infinitely better world out of the old” (148), and what better way than to destroy all that was. Narratives often betray a sinister destructive urge. She argues that “atomic war has traditionally been presented both as obvious disaster and as secret salvation” (148). I planned on featuring this thought-provoking article in my Exploration Log series but never got around to writing it. Alas! Maybe a comment or two from my readers will inspire me to finally do so.

With Bartter’s argument in mind, I’ve paired two divergent post-nuclear stories. Margaret St. Clair affirms, despite devastation and violence, the possibility of a revitalized future that avoids the pitfalls of the past. Richard Matheson sidesteps the issue entirely and instead explores how survival, even if fleeting, depends on an interior retreat into a world of pulp science fiction (and thus posits a meta-analysis of genre).

3/5 (Average)

Margaret St. Clair’s “Quis Custodiet…?” first appeared in Startling Stories, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr. (July 1948). You can read it online here.

Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) was a mainstay of the major pulp magazines and maintained a prolific career from 1946 to the late 60s (between the 70s and early 80s she produced only one novel and a handful of stories).”Quis Custodiet…?” explores a conflict three hundred odd years after the “big atom bombs fell” (114) between “homo mutatus,” or the “Blown-up” humans who experience the effects of radiation mutation and the “Formers,” those spared the mutations (110).

The mutants develop a deep hatred of all that lives. They melt the sand around their camps with flamethrowers. They smash plants that manage to eke out an existence in the wasteland. They are deeply pragmatic people who focus primarily on the mechanics of survival (how they survive with their hatred of the living — i.e. the source of FOOD–isn’t entirely clear). The Formers, inspired by a diary of a great ancestor, yield to an ideology that only the unmutated can be saved, everything else must be destroyed. According to this ideology, they suffer the guilt that “we betrayed life itself” by allowing nuclear war (111). In this experience of guilt, a unifying principle emerges, “we are the custodians, the curators of life” (111).

The story follows the mutant Kynnastor, a bomb under his armpit, on a mission to destroy a camp of Formers as they are rumored to have a secret weapon that will annihilate mutations. Taught about Former society by the deeply intelligent Mirna, he must attempt to maintain his cover as he learns about all the agricultural projects to resurrect unmutated plants of the previous era. And then he discovers that the rumors might be true…. is there a way out that doesn’t perpetuate the conflict?

I tracked down this once-anthologized tale as I need to explore more of St. Clair’s science fiction. I’ve had a hit or miss experience with what I’ve read so far (as with many authors): “The Rages” (variant title: “The Rations of Tantalus”) (1954) formed the highpoint and I struggled mightily with Sign of the Labrys (1963) in the earliest years of the site. I plan reading her short story collection Change the Sky and Other Stories (1974) in the near future to expand my knowledge of her contribution to the genre.

Ultimately “Quiz Custodiet…?” is a solid if unremarkable example that supports Bartter’s thesis. St. Clair places the conceptual core of the story in a speech given by Mirna: “There were thousands of human generations before the bombs, and none of them understood it the way we do […] They tore the heart out of the continents and sent it floating down the muddy waters of the river to lie at the bottom of the sea. The bombs only finished something that had been long ago begun” (114). Nuclear destruction paves the way for real change. It provides a firm break from humanity’s sinful past. Mirna’s final release of Kynnastor without the implantation of the weapon suggests that a future in which humans actually act like custodians of their world can be possible.

Somewhat recommended for obsessive fans of post-apocalyptic SF.

4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece)

Richard Matheson’s “Pattern for Survival” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher (May 1955). You can read it online here. This is a small story (3 pages). This is a powerful story from the author of I Am Legend (1954).

First a tangent: Some memories have reduced themselves to an amalgamation of experiences and emotions that I struggle to differentiate from each other. While I might have forgotten the precise context of the memories and their distinct edges, the overarching nostalgic feel resonates deep within me. I remember running through the woods behind my childhood home on deer paths etched in their expanse like the lines of my palm—one path took me over the ridge to a gully, another to a cluster of wild grapevines that reached upward like alien limbs, others took me to a hut (the bastion of an imaginary empire) I created with tree bark and a creek with a snapping turtle with a dangling pink tongue that flickered beneath the waters. I ran these paths daily. I remember the emotions I felt. I remember the feeling of escape while being transported physically into a world of my own making. A world that I mapped when I returned home at dark with fountain pen and colored pencil. Richard Matheson’s “Pattern for Survival” weaves a ritual that generates that same sense of joy again and again as everything falls apart.

The story begins with an ending: the last sentences of a pulp science fiction tale. As the sound of his typewriter dissipates, the author, Richard Allen Shaggley, submerges himself in metaphorical “waters of delight” at completion (75). Details betray the sad state of the author: he hobbles down the street to place his story in the mailbox in shabby clothes, briefly seeing the urban destruction around him, “when in the name of heaven would they finish repairing that blasted sewer?” (75). The perspective shifts to the mailman excited that he gets to deliver a story written by the great Shaggley! And then we move to the editor who proclaims “what balance, what delineation! How the man could write” (75). More details emerge. The physical toll on the characters with their wounds and ailments. The omnipresent dust and decay… The “old hunchbacked” printer lays the type. The “scar-faced dealer” places the story at the newsstand (76). The perspective returns to Shaggley as he buys his own story from the stand. He returns home with all the disguises he wore throughout the day to reenact the lonely ritual again the next morning. The story begins with the beginning of the next Shaggley tale. A prequel to the first one, with references to himself… Narratives loop back on each other. Narratives weave into each other.

“Pattern for Survival” does so much with so little space. There’s not an extra moment. It successfully dives into the psychological landscape of those that can delude themselves into carrying on in a unique and metafictional way. Science fiction narratives of exciting futures of love and technological progress provide solace in the wreckage. His ritual cannot keep out all signs of the fragmenting world. Is science fiction itself a delusion or a helpful force? Or somewhere in-between? Up there with Eleanor Arnason’s “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” (1974) as the best stories about the powerful conjuration of the seductive allure of writing and reading science fiction. Stealing a phrase from my Arnason review, “Pattern for Survival” transforms the act of writing pulp adventure into tapestry where every thread intersects with the writer’s being.

Highly recommended.

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19 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Richard Matheson’s “Pattern for Survival” (1955) and Margaret St. Clair’s “Quis Custodiet…?” (1948)

  1. Many thanks for this post, as always. It reminds me of this fascinating conclusion to the entry “Post-Holocaust” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: “Life after the Holocaust is a theme that reliably continues to grip the imagination. The idea of destroying our crowded, bureaucratic world and then rebuilding afresh offers a dangerously exciting psychic freedom.”

    • No problem. In the morning I’ll track down the article that uses the phrase “psychic freedom.” I suspect SF Encyclopedia is referencing another scholar. And I probably have the article on my computer somewhere!

      The St. Clair story demonstrates that ambivalence. The Matheson, on the other hand, not so much. Its more about interior spaces — and what this particular man must do to mentally survive day-to-day. There is no implication of other survivors. Instead, he has created his own characters to live out his remaining days. It’s three pages! Give it a read! (you don’t have to but it’s very good, haha).

  2. I have not read either story! The Matheson looks very worthwhile. (As you probably know, Arnason is a personal favorite of mine, and “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” is a remarkable early masterwork.) The St. Clair — I don’t know! I tend to prefer her work as by “Idris Seabright”.

    Have you read any of Bartter’s short fiction? Only 5 stories, all as by “M. A. Bartter”. I don’t precisely remember them, but I do remember thinking at least one of them (in Galaxy, surely) was pretty good. She was a professor at Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State) as I recall.

  3. Read the Matheson last night, which takes about as long as a piss break. Surprisingly complicated for only three pages, and I’m also not sure what Matheson is trying to say with this one, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s basically a flashfic but it implies a great deal without telling us much.

    As for St. Clair there seem to be basically two modes with her: pulpy and “slick.” The “slick” St. Clair can be pretty great, but the pulpy side I’ll have to test more…

    • Hello Brian,

      What are your examples of a “slick” St. Clair? In this instance, all that I’ve reviewed of hers is all I’ve read other than two additional novels I quit about 20 pages in (The Dancers of Noyo and another whose name escapes me).

      As for Matheson, I think he’s attempting to posit a middle ground when it comes to the power of pulp SF visions. Our main character relies on them to stay alive while lonely, etc. And he writes himself into his own stories (you might have caught that the pulp hero’s name is Ras — the author’s initials). But it also avoids a direct confrontation with the problems at hand. But then again we’re back at the beginning, maybe those problems cannot be conquered and this is the next best thing, slipping into another world populated by your very being. Or, and I think this is my favorite interpretation, the nuclear nightmare is so unlike any other experience that this is the only possible way to survive, SF as necessary delusion.

      • Or, there’s a far less pessimistic interpretation of science fiction here — which is sort of what I was suggesting via with my personal tangent. Science fiction, in all its steps of creation, creates a deep joy that we would want to hold onto in a moment of crisis.

        As you imply, the complexities the story conveys in such a short space definitely add some feathers to its cap.

        • As for St. Clair, she wrote quite a few “slick” stories for F&SF under the Idris Seabright pseudonym (which was NOT devised to hide her gender, since Seabright is referred to in story introductions as a woman). I read “The Wines of Earth” from that “author” recently and thought it was great, but then I also have a weakness for Clifford Simak. A story that might be more up your alley is “Brightness Falls from the Air,” which is short, brutal, and brilliant.

  4. The idea of a post-nuclear holocaust world is appealing even in the sphere of video games. Not sure if you’re a gamer, but open-world games with survival elements and the option to build settlements long after the bombs dropped feeds that inner fantasy of players to escape the mundane 9-to-5 conformist world of ours.

    I would love to read to an article of yours covering this topic in more detail 🙂

    • I’ve played Fallout Las Vegas and Fallout IV. I used to play more but have weened myself as of late…

      As for an article, well, in a certain way, the stories I am reviewing are laying the groundwork for an article. That said, if you were to know my previous (failed) academic career, I am put off utterly by well-studied topics and the nuclear nightmare is perhaps the MOST studied of all in the scholarly science fiction world. I am more interested in how authors use history (the Tenn story I reviewed recently for example) in nuclear gloom narratives and those that morph into metafictional commentaries on the genre like the Matheson than straight-laced examples like St. Clair.

      • Just read the Matheson story now and I must say it’s very powerful stuff. I also read “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons” earlier today and thoroughly enjoyed that, too. Both remind me another story I enjoyed, “Orange Blossom Time” by Pat Murphy, in which a man falls in love with a time travelling women while a pandemic is destroying the city around them. It’s one of the better stories from her “Points of Departure” collection.

        I guess I’m a fan of stories where people attempt to continue living like normal despite everything going to hell around them.

        • The Pat Murphy story sounds intriguing. I’ll put it on my list. I am planning (who knows when) to feature her in my series on the first three published short fictions by female authors lesser known to me.

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