Thursday, November 08, 2018

"The Doll-House" (1967)

James Cross was a pseudonym of Hugh J. Parry (not to be confused with Hugh G. Rexion), a sociology professor who was at pains to keep his two professional lives separate. Sadly, it's hard to say now which is more obscure than the other. Neither has a Wikipedia entry—in fact, this story seems to be the only reference to him there. In his introduction to the story, editor Harlan Ellison relates that he solicited his own literary agent in the hunt for material, which yielded up this story and another. As a side note, I like how many of the writers in this collection are offbeat or unknown and not just the "usual suspects" of '60s SF. Ellison as usual sings highest praise of the story, and it's not bad. It feels like a lift from The Twilight Zone but there is little conceptual overlay to parse, always a relief. A man, Jim Eliot, is in financial straits, and he turns to a haughty and pretentious relative for help (a retired Ivy League humanities professor), who gives him a half-mocking gift: a dollhouse that is home to a Roman sibyl. Yes, that's right, an actual tiny divine creature who can predict the future if you treat her right. That's important. Even if you treat her right, her answers are cryptic. For example, asked for the winner of the World Series (the setting is 1964), she responds, "Fringillidae sunt." Eventually a Latinist and then a zoologist lead Eliot to the St. Louis Cardinals. Well, you can probably imagine how this goes, as our hero grows increasingly imperiled financially and increasingly impatient with his personal soothsayer. In his afterword, Parry emphasizes the "dangerous" aspect of his story—I appreciated that because the further I go with this collection the more I find myself worrying the concept. I often sense it in Ellison as well. In a way I like how elusive it is, but like the desperate character in this story I also want answers—ones I can understand. Parry's view of the dangerous vision in his story, if I understand him, is about challenging entrenched class structures. Eliot, who is a banker, has nonetheless married over his head, sealing his doom. Even the sibyl probably looks down on him. Actually, being divine, she probably looked down on the humanities professor too. I'm starting to think, more and more, that a lot of the dangerous visions in the best of these stories are as old as the struggle for class position: ancient and unceasing.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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