Thursday, November 20, 2014

On the trail of words connected in twisted circles

There is both blessing and curse in capacious memory, but more blessing I think than curse.

Based on the information I've been able to dig up -- for which I have to thank Google in part -- I must have read the story in the spring or summer of 1959, when I was roughly ten and a half years old.  It appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, one of several large-format, heavily illustrated magazines my parents subscribed to.  I don't think I actually read the story more than twice, and perhaps only once, before that issue of the magazine went into the trash.

I did not, however, forget it.

Why one particular story would stick with me, I don't know.  But it did.  The story did, but not the title or the author.

Science fiction was never my favorite genre, and this was science fiction, so perhaps I didn't remember the peripheral details simply because I never encountered the author again, never had the footnote of that particular story brought to my attention again.  It didn't matter.  The story was there.

I do remember that at the time, when I was hardly even a pre-teen, the cleverness of the ending was eye-wideningly superb.  Nothing else impressed me so much as that ending.

Years later, when I was much more of a budding author, I went in search of the story.  I was in high school then, and had started or perhaps had already finished my first complete novel.  I have no idea what prompted me to go searching for the tale but I did, at the public library.  Again, I did not know the author or the title, and the passage of five or six or seven years since childhood had somewhat dimmed my memory of which magazine and which year, but I began the search anyway.  whatever indexes -- the search engines of the mid-1960s -- were available then, I used them to advantage and finally identified the story.  To my delight, it had been reprinted in an annual collection.  To my further delight, the library had a copy of that collection.  I found it on the shelf and sat down to devour this much-remembered story.

And of that reading I remember almost nothing.

Was I still as impressed with the ending?  I don't know.  Did I glean any other kernels of story-telling skill from the rest of the tale?  I don't know.  Had the story lost its magic with my own maturity, or whatever maturity it is that a teen-ager has?  I don't know.

What I do know is that I remembered the title of the story.

More years passed.  Many more.  I left the community of that public library, married, had a family, wrote and published more books than that horrible adolescent thing I called a novel.  Walked away from writing, went back to college, was suddenly widowed, and life changed.  And that ending did not leave me.

Again, I am not a great reader of science fiction.  I have a nodding acquaintance with it, and I have read some.  I have probably read more about science fiction than I have actually read in the genre itself.  (Fantasy is another matter entirely.)  I watched Star Trek TOS more in syndicated reruns than the original broadcasts, and I've seen a few of the films.  I caught perhaps one or two episodes of TNG, but no more than that.  Star Wars, yes, the first/middle three chapters, and some of the similar films of the '70s.  The three novels I remember most clearly were apocalyptic: Larry Nivens' Lucifer's Hammer; Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon!; and Max Ehrlich's The Big Eye

A few short stories -- aside from Rod Serling's Twilight Zone collections -- stuck with me in a fashion similar to this one.  Poul Anderson's "The Light" was one, and again it was because of the ending.  The same with Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" and "The Star."

As I began the journey back to my own writing, I knew that I had those stories, long and short, in my personal vault of memory, and some were also within easy reach on the bookshelves in my home.  But one was missing.  Title known, ending still astonishing, but I did not have the text.  In 2010, perhaps 40 years after I rediscovered it the first time, I went on another search.  This time it didn't take flipping through paper indexes to find it; Google brought it to me in mere fractions of a second.  I had only to key in the title.

Now I had the rest of the information:  author, publication data, even the reprinted annual collection from Saturday Evening Post.  Within a week, I had a copy of the collection, purchased for one cent (plus shipping, of course) from Amazon.

It was not a short story but a novelette, so there was more on this 40-years-on reading for me to absorb and analyze.  The basic premise was exactly as remembered, and of course that ending, but except for that I might as well have been reading it for the first time.  Nearly everything else had been forgotten:  Details, motivation, circumstances.  Reading with a more mature experience and more critical eye, I found flaws that had not been apparent to my 10-year-old self or even my teen-aged incarnation.  I also found something else, however, that transcended the flaws and brought them into the perspective of that still awesome ending.

This was more than an adventure story, a treasure-hunting story, a character-versus-monster story.  Like all truly well-constructed stories, this contained more than one conflict.  Character versus self, character versus society, character versus fate/the gods, even a bit of character versus technology.

I wondered how it would have been written differently, if some of the flaws had been addressed and revisions integrated to highlight the other aspects of the deeper story.  I began to play editor, but only for a while.  There wasn't time to do more.

But I also wondered what had ever become of the author.  I had never heard of him before, nor had I ever encountered him during my various travels through science fiction and fantasy.  Again, I turned to the Great Google and learned more.  Much more.

"The Tale of the Fourth Stranger" was written by Australian Anthony Coburn and published in the 4 April 1959 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.  On the surface, it is a treasure-hunting tale, sparked by an oft-told legend of a monster guarding the riches.  And that is enough.

Coburn, born in 1927, had left Australia and gone to the UK, where he worked for the BBC as a screenwriter and producer.  Just a few years after writing "The Tale of the Fourth Stranger," he wrote the script for what would become the first serial for the Doctor Who program, "An Unearthly Child."

I have never seen a single episode of Dr. Who.  I know virtually nothing about it.  Coburn's IMDb page does not include a credit for "The Tale of the Fourth Stranger."  Further reading suggests there are other things, including some related to Dr. Who, for which he has not received credit.

Following words and following ideas can take one into unusual territory, sometime enlightening, sometimes frightening.

A Kirkus review of that collection of Saturday Evening Post stories is such territory.  The entire review is but a middling-long paragraph, yet it contains one of those sentences that can have more impact than expected.  Not all the stories included in the anthology are mentioned, but Coburn's is:
.. . . and the adventure of a hero of mythological proportions -- his battle with a sea monster, discovery of buried treasure and his realization of the self-deception of the cynical -- in Anthony Colburn's(sic) The Tale of the Fourth Stranger.

Anthony Coburn died in April 1977, not yet 50 years old.  At the time, he was the producer for the BBC series Poldark.

I do not believe in blessings or curses.  I certainly do not believe in omens.

And yet, and yet. . .

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