Monday, January 25, 2016

If I Were You - Part 1 - An Unexpected Parting

I'll admit, I was a little worried after finishing the last story.  Hubbard's at his "best" when writing sci-fi, but the other story collections I have look to be more mundane adventure or spy stories, so I wasn't sure they'd stack up.  Then I picked up If I Were You, a book which once again contains more than the novella advertised on the cover.

Fittingly, it was a dark and blustery night when the Professor died.  The summer storm had come yelling in from a scorching afternoon to tear at canvas and yank out stakes and stab bright fury at the big top.  The rain bucketed down with a shock of coldness and then settled to a ceaseless cannonading which, after seven hours, had turned the lot into a swamp so tenacious that not even the rubber mules could budge the wagons.  Banners wept from their staffs; lot lice shivered in scant cover; somewhere a big cat, excited by the tropical aspect of the storm, moaned and paced in his cage.

In case you can't tell by the tiger and the guy with the whip, this story is set in a circus.  And that certainly takes the edge off the old 'dark and stormy night' cliche, doesn't it?

And although a waxen yellowness was already upon his face and his skin was falling away from his bones, the Professor managed an evil smile.  He was waiting, hanging on and waiting.  For he had sent half an hour since for Little Tom Little, king of the midgets.  And as he waited, his thoughts roamed over the past, the better to savor what he was about to do.

You can imagine the slowly creeping smile on my face when I realized that this story's lead was going to be rather different from Hubbard's typical heroes.  I mean, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler and Jettero Heller and Kree Lorin are all rather generic protagonists noteworthy mainly for their questionable heroism and the sheer amount of stupidity that surrounds them.  And here we are, starting with a little person.

So this Professor guy, he's nothing but sinister, "the gypsy camp's bird of bad omen."  Tall and stick-thin, with dark eyes and matted hair, messy clothes, hands fit for strangling someone, he's one of those people you can't help but assume is evil.  He just showed up out of nowhere to become the circus' "mitt reader" (I'm assuming that's a palm reader) over the objections of the group's boss lady because its ringmaster caved in after being hit by the "eerie command" in the Professor's gaze.   Always annoying when you have to hire someone because they put the whammy on your assistant manager, isn't it?

His real name isn't given, but the circus folk call him the Professor, and the guy's stage name is "Yogi Matto."  Which I don't think is all that menacing, but maybe yogi was a more ominous title in 1940.  Them crazy Indians, what with the snake charming and climbing up disappearing ropes and all that.

Anyway, the Professor is the sort of fortune teller who always forecasts doom and makes customers freak out, costing the circus business.  But he's also, worrying enough, always right in his dire predictions, such as tonight's storm and even his imminent death.  He speaks Chinese and Turkish and "the Hindu's tongue" (that would be Hindi, Hubbard), and has a trunk full of ancient tomes of eldritch lore, so he's clearly some manner of evil wizard, but nobody's been able to burn him at the stake yet because of his scary gaze.

But there's one man able to look this sinister sorcerer in the eye, someone who even dares to openly mock him.  And that man is the thirty-inch-tall Little Tom Little, the circus' mimic who takes the edge off the Professor's performances by imitating his voice and mannerisms to deliver his own horrible prophecies, allowing the audience to laugh the tension off.  So it was that a sinister fortuneteller began a feud with the king of the midgets, which is not a sentence I expected to find myself writing when I started this blog.

But he was dying now.  And he was glad to die, secure in the knowledge of the glories which awaited him elsewhere.  In dying he would find himself at last.  But he could not forget Little Tom Little.  No!  He would remember Little Tom Little with a legacy.  He had already made out the paper.

Little Tom Little, in his "tiny poncho," steps into the Professor's (train?) "car," unsure why he alone in the entire circus has been summoned to the man's deathbed.  The Professor claims that he's always respected Tom for his bravery... would it be bad taste to make reference to the surprising courage of hobbits?  Too late, I can already hear the soundtrack.

Our hero isn't sure what to make of this message of goodwill from an old enemy.

"It's not courage," he protested, trying to say something decent to a dying man.  "You just imagined-"

"No, I did not imagine.  Men slink away from me for a peculiar reason, Little Tom.  They slink from me because I impel them.  Yes, that is the truth.  I force them away.  I want nothing to do with men, for I loathe all mankind.  I impelled them, Little Tom Little.  Long before now you must have realized that I command strange and subtle arts beyond the understanding of these foolish and material slaves of their own desires."

So the Professor is an actual wizard commanding unnatural powers of foresight, and he hates people, so he decided the best use of his time was to become a small-time circus performer expected to interact with customers on a regular basis.  'kay.  At least he's not following the desires of those material slaves.

The wizard goes on to explain that because Tom was unaffected by his juju, the fellow must unconsciously be able to resist and therefore command "all phases of the black arts."  Tom is very surprised to hear this, as any of us would be.  But for this reason, and the aforementioned respect the Professor has for him, he's leaving Tom with his collection of tomes containing "the black lore of the ancient peoples of the East."  With them, Tom will be able to master the dark powers of yoga, acupuncture, and origami.

This obviously proves the Professor is Tom's friend, right?  No ulterior motives or anything like that.  After making assurances to this effect, the Professor asks Tom to leave to he can get on with dying, and our hero stumbles out of the tent.  He's so off-balance from all this, in fact, that Tom proceeds to enter the wrong car, the one belonging to ringmaster Hermann Schmidt.  Now, Schmidt is an angry Prussian giant with little patience for interruptions when he's counting out money... wait, Prussia?  The German states united into the German Empire in 1871.  I guess it's possible for someone to hang on to their Prussian identity seventy years later... assuming this story actually takes place when it was published, there's no way to tell-

Anyway, Schmidt flies into a Teutonic rage, rants about little spies and Tom being a "tenth of a human being," picks him up, carries him out the door, and drops Tom eight feet from the car to the rain-sodden ground.

Dimly he saw Schmidt up on the car platform, much as a drowning sailor might have seen the Colossus of Rhodes.  Little Tom dazedly pried himself out of the mud.  His shoulder was full of lightning and he could barely support even his meager weight upon his twisted ankle.  In him a rage was kindled, to run along like a dot of fire eating the length of a fuse.  A fuse which was to burn for weeks ere it reached the dynamite.

Maybe this doesn't take place in 1940, or else they'd be talking about plungers and detonation cord instead of more primitive explosives.

So there's our premise: an evil wizard "gifts" a little person with some magic books, a little person with a chip on his shoulder.  I haven't read ahead much farther from this point, and I'm quite curious as to where Hubbard plans on taking us.

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