This collection focuses on Sheckley’s horror stories. The sixteen stories included are “A Trick Worth Two of That,” “The Mind-Slaves of Manitori,” “Pandora’s Box—Open with Care,” “The Dream of Misunderstanding,” “Magic, Maples, and Maryanne,” “The New Horla,” “The City of the Dead,” “The Quijote Robot,” “Emissary from a Green and Yellow World,” “The Universal Karmic Clearing House,” “Deep Blue Sleep,” “The Day the Aliens Came,” “Dukakis and the Aliens,” “Mirror Games,” “Sightseeing, 2179,” and “Agamemnon’s Run.”
From the very beginning of his career, Robert Sheckley was recognized by fans, reviewers, and fellow authors as a master storyteller and the wittiest satirist working in the science fiction field. Open Road is proud to republish his acclaimed body of work, with nearly thirty volumes of full-length fiction and short story collections. Rediscover, or discover for the first time, a master of science fiction who, according to the New York Times, was “a precursor to Douglas Adams.”
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About the Author
Robert Sheckley was one of the funniest writers in the history of science fiction. He did screwball comedy, broad satire, and farce. He could also be deadly serious, but he was always entertaining and always had something pointed to say about our world using the skewed versions of reality he created in his fiction. Starting in the early 1950s, he was an amazingly prolific short story writer, with a lot of his stories appearing in Galaxy Magazine. He launched his novel-writing career with Immortality, Inc., which he followed up with a sequence of excellent books: The Status Civilization, Journey Beyond Tomorrow, and Mindswap. He continued to produce novels and short stories in abundance until his death in 2005.
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A Trick Worth Two of That
I wrote this story in a car, traveling across Transylvania, during a summer storm. The story is on one of the great themes, my own interpretation of that theme.
There had been a lot of traffic at first, but now our car was the only one on the road. We had left Timisoara in the late morning, after a viewing of the last total eclipse of 1999. Unfortunately, a cloud had obscured the sun at the key moment. Silviu had claimed he'd seen a glimpse of the diamond ring, as the flaring feature on the eclipsed sun is called. I had not noticed it myself, but had been impressed by the dramatic darkening of the sky, the sudden clamor of bewildered birds, and the coolness that for a few minutes replaced the stifling heat of the last days.
Now, several hours later, we were most of the way across Rumania, not far from the Hungarian border, on our way back to Venice, where Helene and I would return to our small villa on the Lido, while our friends would go on to their apartment in Milan.
For days, the heat had been relentless, and the sky a clear blue up to the day of the eclipse. But today, a weather system had moved in and the sky was white. The traffic, which had clogged the narrow two lane roads and slowed our progress, had diminished with the oncoming rain, light at first, then heavy and relentless. Now we were the only car on what passed for the main road to Budapest. We had entered the region of Transylvania. Dark, gray-white mists clung to the mountains and crept down toward the road in thick tendrils, like the tentacles of an enormous ectoplasmic octopus.
Silviu, who was driving, was growing alarmed at the conditions. He was muttering to himself, peering through the windshield through the rivulets of water that the wipers could scarcely manage, and nervously plucking at his shirt with gestures that I took to be surreptitious signs of the cross. I knew Silviu as a modern man, a scientist, a member of the Rumanian Academy of Sciences. Yet something in him seemed to be moved, atavistically, perhaps, by our lonely journey through these mountains of evil omen. My wife Helene, sitting beside Silviu and me in the front seat, seemed abstracted and was nervously chewing on her lower lip. Our Italian friends, Giulio and Gina, in the back, had been laughing and chatting, and munching biscuits which they had purchased at the last AGIP station. But presently, as the rain increased and the sky darkened with the approach of evening, even these light-hearted creatures fell silent.
Torrents of water cascaded down, forming small lakes on the road which our car passed over and through with a hiss. Here and there, the low stone retaining walls on the mountainside had given way, and our car passed over an ever- increasing accumulation of twigs, pebbles, and small branches.
The flooding grew worse as we continued. A deserted car park had become a lake, empty except for one white plastic chair floating in it. Thunder came down with a crack. The skies lighted momentarily with lightning.
And then the catastrophe we had all been expecting happened. We rounded a bend and Silviu brought the car to a quick stop. Ahead of us, a pile of rocks and tree limbs had come down the mountainside, blocking the road completely. Rocks were still falling, tumbling down the steep slope in a steady stream.
There would be no getting to Budapest by tonight.
"What now?" I asked.
Silviu said, "There was a turnoff a hundred yards or so back. Do you remember seeing it?"
I nodded. "It slanted up the mountain, as I recall."
"Yes, I think so. But it was macadamized. I think it might go in parallel with this road."
"Worth a try," I said. "If it looks bad, we can always park for the night."
We were all in agreement. We backed up cautiously to the turnoff. It seemed safe enough, so we turned up the mountain at not too steep an angle.
The road was good for a while, but in half a mile the macadam ended and we were on a dirt track. The surface was beginning to wash out. Any time now we were likely to get trapped. The car was sliding from one side to the other. There was some danger of going over the edge, down a steep hillside to our destruction.
Silviu kept the car barely at a crawl, his hands tense on the wheel. Conversation had stopped. The Italians in the back seat were silent, Giulio, the young engineer, and Gina, his fashionable wife, gripping each other's hands, their faces tight and concerned. Beside me in the front seat, Helene's face, lighted by flashes of lightning, was pale and drawn. It looked as though we would have to stop and spend the night in the car.
We had no provisions to speak of — half a liter of mineral water, and a few not very good Rumanian cookies we had picked up at the last gas stop. There wasn't enough room in the car for all of us to lie down. We would have to spend the night sitting up. Not the worst of disasters, but something to be avoided all the same.
I was remembering tales I had heard of these Transylvanian mountains. Giulio, in the back seat, as though echoing my thoughts, wondered aloud how far we were from the castle of Vlad the Impaler. Gina laughed, a little shakily. "That's no more than a tourist attraction nowadays."
We all laughed. But it became obvious that Silviu didn't find this sort of talk amusing.
He said, "It is true that Vlad is only a legend now. But strange things still go on in this region. They don't come to the attention of the world outside Rumania. They're barely noted in Bucharest, where people have other things to think about. But the common wisdom is, inexplicable things still happen around here. It is a region best avoided. Especially on nights like this."
It was full dark now, the blackness of the mountainside contrasting eerily with the white mist. We were just deciding to stop. The going was simply too treacherous, with a precipice on the right and the steep, heavily wooded mountain on the left. But there was no place to turn out. We wondered, should we continue, looking for a place to pull off the road? Or just stop where we were? It was unlikely any other vehicle would be traveling this road on a night like this. Still, it called for a decision, and meanwhile Silviu kept the car barely creeping along, trying to make out the edges of the road through the streams of water pouring down the windshield.
Suddenly I saw a flashing light up ahead. Silviu saw it at the same time, and slowed the car still more, until it began to buck in low gear.
"What's that?" Helene asked, while the others crowded forward to see.
"I have no idea," Silviu said. "But we might as well find out." He slowed slightly again, because the car was now slipping and sliding badly on the dirt track.
"Gear up," Giulio advised, and Silviu shifted up to second, getting slightly better traction. At last we came up to the light and saw that it was a man, dressed in a long rain slicker and waving a flashlight. We stopped and Silviu wound the window down.
There followed a brief conversation in what I took to be Rumanian. At the end of it, Silviu groaned and pounded the steering wheel with his fist.
The man said, in English, "I was telling your friend that this road leads nowhere. It comes to an end in another two miles. And it is unsafe even in good weather. Didn't you see the warning sign?"
"It must have washed out," I said. "What do you suggest?"
"Come ahead another twenty yards," the man said. "There is a road to the left up into the mountain. Dirt, but passable. I have my lodge there. I suggest you spend the night with me."
"A lodge? Here at the end of nowhere?"
"Only a few rooms are completed," the man said. "When it is all done, and the road hardened, my hotel will have the finest view in these mountains. Not that you can see much of it now."
"Your lodge is a hotel?"
"It will be. The finest in the region. But in the meantime, even in its present state, it is a better place for you than out here in the weather. If you agree, I will lead you to my drive."
It seemed the best option. Silviu followed the man, crawling along in low gear to a turnoff twenty yards ahead. Then we climbed again up a high-crowned dirt road, our wheels sliding treacherously, Silviu wrestling with the wheel to keep us out of the runoff ditches on either side. At last the road leveled out into a broad clearing, and at the end of it was a partially finished structure.
Flashes of lightning revealed a small hotel constructed in what I took to be an old Rumanian style with elaborate carvings. The lower floor was lighted, and our host stood in front of the doorway, waving us in with his flashlight.
We came inside, soaked by even that short an exposure to the rain. Our host had towels at hand to dry ourselves off. He was of average height, broad but not portly, balding, and with a round, cheerful face. He introduced himself.
"I am loan Florin. Welcome to my hotel. It is still incomplete, as I told you, but I can offer you beds for the night, and dinner, if you are not too choosy."
We thanked Florin. I asked him, "How did you know we were coming?" "I didn't know, of course," Florin said. "But I was looking out over the landscape from one of the upper windows and saw your headlights coming up from the road below. Since I know this road leads nowhere except to here, and I am not yet officially opened for business, I deduced you were travelers in need of assistance, and acted accordingly."
Florin prepared a dinner for us — a tasty goulash soup that reminded us we were not far from the Hungarian border. This, with chunks of bread and a local white wine, and finishing with a dish resembling apple strudel, satisfied our hunger, which had grown intense during the hours on the road.
Afterwards, before retiring, Florin invited us into his parlor, a large, cheerful room that took up most of the finished portion of the downstairs. Here, with small glasses of the local plum brandy, we settled back and unwound from our ordeal.
Florin proved to be a good conversationalist as well as an excellent host. Born in this region but educated in Bucharest, he had worked for some years in Budapest in an uncle's hotel business. He spoke Hungarian and German as well as Rumanian and English, and was a treasure trove of local folklore.
Our talk turned inevitably to stories of old Transylvania — of the horrifying Vlad the Impaler, whose castle was not far from here, of Elizabeth Bathory and her penchant for taking rejuvenating baths in the blood of young servant maids, and others, less well known but equally unsavory. From there we moved on to vampires, succubae, and other unclean creatures of the night.
Silviu didn't like this line of talk. "These legends," he said, "are part of the old folklore of this area. And the world is entranced with them still. But their main use is to entertain adults and frighten children. Nowadays we know that there is no such thing as supernatural phenomena, and that one part of this Earth is, psychically speaking, very like another."
"I agree with our friend," Florin said, nodding to Silviu. "Science is no doubt correct, and to believe otherwise is worse than superstition — it is indefensible self-indulgence. Yet some in Calinesti — the village nearest to us — believe that nature herself, in her blind construction, is guided by spirits who take a hand from time to time in the affairs of men — and then we have brief upheavals of what appears to be the supernatural, the unnatural, the uncanny."
"You appear to be an educated man," Silviu said. "Surely you don't believe this peasant nonsense?"
Florin shrugged. "I believe situations come about as if there were a supernatural. You are familiar with Vaihinger's thesis?"
Silviu shrugged. "German philosophers can also be guilty of superstition under the guise of scientific discourse."
"Perhaps. But however it comes about, it is common knowledge that certain places have a shape, a contour, a positioning of elements that is not merely suggestive of evil, but is evil itself. Such a notion was put forward in slightly altered form by Mr. G. K. Chesterton, if I am not mistaken."
"As a literary conceit," Silviu said.
"But an interesting one. It is the idea that the shapes and arrangements of things can carry a meaning. Like an artist's grouping of elements in a landscape. Nature herself is arguably the greatest of artists. Who is to say that her creations don't sometimes have a purpose, an intention, a meaning greater than chance arrangement?"
"The notion has a certain charm," Silviu admitted. "But scientifically, it is complete nonsense."
Florin smiled and shook his head. "It is only a supposition, of course. But might we take it as correct, just for the sake of argument?" "I suppose you can take anything as correct," Silviu said somewhat grumpily, but raised no further objection.
"Excellent. And would you object if we add the concept that, though physical beings, we live in the midst of an invisible spiritual world?" "I object to the term 'spiritual'," Silviu said.
"I only mean that all our influences are not apparent to our unaided senses. I cite the unease most people get just before an earthquake. This cannot be measured by science yet, or even truly ascertained. But it undoubtedly has a physical basis. In the sense I'm using the word, atoms are spiritual. We know of their existence only through rather sophisticated inference."
"Put that way, I suppose I can accept your supposition," Silviu said.
"My point is that things exist which, though impalpable, unsusceptible to the testimony of our senses, are nevertheless capable of exerting an influence over us."
"What you're stating is mere common sense," Silviu said.
"Yes. Thank you. So we have a world of influences which we do not know about directly. This I call spiritual. From this, we can conjecture that what happens in a man's life at any given time will depend to a great extent on the momentary and ever-changing nature of the spiritual world he passes through, an invisible world through which he swims like a fish in water."
Silviu pursed his lips and looked grave, but could find no objection to the statement.
Florin went on. "It is this world that gives our physical world its nature and tone. What happens here in our world of everyday reality is influenced to a great extent by what is happening there in that world of unseen spiritual entities. An atom, I maintain, is one such entity. A ghost or an evil influence could be another."
Helene spoke up for the first time. "Is it so certain that anything is happening there? Mightn't this spiritual world, if it exists at all, be all of a piece, like an ocean or a fog bank?"
Florin smiled and shrugged. "It could be any way we please to imagine it. But in my view, the spiritual world is larger and more various than our world, and more mysterious. We have discovered atoms in it, or rather, inferred their existence, but there is no reason to think we have come to the end of what is there to discover."
Silviu nodded. He was uncomfortable with this line of reasoning, but he wasn't going to argue that all discoveries had been made.
"In my view," Florin said, "this spiritual realm is a complete world in its own right, a realm with a psychic climate that has its equivalents of storms and sunny days, and much else besides. If you'll grant me this, perhaps you'll also grant that this realm can produce freak weather conditions from time to time."
"A novel notion," Silviu said, "but it seems to follow from your premise."
"Therefore it follows that what we don't see, but is there nonetheless, influences us though we aren't aware of it. Now we come to the shapes of things and their influence on our lives."
"About time we got to the spooky stuff," Giulio said, pouring himself another plum brandy.
"A certain landscape, thrown up perhaps by chance elements, could provide a nexus, a focus, for certain spiritual beings — creatures that probably have an objective existence in their own realm, but are as ghosts or spirits in ours. The configuration of a countryside, the shape of a castle, and the momentary spiritual climate that forms up around them might have been instrumental in bringing forth a Vlad the Impaler, or, at another time, an Elizabeth Bathory."
"If that were the case," Silviu said, "why aren't we drowned in the horrors of the invisible world like the Dark Ages thought we were?" "I think the Dark Ages exaggerated the situation. In my formulation, these eruptions of the so-called supernatural are both exceptional and transitory.
"They are elements thrown up for a brief time by the chance combination of landscape and spiritual entity. They persevere for a few days or years, then dissolve again into the matter-of-factness of our daily lives. In one place the influences produce a Vlad the Impaler. A dozen miles away, in another spiritual microclimate, there might be nothing exceptional. A few miles further on, in yet another spiritual microclimate, we might find a spate of evil sprites in the form of bats, living only for a day, perhaps, but doing damage to whoever was so unfortunate as to encounter them."
Excerpted from "Uncanny Tales"
Copyright © 1984 Robert Sheckley.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Trick Worth Two of That,
Mind-Slaves of Manitori,
Pandora's Box — Open with Care,
The Dream of Misunderstanding,
Magic, Maples, and Maryanne,
The New Horla,
The City of the Dead,
The Quijote Robot,
Emissary from a Green and Yellow World,
The Universal Karmic Clearing House,
Deep Blue Sleep,
The Day the Aliens Came,
Dukakis and the Aliens,