Saturday, May 31, 2014

Spending Time in a Bottle

Though less well known today, P. Schuyler Miller was a frequent contributor to a number of pulp science fiction magazines beginning in the 1930s.  At the time, he was a popular writer of short stories and reviews.  As with many pulp science fiction writers, then and now, an early interest in science fiction and fantasy led him to begin writing and publishing his own stories in his teen years. He placed his first story in Wonder Stories in the summer of 1930.  

A chemist and an amateur archaeologist, he was especially interested in the history of the Iroquois Indians of his home state of New York.  He was also an advocate of historical preservation and natural resource conservation.   He worked as a technical writer for General Electric in the 1940s, and later for the Fisher Scientific Company in the 1950s until his death in 1974. 

Most of Miller’s fiction was published in the 1930s and 1940s, in such magazines as Amazing Stories, Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Weird Tales, among others.  In Weird Tales he published such stories as Spawn (1939), John Cawder's Wife (1943), Plane and Fancy (1944), Ship-in-a-Bottle (1945), and Ghost (1946).   A fan and correspondent of Robert E. Howard, he later helped put together a bibliography of that author’s work.  He wrote less fiction after 1945 and shifted to science fiction book reviews.

Additional detail about this author may be found at these helpful sites:

Fancyclopedia , (part of Fanac-the Fan History Project,
Tellers of Weird Tales

SFE—The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Ship-in-a-Bottle (1955) is a “curiosity shop” tale, reminiscent of such stories as E.F. Benson’s The Witch-Ball (1928), Clark Ashton Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933), and many others.  (A subcategory of this type of horror is the “used book store” motif; see for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s 1938 fragment, The Book).  For an earlier discussion of this type of horror story, see The Hazards of Curiosity Shops.  These stories often begin with a purchase made from some decrepit, out of the way establishment, typically from an aged and suspicious representative of some ethnic minority.

Whatever it is—trinket, figurine, bit of jewelry, ancient tool or weapon—the item contains strange supernatural powers.  It may transport the new owner to some awful location, conjure a ghost, reveal some forgotten trauma, invoke an evil supernatural entity, or transform the owner’s personality by some process of psychic possession.  An underlying assumption seems to be that a gateway to another world can be acquired fairly inexpensively if bought second hand in one of these shops.  Readers may wonder whether financially struggling writers of horror, science fiction, and fantasy literature were forced to frequent shops like these.  The motif shows up fairly often.

What is atypical of Ship-in-a-Bottle is that the shopkeeper has a direct role in the ensuing horror, instead of being merely the agent of the transaction and nothing more.  As the title suggests, the found object is a weirdly lifelike ship in a bottle, with convincingly depicted sailors enduring some sort of prolonged predicament at sea.  The story begins with a reminiscence; the narrator first sees the bottle during a childhood visit to a curiosity shop with his father. 

The depiction of the neighborhood and the mysterious shop as seen through the eyes of a child may remind readers of some of Ray Bradbury’s earlier work from the 1950s.  The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957) and especially Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) come to mind.

Ship-in-a-Bottle is difficult to categorize, because it contains elements of horror, the ghost story, childhood autobiography, and alternate universe stories.  It is a much stronger story than Miller’s earlier work, The Arrhenius Horror (1931), which was reviewed in a previous post, (see How to Make a Silicon Life Form).  That story contained some interesting ideas, (panspermia), but also many of the weaknesses typical of the pulp science fiction of the time.  In Ship-in-a-Bottle, there is much deeper characterization, a wonderful sense of place, and careful attention to detail in creating mood and temporal disorientation.  The effect is similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s in The Festival (1925), He (1926), and The Silver Key (1929).

The narrator of Ship-in-a-Bottle returns to the shop 30 years later and finds that little has changed, although there are signs of the passage of time.  Readers will suspect that the location of the shop is special in some way; the narrator, describing the immediate neighborhood, remarks that it “was like the stern of a galleon crowded between grimy barges.”  Details about the interior of the shop suggest it is more like the cargo hold of some old boat than a used merchandise store. 

Something has happened to time in this locale.  When the narrator gazes into the bottle again after so many years, he is startled to see that the ship has also undergone change over time:  “The listless sails seemed browner and some of them were furled as though the captain had given up hope of wind.”   The tiny ship and its miniature crew, the shopkeeper, and the curiosity shop are all linked in this nautical time loop.  Justice of some kind is accomplished near the end of the story, but the author leaves much unexplained in the wake of the freed ship.

Ship-in-a-Bottle contains some of the same pleasing symmetry and circularity one finds in stories by Clark Ashton Smith—the story ends where it began.  The type and quality of the story seems to anticipate the more personal and autobiographical tone of work by Bradbury and other fantasists.

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