FOLKLORE (LESS): The Feverish Fables of Fredric Brown

Posted by on December 28th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

“Printer stink!” — His Name Was Death

The aphorism is spoken in a dream. The dreamer, a middle-aged linotypist, is nursing fears of exposure for what has proven a successful moonlight career in counterfeiting. He is prepared to counter embarrassing inquiries, and stifle any incriminating aromas, with the sovereign deodorant: blood. He, and the masterly crime novel in which he is featured, join a procession of venturesome amateurs — crooks and crime-solvers — who have broadened the highway trod by Fredric Brown’s vagrant Combatants on behalf of a merely reasonably sane and orderly universe: even when the “order” is that of a profitable criminal sideline.

Since the 1930s, at least — when I recall him as a contributor to John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Unknown Worlds magazine — I recall Brown’s devoted craftsmen — almost always printers —  combating some cosmic mischief with Crusoe-like resource and patience. A magical lubricant might transform a linotype (in the story “ETAOIN SHRDLU”) into a work-devouring Moloch. At times, because of the cheerful candor of Brown’s fantasy, the hearthside informality of tone, Brown seemed to be tinkering with an updated, urban treatment of Stephen Vincent Benét’s frontier folklore fables. A gathering of pagan divinities — cowed and bowed by the pagan deities of Shinto and neo-pagan Nazism — are rallied and roused by a Popeye-pugilistic Uncle Sam. And Innocence, armed, joins Sam in combat when the Big Devil slithers into a church service: only to be routed by a youngster, who has loaded his squirt gun at the holy water font. And Brown’s affinity for the printer’s arts saturates some of his veritably delirious fancies, with the domestic warmth and craft of a prairie gazette.

Two of his sovereign enigma solvers, and entertainers, are young Emmet and his Uncle Ambrose. These two spiritual vagrants solved thickets of murderous entanglement, partnering Emmet’s methodical candor with Am’s adeptness in the arts of illusion and disguise — and rough-hewn carny crassness — in solving mysteries (beginning with the murder of Em’s father) that seemed draped in robes of deception. À la Benét, they often conveyed a mingled Yankee acumen and professional exactitude. In “The Angelic Angleworm,” the afflicted hero traces his oddball visions to a celestial goof, a recurrent typo in the printouts of heavenly decrees: resulting in a parade of weird visitations.

Along with Fredric Brown’s fantasies, his stories of crime and (amateur) detection offer contemporary renditions of early American exploration and detection: flavored by the ever-fresh, ever-boiling American brew of wisdom and wonder.

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