Lost in Time and Space With Lefty Feep by Robert Bloch (Creatures at Large, 1082 Grand Teton Drive, Pacifica, Calif. 94044: $12.95, paperback; $40, limited edition hard cover; 258 pp., illustrated)
Robert Bloch is probably best known as the creator of "Psycho," the horror novel that dispatched forever a good number of its characters and, in the process, our complacency toward sleepy roadside motels and steamed-over shower stalls. While Bloch has produced many books and short stories, some haven't been reissued since the 1940s and early 1950s.
From 'Fantastic Adventures'
One batch of these has been resurrected from the pages of an all-but-forgotten pulp magazine known as Fantastic Adventures and reprinted in a series of collections by Creatures at Large and its editor/publisher, John Stanley. This book, the first in the series, includes one new tale and eight that have been previously published. Far from the terror tales one might expect of Robert Bloch, these are whimsical fantasy stories, light as air and tickling as feathers, featuring a character known as Lefty Feep.
For a youngish reader like myself (younger than the stories, at any rate), Lefty seems like someone who might have escaped from Mad magazine or perhaps Steve Martin's mind. He's a garishly dressed sad sack who seems to mimic the lines of 1930s comic Jerry Colonna ("The beer," he says, "is plenty good, and has more kick than a chorus girl with her costume on fire") and who apparently makes his living by frequenting race tracks and gambling halls.
In between times, he tells bizarre stories to the author of this collection, who duly records them for our reading pleasure.
The format used in these pages has been employed successfully throughout the history of storytelling. Lefty relates to narrator "Bob" (and thereby to us) wildly incredible tales involving himself and a scattering of acquaintances and friends you wouldn't find this side of Elmore Leonard.
Mixed Batch of Stories
They have names like Gorilla Gabface, Out-of-Business Oscar and Gallstone the Magician. They are forever being caught up in scams and schemes that somehow end up entangling Lefty as well and always leave him sadder but wiser.
The stories are a mixed batch.
Some are fractured retellings of familiar fairy tales. For example, "Time Wounds All Heels" reworks the Rip Van Winkle legend; "Jerk the Giant Killer" is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk; and "The Golden Opportunity of Lefty Feep" updates the Midas fable. Others are modern fairy tales involving such time-honored magic as flying carpets and invisibility.
Some work better than others. The Rip Van Winkle and King Midas legends, for example, seem timeless in their application, even in the context of the language and events of the decade for which they obviously were written, while the tales involving Nazis and Japanese spies seem a bit dated.
Some are more clearly realized. "The Weird Doom of Floyd Scrilch" might have been written yesterday as easily as 45 years ago, a wry comment on the misguided aspirations of an all-too-recognizable segment of our society.
Writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Editor/Publisher John Stanley provide a 33-page introduction to Robert Bloch. Excessively prolific, it threatens to violate the first canon of publishing: "Don't let the writer or any other interested bystander get between the book and its readers."
While the afterwords to the stories are appropriate and insightful, much of the introduction is uncomfortably adulatory or simply distracting. It would have been better to simply state what matters: Robert Bloch can tell a story.
A few readers will find the language too dated, the characterizations too stiff, and the subject matter too inconsequential. And, at times, Bloch's games with words grow almost tortuous. Nevertheless, these early Bloch stories are unmistakably the work of a master storyteller discovering his form. If you want to escape from your troubles for a bit, smile at improbable events and unusual people, and enjoy what a good writer can do with words, you might give these a try.