YBHS IX: ‘On Call’ by Dennis Etchison


On Call
Art by Roy C. Krenkel “An Incident On Barsoom”

‘On Call’ by Dennis Etchison originally appeared in Fantasy Newsletter #22 March 1980. Fantasy Newsletter ran from 1978 to 1987. Over the years it was largely focused on reviews, interviews, and publishing news with the occasional piece of fiction. Paul C. Allen the editor at the time of ‘On Call’ says fiction “will receive a very low priority in terms of space. But it will receive a high priority with regard to quality–when I use it, it will be “different” and well written”. (FN 22, p.1) 

Karl Edward Wagner was very familiar with Fantasy Newsletter. He wrote a semi-regular column called ‘On Fantasy’ sharing writing duties with Fritz Leiber from 1980-1984 then the column became infrequent and Wagner traded writing duties with Ramsey Campbell from 1984-1987. The column covered trends, authors they were reading, conventions and various other musings. I would love a nice collection of these writings someday.

So it was in the pages of this periodical that ‘On Call’ first appeared. Drastically different from the other offerings in the book so far in its, to use a buzzword, nightmarish Dreamtime logic. Wagner had this to say when talking about where ideas come from in his introduction to the story “Occasionally, however, an author will experience some particularly vivid dream (or, if you will, nightmare) and will incorporate this into a story. Such is the case with Dennis Etchison’s disturbing Kafkaesque nightmare, ‘On Call.'”  And what a nightmare it is.

Very simply put ‘On Call’ is the story of a man who is picking up his wife after dropping her off so she can receive her x-ray results. This is merely a framework on which Etchison hangs the nightmare. As a reader, I find this style hard to approach because so much of the story is under the surface of any narrative I’m often not sure if I ‘got’ the story or not. Wagner has his own experiments in this dreamlike style with stories like ‘Cedar Lane’, ‘Shrapnel’ and ‘Endless Night’. Etchison opens his story with “‘Read it now,” called the blind newspaper vendor. “Many are dying and many are dead!”‘ This phrase is packed with the bizarre. The juxtaposition of the blind man selling a visual news source and proclaiming that ‘many are dying’ when in fact we are all dying; or are at least headed that way. Could it be that we are living our lives blind to our impending doom? The story then proceeds in a realistic manner for a good page or two before the hints of nightmare start appearing. There is a motif of waiting from the inhabitants in the world Etchison created and our protagonist keeps taking action to find his wife. Ultimately, waiting or taking action, they all end up in the same place.

I should have realized:

A) this story is from Etchison a master of this style


B) this story is included in a best of the year

I shouldn’t have been too concerned whether I would ‘get’ it. At least I found that it means something to me personally and ultimately that’s all that matters.

Next: ‘The Catacomb’ by Peter Shilston

More Dennis Etchison: YBHS VIII: ‘The Dead Line’

Echoes of Valor (1987) – Part 3: Adept’s Gambit by Fritz Leiber

Wagner’s second selection for Echoes of Valor is a sword and sorcery tale from Fritz Leiber (1910-1992), the first written, but not published, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story “Adept’s Gambit.”

Art by Ronald Clyne

Before the Fafhrd and Mouser stories were published, starting in the August 1939 issue of Uncanny, Leiber had been sending these stories around to his circle of friends. One of those friends happened to be H. P. Lovecraft who Wagner quotes as saying “Someday I hope the Fafhrd cycle will get into print, leading off with Adept’s Gambit.”

However, “Adept’s Gambit” wasn’t the first to be published. It eventually saw the light of day in an Arkham House collection of short stories by Leiber titled Night’s Black Agents —published in 1947. Wagner explains that this book became rare and the story wasn’t widely available to readers until 1969 when it was collected in the narratively chronologically ordered Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories– Volume 3 Swords in the Mist. Leiber, in order to have his cycle of stories fit together seamlessly, did some re-writes. Being an earlier story, “Adept’s Gambit” is set in our historical world rather than the world of Nehwon that Leiber would ultimately create.

Art by Jeff Jones

In Swords in the Mist Leiber adds a connecting story “The Wrong Branch.” In that story, the Gray Mouser takes a left instead of a right down one of the tunnels of the multi-dimensional lair of Ninegauble (their multi-eyed patron). Taking this ‘wrong branch’ leads the duo to our world, the magic alters their speech and memories so it’s as if they have always lived here.  At the end of “Adept’s Gambit” in the new version included in Swords in the Mist, the worlds blend and our world slips away like a dream leaving them back in Nehwon. The version that Wagner included in Echoes of Valor is the 1947 definitive text unearthed for our reading pleasure.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser get caught up in a power struggle between a woman, her brother (a magical adept), and his master. The whole reason the duo gets involved is that whenever Fafhrd and the Mouser kiss a woman she turns into a hog or a snail respectively. They set out on a quest to quell this ailment and realize they are being treated like pawns in a game.

This story is not one of the strongest Fafrhd and Gray Mouser stories, probably due to the fact that it was one of the first written. The banter between the duo is always fun and probably my favorite part of Leiber’s swordsmen. With a dictionary in hand, I was able to greatly enjoy those sections of the story. Leiber has wonderful swordplay in his later stories however in this particular one I was confused what was happening at certain moments. I’ve seen this story get criticism, for the story the woman reveals about her past and how this slows down the action and is not needed. I enjoyed getting to hear her story, but I will agree with those critics that it was a big tonal shift. What I especially enjoyed about that section was the breaks in her story for Leiber to describe what the travelers were currently doing. It was an interesting experiment in telling two progressing stories, past and present, in a parallel way.

Leafing through the two editions-1947 and 1969-I couldn’t spot many differences. It’s nice to have the clean definitive text easily readable again, but definitely not crucial. Looking at the first two stories in Echoes of Valor, I can detect a motivating force for Wagner being the preservation and rediscovery of fading or lost classics. Not only do I admire this, but it motivates me to keep Wagner’s own stories from fading away or being lost.