Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.
Ever since people started telling stories, we've sorted them into various theoretical bins. The two most basic camps are comedy and tragedy, tales that move from sorrow to joy and vice versa. However, literary permutations of those classifications creep in pretty quickly, with demarcations including everything from heroic quest and epic to farce and absurdism. Things get even more fragmented when we factor in genre fiction. Fantasy noir. Vampire romance. Lovecraftian western. Such divisions multiply like tapeworms, growing whole new subgenres even as we pare them finer and finer. But sometimes a story pops up that's so strange, so odd, so weird that it makes you shake your head in categorical consternation. Such is Clifford D. Simak's They Walked Like Men, a 1962 novel that's part alien invasion, part economic treatise and part investigative caper.
If Parker Graves hadn't been stinking drunk, he'd have never noticed the trap set right in front of his apartment door. There lay a little half-moon shaped slice of paper that almost matched the hallway carpeting. And beneath it? A steel trap more appropriate for taking down grizzlies than newspaper reporters. That was bizarre. Even stranger was how it folded itself up into a ball and simply rolled away. Parker was soused, sure, but he's certain he didn't imagine it. A lot of weird things have happened around town. The biggest department store, a generational fixture, suddenly announced that it had been purchased and would shut down immediately. Someone has been snapping up local housing, too. What's more, a bunch of teens necking down on a lovers' lane reported seeing a torrent of bowling balls rolling down the road all by themselves. Parker doesn't know what's going on, but he wants to find out. In doing so, he'll come into contact with creatures from beyond the stars and a conspiracy that threatens to destroy life on earth.
Hyper-intelligent mutts, intergalactic realtors, the splendiferous odor of skunk -- these are just a few of the subjects that pop up in They Walked Like Men. Simak seems to almost revel in escalating the level of strangeness with every chapter. Plenty of novels do that, but what sets They Walked apart is Simak's commitment to keeping the proceedings readable. He never delves into incomprehensible experiments with form, preferring to keep the bizarreness strictly at a content level. That's a blessing. Not to say that makes the book an unqualified success, though. Certain promising subplots fizzle out as stranger machinations take center stage, and Simak never really develops some of his promising economic ruminations. (Minor spoiler warning: Parker learns about halfway through that aliens are buying up all the land on earth -- through entirely legal means -- in order to turn the planet into a resort. This sets him to wondering how changes in law could prevent the extinction of the human race.) Also, the conclusion struck me as being one of the shaggiest of shaggy dog endings. Still, They Walked is a fun piece of post-golden age SF even if it's not quite a classic.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Mr Mash)