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Book Review: The Man Who Found Zero: Early Science Fiction and Weird Fantasy from The Black Cat, 1896-1915

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One of the earliest science fiction digests was The Black Cat. It was published from 1895-1920, then unsuccessfully revived in 1922. The glory years came under the leadership of the magazine’s founder, H.D. Umbstaetter (1851-1913), who had a knack for discovering great unknown writers. The Man Who Found Zero: Early Science Fiction and Weird Fantasy from The Black Cat, 1896-1915 is a collection of 24 short stories from The Black Cat, and it is a fascinating look at turn-of-the-twentieth century sci-fi.

The back cover blurb calls this “More of your great-grandparents’ science fiction,” which is a reference to the previous Black Dog Books collection from a magazine called The Argosy. It was another early fantasy digest, and contained some great stories, but I am partial to The Black Cat. For this reader, the sheer weirdness factor cannot be beat.

Take “The Transposition of Stomachs” by Charles E. Mixer. In this tale, we find a self-described “gourmet” with a delicate constitution. His proposal to a longshoreman acquaintance of enormous girth is to pay him to trade stomachs. When this works, the longshoreman then goes into business for himself, exchanging stomachs with all and sundry for money.

Then there is “The Annihilator of the Undesirable” by Clifford Howard. In this story the narrator discovers an ad that claims to permanently remove anyone the buyer deems “undesirable.” To test this, he anonymously hires the man to remove a town tramp, and watches as the fellow literally vanishes into thin air. When the Annihilator himself shows up to inform his former customer that he is now in his sights, the twist ending is worthy of The Twilight Zone.

In fact, many of these stories are very reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Although it is true that most of this material was written over a century ago, this by no means diminishes their incredibly imaginative qualities. I find myself as thoroughly enthralled in fantasies such as the frozen in time narrative “In The Sierra Madres” (Newton Newkirk) today as I think I would have been in 1901, when it was first published.

It is not just the fantastical elements of these short stories that make them so compelling though. As we reach the end of “When Time Turned” (Ethel Watts Mumford), the bittersweet realization that it is an account of a man who has lived his life backwards from the time of his wife’s death is heartbreaking. In this and many of the others, we are given tales that work both on the supernatural and natural levels. Like all good fiction, the interpretation is left to the reader to decide.

Jack London is the most famous name to grace these pages. His first published story was “A Thousand Deaths,” and appeared in the May 1899 issue of The Black Cat. It is a wild piece, about a man discovering a process to liquefy people, cleanse them, then bring them back to life. It just so happens that his experiments are done on his own wayward son, and when the old man starts talking about vivisection, the tables are turned.

Editor Gene Christie has selected a great assortment of short stories for The Man Who Found Zero. While a few of the references may be obscure today, the imaginative nature of this material is as vibrant as ever. It may be “your great-grandparent’s science fiction,” but it is as good or better as anything you will find on the shelf today.

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About Greg Barbrick