Short Story Review: “The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth

(Cover by Paul Calle. Worlds Beyond, December 1950.)

Who Goes There?

C. M. Kornbluth stands as one of the most gifted and emblematic practictioners of ’50s SFF, a connection made more tragically profound by the fact that he died almost at the time when that decade ended, at the age of 34. Despite dying so young, Kornbluth had a fairly long and productive career, making his first sales when he was only 16 or 17, and by the time he went off to serve in WWII he already had a considerable amount of short work under his belt, though unsurprisingly Kornbluth’s early work is considered minor. Cut to 1949 and Kornbluth, still only 25 but seemingly having learned the do’s and don’t’s of short story writing from his pre-war experience, has returned a more mature writer, and he would stay a fixture of the field until his death in 1958. The back-to-back deaths of Kornbluth and Henry Kuttner marked a dark point for SFF as a vehicle for social commentary, having lost two of its best satirists, but it also lost two of its best short story writers. With Kornbluth gone, the field would never quite be the same again.

On top of the many short stories and several novels he wrote solo, Kornbluth also collaborated with fellow Futurians Frederik Pohl and Judith Merril, the former on a few notable novels (including The Space Merchants) and the latter on a couple of less notable but competently written novels. The Futurians were a largely left-leaning New York-based fan group that included Kornbluth, Pohl, Merril, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald Wollheim, among others. Pohl, himself barely out of his teens, was made editor of two second-rate but historically important magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, in the early ’40s, and Pohl filled these magazines with amateur works from some of his fellow Futurians, including Kornbluth. In his mature phase, Kornbluth would be associated with the two most lauded SFF magazines of the ’50s, Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Placing Coordinates

“The Mindworm” was first published in the December 1950 issue of Worlds Beyond, that magazine’s first issue. Worlds Beyond is the perfect kind of magazine to talk about for my blog, because it’s forgotten now and it had a dreadfully short run, despite the quality of its fiction. Edited by a young Damon Knight (whose experience as assistant editor for the revived Super Science Stories seemed to encourage him to start his own magazine), and featuring new fiction by some of the most promising young voices in the field as well as a considerable amount of reprints by notable forerunners (Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling, etc.), Worlds Beyond looked to be a somewhat pulpier but much worthy counterpart to F&SF. In the first issue alone we have stories by C. M. Kornbluth, Mack Reynolds, Fredric Frown, Jack Vance, Franz Kafka, and Graham Greene. The Vance is especially notable because while “The Loom of Darkness” may sound unfamiliar to one’s ears, it would ring a lot more bells with its book title, “Liane the Wayfarer,” as part of The Dying Earth.

As for “The Mindworm,” it’s pretty easy to find. The December 1950 issue of Worlds Beyond is on the Archive, and it was reprinted in the November 1955 issue of Science Fantasy (possibly its first UK publication), also on the Archive. It’s also been collected fairly often, appearing in The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories (also titled simply Vampires, but if it’s edited by Alan Ryan then it’s literally the same anthology) and, of course, His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth. Both are in print and, needless to say, essential if you’re a fan of Kornbluth and/or vampire fiction.

Enhancing Image

We start with a chance encounter between a nurse and a j. g. (I don’t know what this abbreviation stands for) and are told, in so few words, that they hook up one night and the nurse gets pregnant as a result. Being young and aspiring, and in a time when abortion was pretty risky, the nurse drops her newborn son off at a “well-run foundling home” before getting the hell out of there. The son, who’s only called the Mindworm in-story, grows up to be quite the troublemaker, though this is not immediately apparent. We find out early, although nobody makes the connection outright, that the Mindworm can read people’s minds; he’s a telepath, but that’s not the end of it. Telepathy was already a well-worn SF trope by the time Kornbluth wrote “The Mindworm,” and the vampire story would’ve been much older and even more worn out, but I’m not sure if anyone up to this point had combined telepathy with vampirism. The result is a different kind of vampire story that still feels modern, kept even more fresh by Kornbluth’s snappy and highly condensed method of storytelling.

A few things to note. How much “The Mindworm” could be considered SF and how much it could be considered horror is somewhat up for debate; it seems to have been anthologized more often in horror anthologies than SF anthologies. While the Mindworm being telepathic is unquestionably SF, we’re not given a science-fictional explanation for his powers—indeed we’re not given an explanation at all, except for the faintly implied explanation that the Mindworm is a mutant, but more on that later. What’s impressive here is that Kornbluth lays out a man’s entire life in about a dozen pages while also giving us characters who, while not characterized with too much depth, are written vividly enough that we at least get a strong impression of them. Kornbluth may not be the most philosophical or humane of writers (actually he’s sadistic quite a bit of the time), but he does have an intimidating sense of economy, turning potentially a novel’s worth of story into a dozen pages that need not have one page added to them.

Take the following paragraph, for instance, which sums up most of the Mindworm’s boyhood (a series of events that you could dedicate a whole chapter in a novel to, or even several chapters) so neatly and so quickly while also making things just a little ominous.

The boy survived three months with the Berrymans. Hard-drinking Mimi alternately caressed and shrieked at him; Edward W. tried to be a good scout and just gradually lost interest, looking clean through him. He hit the road in June and got by with it for a while. He wore a Boy Scout uniform, and Boy Scouts can turn up anywhere, any time. The money he had taken with him lasted a month. When the last penny of the last dollar was three days spent, he was adrift on a Nebraska prairie. He had walked out of the last small town because the constable was beginning to wonder what on earth he was hanging around for and who he belonged to. The town was miles behind on the two-lane highway; the infrequent cars did not stop.

The Mindworm is a drifter, a bastard who doesn’t lurk in a castle but rather haunts highways and alleys, who doesn’t live in seclusion away from civilization but rather uses civilization as a feeding ground; in other words, he’s a modern vampire. I’m not a scholar on the history of vampire literature, although I’ve not a total ignoramous on it; I’ve read Dracula and “Carmilla” and some of the other classics, and of course I’ve seen my fair share of vampire movies. I can’t imagine there was much of a market for vampire fiction in the late ’40s or early ’50s, what with Weird Tales being on its last legs, Unknown having gone under years prior, and the newly created F&SF not having much space for horror. I’m also not sure if there are any vampire novels from this period of significance; I certainly haven’t heard of any. Yes, there’s Richard Matheson’s famous short novel I Am Legend, but that would not come out for a few more years. I say all this because “The Mindworm” must’ve struck Damon Knight, a man who would turn out to have an appetite for the weird and experimental, as a real breath of fresh air.

The Mindworm himself is an interesting spin on the vampire because he’s one of the few vampires I can think of off the top of my head who’s closer to a beast than a human, and to make things more interesting he’s physiologically totally human. A beastly vampire tends to be just as beastly in a physical way, but the Mindworm looks like a normal guy—he’s even described, in adulthood, as resembling a few of-the-time movie stars. Yet the Mindworm seemingly exists only to feed, being a parasite like his name implies, not forming any human connections or having any even remotely human aspirations. The terror of the Mindworm is twofold: his method of killing is unseen, almost esoteric (we’re not really told how these people die), and also he can’t be reasoned with. You could be sitting in your living room, watching Deep Space Nine, minding your own business, when the Mindworm, having probed your mind from just outside your window and gotten info on the things you care about most, barges in and fucks your shit up.

Eventually the Mindworm takes up residence in one of those West Virginian-type industrial towns, where he continues to wreak havoc. Unbeknownst to the Mindworm, however, there are some in town who have been tracing his steps, waiting for the opportunity to catch him in the act…

There Be Spoilers Here

“The Mindworm” is hard to spoil, not least because the blurb at the beginning pretty much gives away the ending already, which I’m not a fan of. Get a load of this:

You might think of him as an ascetic, for he lived on nothing more substantial than human emotion. Or you might call him a sadist, for the deaths of other men were his life. The coal-town Slavs he despised had another, simpler name for him; and a very simple, very ancient remedy for the terror he brought.

Explains too much, especially after having read the story. We’re told what the Mindworm does, what he feeds off of, and that he’s gonna get his comeuppance at the end. The how of the Mindworm’s demise is less predictable, but if you know your classic vampire lore then you can figure that out easy enough. I’m not sure who writes these blurbs, honestly, if the authors write them of if the editor does it, because I can’t imagine Kornbluth would give himself away like this; if he did, that’d be disappointing. Never mind that the phrasing in the blurb makes it sound like the Mindworm is just another pest, like a rat, as opposed to a serial killer who’s killed at least a dozen people (probably dozens more off-screen) in-story. Of course much of the fun of reading “The Mindworm” is the different perspectives we get in so short a time, all the people the Mindworm comes across and how everyone is totally clueless as to what’s happening except for a small group of people. Eight people are killed in a dark movie theater and nobody can figure out what happened—nobody except the vampire hunters.

The Mindworm gets caught because for one, despite being a telepath, he’s not very smart and he doesn’t cover his tracks well, but he’s also unable to read the minds of people who think in languages other than English. Sure, he can technically read those minds, but he can’t understand them, which gives the Eastern European vampire hunters a sort of camouflage. My favorite scene actually comes toward the end and doesn’t involve the Mindworm but rather the vampire hunters, the “other town” that operates outside of public law. As I’ve said before, Kornbluth does a lot with few words, and there’s a lot of history here that’s implied but not said outright. This comes after the Mindworm has taken another victim, a young girl who presented herself as a prostitute but who apparently had no experience, and who apparently was related to the vampire hunters in some way.

The countless eyes of the other town, with more than two thousand years of experience in such things, had been following him. What he had sensed as a meaningless hash of noise was actually an impassioned outburst in a nearby darkened house.

“Fools! fools! Now he has taken a virgin! I said not to wait. What will we say to her mother?” 

An old man with handlebar mustache and, in spite of the heat, his shirt sleeves decently rolled down and buttoned at the cuffs, evenly replied: “My heart in me died with hers, Casimir, but one must be sure. It would be a terrible thing to make a mistake in such an affair.”

The weight of conservative elder opinion was with him. Other old men with mustaches, some perhaps remembering mistakes long ago, nodded and said: “A terrible thing. A terrible thing.”

The ending, which follows this scene, is incredibly brief. The hunters barge into the Mindworm’s room once they pick up his telepathic projections (how they’re able to do this is not explained) and do what you do with vampires, the whole stake-and-scythe routine. The Mindworm’s death is treated quite casually, as if he was a big pimple being popped, which I suppose backs up the blurb’s description of the Mindworm being like a pest even if it downplays the threat. I also like this notion that while the Mindworm is a mutation, he’s not the only one of his kind; in other words, he’s not that unique, and that his exaggerated image of himself as this totally unique thing contributed to his downfall. A shame he never picked up a copy of Dracula, or like… anything vampire-related.

A Step Farther Out

Despite being uncharacteristically horror-tinged for him, Kornbluth’s bitterness and penchant for satire still shines through in “The Mindworm.” The victims are largely shown to be obnoxious and feeble-minded Americans whose vanity makes them easy prey. The ending is brought about not by the boys in blue but by a third party, a band of immigrants who know better and who have delt with this problem before; it’s one of those things that makes me wonder where Kornbluth falls on the political spectrum. Certainly an anti-capitalist (or at the very least anti-corporate) streak runs through much of Kornbluth’s fiction, but there are also sentiments in there that come off as proto-libertarian. His 1953 novel The Syndic postulates that the US may be better off in the hands of old-style gangsters than with a conventional government and a mixed economy, and I get a similar impression with the immigrant vampire hunters in “The Mindworm.” State law enforcement proves totally inept about dealing with the vampire problem, so it’s left up to a small grassroots organization to take care of things.

Is it scary, though? I’m not the best person to answer that, just because the vast majority of horror (yes, even the good stuff) fails to spook me, and I can’t say I was sufficiently spooked with “The Mindworm.” I do think, however, that it is effectively written horror with an SF bent, with a mature Kornbluth evidently having come into his own as a sharp-tongued craftsman. I dare say that I prefer “The Mindworm” over another early “mature” work of Kornbluth’s, “The Little Black Back,” which itself is also an effective and inventive (not to mention violent) yarn which borders on horror, but which is not as economically told as the subject of today’s review. “The Little Black Bag” ends on a stronger note, but “The Mindworm” feels more modern, more transgressive, more literary, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the former was published in Astounding Science Fiction while the latter saw print in a much newer and more literary-minded magazine. Kornbluth may have started at the tail end of the ’30s, but his vicious wit and sheer crastsmanship at short lengths made him a harbinger of things to come for ’50s SFF.

See you next time.


4 responses to “Short Story Review: “The Mindworm” by C. M. Kornbluth”

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