Short Story Review: “Don’t Look Now” by Henry Kuttner

(Cover by Earle Bergey. Startling Stories, March 1948.)

Who Goes There?

Henry Kuttner began writing pretty young, being first published in either 1931 or 1936 (ISFDB claims the former, but something tells me they’re wrong), the latter at the very least introducing Kuttner under his own name to the world of SFF with “The Graveyard Rats.” Said story, a pretty solid one-man show about rats and claustrophobia, has been very recently adapted into an episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Kuttner would come to define himself, though, not as a practitioner of horror, but of humor, though the two are not always mutually exclusive. In the late ’30s he wrote prolifically, but not with a whole lot of success; he became known as one of many hack writers for the pulps, but unlike most of them he really did have talent lurking underneath. 1940 was a watershed year for Kuttner, as he married fellow writer C. L. Moore (they both got their start in Weird Tales, and Kuttner started as a big fan of hers), and together they wrote an impressive streak of SFF that remains essential.

While he more or less worked in collaboration with his wife (and vice versa) for the rest of his career, Kuttner would continue to write on his own (essentially if not quite literally) after 1940. Mostly outside of Astounding Science Fiction, Kuttner had stories submitted under his name alone, presumably because magazines like Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories were less reputable, and also because these stories were deemed more Kuttner-y than his more outright collaborations with Moore. After 1950, Kuttner’s productivity dropped to about one story a year (the same happened with Moore, as they both focused on their education), and unfortunately it never recovered; Kuttner died of a failed heart in 1958, only 42 years old. To quote Brian Aldiss (or maybe it’s David Wingrove) from Trillion Year Spree, “Our own minds were extinguished a little in response.”

Placing Coordinates

First published in the March 1948 issue of Startling Stories, which is on the Archive. “Don’t Look Now” has been reprinted a good number of times, at least one of which, My Best Science Fiction Story, is also on the Archive; actually there are two versions of this anthology, and thankfully the version that’s archived, the abridged version, still has Kuttner’s story. More importantly, we have an introduction by Kuttner himself explaining why it’s his “best” story—and look, I normally don’t look for authors’ comments on their own work, but this is glorious. I won’t quote the whole thing, but it’s so deliciously sarcastic—it alone would be worth the price of admission.

Why I selected Don’t Look Now as my favorite science fiction story is because it has the technical accuracy of Jules Verne; the realism of H. G. Wells, the social implications of Tolstoi (Leo—the Count, I mean), the freedom of Laurence Sterne, and the terseness of the Bible (the King James translation, of course).

These comparisons are BULLSHIT and Kuttner knows it. He takes apart the idea of an artist choosing their own favorite work and by extension the idea of making an anthology out of such a premise. He then finishes with the cherry on top: “Anyway, my wife wrote it.” Almost certainly untrue, by the way; after having read it I can say “Don’t Look Now” feels like a Kuttner story through and through. Kuttner’s really playing with the reader here, a forecasting of what will be an almost (if not equally) just as subversive a story.

Right, other reprints. The Great SF Stories: 1948, edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg; by extension we also have The Golden Years of Science Fiction: Fifth Series, being an amalgamation of The Great SF Stories: 1947 and 1948. More curiously perhaps we have The History of the Science Fiction Magazine Part 3: 1946-1955, edited by Mike Ashley, which despite sounding like a non-fiction series is actually an anthology series. The most essential reprint is, of course, Two-Handed Engine: The Selected Stories of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, which I brought up in my review of Moore’s story “Daemon” and which I recently managed to get my hands on. All seem to be out of print, but given that you have at least two free online resources I don’t think it’s a bad deal at all.

Enhancing Image

This is a barroom story, which is how you know it’s good. A lot of shit goes down in bars, whether it be between strangers or friends. We meet Lyman, our protagonist, who’s a bit of a weirdo an eccentric, making conversation with a man in a brown suit (let’s just call him the brown man, he doesn’t have a name), and things get a little weird right off the bat. Lyman starts talking about Martians, and how Martians live among us, and how everyone has a Martian whose job is to look after them and make sure they stay in line. Lyman’s Martian happens to be on break, how convenient. He also had been tailing the brown man all day, which is totally not creepy. The fact that the brown man doesn’t hightail it out of there simply because of Lyman’s weirdness perhaps says more about the brown man than it does about Lyman.

Not that the brown man is just some guy Lyman found off the street, he’s a journalist, which you’ll notice is a running thing in old-timey SF especially; if something “out there” is afoot then there’s a good chance a journalist will get involved. Lyman himself is supposedly an inventor. An accident involving “supersonic detergents” went awry and resulted in Lyman’s brain getting rewired, altering his senses such that he could now see and hear Martians—to an extent. He still doesn’t know what they really look like; they apparently walk around in human skin suits. That’s right, this story has actual skinwalkers. Reptilians who secretly rule the world. All that good stuff. Now Lyman is the Man Who Knows Better™, and he’s out to spread the word!

Did the movie They Live take after this? Is this plagiarism?

Anyway, given the alien invasion craze of the ’50s (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers), it’s surprising to me that “Don’t Look Now” was published in 1948, since it feels partly like a commentary on all those alien invasion stories. While there is a fine layer of paranoia coating things, there’s also a good deal of humor, as is typical of Kuttner. We get a reference to the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds—you know, the radio drama that allegedly convinced thousands of people that there was an actual alien invasion going on. According to Lyman it was obviously fiction, but the novel the radio drama was adapting? Maybe not so much. “With Orson It was just a gag. H. G. knew—or suspected.” Again I’m surprised this was published in 1948 and not 1958, because it feels like the kind of self-aware takedown that would come about after a fad’s run its course.

Lyman also has the notion that cats were actually the ones who ran the world before the Martians, and they can even detect Martians as well. As someone who has (not owns) two cats, I find this credible enough.

Truth be told, it’s hard to talk too much about “Don’t Look Now,” for a few reasons. It’s probably the shortest short story I’ve reviewed so far, and I actually worried its length would be a problem; it’s only half a dozen magazine pages long, which translates to about a dozen book pages. Okay, that’s too bad. The thing is that it’s also chatty. This shit is like My Dinner with Andre if it was written by Thomas Pynchon, it’s a little gonzo and it almost feels mashed together. And because the vast majority of it is dialogue, with just two characters in one location, you might get the impression that nothing happens, which in a way is true. The stakes aren’t too high. We don’t suddenly break out into an action sequence. The Martians don’t barge in and wreak havoc. I know that’s entering spoiler territory, but I just wanna set the right expectations, because “Don’t Look Now” works almost like a Socratic dialogue—with a twist at the end, of course.

As such, this is my shortest review thus far; I’d be a little embarrassed if it wasn’t. Which is not to say the story is dull, or that it’s bad. Quite the contrary! Kuttner’s economy of style is empeccable; he does not waste any time and he doesn’t try to “elevate” it with flowery descriptions. Kuttner’s strength lies in punchy storytelling, so even though virtually nothing happens in “Don’t Look Now,” you don’t get the sense that Kuttner is just spinning his wheels, though you may be wondering what he’s up to. There’s definitely a point, but it’s saved for the very end, which naturally is where we’d get to spoilers. I’ll just say here that the story’s sense of paranoia lives up to the paranoia implied in its title, even if it is a bit jokey about it.

There Be Spoilers Here

The ending changes everything. Up to this point we’ve been led to believe that there’s a Martian in the bar, and that anyone could be it. Is it the brown man? The barkeep? Someone we were not aware of until now? No, it turns out that the Martian is… Lyman himself.

Lyman sat there. Between two wrinklesi n his forehead there was a stir and a flicker of lashes unfurling. The third eye opened slowly and looked after the brown man.

He was telling the truth about at least one thing: Martians have a third eye that they keep hidden. Most of everything else is probably a lie. The explanation about Martians appearing in infrared pictured has to be a lie. We’re still not sure what the Martians really look like. Lyman, since he is the protagonist and viewpoint character, has been taken for granted with regards to his trustworthiness, but we find out at the very end that the person who supposedly knows about aliens living among us is actually an alien himself. There’s even a subtle misdirect right before the final line where it looks like the barkeep might reveal himself as a Martian, but this is a red herring. Rarely do yoo come across a story where a good 90% of it is a red herring, come to think of it; the final reveal makes us doubt ourselves.

This raises a peculiar question, though: Why in God’s name did Lyman tell the brown man about Martians in the first place? What did he have to gain from it? Why would he rat out his own race like that? Unless, of course, you assume most of what he said was wrong on purpose; that he was giving the brown man just enough cookie crumbs to become paranoid about alien overlords, but then steered him off the patch by giving false information. Now why would someone in power deliberately give out misinformation? Hmmm. Not to mentions it explains Lyman’s erratic behavior before, which is revealed to have been very much calcualted. It would’ve been too easy for Lyman to get caught by a Martian, given he’s not being exactly secretive about his findings, so Kuttner does the smart thing and makes the Martian the last person we would suspect.

In “Don’t Look Now” we don’t see the solving of a mystery but the planting of one. You know how in Inception their normal job is extraction, which is to steal information from people’s dreams, but plnating false info is much harder? Lyman and Kuttner do that, and they do it pretty well.

A Step Farther Out

If “Don’t Look Now” feels somehow minor it’s because it’s set on so small a stage. There are only two principal characters and most of the word count is dedicated to their dialogue. Hell, only one of the characters is given a name. It’s all rather theatrical, like a one-act play. For a while I wondered where it was going, or rather what the point of it was, but I have to say the ending makes up for the lack of immediate point; it’s the kind of twist that makes you look back on the rest of the story and try to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle you’ve been given. Kuttner, more than anything, is clever, and he waits for the perfect moment to pull the rug out from under you. I would consider it his best, but I think it encapsulates what separates a Kuttner story from a Moore story.

In the years following World War II, there was an uptick in paranoid SF, projecting fears about nuclear weapons, the newfangled Cold War, or both. “Don’t Look Now” belongs to a certain subset of SF story from that period, leaning into the anxieties of the era and presenting something like an allegory. I don’t know where Kuttner stands on the issue of the Cold War, about the possibility of Soviety infiltrators in the US, the ending not really clarifying anything on that front, but I think that lack of clear intention only adds to the intrigue. While published in 1948, this is very much indicative of social anxieties prevalent in ’50s American SF. I would check it out, especially if you’re a sucker for that breed of fiction like I am.

See you next time.


2 responses to “Short Story Review: “Don’t Look Now” by Henry Kuttner”

  1. “supersonic detergents” ? Might be the single weirdest technology idea ever….

    I know you’re probably making a fun joke but just incase you didn’t know, They Live is based on Ray Nelson’s ““Eight O’Clock in the Morning” (1963). So maybe Nelson was inspired by the Kuttner tale!

    You are correct, paranoid SF is my thing. I also recently read a variation on the 50s a Martian invasion craze by Chad Oliver — “The Subversives” (1952). As it intersects with another 50s craze, the quiz show, I might feature it in my media landscapes of the future series. That said, it’s probably not something worth tracking down unless you have an addiction to paranoid late 40s/50s visions…


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