Who Goes There?
Henry Kuttner is probably one of the more tragically undervalued writers from the so-called Golden Age of SF. He and his wife C. L. Moore were “co-winners” of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. The SF Encyclopedia calls him “a journeyman of genius.” He started in 1936 as a denizen of Weird Tales, as one of the younger members in the Lovecraft Circle, though his early horror seems to take more after Robert E. Howard than Lovecraft, and by the early 1940s he had matured into one of the funniest and most reliable writers contributing regularly to Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown. Kuttner’s years-long collaboration with Moore was so seamless and fruitful that a) people can only make educated guesses as to who wrote what, and b) Moore’s own immense talent would have the doubly tragic effect of undermining Kuttner’s own talent in historical accounts. Kuttner dying prematurely in 1958 (only a month apart from another comedian of the field, C. M. Kornbluth), before he could’ve possibly returned to writing (he was busy getting his Master’s degree) may have also contributed to modern recollections of him being rather foggy.
The reality is that Kuttner’s razor-sharp wit and pessimistic sense of humor, plus a social awareness uncommon in his peers at the time, made him a major precursor to certain SF writerss in the generation following him, including Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, and yes, a mature C. M. Kornbluth. He even had a massive influence on Ray Bradbury, even though the two writers have little in common in terms of worldview. Kuttner, who submitted to every publication under the sun, serves as an unintentional landmark in that his death coincided with a profound shrinking of the SFF magazine market towards the end of the ’50s. He continues to be missed.
First published in the October 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, which is on the Archive. “Exit the Professsor” is listed on ISFDB as a collaboration with Moore, but frankly I find this hard to believe; it was initially published under Kuttner’s name alone, was collected in Kuttner-specific collections (including Ballantine’s The Best of Henry Kuttner), but more importantly, it reads like a Kuttner story from start to finish. Anyway, if you want reprints then go for the aforementioned Ballantine volume (I wanna start collecting those at some point, they’re very collectable) and the most essential volume of them all, Two-Handed Engine: The Selected Stories of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Has been anthologized weirdly little.
I hope you like eccentric families, because we’ve got one for the ages here. The Hogbens are what you might imagine to be a stereotypical Appalachian (my girlfriend, a Kentucky native, informs me it’s pronounced App-uh-lach-an) family, the Hogbens, who are very redneck-y… only there’s something weird about all of them. We’ve got Saunk, our narrator, the eldest child of the family; Little Sam, the baby of the group, who has two heads and is supposed to be to telepathic; Paw, the dad, who, either because he chooses to or because he doesn’t know how to turn back, is always invisible; Maw, the mom, who… I actually don’t remember what’s weird about her; Uncle Les, who’s able to FLY on command; and Grandpaw, who speaks pseudo-Shakespearean and who is old enough to have known Roger Bacon—making him at least 700 years old. So yeah, they’re mutants.
The story kicks into gear because the Hogbens have a strange contraption, a “shotgun-gadget” that actually kills a few member of a rival family, though by the Hogbens’ own admission they don’t know how the dingus works. The family has been making a ruckess with this contraption and with people alleging strange things coming from that area, so it’s only a matter of time before a scientist gets involved: Galbraith, the titular professor. As Galbraith explains, “Our foundation is studying eugenics, and we’ve got some reports about you. They sound unbelievable.” When someone says they’re studying eugenics it’s usually a red flag; but Galbraith is here because the Hogbens are suspected (rightly) of being natural mutants, having sustained their genes for centuries now and having kept low-key by living in a rural area.
Given what I said before about Grandpaw it shouldn’t be surprising that the Hogbens’ legacy can be traced back very easily to the UK—hell, not just the UK but the British isles of the Middle Ages. One nitpick I do have is that while it makes sense to hide in a part of the world with few people if one is trying to hide one’s mustations, I’m not sure if rural Kentucky is the best choice. Anyway, Galbraith is curious and also devious enough that once he’s gotten hold of the Hogbens he all but holds them hostage, forcing one of them to either travel to New York with him to be studied or to have a science team come to their place. The Hogbens’ secret must be kept and Saunk is not above committing a little (more) murder, but Grandpaw says that there will be no more killing from this household—not that killing Galbraith would probably help the family in the long run.
What do, then?
Before I get to spoilers (there’s really not a lot to cover), I wanna talk about one thing that may prove a roadblock for some people reading this story, which is how Saunk is a redneck and that he’s the one narrating, which means the story’s action is conveyed with a pho-net-ick ack-sent, like an off-brand rendition of one of Faulkner’s more backwoods-y characters. It’s very readable, mind you; you get used to the accent quickly enough. There is, of course, the question of whether a diehard Californian like Kuttner will render a rural dialogue a) accurately, and b) with sensitivity: the answer to both is probably no. I would take more issue with this if “Exit the Professor” was a more serious story, but it’s not; it is quite mindfully a pure comedy that, had the science-fictional element been changed to fantasy, would’ve fit right at home in Unknown. Indeed it’s the story’s harking back to Kuttner’s comedic fantasies in Unknown that gives me a soft spot for it.
One last thing: there are a lot of great lines here. Saunk is a funny narrator, less because he’s trying to be funny and more because he happens to say funny things at times. When Galbraith sees the shotgun-gadget he pesters Saunk with questions, and, having little idea as to how the thing works, Saunk is very curt about it. “It puts holes in things,” he says at one point. What a lad. The brevity is what makes it funny.
There Be Spoilers Here
So they can’t kill Galbraith, lest they upset Grandpaw, and Saunk can’t go to New York for risk of exposing the family; so what now. Saunk is a bright boy, though, and he comes up with a scheme involving the shotgun-gadget. See, the shotgun-gadget doesn’t just put holes in things. Saunk uses the professor’s curiosity against him by having him mess with the dingus, aiming at a weather-cock “to be safe,” which actually results in a whole lot of toothaches in the village. “I guess half the people in town had gold fillings in their teeth.” There’s a town hall meeting, with people threatening to lynch the professor for his meddling with the shotgun-gadget, but of course, instead of helping the professor out of his problem, the hogbens decide to make it WORSE. This all reads like an epic prank gone wrong.
The dingus removes people’s gold fillings—and also false teeth. And glass eyes. And the chairs in the town hall. And people’s clothes. Kuttner seems of the belief that naked people in public are funny; a wise man he is. So you’ve got a bunch of naked hillbillies chasing after the professor wanting to tar and feather his ass, which leaves him only one option: the Hogbens. The solution the Hogbens have in mind is… a bit odd; don’t think we’re given a scientific explanation for it. Somehow they shrink the professor down to a very small size and keep him stuck in a bottle. “Sometimes we take out the bottle we keep him in and study him.” I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a ship-in-a-bottle scenario (which would be pretty cool, you have to admit) or if they just keep the professor in there and treat him like a doll. I like the climax but I’ll admit I’m not as big on the ending itself, which is abrupt.
Your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy snappy jokess in your SF and how much you can tolerate stereotypes for the sake of humor, but for what it’s worth I’d say the Hogbens come out pretty well.
A Step Farther Out
I specifically picked “Exit the Professor” as something that looks lightweight and entertaining before I continue to suffer through Sos the Rope, and that’s what I got! At the same time this shows Kuttner on his own (contrary to what ISFDB tells you) and on his best behavior, channeling some of the whacky humor he’d proven a master of in the early ’40s, with a somewhat plausible science-fictional premise to boot. Unless you’re Appalachian and are easily offended then the hijinks of the story should not offend. This is short and quite chuckle-worthy, to the point where I could just quote several little echanges that caught me off guard—though that wouldn’t help anyone. Of the Kuttner stories I’ve reviewed thus far this one is my favorite. It’s like comfort food: it’s not challenging but it makes you feel good.
See you next time.