“A Toy for Juliette” by Robert Bloch – Classics of Science Fiction

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I was going to take a break from reading Dangerous Visions because it was depressing me, but I found “A Toy for Juliette” a fitting inspiration for a sermon I wanted to write. I’ve been reading Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States by Frank Luther Mott, which inspired me to buy and start reading The Sentimental Novel in America 1789-1860 by Herbert Ross Brown. Both books give impressions about how Americans, and I presumed other people around the world, got into reading fiction.

Printing began in the 15th century at a time when most people didn’t read. Storytelling has been around since we lived in caves. Although there were works in Japan and China that could be called novels long before the printing press, in Europe and America, the novel seemed to emerge with Don Quixote in 1605. What we think of as the modern novel matured in the 18th century.

Frank Luther Mott’s book, Golden Multitudes describes the kind of books people read in America before Ben Franklin printed Pamela by Samuel Richardson in 1745. Some considered Pamela, first published in England in 1740, to be the first English novel. Before this novel, Americans mostly read books on morality. The colonies were settled by various religious groups, so that’s kind of logical. Mott says the first American bestseller was The Day of Doom by Rev. Michael Wigglesworth. It was written in verse, and it was all about the horrible things that would happen to people in hell. The excerpts and quotes Mott gave from this poem made me think early Americans were fixated on horror.

To keep this sermon short, I need to cover the following decades quickly. Fiction slowly emerged out of all this moralistic reading. Another bestseller was The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan in 1678. This book is an allegory that begins with a dream. But the point is, Bunyan spiffed up moralizing with a story and characters.

Pamela became a huge bestseller in America and Europe after 1740 because Richardson made moralizing every more entertaining. One reason Pamela is given credit for being one of the first English novels is because Richardson invents a lot of storytelling techniques we use today. After the success of Pamela countless imitators began producing similar type stories, and the focus on moralizing became less, and the shift to pure storytelling became common.

At that time, many intellectuals began protesting, claiming fiction was corrupt and corrupting. Magazines and newspapers ran articles about how fiction was ruining young people’s minds, especially young girls. That made me think about how people worry about smartphones and video games corrupting young people today. But those fiction protesters were crushed by bookworms wanting more fiction.

By the time the 19th century rolled around, especially after Edgar Allan Poe, many stories became free of moralization. Kids and adults devoured fiction about violence, horror, the supernatural, and other evil things in the world. Which is why Robert Bloch is a popular writer, and why people enjoy stories like “A Toy for Juliette.”

The problem is I don’t. I don’t like horror. And I can’t understand why other people do. Although Susan and I are currently watching Why Women Kill, which could be described as comic horror. Fiction writers have a tough time producing stories that don’t involve the horrible aspects of life. Fiction is often an art form about the ugliness of humanity, but isn’t the best fiction about transcendence of those horrors?

I quite enjoy reading Pamela. I’m only about half finished, but then the book is over forty hours long on audio. I admire Richardson for embedding his moral lessons into his story. The story is about 15-year-old girl servant efforts to avoid being raped by her employer. On one hand, the novel could be considered a handbook for girls warning them about all the ways guys will trick them into having sex. On the other hand, it’s rather entertaining to read about all the schemes Mr. B used to seduce Pamela. The novel is also entertaining because I’m watching Richardson invent plotting and characterization.

When reading “A Toy for Juliette” I was seeing the refinement of centuries of storytelling. But Bloch completely ignores moralizing. He returns to the purity of telling gruesome stories around a campfire. However, I miss moralizing. Bloch makes no effort to explain the psychology of Jack or Juliette. He makes no moral judgments on their actions. He just accepts that those kinds of people exist.

Sociologists claim there is no correlation between the consumption of violent entertainment and committing violence, but I find that hard to believe. But then, from Harlan Ellison’s introduction about Robert Bloch, he seems like a very nice guy — kind, considerate, and generous.

Maybe, “A Toy for Juliette” depresses me because it reminds me that there are people like that in this world. And it bothers me that people find stories about such people entertaining. But as I admitted, Susan and I found a comedy about murder fun. And even the Puritans, with all their emphasis on living a pure life, sure did love to read about the gruesome aspects of going to hell.

Back in the 1960s, I learned from health food nuts, “You are what you eat.” And from computer school I learned GIGO – garbage in garbage out. I can’t help but wonder if those 18th and 19th century pundits who attacked fiction weren’t right. Why should we pollute our mind with a story about a sadist being sadistically killed by another sadist? I guess I could claim Bloch was preaching that we reap what we sow, but I don’t think it’s true. I think people enjoy seeing Juliette get ripped by the Ripper.

Still, I find “A Toy for Juliette” a virus in my mind. I find reading nonfiction about the horrors of humanity enough of an education about the reality of humanity. Why do we want reminders of such horrors in our escapism? But we do. Think about all the fiction you consume. How much of it involves acts we’d be terrified of if they happened to us? Why do we dwell on the horrible?

James Wallace Harris, 6/9/24

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