While I was adding my page for The First Pan Book of Horror I noticed too late that I didn’t have a synopsis for Finney’s Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket. The reason was, I’d last read it in 1988... and typed it up on a Lexicon 80 steam typewriter… This meant I had to find the hard-copy, then make an OCR scan of it.
The nice thing about that of course is that I now have another whole book full of synopses. Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket is the last story in this collection…which is not, strictly speaking, horror, but is pretty d**n good all the same. I’ve tracked down Graham’s (Intruder2k’s) comments, and also Demonik’s, from other pages here, and pasted them in without permission. Live dangerously!
The Third Level was the title story of an earlier Finney collection. A commuter accidentally discovers another, third level in New York's Grand Central Station, a level which does not properly exist in his own time but is a railway of the past, leading away into an earlier, gentler time.
In I'm Scared a man sits listening to his radio one night, only to realise later that the programme he has been listening to has been off the air and its presenter dead for a decade. With the diligence of a Charles Fort he begins to accumulate curious stories, anecdotes—all of them describing some anomaly, some impossible anachronism. It's this story which provides the collection's title, as the narrator suggests that so many people are becoming discontent with the world of the present that they are threatening the mechanism of the 'clock of time', and perhaps it will break.
Cousin Len's Wonderful Adjective Cellar is a snippet of a tale about a writer who finds a salt cellar with the magical ability to collect adjectives. Probably Finney scrapped the ending which had all the adjectives finding their way through a hole in the space-time continuum into Ray Bradbury's typewriter.
Of Missing Persons is an excellent story about a strange travel agency with a very select clientele. Or perhaps not so select, at that. To qualify, a traveller must needs be genuinely tired of the world and its ways and longing for something better. And for that traveller, under the counter of the Acme Travel Agency, is a folder advertising the delights of Vema. Finney plays this one for all the emotional charge it's worth.
Something in a Cloud is a wry little love story in which the emotions of the two main participants are illustrated, visible but largely unnoticed, cartoon-style in little clouds above their heads. Fun.
There is a Tide is a genuinely interesting and original story about a man who discovers that his partment is haunted. But the 'ghost' is still alive. In the story, Finney focusses on one of those key moments which occur in every life, which can alter the course of that life forever... or bring it to a premature end.
Behind the News is a light but amusing piece about a small town newspaper editor who finds that anything he prints with type melted down from a chunk of metal from outer space comes true... well, almost anything.
Quit Zoomin' those Hands through the Air. This is 'confuse the bibliographer time'. As was noted above, The Third Level was the title of a previous collection, and a quote from I'm Scared provides the title for this collection. However, Quit Zoomin' was originally published as The Clock of Time jn The Third Level.
...So now that we're all absolutely clear on that point...
This is the second or third time that I've read Quit Zoomin'' but the last time must have been in my teens, and frankly I was afraid that the story might have outworn its charm. I needn't have worried. Basically it's a tall story as told by a cranky old grandfather to a small boy... At least, we suppose it's a tall story... Set in the American Civil War, the ancient narrator describes how he came to be the world's first aviator through a time-travelling device invented by one of his commanding officers. The two journey forward in time to snatch a weapon from the future to take back to the past. Finney strikes exactly the right note with the comments of the inventor, who, although he has broken through the time barrier can't quite accomplish the mental leap necessary to encompass all of the future's military advances. ("Looks like a tank", said the major, "though I don't know what they kept in it... this thing is obviously no use on a battlefield.") The story rolls and rattles along with all the enthusiasm of the captured Kitty Hawk swooping over the enemy lines. It's perfectly absurd, and frequently very funny.
A Dash of Spring is another genuinely amusing little love story about a boy and a girl who both wonder why life doesn't work out as smoothly as in the romantic magazine stories. Sometimes I think Finney is the only writer who can turn out stuff like this without becoming sickly sweet or downright mawkish; somehow he succeeds in striking a nice balance between humour, credible characterisation, and unashamed romanticism.
Second Chance; A lot of Finney's stories are about second chances when you come to think of it, but everyone knows this particular one. It was screened as one of the original Twilight Zone episodes, and later remade as a part of the Twilight Zone movie. It's the one where a high school kid buys a rusted and unroadworthy Jordan Playboy—— a classic car—and completely rebuilds it, using only authentic, original Jordan Playboy parts ordered from all over the country. Then, one night, he takes it for a run along a lonely road that no-one uses any more since the new carriageway was built. And after a time he notices that there are other cars on the road around him... cars suspiciously like the one he's driving...or at least about the same age... This one isn't just one of Finney's escaping-into-the-past-to-get-away-from-the-future stories; although that element is obviously present, it comes second to a very clever plot, which fits together as snugly as a jig-saw puzzle.
Stephen King is an admirer of Finney's writing, and I like to think that Second Chance might have planted the seed for King's own Christine, overblown though that novel was. Possibly the next story also influenced King, suggesting his short story The Ledge.
Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket is the last story in the collection, and is about a man who stays at home to write a business report while his wife goes to the movies... only to lose the notes he's spent months putting together when they blow out of the window. The notes catch on a ledge, high above the street, and there are no prizes for guessing what happens next. I really couldn’t say whether Finney’s or King’s story is the better.
Graham (Intruder2k) included this story among a personal Top 10 he listed in his first post, here: vaultofevil.suddenlaunch3.com/index.cgi?board=newfaces&action=display&num=1141033755. He wrote: ‘I should firstly say that I suffer from vertigo, which may be why I find this psychological tale so very frightening. Author Jack Finney waves goodbye to convention and any inkling of the supernatural by setting his modern story in firm, real, city-dwelling America. This isn’t so much a horror story as an intense thriller which literally had me on the edge of my seat as I read. Finney succeeds in writing so well that the reader has a visual conception of the events as they play out, making this a firm and re-readable favourite.’
Elsewhere, Demonik noted the similarity to King’s The Ledge, and also wrote of it in his comments on the First Pan Book of Horror U.S. 1st Edition, here:vaultofevil.suddenlaunch3.com/index.cgi?board=pan&action=display&num=1137008978 : ‘There's a lot in here that would feel at home in the TV Tales of the Unexpected. Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket and The Kill especially. The former tends to breach trade descriptions by not being a horror story, more of a suspense tale, but we'll forgive it because it's so d**n good.’
Ripper seemed to rate it, too. And others, I'm sure.
Finney insists that he's 'just an entertainer'---and Quit Zoomin… is a good example of pure entertainment——but despite the frequent similarities of theme, Finney still wears several different hats through this collection. His past is as golden and welcome as Bradbury's: but perhaps a little less sickly sweet than some of Bradbury’s mid-period stories.
Demonik: Thanks for that, Cal. I must admit, the man's work is largely unfamiliar to me. It's shameful, I know, but I never really looked much beyond Contents Of A Dead Man's Pockets. I've had a copy of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers unread and lying about the place looking untidy for years, and the only two I'm familiar with from The Clock Of Time are The Third Level and Of Missing Persons.
I think it's got something to do with his collections featuring a mish-mash of fantasy and SF (yuk!) along with the horrors. It's one of my rotten quirks, but I've always had a down on books like that, and I'm sure I've missed out on tons of interesting stuff - I'm Scared sounds fascinating - as a result.
Franklin Marsh: I've read Invasion - pretty good as I recall. A tie-in with the 1978 film version. Finney seemed to have updated his story as the copyright was spread over several years.