Friday, 17 January 2020

Retro Review: "Guard in the Dark" by Allison V. Harding

"Guard in the Dark" is a short story by Allison V. Harding, which was first published in the July 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

"Guard in the Dark" is the story of Jeffry Wilburts, a young teacher straight from college, educated in the latest theories of child psychology, who is hired as a private tutor for a twelve-year-old boy named Ronald Frost. Ronald's parents are concerned, because Ronald is neglecting his school work and doesn't want to hang out with his peers. What is more, Ronald - like many a boy in the middle of World War II – is obsessed with lead soldiers and has a huge collection of them.

However, Ronald's obsession with lead soldiers goes beyond staging and re-enacting famous battles. Instead, Jeffry witnesses that Ronald arranges the soldiers in a precise pattern on the floor of his bedroom and regularly replaces the soldiers with fresh ones from his stash. Jeffry also cannot help but notice that the soldiers seem to be guarding Ronald's bed. And whenever Jeffry asks Ronald what he is doing with the soldiers and why he has so many, Ronald only replies that he needs them.

By now, it is quite obvious where the story is going. And indeed, when Jeffry enters Ronald's room the next morning, he catches Ronald trying to hide several broken lead soldiers (and speaking as someone who used to collect the tin soldiers in historical uniforms that used to be in Kinder Surprise Eggs in the 1970s and 1980s, let me tell you that such figures are almost impossible to break). Ronald's parents confirm that Ronald keeps breaking his toy soldiers. They also are angry, both because of the costs of replacing the soldiers and because they fear that Ronald's aggression will make him even more isolated. But when Jeffry asks Ronald point blank why he keep breaking his soldiers, Ronald insists that he did not break them – they died. Jeffry presses Ronald for the truth and the boy finally blurts out that the soldiers protect him from something that comes into his room by night.

Of course, Jeffry does not believe him and instead recommends that the Frosts send Ronald to see a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, Ronald's stock of lead soldiers dwindles, for the soldiers keep dying and Ronald's parents refuse to buy any more. Ronald begs Jeffry to get him more soldiers, but Jeffry refuses as well. He suggests repairing the broken soldiers, but Ronald insists that won't help, because dead is dead.

One night, when Ronald's soldiers are almost all gone, Jeffry decides to sneak into Ronald's room, while the boy is sleeping, and observe what is going on. He also takes along his trusty notebook. Maybe, Jeffry muses, he can even catch Ronald red-handed, while he stomps around on his toy soldiers.

But while Jeffry is waiting for something to happen, he nods off… or so he thinks. He awakes with a start and finds himself in the middle of a pitched battle. The toy soldiers are on the move, running, shooting, fighting and dying, while battling a heavily breathing shadow which is closing in on Ronald's bed. During the battle, a lead soldier jumps onto the notebook on Jeffry's lap, firing his pistol at the shadow.

As is common for stories published in Weird Tales, we never see the monster that menaces young Ronald, even though interior artist Boris Dolgov portrays it as a horned and hoofed devil. Meanwhile, Harding describes the monsters as follows:
"A breathing, panting noise of a thing. Nameless, descriptionless, except for the grotesque shadow it threw."
When the battle ceases and all soldiers have fallen, Jeffry – being a coward at heart – grabs his notebook and flees back to his own room. When he wakes up the next morning, he assumes he simply had a bad dream and heads for breakfast with the Frosts. However, Ronald does not come down for breakfast, so his mother goes up to fetch him and lets out a scream. Jeffry and Mr. Frost run upstairs to investigate and find Ronald sitting up in bed, utterly insane.

Ronald is carted off to an institution and Jeffry is out of a job. When he opens his notebook, a lead soldier falls out. Jeffry picks him up and notices that instead of the bland features that all of Ronald's soldiers had – described at several points throughout the story – this soldier has an expression of unspeakable horror frozen on his face.

"Guard in the Dark" is an effective, if somewhat predictable horror story. In many ways, this story reminded me of "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" by Lewis Padgett a.k.a. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, winner of the 1944 Retro Hugo for Best Novelette. Both stories feature children in peril from unknown forces, toys which are not what they seem (and there are stories that booby-trapped toys were used as weapons in WWII by all sides) and unsympathetic parents and child psychologists who refuse to listen to their kids and lose them in the end. I wonder whether these stories were inspired by worries about mothers neglecting their children as many women entered the workforce due to World War II, while fathers were absent altogether due to fighting overseas. At any rate, there is a very strong message of "Listen to your children and believe them" in both stories.

Jeffry Wilburts not a child psychologist, but a teacher. However, he frequently mentions that he studied child psychology and tries to apply his psychological knowledge to the problem of Ronald. But even though Jeffry is the protagonist and POV character of "Guard in the Dark", he's not a very likeable character. He's incompetent and also an idiot who ignores what is bleedingly obvious, that the soldiers are alive and protecting Ronald from some kind of nightly horror. Though to be fair, readers naturally expect some kind of supernatural going-ons from a story published in Weird Tales. Jeffry, on the other hand, has no idea that he is a character in a Weird Tales story, so he refuses to consider any supernatural explanation for what is happening in the Frost household. However – and this is the one thing I cannot forgive him for – Jeffry is also a coward and complete and utter failure as a teacher. Because teachers are very much wired to protect their students, even if that means endangering themselves. We see this again and again in the case of school shootings, fires and other disasters. Teachers will risk their own lives to protect their students. And therefore, Jeffry running away and abandoning Ronald to the monster just feels wrong to me. Any teacher worth their salt would have battled the monster to protect Ronald.

As I read the story, I also noticed how much Ronald's behaviour matches the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Ronald is withdrawn and isolated, he refuses to socialise with other children, he engages in ritualistic behaviour, becomes anxious when his rituals are disrupted and he is focussed on a narrow special interest. Of course, Ronald has a very good reason for doing what he does – there really is a monster in his closet that is out to get him. But if you ignore the supernatural explanation, Ronald's behaviour seems like a textbook example for autism spectrum disorder. And considering that Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger were carrying out their studies on children with autism and Asperger syndrome in 1943 and 1944 respectively, i.e. around the time this story was published, I wonder whether Allison V. Harding was familiar with their research.

When I started the Retro Reviews project, I wanted to cover not just popular stories by big names, but also stories by lesser known authors. Allison V. Harding is certainly one of those lesser known authors, even though she was prolific, publishing thirty-six stories in Weird Tales between 1943 and 1951. Furthermore, Allison V. Harding is one of the forgotten female authors of the golden age – yes, there were women other than Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore writing SFF in the 1940s, several of them publishing in Weird Tales. That made her work a natural choice for a review.

Comparatively little is known about Allison V. Harding. She was clearly popular in her day, as Weird Tales letter columns and reader polls from the 1940s indicate. However, after 1951 she abruptly vanishes from the SFF scene. She never published another story, never appeared at conventions, her stories were dismissed as forgettable fillers and very little of her fiction was reprinted. "Guard in the Dark" was reprinted only once, in Avon Fantasy Reader No. 15 in 1950.

Allison V. Harding herself was a phantom. Sam Moskowitz managed to shed some light onto the mystery of Allison V. Harding, when he dug into Weird Tales' old files and found that Allison V. Harding was a pen name for Jean Milligan, daughter of a prominent East Coast family, who may or may not have been an attorney and who would go on to marry Charles Lamont Buchanan, associate editor for Weird Tales and Short Stories, in 1952. Some people believe that the author behind the Allison V Harding stories was not Jean Milligan at all, but Charles Lamont Buchanan, who used the name of his future wife to be to avoid a conflict of interest. I have no idea whether there is any truth to this theory, though "her family did not know that she was a writer" isn't much evidence, because people don't necessarily share every detail of their life with their extended family. Furthermore, as outlined by Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women's Writing, attributing women's achievements to the men in her life is an incredibly common phenomenon. So unless there is definite proof to the contrary, I'll assume that the person behind Allison V. Harding is the person whose name appeared on the royalty check from Weird Tales. I'll also continue using female pronouns, when referring to Harding.

Jean Milligan lived until 2004, when she died at the age of 85. Her husband Charles Lamont Buchanan lived until 2015 to the ripe old age of 96. And considering how well researched Weird Tales and its contributors are, it's a mystery why none of the many Weird Tales scholars ever thought to interview Jean Milligan or Charles Lamont Buchanan and ask them point blank who wrote the Allison V. Harding stories. Just as it is a mystery why Allison V. Harding, who was after all one of the ten most prolific contributors to Weird Tales, is so completely forgotten these days. Part of the reason is probably that Harding was very much a phantom. Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and other prolific Weird Tales contributors left plenty of notes, drafts and letters behind, but all we have of Allison V. Harding are her stories. Furthermore, Harding's stories appeared during Dorothy McIlwraith's tenure as editor of Weird Tales, whereas glory days of the magazine are considered to have been under the previous editor Farnsworth Wright.

So were Allison V. Harding's stories "forgettable fillers", as Robert Weinberg supposedly called them in his study of Weird Tales? At least based on "Guard in the Dark", I would disagree. Yes, the story is fairly predictable, but it is also atmospheric and effectively written. I have certainly read worse Weird Tales stories from much bigger names. I also wouldn't mind reading further stories by Allison V. Harding. After all, there are six stories published in 1944 alone to choose from.

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