Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Take the Z-Train

PulpFest took place a month ago, but I still haven't finished writing about it and the topics that came up because of it. I'll begin again with this one.

At PulpFest, I talked to a publisher about ideas for collections of stories that have never before been collected. The stories of Allison V. Harding are obvious candidates. Allison V. Harding is supposed to have been Jean Milligan (1919-2004). That supposition is based entirely (I think) on Sam Moskowitz's memory of seeing correspondence between Weird Tales magazine and Ms. Milligan before that correspondence was destroyed in the early 1970s while in the possession of editor Leo Margulies. In addition to being a supposed author, Jean Milligan was married to Lamont Buchanan (b. 1919), associate editor and art editor of Weird Tales from September 1942 to September 1949. He succeeded Harry Aveline Perkins.

Allison V. Harding's first story for Weird Tales was "The Unfriendly World" from July 1943. Her last was "Scope" from January 1951. We might call "Scope" an outlier, as it was published almost a year after the second to last, "Take the Z-Train," from March 1950. Note the dates for the first and the second to last: "The Unfriendly World" was published nine months after Buchanan started work for Weird Tales. "Take the Z-Train" came just six months after he finished there. That story may very well have been lined up for publication before he left. From the beginning almost to the end of her career, Allison V. Harding had Lamont Buchanan to guide her stories into publication. I don't think that's any coincidence.

I don't think Jean Milligan was Allison V. Harding. I think Lamont Buchanan was, and I think he used a double layer of cover to hide his identity: first, his wife's maiden name as the name of his pseudonymous author, and second, the address of an attorney--possibly someone in her family--as her address. The address of the attorney may have been why Sam Moskowitz believed Jean Milligan herself to have been an attorney. I haven't found any evidence that she was, but that's not to say that she wasn't.

So what evidence do I have that Lamont Buchanan was Allison V. Harding? Not much. But when I read the last Damp Man story, "The Damp Man Again," from May 1949, it came to me that this was not the writing of a woman but of a man. Not just a man, but a bitter or disaffected man, possibly a man in despair. "Take the Z-Train" is perhaps not so intensely bitter or despairing, but it is a story of a man who has, nonetheless, reached his end. The man is Henry Abernathy, an aging "Junior Assistant Supervisor of Transportation"--a title not unlike Buchanan's own at Weird Tales--and one ready to make a new start in his otherwise gloomy, boring, monotonous, and oppressive life. On his way home from work one evening, Abernathy mistakenly boards the Z train, a conveyance that carries him to what a few years later Rod Serling would call the Twilight Zone.

Like all of the Allison V. Harding stories I have read, the protagonist in "Take the Z-Train" is a man, and the story is told from a man's point of view and in a man's voice. This story is near hopeless, again, the work of a bitter person or one in despair. It closes with a memory or vision from Abernathy's childhood, a vision that is so strange and personal that it is almost incomprehensible to the reader. I sense that this vision was from Lamont Buchanan's own childhood and that it had significance to him that he could only suggest in story form. There may very well have been trauma in his childhood, almost certainly in the childhood of his father, whose name was attached to a scandal among the previous generation. Further back in the Buchanan family--in its mysterious Scottish past--there was yet more deep and strange despair. But those are tales for another time. For now I'll say that "Take the Z-Train," with its meditation on time and age, was a fitting valediction for the writing career of Allison V. Harding.

A cartoon without a caption by Charles Addams depicting the Z train, from the book Creature Comforts and originally published in The New Yorker in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Would Lamont Buchanan, also a New Yorker, have seen this cartoon? If so, would he have remembered the story by Allison V. Harding of many years before?

Text and caption copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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