AS OBLIGATED: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 5

Not that I feel obligated to continue this series looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online… it’s the title of next story!

I’m going to start my look at the short story “As Obligated” by Armstrong Livingston with a little research into the author. If feel as though I’ve been a bit remiss in that area so far, though at least one of the previous authors seemed to be a rather mysterious figure. And though Armstrong Livingston isn’t exactly a household name anymore, it turns out that he had a fairly long and reasonably successful career, though as I discovered in “Mr. Livingston, I Presume? Armstrong Livingston (1885-1948) and the Murder Racket” that:

By the depressed 1930s, however, Livingston’s writing career, like that of the admittedly more high-toned F. Scott Fitzgerald, had taken a downward turn, with only a few more novels by him ever appearing in print. By the time of his death, on February 7, 1948, when he was only 62, his occupation was given as “retired author.”

At first I puzzled over “retired author,” struggling with understanding that there could be such a thing. Then realized I know at least a few retired authors myself. Though I assume I’ll at least be scribbling some mad rantings on my deathbed… I guess you can retire from anything.

Livingston’s background reminds me of William S. Burroughs, himself the scion of wealthy family that did not like his chosen profession one bit, though Burroughs took “bad boy” heir to new levels—way beyond just writing the occasional popular crime novel. The fact that Armstrong Livingston’s father was a prominent criminal attorney surely fueled young Armstrong’s interest in the criminal underbelly of early twentieth century America. This is interesting to consider, the question of where authors come from and how that inspires the genres we’re drawn to. I touched on that here, for myself. If this gets you thinking “Why fantasy?” or “Why horror?” and so on—good! You might just find that bit of introspection of value.

For what it’s worth, I love that Livingston’s wife’s name was Gladys and in the story Sir Geoffrey is married to Henrietta. There are two names you don’t see much anymore. Looks as though the author’s marriage didn’t last, though, much into Livingston’s career as a crime author. According to that site, he published fourteen novels between 1922 and 1938, placing this 1925 short story toward the beginning of his sixteen-year career.

Looking into the author before reading his story makes me wonder how that will affect my enjoyment of it, or how I’ll interpret it, and so on. Will knowing he was a “poor little rich kid” push me into one idea or the other?

I don’t know. I do try to separate the art from the artist—at least when it comes to artists who lived and worked in the distant past, and for me at least, the better part of a hundred years ago tends to be distant enough. But even then, I’m not the type to be suspicious of anyone because their parents had a lot of (or a little bit of) money.

I don’t know… let’s read the story!

Okay… starts with a bald guy. I’m on his side already.

Hey. You have your biases. I have mine. Bald is beautiful!

Question: Do you really have to describe a tub as “his porcelain container” in order to avoid using the word “tub” twice in one sentence? No. No, you sure don’t, and you didn’t in 1925, either. What you do is remove the unnecessary semi-colon and make that two sentences, which is what they are already. Grammar lesson complete!

Ooh—he has a heated towel bar and at least two housemaids—here’s Livingston’s privilege right up front, eh? Well, it is Sir Geoffrey we’re talking about here.

I love the goofy little predicament Sir Geoffrey finds himself in at the end of the first paragraph. Don’t check to make sure there are towels out before you get in the tub or anything. What does this tell us about Sir Geoffrey?

“That’s one to Hodgkins!” he murmured good-humoredly. “I must tell the old chap about it the next time I see him. He’ll be tremendously bucked.”

Bucked? Have to look that one up.

Is this what he means?

3 [with object] informal make (someone) more cheerful: Bella and Jim need me to buck them up| [no object] (buck up) :  buck up, kid, it’s not the end of the world.

He’ll be “bucked up”?

Writing any version of historical fiction including alternate history? This is why you read fiction from that era if you possibly can. You’ll find little colloquial gems like this—if you’re lucky!

And if you’re not sure how a class-driven capitalist society works:

Of course the task of executing them had fallen to the lot of Hodgkins, the village plumber. Any other arrangement would have been manifestly improper. Hodgkins was a tradition. Ever since plumbing had been invented a Hodgkins had been plumber for a Coombe, just as a Stubbs had always supplied the meat and a Smith the groceries. The system worked excellently for all concerned: the village profited by the patronage of the Hall, and the Hall benefited by good meat and groceries and plumbing. Traditions, properly adhered to, have a practical as well as sentimental value.

Sure.

You can always tell a tradesman by his “sadly maculate” fingers. Look it up—I had to!

Okay, so if the last story was a sort of early version of “torture porn,” this story is shaping up as a sort of “house porn” mystery. They need to turn this into the first HGTV Original Movie!

Now a letter from the Psychical Society. Hmm. Do go on…

I especially like that both Geoffrey and Henrietta are going into the whole concept of spiritualism with a healthy skepticism.

Is the little chapter title: 2. The Bell Bewitched a spoiler? I’d have cut it, myself, for that reason, though I suppose it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination that having put so much loving detail into the presence of the buzzer then introducing the Psychical Society that those two elements, in strict accordance with the principle of Chekhov’s Gun, will come together soon enough.

This little scene where Sir Geoffrey asks after the repairs to his bathroom bell is rich with gender and class bias that tells us a lot about these characters and the world they inhabit, though I’m not quite sure that was Livingston’s intent in 1925. Having established that Sir Geoffrey is rich, all this just kinda plays out as expected, but reading it in 2018 the old man comes off as kind of a prick. I was delighted to see the reaction from Mrs. Smith, though, on page 30 when he goes off on her and she’s offended, though doesn’t stand up for herself in the moment. And Henrietta let’s him have it, too. We’re seeing Sir Geoffrey’s true colors in time of stress and the ladies in his life aren’t having it… at least, not entirely.

But still, even if you were writing a story now and these were your characters and this time and place your setting, the conversation would really have to follow along similar lines, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, here’s where the story obviously turns:

“I was thinking of your Psychical Society,” she said dryly. “I thought you might like to tell them about your bathroom bell, because Hodgkins swears it is bewitched!”

This is an interesting if a bit ham-fisted example of how sometimes it works to allow a character to say out loud that thing that transitions from one plot point to the next. This is a sort of sequel scene—and I’ll recommend an interesting article on that concept by K.M. Weiland—where characters discuss some bit of action (the bell not working, then the letter, then the bell still not working despite efforts to fix it) that has happened then formulate some new “plan” in response, thereby moving the story to the next plot point.

The story does take an unexpected turn along with the turn in Sir Geoffrey’s health. It fFelt, to me at least, like a well-timed twist—and Hodgkins is dead! Shocked!

I’m being flippant, but honestly, that bit did actually surprise me. I see you, Mr. Livingston. Keep ’em coming!

So then Sir Geoffrey is called out on the mat by the widow Hodgkins, who has convinced herself her husband essentially died of embarrassment at not being able to fix the baronet’s bathroom buzzer. There’s a guilt trip, eh?

Ooh—nice. The creepy reveal of Hodgkins having heard the bell ringing as he died—the same night Sir Geoffrey fell ill in the bathtub and tried to ring the bell. What to make of that? These men are spiritually linked in some kind of elemental master/tradesman bond? That’s… weird.

Ooh, It’s a Weird Tale.

Get it?

(Sorry.)

Love the call-back to the Psychical Society with the letter at the end. And all in all I found “As Obligated” to be a fun, very old school, kinda gimmicky “surprise ending” story that keeps the supernatural elements in check, with everyone maintaining what I just called the persistence of the logical pretty much throughout. The “punchline” even hints that after a bit of a shock—maybe a brief case of the willies, Sir Geoffrey and Henrietta put the question of the plumber’s ghost out of their minds forthwith:

Sir Geoffrey, a little shaken, stared at the letter. He continued to stare until his wife reminded him that the eggs were getting cold…

Thank you, Mr. Livingston, wherever you are!

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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