JACK FINNEY

Jack Finney will probably best remembered for The Body Snatchers, a novel that inspired – so far – four acknowledged movies and several blatant rip-offs.  His story of aliens which replace people with exact physical duplicates reflected the Cold War paranoia of its time and still has the power to chill.  But Finney wrote a wide variety of novels and some classic short stories and it would be a shame if his other efforts were forgotten.  Several of them were made into movies or television episodes, including Marion’s Wall (as Maxie), “Such Interesting People”, “The Love Letter,” “Second Chance”,  Assault on a Queen, House of Numbers, Good Neighbor Sam, 5 Against the House, and others.

Finney’s first novel, 5 Against the House (1953) is a heist story.  Four bored college students begin planning it as a lark, but an embarrassing encounter with the police makes them determined to prove that they can carry it off.   The narrator protagonist, Al, justifies the crime because it’s against a casino and he considered gambling an immoral scam, but even he admits that this is just rationalization.  He tells Tina, the waitress he’s been seeing,  about the plan and she conditionally approves of it, although at this point the participants are still telling one another that it’s just an elaborate game, that they won’t really go through with it.  In due course they find themselves on the way, their clever plan set up and rehearsed in detail.  Al and Tina have second thoughts but one of the others, Brick, forces them to continue by threatening Tina.Their ruse is not entirely convincing, although supposedly one casino owner reorganized his security after reading the book.  It hinges upon convincing an employee that an enclosed metal cart contains a homicidal thief, by means of a tape recorder and other ploys.  But naturally things go wrong, at first just in a little way, but then on a large scale as they are arrested by the police because of a string of unlikely coincidences.  Facing long prison terms, the culprits react variously, but there’s a happy ending because the casino decides to avoid bad publicity by declining to press charges, which I found a bit implausible under the circumstances.  Finney had to wrestle with the need to show that crime didn’t pay versus the reader’s obvious sympathies with at least some of the plotters.  An entertaining story.   I would like to see the 1955 film someday, which starred Guy Madison, Kim Novak, and Brian Keith.

Finney’s second novel, The Body Snatchers (1955) was almost certainly a reaction to the Red Scare era.  People were worried that communists were living secretly among us, that people we thought we knew were actually entirely different people.  It was also closer to his short fiction in its imaginativeness, but it was the only SF novel Finney would write for many years.  It is also the basis of at least half a dozen movies – not all of them credited – usually as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The premise is now a classic one.  Alien seedpods are secretly conveyed into close proximity to sleeping people.  The pod assumes the form and memories of the sleeper, whose body then disintegrates, making impersonation possible.

Although close associates of the possessed people can tell there is something wrong, they have trouble convincing anyone, and eventually they are themselves replaced, so that the alarm is never raised.  We see all this revealed to a small town doctor and a few friends who narrowly escape being replaced on several occasions, misled by a friend who is in fact already an alien.  Finney points out that it would not be easy for someone in that position to alert the authorities without being considered insane, and they probably couldn’t penetrate the bureaucracy of Washington or the military in any case.  The foursome are eventually forced to flee in panic, realizing that key personnel in their town have already been replaced.  Given the undercurrent about fifth columnists, it’s probably significant that the narrator describes the town as lifeless and inhuman after a large portion of its population is replaced. Unlike the movies, the novel ends with the seed pods fleeing into space, frightened off by the determination of humans – although there is little evidence for this in the story.  It’s actually a rather unsatisfactory conclusion and the method by which the pods leave – they apparently levitate into orbit – is pretty implausible.  Still a classic, but not as neatly done as my memory had it.

The House of Numbers (1956) is a caper story of a different type.  Arnie is in San Quentin prison for kiting checks but he’s desperate to get out.  He enlists the aid of his brother and his girlfriend, both of whom are reluctant to get involved in an escape attempt, with good reason since Arnie’s troubles are entirely of his own making.  Among other things, he would already have been paroled if he wasn’t constantly getting into trouble.  I was not at all convinced that his two confederates would have agreed to help, given their personalities, and predictably there is a burgeoning affection between the two which complicates matters even further.  They finally decide to refuse but a quirk of California law requires the death penalty when Arnie hits a guard, so they change their minds.The escape plan itself is complex and reasonably convincing.  The brother has to break into the prison to provide certain supplies, but Arnie can’t escape then because an immediate alarm would be raised.  Instead they arrange for him to conceal himself within the prison while brother Ben impersonates him outside, shifting the focus of the search.  My dislike of Arnie proves justified at the conclusion when Finney introduces a couple of genuinely surprising reverses.  The opening chapters struck me as rather weak, but once past that the book is genuinely suspenseful.

Assault on a Queen (1959) is a caper novel on an even larger scale.  A small group of people raise a sunken World War I submarine as part of a plot to encounter and rob the liner Queen Mary in the middle of the Atlantic.  The familiar devices of Finney’s thrillers are here again, the bored hero who is tempted for adventure rather than gain.  Hugh Brittain comes across as even less likeable than Finney’s other anti-heroes – selfish, undisciplined at times, willingly ignorant of the damage he is causing until it is too late to remedy the situation.  There is also a lovers’ triangle that threatens the stability of the group.  Although the scenes during the confrontation are exciting, they don’t occur until three quarters of the way through the novel.  An interesting sidebar is that one of the conspirators is black and cannot be seen with the others, since interracial fraternization would make them noticeable during the 1950s.  The movie starred Frank Sinatra.

Good Neighbor Sam (1963), although it also involves a kind of caper, is actually a comedy.  Sam Bissell and his wife live next door to a divorced woman whose inheritance requires that she be married.  On impulse, she identifies Sam as her husband and all three of them, as well as her ex-husband, are sucked into an elaborate comedy of errors with people sneaking back and forth between the two houses while a detective watches and tries to figure out what’s going on.  There are some really funny situations in this one – and the movie cast Jack Lemmon in the title role – but beneath the laughs is the fact that despite their good nature and intentions, they are in fact attempting to perpetrate a fraud.  It proves to be unnecessary in the end, but there is still an undertaste of immorality.

The Woodrow Wilson Dime (1968) is an expansion of an idea Finney first used in “The Other Wife” (aka “The Coin Collector”).  It’s as much fantasy as SF because coins from one alternate reality can somehow transport people from one to another.   The protagonist is a nerdish type who is unhappy with his job, his wife, and his life in general.  In fact, he’s such a whiner that it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for him, which detracts somewhat from the novel’s impact, although it is meant to be humorous so this doesn’t matter as much. In due course, he is transported to an alternate reality where he married the woman he thinks he should have married, has a much more impressive – though equally meaningless job, and feels as though he stepped into heaven. The feeling doesn’t last.  He decides he was in love with his original wife after all and tries to go back, but things don’t progress the way he expected.  The story stumbles toward its conclusion, and in the midst of all this the author whines rather a lot about aspects of modern life he doesn’t like.  I’m not surprised that this never even had a paperback edition and that it has drifted into even greater obscurity than most of Finney’s other minor novels.

Finney’s longest and most accomplished book was Time and Again (1970), which plays with his nostalgia for the past in a somewhat new and more sophisticated  fashion.  His protagonist is a young artist working for an advertising firm.  Simon is not alienated from his world, even has a girl he’s getting serious about, but he’s basically bored and much to his own surprise he agrees when a mysterious government representative recruits him into a project so secret that Simon can’t be told anything at all about it until he has joined.  He then finds himself in a secret complex which has built replicas of various historical settings in excruciating detail. The project’s purpose is to put certain people into a mood so close to that of the past that they can literally step into those earlier worlds.  Simon eventually does so, and takes his girlfriend with him on one trip – which seems to contradict the premise that only rare individuals have this ability and only under the right circumstances.  In 1882 New York, he becomes involved with a cryptic letter, a blackmail attempt, an impersonation, arson, and other side issues, as well as becoming romantically interested in a woman of that era, who eventually makes a brief visit to our bewildering present.  The story is told in a leisurely manner, illustrated by drawings and photographs, and while there is some discussion of the possibility of creating paradoxes or changing history, not much is made of it until the end when our hero arranges things so that the mastermind of the project is never born, stranding himself intentionally in the past. There is, of course, some of Finney’s fondness for an earlier, simpler time.  The faces of people in 1882 are more “alive” than those of the 20th Century.  He glosses over or ignores the down side – disease, poverty, police brutality, racism, ignorance, misogyny, and so forth.  Time and Again is nevertheless his masterpiece, his richest and most interesting novel, and one of the classics of time travel.

Finney’s last caper novel was The Night People (1977), and this time none of the four conspirators comes across as even mildly likeable.  Two lawyers and their significant others become bored with life in the city and set out on a series of night time excursions and pranks that start innocently enough but soon become dangerous and destructive.  They cross trails with an equally obnoxious police officer whose path intercepts theirs with implausible frequency and the climax, in which they unveil a movie camera and block traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, was not even remotely believable.   This was Finney’s least interesting book and almost painful to read.

Marion’s Wall (1973) is another minor novel, using the plot of a standard horror story for lighter, often comical purposes.  A young couple move into an apartment and discover, under the wallpaper, a cryptic remark drawn in lipstick from a silent film actress who died while only twenty years old.  It turns out that the man’s father was at one time in love with her and was actually present when she wrote on the wall.  Predictably, her spirit returns and periodically possesses the young wife, so that the husband finds himself sort of cheating on his wife with his wife’s body.   The actress is appalled by some of the current trends in the world – Finney’s personal hobby horse – and only leaves after several romps.  The protagonist seems to have no ability to control his own sexual urges and frankly I didn’t care for him in the slightest.  A non-horrific ghost story but not a particularly appealing one.

Finney’s last novel, From time to Time (1995), completed shortly before his death, opens with a quotation stating that 1910-1915 was the best time in American history, a restatement of Finney’s own myopic views of the past.  The story is a sequel to Time and Again.  Although Simon Morley changed history to wipe out the existence of the man who created the time travel project, some of those involved still have conflicting memories, suggesting that time runs in multiple channels and that some of us can glimpse more than one reality.  The main plot involves an effort to avert World War I and while the logic of time causation is sketchy at best, the story is quite good, almost up to the level of its predecessor. 

Despite Finney’s success as a novelist, I almost always found his short stories more impressive.  His collection, The Third Level (1959) was one of the first collections I ever read.  The title story, a very short piece about a hidden level of Grand Central Station that allows you to travel back to 1894, is a minor classic.  It also foreshadows Finney’s preoccupation with escaping the tensions of the present by escaping into the past, which would become his dominant theme in the later years of his career.  “Such Interesting Neighbors” is another classic, and it flips the same idea over onto its head.  The new neighbors are a bit strange and although the narrator never seems to comprehend the truth, the reader knows that they have returned from a century in the future to avoid the many threats there.  In fact virtually the entire human race travels back through time.  Finney never deals with the paradoxes this would cause, but they’re not the story’s focus.

I’m Scared” presents the same theme, this time with apparently random time anomalies springing up everywhere.  “For the first time in man’s history, man is desperate to escape the present.”   At least that’s what the narrator provides as his explanation for what’s happening.  The yearning for happier, simpler times has distorted time itself.  This clearly became Finney’s obsession and it shows up time and again – no pun intended – in his fiction.  “Cousin Len’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar” is a short, funny satire about a magical item that sucks adjectives out of written and spoken phrases. It’s a short respite, however, because “Of Missing Persons” has its protagonist proclaiming outright that he wishes to “escape” from modern life.  “From worry. And fear. And the things I read in my newspapers.”  He visits a travel agency that shows him a brochure for Verna.  “Romantic Verna, where life is the way it should be.”  Verna is described as being very much as America once was, another obvious yearning for the past. The Colony there is described as having all the good parts of technology without the bad ones, no stress or strain, and everyone is happy all of the time.  This is, of course, pure fantasy since such a society would be impossible, but Finney often transports his characters to unrealistic, idealized settings.  There is no mention of disease, racism, lawlessness, poverty, or the other negative aspects of the past.

“Something in a Cloud” is another fantasy, this one about two people meeting for a blind date whose visions of each other appear in clouds above their heads.  It’s a mild satire about the way we’d like others to see us at times, but there’s a bit of mean spiritedness about it as well.  The rather plain couple accept each other, but only by transforming their interpretations into a semblance of the beautiful people.  I’m not sure Finney meant it that way, but that’s how it comes across.  “There Is a Tide” is a kind of ghost story.  The protagonist sees the ghost of a living man in his apartment, finds the original, learns that he considered suicide and regretted not having done so.  The protagonist then convinces the ghost to go through with it and changes history.  Clever enough, but the conclusion that sometimes quitting is the best option struck me as rather defeatist in this particular context.

“Behind the News” is a minor, unlikely bit about a meteor melted into linotype, and fabricated stories printed with it come true. “Quit Zoomin’ Those Hands Through the Air”  is an amusing story about two Civil War soldiers who use a time machine to steal the Wright Brothers airplane from the future and use it to map Confederate positions, and get it so wrong that Grant and Lee both decide air power is a waste of time.  “A Dash of Spring” is a kind of reprise of “Something in a Cloud” without the fantasy.  Two people read the same romantic story and despite some stumbles, recreate it and find each other.   “Second Chance” is another love affair with the past.  A young man restores a classic car and takes a drive into a time now gone.  This is the weakest of the time slip stories in the collection.  Finally we have “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets.”   This isn’t fantastic either, but is a riveting story of a man who goes out on a ledge to retrieve an important paper and finds himself trapped there.

Finney’s second collection, I Love Galesburg in the Springtime (1965) is in much the same vein as the first.  Galesburg is the town the protagonist visited in “The Third Level.”  In the title story, apparitions from the town’s past appear to prevent the modernization of the town – which Finney clearly sees as the destruction of beauty and tradition, a variant of his love affair with the past. “Love Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere” (aka “The Man with the Magic Glasses”) is a magic shop story.  The protagonist buys glasses that see through cloth and a bracelet that turns its wearer into a slavegirl, but the tables are turned when he is fed a magic love potion.  Nostalgia returns in “Where the Cluetts Are.”  A couple builds a house from very old plans and find themselves slipping back into a more pleasant, simpler time.

“Hey! Look at Me!” is a ghost story in which a frustrated author who died young returns in an effort to finish his work – but fails.  Pretty minor.   So is “A Possible Candidate for the Presidency” (aka “Tiger Tamer”) about a boy who pretends to hypnotize an escaped tiger, but actually feeds it sleeping pills.  “Prison Legend” (aka “Seven Days to Live”) is about a condemned man who paints a vivid door on the wall of his cell, a wall that opens.  Nice buildup in this one, but the story peters out toward the end. “Time Has No Boundaries” is another escape  into the past, this time by a variety of petty criminals, who are pursued by a humorless contemporary detective who wants to bring them to justice even across the barrier of years. “The Intrepid Aeronaut” (aka “An Old Tune”) is a non-fantastic story of a man who builds and rides a hot air balloon.  Petty minor.  “The Coin Collector”  (aka “The Other Wife”) was expanded as The Woodrow Wilson Dime. Finally we have “The Love Letter”, a nice though sentimental fantasy about a magic desk that conveys letters from the previous century to the present.  As much as I enjoy Finney, he was too much of a one note writer for most of his career and reading him in rapid succession makes this particularly obvious.