Review: The Thirty-First of February

Nelson Bond
1949

The Thirty-First of February is an unusual title. This is a collection of thirteen stories that supposedly could have been written on that date. As we all know there aren’t 31 days in February, so we can conclude that this must be a fantasy collection.  There is very little in the way of science fiction here, not that there is anything wrong with that at all. Indeed, the stories in this collection are fine examples of the short form of writing.  Like many of the authors who were published by Gnome Press, I hadn’t heard of Nelson Bond prior to this endeavor.  He wrote across many genres and for many mediums apparently – early television, radio, plays as well as books and magazines.

The man has (or rather had, he’s dead now) talent.  I could see that from about 2 pages in to the very first story.  The Sportsman was the name of the tale, it was very simple with no real twist or big ideas, just a little mystery at the end.  A little low-key maybe, but it gave me an excellent insight into Bond’s style.  It’s definitely dated though he creates a certain ‘imagination flavor’ for me.  Two writers that come to mind as I think about this idea are H.P. Lovecraft and Mervyn Peake.  Lovecraft creeps along dark, slimy and forbidding ways with unseen things lurking behind the words.  Peake’s prose rides dust motes suspended in shafts of sunlight in an empty room and smells a bit musty.  Mr Bond is sports jacket-wearing after-dinner cigars in a slightly smokey but well lit study, leather-bound volumes lining the walls and a tumbler of whiskey at hand.  Well, that’s what they do for me, and I like writers that can have that effect.

The stories in this collection are a little ordinary, there are no ingenious plots, not unexpectedly clever twists and nothing that really knocks me back enough to say “Wow, that was great!!”.  But for me, that’s not the point.  I enjoyed this very much but not because of the aforementioned qualities (indeed, they were a bit lacking), but for the consistent quality and ‘flavor’ of his writing.  I just enjoyed reading it so much!  Of course it’s not really as bland as perhaps I am indicating here, so I’ll mention a couple of the more interesting stories.  Not necessarily the best, but most interesting.

‘The Five Lives of Robert Jordan’ follows several hours in the life of a man who, by the strange power of a mysterious watch, lives these hours several times over as a different personality.  For each  the same basic events unfold, having the same basic outcomes, but in different circumstances.  Actually, it reads more like an assignment that the modern creative writing teacher might dish out, and after the first two or three iterations I found myself very impatient for the conclusion.  I guess back in the ’40s this device might have seemed intriguing, but alas, sixty years on it’s not new.

Which brings me to another point.  One which I’ll no doubt touch on many times over the course of this odyssey.  When reading these books, it is always good to keep in mind that the stories that Gnome Press published were for the most part penned sometime between the early ’40s and late ’50s and when reading books of a certain vintage, we should try and time-warp our conciousness back to those times.  It’s often a little unfair to judge a book like this in contemporary light.  I must post on that at more length sometime… anyway, back to the book at hand.

The final story ‘Pilgrimage’, tells of a time in the not too distant post-apocalyptic future where a matriarchal tribe lives in an area named Jinnia, and the next Clan-mother is sent on a quest to discover the secret of the Ancients.  On her journey, she is rescued from the attentions of a wild Man-thing by a man who is obviously not a degraded man-animal as she would expect.  They travel together to the Place of the Gods as he tells tales to her disbelieving ears of how the human civilization used to be patriarchal before the fall of the Ancients.  They travel through Braska territory and on to Kota where she gets an unexpected surprise when she views the Gods visages carven into the mountain…

As much as I admire Nelson Bond’s prose and enjoyed reading this collection, none of the stories really captured my imagination.  This collection is subtitled ’13 Flights of Fantasy’, and although the writing is streamlined, aerodynamic and looks nice taxiing up and down the runway, unfortunately for the most part they struggle to get airborne.

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