“Broken Record”

The James Gunn series picks up again with …

Review: “Broken Record”, James Gunn, 1992.Uncollected Gunn 1

This was Gunn’s 19th story and written in the 1951-1952 period when Gunn lived in Racine, Wisconsin.

It’s an experimental story, written in the always fraught-with-artistic-peril second person. It’s surreal, a time loop story not at all rationalized. Hence, it’s a fantasy or weird story, not science fiction.

It’s easy to see why this one was never published. It was probably considered, rightly, as too obscure by editors who saw it.

It reminded me, with its chronological confusions inside a temporally closed pocket universe, of “The Rabbit Hole” chapter of Gunn’s Gift From the Stars.

The title refers, of course, to a skipping record. (A metaphor more familiar to younger readers, given what I see in my local music store, than it would have been 10 years ago.) The title may also evoke the idiom “You sound like a broken record” meaning someone repeatedly and tediously making the same complaint.

The story opens with these words from a magazine:

Would you like to have six months? Free? Six months all your own? Of course you would. Anybody would, but especially you. You are unique; you are the artist. The world with its mindless hatred, has kept you impotent while your agony for creation grows cancerous within you. You have talent, desire, but they are racks for fools without the indispensable ingredient – time. Time is the key to the world’s prison, jealously guarded.

Given that Gunn was writing during this time while holding a job down at the publishers of Dell paperbacks, the Western Printing & Lithographing Company, I suspect this story was the result of some personal reflection by Gunn. After all, what artist, especially an artist who is getting some public recognition like Gunn was, who is actually producing art, doesn’t resent the day job? The hours and energy sucked away from his true calling? It’s the cri de coeur of the writer without wealth, a patron, or sinecure.

The “you” of Gunn’s story reads those words in a magazine and looks up to see his half-dark room.

And that’s what the “you” at that opening does next in the embedded magazine story.

The next paragraph of Gunn’s story, the non-embedded story, opens with “Now you are caught. You are lost. You cannot stop.”

The story’s protagonist remembers walking past an old, big house in a decaying neighborhood. The house, though, with its burning fireplace seen through the windows, looks inviting. It’s a place, the protagonist thinks, where time “moves slowly and thoughts are long”. It is the place to realize his dream of more time.

After finishing the magazine story, the protagonist reflects on it:

very short, but it has no meaning for you because your head is filled with speculation and hope and fear all mixed.

Gunn seems, here, telegraphing the obscurity of his story’s ending.

Then the protagonist decides “Why not?”. Why shouldn’t he go to the house?

And so he does. He finds its door open, the lights on.

He goes inside, the door clicking shut behind him. He finds nobody home. And the house is just as inviting as he imagined.

Well, at first:

The good living is here, of course, and the quiet thoughts and the peace. But it isn’t your life, your thoughts, your peace. There is time here, but it isn’t your time.

“You have to think harder to remember things.

On a desk, the narrator finds a note:


Time is a circle. It is only necessary to shorten the radius. Here is your six months. Here is your six months. Here is your six months. Here is YOUR six months.

It’s a meaningless note to the narrator. Nobody hates him.

But, then, the house begins to terrify him. The door doesn’t have an inside knob and won’t open. Neither will the windows, and they can’t be broken either.

He starts to have trouble thinking and remembering. He has exchanged “one prison for another”.

Dawn unexpectedly arrives, and the mailman drops off a letter with an enigmatic address: “E-D-I-T-O”

And then the horror descends for the protagonist. He’s is trapped in his own temporal prison of six months

baited by someone who hates you … Somewhere, six months ahead, the snake will swallow its tail.

And he knows what’s in that envelope: a story that begins, as Gunn’s story does, “Would you like to have six months? Free? Six months all your own?”

And that’s where the story ends.

What are we to make of it?

Well, what I’m making of it is that it’s too obscure though its ambiguities may make it a successful existential horror story for some.

There is a streak in Gunn’s work calling for psychological maturity, facing the world as it is. Is this Gunn’s call for creative types, including himself perhaps, to realize you must create in the gaps of time your life allows between commitments? Does it go even further to suggest that creativity is nullified by a retreat from those commitments?

Is there really an outside party that has baited this trap for the protagonist? It seems unlikely. No such party is mentioned. Are we dealing with some sort of rococo plot of split personality? That also seems unlikely. Rather, I suspect Gunn has presented a working out of the old saying “Be careful what you wish for.”

What are we to make of the cryptic address of “E-D-I-T-O”? To me, that looks like “editor” But that only deepens the mystery. Is this whole magical affair the result of an ordinary story, submitted to a magazine and rejected, that somehow snags the protagonist? Well, no. That story shows up in a magazine at the beginning. It seems to have been published. (Unless we’re just dealing with a crazy protagonist with damaged perceptions.)

The implication seems to be the protagonist wrote the story, sent it out into the world, and it implanted the idea of retreating from the world in the protagonist’s mind. Though, of course, that idea already had to be in his mind to write the story.

But, even if we aren’t to think the writer has a split personality, he seems to have some self-loathing – at least after spending six months in the house. After all, the note he finds begins with “I HATE YOU”. The general self-loathing of an unproductive artist for himself? We don’t know he hasn’t been producing, just that he wishes he had more time.

Are we dealing with an evil house? After all, it seems magical in its ability to imprison the protagonist and look so inviting with no human inhabitants? If that’s the case, why does the house hate the protagonist? Is it just reflecting the writer’s own thoughts?

We know, from statements in his Modern Science Fiction in 1951, that Gunn thought science fiction (which this story isn’t) should incorporate more symbolism. Is that what he’s doing here? Is the house symbolic of something? The writer’s wish for unlimited time – and its downsides? After all, if the writer did write that story and note, we don’t hear about anything else he did in six months? (Unless, of course, the writer is a possessed dictating machine for the house.)

That’s a lot of questions for a four page story in a chapbook – too many, I submit, for it to be workable.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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