Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Mad Scientist Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt

One big bad apple spoils the bunch
The Mad Scientist Megapack, published in 2014, is one of many inexpensive ebook fiction collections compiled by Wildside Press. Like many of the books in Wildside’s Megapack series, this one is a mixed bag of classic literature, vintage pulp fiction, and more recent contributions from contemporary science fiction writers. The Megapacks often mix short stories and novellas with full-length novels, a strategy which doesn’t always pay off. This volume, for example, consists of a single novel that takes up a whopping 35% of the ebook file, followed by 22 pieces of short fiction. If you’re going to devote so much space to one work, the novel in question better be a pretty good one, but unfortunately David V. Reed’s Myshkin is not. This 1953 book is about an inventor who creates a device strikingly similar to today’s 3D printers, but then uses it for unethical purposes, the results of which ultimately come back to haunt him. While the premise is interesting, the book is a tedious and nonsensical string of poorly written dialogue and bad jokes, and I greatly regret the time I spent reading it. By contrast, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a classic mad scientist tale well worth reading, is the second-longest selection in the book but still less than a third the length of the interminable Myshkin.

These megapacks are so cheap there’s hardly any point asking whether they’re worth the money, but is this one worth your time? For most of the stories here, the answer is probably no. This is not one of Wildside’s better compilations. About a third of the selections, however, are good enough to make this collection worth checking out. “Food for Thought” by Jack Dolphin, for example, is an excellent story told in the form of transcripts from an inquiry investigating the disappearance of an oceanological expedition. It delivers great sci-fi suspense that calls to mind the ‘80s horror movie The Thing. Matthew Johnson’s “Public Safety” is a delighfully innovative murder mystery that takes place in New Orleans. This New Orleans, however, exists in an alternate world where the French Revolutionary government of 1793 never ended and apparently the U.S. never bought the Louisiana Purchase. What a fascinating concept and a pleasant surprise!

Of the older authors, H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “Herbert West—Reanimator” is a great horror story that really pushes the boundaries of creepiness for 1922. Hugh B. Cave’s “The Corpse on the Grating” is another fine horror tale similar in style and subject matter to Lovecraft’s entry. Clark Ashton Smith also delivers a diabolical yarn, “Devotee of Evil,” about a mysterious modern-day alchemist attempting to distill the pure essence of evil. 
In Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved,” a mad doctor discovers how to accelarate human evolution. Meanwhile, on the kitschy side, “Dr. Varsag’s Experiment” by Craig Ellis is exactly the kind of enjoyably dumb, corny weirdness one might expect to encounter in a volume of this title.

Another selection worth mentioning is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 story “The Birthmark,” but despite the author’s reputation it’s a pretty mediocre and predictable affair. All in all, there’s a fair amount of drivel in this anthology, but if you like pulpy sci-fi the selections mentioned above are sure to satisfy. As for the rest, you might be thinking, well, as long as I’ve bought the thing I might as well read it all. While that’s an admirable attitude, for god’s sake skip Myshkin.

Stories in this collection
(Some novel-length works have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)

Myshkin by David V. Reed

A Light That Shamed the Sun by C.J. Henderson 

Incomplete Data by H.B. Fyfe

The Corpse on the Grating by Hugh B. Cave 

The Cosmic Teletype by Carl Jacobi 

Monster Kidnaps Girl at Mad Scientist’s Command by Lawrence Wyatt-Evans 
Great Minds by Edward M. Lerner 
The Man Who Evolved by Edmond Hamilton 
No Guts, No Glory by Edward M. Lerner 
The Devotee of Evil by Clark Ashton Smith 
Song of Death by Ed Earl Repp 
Status: Complete by Leslie J. Furlong 
Food for Thought by Jack Dolphin 
Dr. Varsag’s Experiment by Craig Ellis 
Public Safety by Matthew Johnson 
The World in a Box by Carl Jacobi 
Machine Record by Theodore Cogswell
The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne 
Herbert West—Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
Zapt’s Repulsive Paste by J.U. Giesy 
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Man Who Stopped the Earth by Henry J. Kostkos 
Sympathy for Mad Scientists by John Gregory Betancourt
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