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Out of Their Minds
by Clifford Simak
Putnam, 186 pages hardcover
Published: 1970

As I’ve observed before, Simak tended towards either a first-contact type story or a quest-type story; I’m not sure that this one qualifies as either one or the other.  Simak also enjoyed philosophical questions and I think that is what this story is.

Horton is a field journalist who has decided to take some time off to write a book.  He returns home to a tiny pastoral town called Pilot Knob.  The people are very typical of the times with small aspirations and quaint prejudices.  But his journey home was warped by a couple of bizarre events.  First was the near collision with the triceratops and then there was the weird evening spent in the home of a comicstrip character called Snuffy Smith.  By the time he finally – and safely – arrived in Pilot Knob he was more than partially convinced that an improbable theory of an old friend was more than probable.  His old friend had become convinced that all the myths and legends and fancies of man over the millennia had real substance and perhaps, a life of their own, beyond our own pale.  His concern was that the boundaries that kept us separate might be breaking down.  Horton had plenty of evidence of that possibility.  His friend was mysteriously killed and his nephew collected up his notes on this theory and mailed them to Horton.

While at a town social event, Horton made the acquaintance of the one school teacher when he bid on her picnic basket at the fundraiser.  By overbidding the town’s young troublemakers he achieved two things:  the school teacher’s regard and the enmity of the young thugs.  Simak did try to incorporate strong females into his stories; he just wasn’t real good at it.  The young school teacher, Kathy, is strong-willed and capable and for that, I appreciate his efforts. She goes out of her way to help Horton after he is badly beaten by the thugs and accused of the murder of one of them.  Rather than face the possibility of a lynch mob, he asks her to recover the papers in his hotel room and bring them to him while he tries to figure out what is happening.  He does warn her not to read the papers…you can guess how well that worked out.

Once the two of them are together the weirdness intensifies and Horton believes it is because there are two of them now who are thinking about his old friend’s theory:  thinking of a thing gives it substance and power.  But there is a third person who knows of the theory: his friend’s nephew, Phillip.  When Horton tries to call Philip he is informed by a grieving sister that Phillip was mysteriously killed by an arrow in his heart, an arrow that disappeared.  It was now clear that anyone who believed in the theory was in danger and Horton didn’t know what he was going to do to protect Kathy.  While some of the things he and Kathy encounter are benign, such as Mickey’s dog Pluto, others are quite deadly like the werewolves. 

It isn’t until they meet the self-appointed leader of this other reality that they understand; however, meeting the Devil incarnate is not an easy thing to accept.  But the Devil has a legitimate complaint:  man is not consistent with his fancies and beliefs.  Once upon a time one could depend on the stories having real evil and real good.  And this other reality had certain constraints and structure within which all the denizens had a certain culture.  But the comicstrip and Disney inventions were yielding shallow and superficial creatures; and the Devil had had enough.  During the journey in the other reality, Horton and Kathy were separated and the Devil explained that he didn’t need Kathy and had sent her home.  He needed Horton to be his spokesperson to mankind.

So the Devil went to Washington to demand the authorities start regulating fantasies and beliefs.  And he backed up his demands by stopping all the cars and electrical devices such as phones and telegraphs.  Horton, by virtue of his previous profession, had the ear of certain people in Washington so he went there as well in the hopes of stopping this thing.  He was also expecting to find Kathy there as the Devil had promised that he had released her back into the real world. But the Devil lies and Kathy wasn’t there. 

A fruitless confrontation with the US President and his Cabinet only frustrated and enraged the Devil who threatened to take it to the next level by stopping everything with wheels. But out on the sidewalk in front of the White House, a final argument between Horton and the Devil had a very pedestrian resolution:  good always triumphs over evil; Horton just didn’t expect it to come in the person of Don Quixote.

While this seems an odd story for Simak, it still conforms to his quest of examining people’s reactions to odd scenarios.  It was not a very effective vehicle, however.  The idea that people’s beliefs give power to the creations is not a new one and there was nothing new in this story to challenge my imagination.  The triceratops was the first plot hole:  this is not a quixotic imagining and felt very out of place as was the recurring civil war enactment.  He didn’t give much thought to the actual societal structure of this other reality which might have lent it more credibility.  There was no growth for Horton or Kathy and nothing was changed because of this event.  The end of the story almost seemed played for a laugh.  This idea should have remained just an amusing discussion over drinks or coffee.   ~~ Catherine Book

For more titles by Clifford Simak click here

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