Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The Bookshelf: The Flying Eyes by J. Hunter Holly
I am a simple kind of man. If I see a book on the shelf with the title "The Flying Eyes", you know damn well I am going to purchase that book. I may not know if it's good or bad, or the author, or when it was written, but I just have to dive in. This is an obscure volume- the version I purchased doesn't even have a copyright date or much information of any kind, but it was apparently originally published in 1962 or 1963 (depending on which source you believe), and J. Hunter Holly is the pen name of Joan Carol Holly. It's a terse, effective, albeit supremely goofy novella, and its retro B-movie premise is accompanied by an appropriately cinematic tone. It works surprisingly well.
Linc Hosler, Wes, and Kelly, three friends who collectively have a sort of unstated Jules et Jim thing going, are all at a football game when giant disembodied eyes descend from the sky. Most of the crowd panic, but a good portion of them line up and follow the eyes to a giant pit in the middle of the forest, where they disappear. The invaders have the power to hypnotize, and soon enough they're luring away crowds from all over town, like the Pied Piper if he were a giant eyeball from space. The eyes can be hurt, but have lightning fast healing abilities. It falls to Linc and Wes (both researchers at a university Space Research Lab) to start unravelling the mystery of the eyes, and how to resist them- a task which involves capturing one of them for study.
You can tell this is a pre-New-Wave sci-fi novel primarily by how the characters talk. Everyone's reasonably smart and self-assured, though Linc is troubled by the quantum status of his and Kelly's relationship and the involvement of the more handsome Wes. They're all professionals or science-type-people so they can talk to each other at the same level, nobody has any grotesque character flaws, they all have the sense of being idealized visions of the science fiction reader. There's nothing wrong with this except that it was getting a little cliched at this point, but Holly manages a little more conflict and less certainty than most authors.
The imagery of the book is quite vivid, and there's no denying that the giant flying eyeballs with hypnotic powers have a distinct retro sci-fi appeal. The fifties and sixties were the era of the bug-eyed monster, and much could be written about the psychological and archetypal implications of the images of giant eyes, giant brains, and so forth that permeated genre fiction of the time. The eyes are scary not just because of what they do, but because they don't fit. They're something fundamentally wrong. The ultimate revelation of the nature of the eyes is quite clever, and introduces a few new wrinkles to the story.
Though I generally appreciated how quickly the book moves at 140 pages, the tight schedule does ultimately result in a very rushed ending- one that basically makes sense, though it has to handwave a couple of things, but still feels too quick given just how desperate things have gotten up to that point. I can only assume there was a pretty strict limit on how long these little novellas could be (this was first published by Monarch Books). The whole thing seems like it could be a novelization of a contemporary monster movie- I had little trouble envisioning the B actors of the time who would play the leads.
This book has been out of print for a long time, and while I wouldn't make any great effort to find it, it's worth keeping an ey- it's worth keeping a look out if you're in a used bookstore. There are few images more emblematic of late 50s/early 60s sci-fi than people being hypnotized by giant flying eyeballs, and this is one of the rare high-concept works that manages to be good beyond its premise. At this point any pithy conclusion I could come up with would end up as just a sleazy eye pun, so let's just say it's a good book.