The Plain Old Power of Unbelief
By Jeff Baker
I just finished reading a short-story, a science-fantasy story by Henry Kuttner titled “The Uncanny Power of Edwin Cobalt.” I stumbled across a mention of the basic plot somewhere and it sounded very familiar, so I sought the story out in Volume Two of the fine Haffner Press series The Early Kuttner,” titled “The Watcher at the Door.”
I read the story in about a half-hour. It’s Kuttner at the top of his form, he may or may not have been collaborating with Catherine Moore (C. L. Moore) who he married in 1940. The story breezes by, a fun read with a Twilight Zone vibe. And it did sound familiar, probably because I’d read a similar story when I was about twelve years old back in 1973.
I am not suggesting plagiarism, just two prolific authors came up with the same basic idea and treated it in two different ways. The story I read in 1973 was “Obstinate Uncle Otis,” by Robert Arthur. Arthur’s story appeared in Argosy in July 1941. Kuttner’s story appeared in Fantastic Adventures in October 1940, so it’s just possible that Arthur was writing and sending off his story as Kuttner’s was being readied for publication. There are similarities, but also some important differences.
“The Uncanny Power of Edwin Cobalt” is told in the first person by Cobalt himself, who works in an office in New York City. He has suddenly developed the power to make things vanish, IF he doubts the existence of the thing. It goes away and Cobalt is the only one who remembers the vanished items. His wife is suddenly preparing to go out for dinner with Cobalt and doesn’t remember preparing the vanished steak but does see the vegetables and potatoes on the stove.
“Obstinate Uncle Otis” is set in a small Vermont town and is narrated by Arthur’s recurring character Murchison Morks. Morks has come to town after his stubborn uncle, Otis Morks has been hit by lightning. Uncle Otis is all right, except for two differences. One: the lightning strike has returned the amnesia he had a decade or so ago after he fell off a tractor and believed for a week he was a salesman from out of town, and Two: Somehow his “Vermont stubbornness” has been amplified to the extent that if he disbelieves in something it vanishes.
Both stories invoke a state’s attitude: the “Show Me” of Missouri and the classic “Vermont stubbornness.”
The difference in Uncle Otis’s power from Edwin Cobalt’s is that everyone remembers the things that Otis disbelieves into oblivion: the town statue, a mouse, a pesky mosquito. And nephew Murchison is kept on edge preventing his stubborn uncle from disbelieving something else out of existence, like the stars or Franklin D. Roosevelt.
There are harrowing moments in both stories, but the Arthur story has more humor. Mainly from the characters of Uncle Otis and his near panicky nephew. Despite the potential for tragedy implied in the powers in both stories, sadness only enters in the Kuttner story, where Edwin Cobalt has a few drinks and disbelieves his wife could really love him the way she does. Cobalt then goes home to find her in the arms of another man.
Not that there is no humor in “Edwin Cobalt.” And there’s plenty of fun in his recounting of old, New York landmarks that nobody remembers but him, like the liner Titania in the harbor, or “the Metropolitan Bridge across the Hudson, at 72nd Street, built in 1934.”
Having read Arthur’s story I could see the ending of “Edwin Cobalt” coming, as possibly an inevitable ending but both stories handle it differently.
Maybe it’s because I have known the Arthur story longer but it seems to be the better story of the two, or the more appealing. Maybe because of the humor that leavens the incredible, harrowing possibilities inherent in the story. But both stories are well-worth a read. Arthur’s has been reprinted several times. In “Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery” (which Arthur, uh, ghost-edited) and has been reprinted, and in Arthur’s own collection “Ghosts and More Ghosts.”
Henry Kuttner and Robert Arthur wrote in a similar style and both were masters of horror and humor. Both were prolific (Arthur more so in radio writing) and both died too soon. And both of these stories about vanishments are excellent.
I wouldn’t disbelieve either of them out of existence!