Henry Kuttner was born on April 7, 1915. Anyone who has read much of this blog knows that Kuttner is probably my favorite author, at least on days ending in “y”. After his marriage to C. L. Moore, everything he and Moore wrote was a collaboration to one degree or another.
Both authors were masters of fantasy, science fiction, and and everything in between, including horror. Much of their best work was published in Astounding in the mid-1940s. Almost all of these stories have been collected in at least one of Kuttner’s collections, either in his lifetime or in the years since. There are a few that haven’t, which I’ll address at another time.
For this birthday tribute, I want to look at one that wasn’t included in the Ballantine edition of The Best of Henry Kuttner. It did appear in the collection Line to Tomorrow (1954) in the US and in the UK in The Best of Kuttner 2 in 1966 and Clash by Night in 1980. Its last appearance was in Two-Handed Engine (2005 Centipede Press, 2006 Centipede/SFBC). Of course it’s been anthologized a number of times. I know the first time I read it was in Isaac Asimov Presents the Great Science Fiction 6 1944. But the ISFDB lists it appearing in a little volume called Some Things Dark and Dangerous edited by one Joan Kahn. I had a copy of that book when I was in elementary school, and it may still be around here somewhere. I’m certain I read the book, but I have no memory of the story. That’s odd, because this is a story that would have stuck with me.
“When the Bough Breaks” is one of Kuttner and Moore’s best stories. It’s also one of their darkest, and I would argue most tragic. Which would explain a lot about why it resonates with me so much.
It opens with a description of how lucky Joe and Myra Calderon are to have found their apartment, along with a mention of the previous resident moving because a group of little men keep showing up looking for someone named Pott. Pott = Cauldron = Calderon. One afternoon shortly after they move in, the Calderons receive visitors. Four diminutive men with enlarged crania show up and announce that they are from the future and have been trying to find the right time period.
It seems Joe and Myra’s infant son Alexander is the first of a new race of homo superior. He’s sent them back to the past to begin his training as an infant rather than wait until he’s grown to come into his abilities. Joe is a physicist, and it seems he and Myra were exposed to some radiation that altered their genetic material, allowing them to be the progenitors of homo superior. Unfortunately, the parents of the next step in human evolution are still homo saps, as they’re referred to.
The little men not only won’t take no for an answer, they have the means of forcing the parents’ compliance in the training of their son. Soon Alexander is able to teleport, communicate telepathically, and give electric shocks telekinetically. Being a toddler who hadn’t yet developed the ability to toddle, he’s naturally self-centered and something of a tyrant. Filling his head daily with stories of how great he is and how much greater he’s going to be only makes it worse.
Kuttner and Moore add a bit of their trademark humor to the story, like the time Alexander tells Joe he wants candy, and go to the store and get him some. When Joe responds that he’s broke, Alexander telekinetically turns Joe upside down and shakes him until all the change falls out of his pockets. Joe ends up going to the store.
Of course as Alexander’s mental development outpaces his emotional development, the seeds are sown for disaster. Joe and Myra aren’t allowed to discipline their son, not that there’s really anything they could do if they tried, and this only makes things worse and sows the seeds of the final tragedy. You’ll have to read the story to find out exactly what happens.
The Kuttners are at the top of their game with this one. Joe and Myra are very sympathetic protagonists. The last time I read this story was before I became a parent, and the ending hit me harder than it ever has, even though I knew what was coming. My heart went to the parents in this story.
Not that everything was all gloom and despair. Like I said, there is humor. The comic possibilities of a baby with super powers was used to its full potential. The dialogue was witty and crisp.
This may be a hard story to track down. But it’s well worth the read, IMO. The SFBC edition of Two-Handed Engine may be your best bet. It’s also the best collection of the Kuttners’ work in terms of variety of tone and subgenre.