Authors: Clifford D. Simak
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The Names in Simak
“The night was as black as a stack of cats.”
—Clifford D. Simak in “A Death in the House”
Those who have read more than the occasional piece of Clifford D. Simak’s fiction—and done so with some attention—may have noticed two things about the names of his characters. One is that Cliff repeats names, or portions of names, and uses them over and over despite any relationship among them. Characters in several stories (including “How-2” and “Eternity Lost,” for instance) are named Anson Lee, and he uses Anson as a first name in his novel
Why Call Them Back from Heaven?
I have found nothing in Cliff’s past life to indicate that the name was based on someone he might have known. Nor is that true with regard to the name Horton, which appears in at least four of Cliff’s novels—sometimes as a first name, sometimes last (see
Ring Around the Sun
Out of Their Minds
The Werewolf Principle
Not so with Parker. Again, Cliff sometimes uses it as a first name, sometimes last (as in Thomas Parker in “The Whistling Well”). But Parker was the maiden name of Cliff’s maternal grandmother, a person who clearly had a special place in his life. (Her first name was Ellen, which Cliff named his only daughter and used in “Over the River and Through the Woods”: He clearly modeled the protagonist, Ellen Forbes, after his grandmother.) And the name Carson, which turns up frequently in the earlier Simak stories, is that of his brother.
Other character names seem to have been taken from place names familiar to Cliff—in particular the name Grant, which was the name of the Wisconsin county in which he was born. (In what may have been a piece of whimsy, in one of his never-published stories Cliff had a character named Grant Sheridan.) And quite a number of his characters bore names clearly derived from towns in areas where Cliff had lived: Fennimore, Wisconsin, and Navarre, Minnesota.
The second thing about the character names used by Clifford Simak is that they are, almost uniformly, the sort that would be labeled “white bread” in today’s parlance. That is, they are names commonly found in the midwestern United States: names such as Wallace, Webster, Carter, Blaine, Foster, Sutton …
No great mystery here: When asked once, Cliff said it meant nothing; he was simply not interested in picking names that might have particular meanings; when writing a passage that called for a name, he simply reached out for whatever came into his head.
That same lack of intent apparently came into play when Cliff was creating titles for his stories: Many of the stories he sold had their names changed by editors, and in only a few of those cases did he bother to change it back for reprints (“Skirmish” was originally printed as “Bathe Your Bearings in Blood,” but Cliff reclaimed the original title in later appearances).
And that trait carried over when Cliff, as successful authors do, signed contracts for still-unwritten novels:
was contracted for under the name
Aesop and Pilgrim
A Choice of Gods
under the name
August 1, 2185
Out of Their Minds
Two aspects of the names Cliff used will certainly be familiar to his readers. First, many—though not all—of his robots bore biblical names: Nicodemus, Ezekiel, Gideon, Abraham. Second, many place names from his own past appear over and over again: Bridgeport, Woodman, Willow Bend, and above all, Millville, the little town that was closest to the Simak farm.
And yet, Clifford Simak was clearly capable of creativity in the field of names. For instance, in his novel
The Goblin Reservation
, when crafting names for solar systems, he came up with Headache No. 2, Misery IV, and the Slaughter Suns—and he used the Coonskin Systems several times. More often, when he needed to name a solar system in a story, he often simply chose names of stars familiar to the average reader: Polaris, Centaurus, Canopus, or Arcturus.
As Cliff said, the Millville of so many of his stories was really not the Millville of his youth—just as the hollows, ridges, and woods in his stories are deeper, higher, darker, and thicker than the real things. For Cliff, after all, was a user of his own imagination. And he used his imagination to transform what was familiar to him into something more wonderful. I have a mental picture of that farm boy walking through his so-familiar environment, playing a boy’s game of populating it with creatures out of his head. … And he never stopped that game.
More than any of the other names Cliff Simak used in his stories, the one I’m most curious about is Myrt, which I presume is a shortened form of Myrtle, a female name that was popular around 1900. When he tapped the name in his stories, he generally applied it to a person who did not even appear in the story but was referred to as being elsewhere—such as Aunt Myrt in “Buckets of Diamonds”—but he also bestowed it on the gigantic computer that was supposed to create the dreams in “Worlds Without End.”
Was there a Myrt, or an Aunt Myrt, somewhere in Cliff Simak’s background?
David W. Wixon
New Folks’ Home
In early 1963, Clifford Simak sent his agent a story named “Failure,” and I think this is that story. It was published in the July 1963 issue of
Analog Science Fiction and Fact
, part of that magazine’s short-lived experiment with the “bedsheet” format. It’s a story about a man all alone, to whom something—something else—reaches out, to give a kind of salvation.
It is a story told to beat back the sadness of thinking of all the lives that end in loneliness and despair. …
The house was an absurdity. What is more, it was out of place. And it had no right to be there, Frederick Gray told himself. For this was his country, his and old Ben Lovell’s. They had discovered it almost forty years before and had come here ever since and in all that time there had been no one else.
He knelt in the canoe and stroked idly with the paddle to keep the craft in place, with the bright, brown autumn water flowing past, bearing on its surface little curls of foam from the waterfall a half a mile ahead. He had heard the faint thunder of the falls when he had parked the car and lowered the canoe from its top and for the past hour he’d traveled toward it, listening to it and storing the sound of it away, as he was storing everything away, for this, he knew, was the last trip to this place he would ever make.
They could have waited, he told himself, with a strange mellow bitterness. They could have waited until he had made the trip. For it was all spoiled now. No longer could he ever think upon this stream without the house intruding. Not as he had known the stream for almost forty years, but now always with the house.
No one had ever lived here. No one would want to live here. No one ever came here. It had been his and Ben’s alone.
But the house stood there, upon the little knoll above the flowing stream, framed in all its shiny whiteness against the greenness of the pines, and with a path leading from his old camping place up to where it sat.
He wielded the paddle savagely and drove the canoe to the shore. It grounded on the gravel and he stepped out and hauled it up the beach, where it would be safe from the tugging current.
Then he straightened and stared up at the house.
How would he tell Ben, he wondered. Or should he try to tell him? Might it not be better, when he talked with Ben, to disregard the house? You could not tell a man, lying in a hospital from which he had small chance of ever going home, that someone had robbed him of a segment of his past. For when a man is near the end, thought Gray, his past is somehow precious. And that, Gray admitted to himself, was the reason he himself resented the house upon the knoll.
Although, perhaps, he thought, he would not have resented it so much if it had not been so ridiculous. For it was not the kind of house for a place like this. If it had been a rustic structure, built of natural wood, with a great rock chimney, all built low against the ground, it would not have been so bad. For then it would have fitted, or would have tried to fit.
But this stark white structure, gleaming with the newness of its paint, was unforgivable. It was the sort of place that some junior executive might have built in some fashionable development, where all the other houses, sitting on the barren acres, would be of the same sleek architecture. There it would be quite all right and acceptable, but in this place of rock and pine it was an absurdity and an insult.
He bent stiffly and tugged the canoe farther up the beach. He lifted out his cased rod and laid it on the ground. He found the creel and strapped it on, and slung the pair of waders across his shoulders.
Then, picking up the rod, he made his way slowly up the path. For it was only dignified and proper that he make his presence known to these people on the knoll. It would not be right to go stalking past them, up the river, without an explanation. But he would be very sure not to say anything that might imply he was asking their permission. Rather it might be quite fitting, he told himself, to make very clear to them the prior right that he held and to inform them stiffly that this would be the last time he was coming and that he would bother them no further.
The way was steep. It had seemed of late, he thought, that all little slopes were steep. His breath was shorter now and his breathing shallow and his knees were stiff and his muscles ached from kneeling and paddling the canoe.
Maybe it had been foolish to try the trip alone. With Ben it would have been all right, for there would have been the two of them, the one to help the other. He had told no one that he planned the trip, for if he had they would have attempted to dissuade him—or what might have been far worse, offered to go along with him. They would have pointed out that no man of almost seventy should try such a trip alone. Although, actually, it was not much of a trip, at all. Just a few hours drive up from the city to the little town of Pineview and then four miles down the old logging road until he reached the river. And from there an hour of paddling up the river to the falls and the olden camping place just downstream from the falls.
Halfway up the slope he stopped to catch his breath and rest. From there he could see the falls, the white rush of the water and the little cloud of mist that, when the sun was right, held captive rainbows in it.
He stood looking at it all—the darkness of the pines, the barren face of rocky gorge, the flaming crimson and the goldenness of the hardwood trees, now turned into autumn bonfires by the touch of early frost.
How many times, he wondered—how many times had Ben and he fished above the falls? How many campfires had they lighted? How many times had they traveled up and down the river?
It had been a good life, a good way to spend their time together, two stodgy professors from a stodgy downstate college. But all things approach an end; nothing lasts forever. For Ben it had already ended. And after this one trip, it would be the end for him.
He stood and wondered once again, with a twinge of doubt, if he had made the right decision. The people at Wood’s Rest seemed kind and competent and had shown him that he would be with the kind of people he could understand—retired teachers and ancient bankers and others from the genteel walks of life. But despite all this, the doubt kept creeping in.
It would have been so different, he thought, if only Clyde had lived. They had been closer than most sons and fathers. But now he had no one. Martha had been gone for many years and now Clyde was gone as well and there were no others.
On the face of it, from every practical consideration, Wood’s Rest was the answer. He would be taken care of and he could live the kind of life, or at least an approximation of the kind of life, to which he was accustomed. It was all right now to keep on alone, but the time was coming when he would need someone. And Wood’s Rest, while perhaps not the perfect answer, was at least an answer. A man must look ahead, he told himself, and that was why he had made the arrangements with Wood’s Rest.
He was breathing easier now and he went on up the path until he reached the little patch of level ground that lay before the house.
The house was new, he saw, newer than he had thought at first. From where he stood he imagined that he could smell the newness of the paint.
And how, he wondered, had the materials which had been used to build it been gotten to the site? There was no sign of any road. It might, he thought, have been trucked down the ancient logging road and brought up the river from where he had left his car. But if that had been the case, the logging road would have shown the signs of recent travel, and it hadn’t. It still was no more than a rutted track, its center overgrown with grass, that snaked its way through a tunnel of encroaching second growth. And if it had been brought by boat, there should have been a skidway or a road leading from the river to the site, and there was nothing but the faint, scarcely worn path up which he’d made his way. There would not have been time, he knew, for the wilderness and weather to have wiped out the traces, for he and Ben had been here fishing in the spring and at that time there had been no house.
Slowly he crossed the level place and the patio that looked out upon the river and the falls. He reached the door and pressed the button and far in the house he could hear the sound of ringing. He waited and no one came. He pressed the bell again. He heard the ringing from within the house and listened for the sound of footsteps coming to the door, but there were no footsteps. He raised his hand and knocked upon the door and at the knock the door came open and swung wide into the hall.
He stood abashed at this invasion of another’s privacy. He debated for a moment whether he should reach in and close the door and quietly go away. But that, he told himself, had a sense of sneaking that he did not like.
“Hello!” he called. “Is anybody home?”
He would explain, when someone came, that he had merely knocked upon the door, that he had not opened it.
But no one came.
For a moment he stood undecided, then stepped inside the hall to grasp the doorknob and pull it shut.
In that instant he saw the living room, newly carpeted and filled with furniture. Someone was living here, he thought, but they were not at home. They had gone somewhere for a little while and had not locked the door. Although, come to think of it, no one up here ever locked a door. There was no need to lock them.
He would forget it, he promised himself, forget this house, this blot upon the land, and spend his day fishing and in the afternoon go back downriver to the car and home. He would not let his day be spoiled.
Sturdily, he set out, tramping along the ridge that took him above the falls and to that stretch of water than he knew so well.
The day was calm and clear. The sun was shining brightly, but there was still a touch of chill. However, it was only ten o’clock. By noon it would be warm.
He jogged along, quite happily, and by the time he donned the waders and stepped into the water, a mile above the falls, the house no longer mattered.
It was early in the afternoon that the accident occurred.
He had waded ashore and found a medium-sized boulder that would serve as a chair while he ate the lunch he’d brought. He had laid the rod down carefully on the shingle of the little beach and had admired the three trout of keeping size that rested in the creel. And had noted, as he unwrapped his sandwich, that the sky was clouding over.
Perhaps, he told himself, he should start home a bit sooner than he had planned. There was no point in waiting if there were a chance the weather would turn bad. He had put in three good hours upon the stream and should be satisfied.
He finished the sandwich and sat quietly on the boulder, staring at the smooth flow of the water against the rampart of the pines that grew on the farther bank. It was a scene, he told himself, that he should fix into his memory, to keep and hold forever. It would be something to think upon in the days to come when there were no fishing trips.
He decided that he’d take another half hour before he left the stream. He’d fish down to the point where the fallen tree lay halfway across the water. There should be trout in there, underneath the tree, hiding there and waiting.
He got up stiffly and picked up the rod and creel and stepped into the stream. His foot slipped on a mossy boulder hidden by the water and he was thrown forward. A sharp pain slashed through his ankle and he hit the shallow water and lay there for a moment before he could move to right himself.
His foot, the one that had slipped, was caught between two chunks of rock, wedged into a crevice in the stream bed. Caught and twisted and throbbing with a steady and persistent pain.
His teeth clenched against an outcry, he slowly worked the foot free and dragged himself back onto the shore.
He tried to stand and found that the twisted ankle would not bear his weight. It turned under him when he tried and a red-hot streak of pain went shooting through his leg.
He sat down and carefully worked off his waders. The ankle already was becoming swollen and had a red and angry look.
He sat upon the shingle of the beach and carefully considered all that he must do.
He could not walk, so he would have to crawl. He’d leave the waders and the rod and creel, for he could not be encumbered by them. Once he got to the canoe, he could make it down the river to where he’d parked his car. But when he got there, he’d have to leave the canoe behind as well, for he could never load it on top of the car.
Once he was in the car, he would be all right, for he could manage driving. He tried to remember it there were a doctor at Pineview. It seemed to him there was, but he could not be sure. But, in any case, he could arrange for someone to come back and pick up the rod and the canoe. Foolish, maybe, he thought, but he could not give up the rod. If it wasn’t picked up soon, the porcupines would find and ruin it. And he could not allow a thing like that to happen. For the rod was a part of him.
He laid the three—the waders, the creel and rod—in a pile beside the river where they could be spotted easily by anyone who might be willing to come back for them. He looked for the last time at the river and began the crawl.
It was a slow and painful business. Try as he might, he could not protect the ankle from bumps along the way and every bump sent waves of pain surging through his body.
He considered fashioning a crutch, but gave it up as a bad idea when he realized that the only tool he had was a pocket knife, and not too sharp a one.
Slowly he inched his way along, making frequent stops to rest. He could see, when he examined it, that the ankle was more swollen than before and the redness of it was beginning to turn purple.
And suddenly the frightening realization came, somewhat belatedly, that he was on his own. No one knew that he was here, for he had told no one. It would be days, if he failed to make it, before anyone would think to hunt for him.
It was a foolish thought. For he could make it easily. The hardest part came first and that was for the best. Once he reached the beached canoe, he would have it made.