This past Sunday, Mad Men fans learned that affable account man Ken Cosgrove had written and sold more than 20 sci-fi short stories under the nom de plume of “Ben Hargrove.” We heard about two of them: “The Punishment of X-4,” about a robot laborer who inexplicably collapses a bridge linking two planets by removing a single bolt; and “The Woman Who Laid an Egg and Then Gave It Away,” no further description necessary. We couldn’t help but wonder about Ken’s other short stories, so we
made them up went back in time and broke into his home as he was finishing up his latest, more respectable “Dave Algonquin” yarn and his what’s-her-name wife (“Cynthia!”) slept by his side. We found the letter he received from Farrar, Straus informing him of the their desire to publish a collection of his material. We have no idea where the snobbish tone of the correspondence comes from. And judging from the titles of Ken’s stories, it seems the author was using his moonlighting gig as a creative outlet to express his feelings about the turbulent ’60s, and to reflect upon the topsy-turvy drama at the office.
The letter is dated August 6, 1966.
The third-best thrill an editor can have in this business — right after writing a terse rejection letter and leaving the office early on Friday — is discovering extraordinary new talent. Much lower on the list is the kind of pleasure I experienced while leafing through your prodigious output of short stories that lesser minds than mine have deemed fit for their so-called “literary magazines.” I see absolutely no reason why a collection of your “better” stories should ever be allowed to grace our presses, except for the fact that I know it will sell, thanks in large part to your modicum of name recognition and the indiscriminate tastes of nerds crazy from space-race fever. Seriously, all you have to do is put the words “rocket ship” in a story and the starry-eyed rubes will eat it up. (Like we’re really going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In your dreams, geeks!) I think of you as a mix between a young J.D. Salinger and a young Ray Bradbury. And by “young,” I mean 12 years old. But hey: Good enough. And so I am contractually enthused to inform you that yes, dammit, Farrar, Straus will publish a book with your fake name on it. Congratulations. You must feel like you won the lottery — a very, very small lottery, as the enclosed check can attest.
I have chosen 17 stories to include in the collection. “The Punishment of X-4” is your strongest and most well-known effort. It reminded me of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” but with a suicidal rebel robot instead of a suicidal erudite man-child who likes to swim with small children. “The Punishment of X-4″ will surely have great resonance in a newly hyper-mediated Global Village so easily shocked by reports of random violence (see: the Speck horror show in Chicago, the Whitman shootings in Texas) and increasingly concerned about the human cost of technology and the protest of society’s oppressed, suffering classes. Also, I have this weird fetish for the word “punishment,” so you had me at the title.
But the story that should provide the title for your book is “Still Life With Laser Rifle.” Not only does it reek of genre (thought it would be cooler if we could spell “laser” with a “z”), but the story itself possesses enough of that “cultural relevancy” stuff that easily-impressed critics like to blah blah blah about. I think this futuristic tale of a petulant young businessman who wins praise for his alleged bravery by refusing to leave his firm unguarded as the city evacuates amid hysterical rumors of imminent invasion by “the crimson legions of Satellite Casto” (a little too on-the-nose for my taste) certainly speaks to… something. And I did enjoy the twist ending, in which it’s revealed that this “grimy little pimp” wasn’t courageous at all, but rather so petrified from fear that he found it physically impossible to leave his desk. (You tend to be fixated on the “grimy little pimp” archetype. What’s up with that?)
The aforementioned 17 stories:
The Punishment of X-4
Still Life With Laser Lazer Rifle
The Woman Who Laid an Egg and Gave It Away
Dictations To Zoobatron
Water Bombs From Mars
The Many Malfunctions of Betty Bot 17
Roger, Over and Out
The Shutterfly of Time
Jimmy the Joke Machine
Apocalypse Outside My Window
Jaguar Safari on New Avalon
Your so-called “space opera trilogy:” The Dawn Brigade, Twilight of the Dawn Brigade, and The Dawn Brigade Rises Again!
4:20 in Tomorrowland
The Lusty Lawnmower
“She was an astronaut!” (which reminded me of a temp secretary that worked for me one summer. Lovely woman. Fantastic at dictation.)
If you have any objections or additions, feel free to let me know by writing a very long and thoughtful letter, which I will ignore. In our next meeting, we should discuss the cover art. I’m open to anything, as long as it includes a slave girl with a huge bosom. The geeks seem to eat that up, too.
(Dictated to my Zoobatron.)
We have no doubt
your own imaginations can make up even better titles your investigative abilities can unearth even more examples of Cosgrove’s work. Feel free to share the results in the boards below.