Something similar occurs at the beginning of Sheckley’s “The Monsters,” one of the stories in “Store of the Worlds.” The opening scene brilliantly exemplifies Sheckley’s understated, dryly humorous voice, while also providing a writing-class lesson in how to surprise and hook a reader:
“Cordovir and Hum stood on the rocky mountaintop, watching the new thing happen. Both felt rather good about it. It was undoubtedly the newest thing that had happened for some time.
“ ‘By the way the sunlight glints from it,’ Hum said, ‘I’d say it is made of metal.’
“ ‘I’ll accept that,’ Cordovir said. ‘But what holds it up in the air?’
“They both stared intently down to the valley where the new thing was happening. A pointed object was hovering over the ground. From one end of it poured a substance resembling fire.
“ ‘It’s balancing on the fire,’ Hum said. ‘That should be apparent even to your old eyes.’
“Cordovir lifted himself higher on his thick tail, to get a better look. The object settled to the ground and the fire stopped.
“ ‘Shall we go down and have a closer look?’ Hum asked.
“ ‘All right. I think we have time — wait! What day is this?’
“Hum calculated silently, then said, ‘The fifth day of Luggat.’
“ ‘Damn,’ Cordovir said. ‘I have to go home and kill my wife.’
“ ‘It’s a few hours before sunset,’ Hum said. ‘I think you have time to do both.’
“Cordovir wasn’t sure. ‘I’d hate to be late.’
“ ‘Well then. You know how fast I am,’ Hum said. ‘If it gets late, I’ll hurry back and kill her myself. How about that?’
“ ‘That’s very decent of you.’ Cordovir thanked the younger man and together they slithered down the steep mountainside.”
Back in the 18th century there was a vogue for satirical stories in which Persians or Noble Savages visited Europe, only to make one faux pas after another, often while being sickened by the barbarity and repulsiveness of Western ways. “The Monsters” is this kind of story, but Sheckley works a number of variations on the template of a naif in a strange land.
In “Shape,” for instance, 20 successive expeditions have failed to set up the simple transporter device that will open the Earth to invasion by the Glom. What has stopped the aliens? In “The Store of the Worlds,” Mr. Wayne gives everything he has, including 10 years of his life, for something most of us would never think of buying — until we read the last lines of the story. In “The Accountant,” a little boy in a family of witches and warlocks won’t study his sorcery and insists on becoming an accountant. His parents are at wit’s end; they’ve scrimped and saved to send him to the best schools in demonic studies. The kid is breaking his father’s heart, so dad summons up the Demon of Children to “persuade” junior to walk the satanic straight and narrow. It goes without saying that the boy proves more than a match for the Evil One.