The Stray Lamb, by Thorne Smith – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Stray Lamb, by Thorne Smith.
NYC, Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, November 1929, hardcover $2.00 (vi + 303 pages).
Yarst! I referred in a recent comment here (June 15) to “Thorne Smith-ian comedy magical mayhem”, and I was asked, “Who’s Thorne Smith?” (“You don’t know how old you just made me feel …”)
Thorne Smith (1892-1934) was the author of several mega-popular humorous fantasies during the late 1920s and early ‘30s. Most of them involved statues of Greek gods coming to life in modern NYC (The Night Life of the Gods), or their characters getting drunk and mixed up with magic. Many became comedy movies, such as the 1940 Hal Roach Turnabout with John Hubbard and Carole Landis as a husband-&-wife whose minds switch bodies, and the three 1930s Topper movies about Cosmo Topper, a stuffy banker who is plagued by usually-drunken husband-&-wife ghosts who are determined to make him enjoy life, whether Topper wants to or not. A young Cary Grant played the husband ghost in the first movie. Topper was cleaned up for one of the first TV sitcoms in 1953. (The drinking was given to a ghostly St. Bernard dog.)
Smith’s one anthro classic was The Stray Lamb. This bawdy fantasy was published in November 1929, probably less than a month after the “Black Thursday” stock market crash that set off the Great Depression. This makes The Stray Lamb the only anthropomorphic novel written during and set in the Roaring Twenties, the era of wild Prohibition parties, of sheiks and flappers and bootleggers and bathtub gin. How would anthropomorphized animals fit into this? Very comedically, as Smith tells it.
Lawrence Lamb, a forty-year-old investment banker, is bored with life. It has become a monotonous routine of daily commutes from his large mansion in the NYC suburbs to Wall Street to make more money, then back at the end of the day to spend the evening getting mildly drunk alone in his study. He and his wife have grown to despise each other. She has social pretensions (she likes to be called Sapho), which she indulges by encouraging her artistic hangers-on to attend literary soirees at their home, financed by his money while ridiculing him for making it:
“‘Ah!’ cried Mr. Leonard Gray with a wild wave of his hand and a smile of an uncertain nature. ‘Croesus home from his mints. How stands the market today?’
Mr. Lamb saw no occasion to reply to this piece of flamboyancy.
‘Well, old money-grubber,’ said Mrs. Lamb, heaving into a more graceful position, ‘I suppose your hands reek with greenbacks. You’re late tonight.’” (p. 38)
Mr. Lamb’s best friend is his twentyish daughter Hebe, a flapper whose wild and free spirit he appreciates. The two have been forced together by Sapho’s disapproval of their lifestyles; of his refusal to approve and participate in her pretentious social activities, and of Hebe’s refusal to act “like a lady”. Hebe is currently being abetted by her equally uninhibited friends; Sandra Rush, a lingerie model who has proclaimed her intention to seduce Mr. Lamb, and Melville Long, a lounge lizard (his two accomplishments are playing golf and getting drunk) whom she intends to marry. Mr. Lamb subconsciously yearns to join them, but he is too inhibited by their age difference and his lifetime of respectability.
(Yes, The Stray Lamb was written during Prohibition. As Smith describes:
“Already the tables on the lawn were occupied. Other points of vantage were rapidly filling up. Cocktails were circulating freely. All those who dwelt on the right side of the tracks knew exactly the class of people for whom the Prohibition Act was intended. They themselves were certainly not meant to be included. That went without saying.” (p. 77))
This is the situation when the little russet man appears:
“It was a little russet man, as [Hebe] always afterwards remembered him. A small creature, this person was appareled in an ancient habit of russet hue. Even the umbrella which he carried with some show of elaboration was of the same color. From the rear, his short, plump figure gave one the impression of good living and well being. It was a jolly sort of figure, the embodiment of jocund autumn. Hebe thought of chestnuts and burning leaves, of trees turning and hearths aglow.” (pgs. 31-32)
He is obviously a god, seemingly a cross between Pan and Budai, the Chinese god of humor (Mr. Lamb is seen reading the Kai Lung novels of Ernest Bramah). He is aware of the growing desolation in Mr. Lamb’s spirit:
“‘What would you prefer to be?’ asked the plump caller, carefully placing his umbrella on the floor beside his chair. ‘What would you like to do?’
‘I don’t know,’ [Lamb] said rather helplessly. ‘Haven’t the vaguest idea when you put it to me straight. One thing I do know, I’m tired of being a human being. I think I’d like to be things if I could – animals, birds, beasts, fish, any old sort of a thing, just to get another point of view, to keep from thinking and acting always as a man, always as a civilized being, an economic unit with a barrel full of obligations constantly threatening to run up against something and smash.’” (p. 50)
The next morning, Mr. Lamb wakes up as a horse. Sapho is horrified – she is sure he has done it deliberately to embarrass her, and that the servants will all quit – while Hebe is incredulous but delighted:
“The horse was listening intently, ears pitched forward, and at this last remark he winked slowly and deliberately at Hebe. The girl was amazed. It was her father all over. At that moment she accepted the fact that something strange had occurred.
Then after a few minutes of thoughtful consideration, looking this way and that as if to determine the best way of procedure, Mr. Lamb cautiously got himself out of bed, but not without considerable clattering and convolutions. Hebe watched him with amused interest. She knew it was her father.
Mr. Lamb thought of his best pajamas, and throwing back his head gave vent to a wild neigh. He was feeling rather wild and at the same time a trifle timid. He had often played horses as a child, but never actually been one. Now he tried to recall just how he had gone about it in those early days. He wondered how he looked, what sort of horse he was, and, remembering his full-length mirror, he stepped delicately across the room and, sitting down in a strangely unhorselike attitude, lowered his neck and gazed at his reflection.
Bending an eloquent glance upon his daughter, he pointed with his hoof to the mirror. Obediently the girl went over to the mirror and after much shaking and nodding of her father’s head, she adjusted it to his satisfaction.
‘That’s something like,’ thought Lamb, surveying his reflection with no little satisfaction.
He was a fine body of a horse – a sleek, strapping stallion. Black as night with a star on his forehead. He turned slowly, taking himself in from all angles.
‘Rather indecent, though,’ he thought. ‘Wish I had a blanket, a long one. Oh, hell! I’m a horse, now. Horses don’t mind. Still it doesn’t seem quite – well, I just never did it before, that’s all.’” (pgs. 55-56)
Mr. Lamb spends a week as a horse, impishly playing practical jokes on Sapho’s snooty friends and on his stuffy upper-class neighbors. After that he is a seagull:
“Fluttering lightly to the floor, he observed himself in the mirror. His excitement was intense. What he saw was a smoky-looking seagull with black rings round its eyes. The effect was that of detached thoughtfulness. Mr. Lamb spread his wings and looked with approval on their snow-white lining. He was a good gull.
‘As gulls go,’ he admitted to himself, ‘I dare say I’m about as good as they come. Wonder how it feels to fly? Don’t know the first thing about it.’” (p. 118)
Mr. Lamb spends another week as a gull, taking advantage of his aerial abilities to make several drunkards believe that they have developed delirium tremens. Unfortunately, his later transformations are not discretely at home in the night – or when he is sober:
“At a late hour that night he was still drinking highballs and running up a commendable check at a night club for the benefit of Sandra, his daughter, and Melville Long. Mr. Lamb had danced with more diligence than grace. Now, however, he was past dancing. In fact, if the truth must be known, Mr. Lamb was rapidly disappearing, the top of his head being level with the table cloth, and in a few minutes even the little of him with which he saw fit to grace the table was withdrawn from public view.
The party looked down and saw what the waiter saw – a long, large, tawny tail protruding from under the table.
‘What’s on the other end of it?’ asked Sandra.
Hebe bent over and thoughtfully contemplated the tail.
‘Search me,’ she said at last. ‘I don’t rightly remember ever having had any dealings with a tail like that before.’
‘Perhaps it’s an altogether new and better animal,’ Mr. Long suggested enterprisingly.
He pulled a flask from his hip pocket and passed it to the ladies. The situation called for a drink.
At this moment Mr. Lamb decided to relieve the tension of the situation. A long, sleek head with a pointed snout appeared above the table, slid onto the rumpled cloth and looked moistly at the three young people. In the due course of time the head was followed by a body, which slumped back awkwardly in its chair.
‘I don’t want to be hasty,’ said Hebe, ‘but roughly speaking, I think my father and our host leans toward kangaroo. What will we use for money now that he has gone?’” (pgs. 154-156)
The drunken kangaroo causes a brawl that results in a wild car chase and the first of several courtroom scenes with sarcastically frustrated judges. Later transformations, which Mr. Lamb grows increasingly distressed with (they are not all “nice” animals), include a goldfish, a dog, a cat, and a lion, the last of which becomes handy to protect Hebe and Melville Long from gangsters when they decide to become bootleggers. Meanwhile, Sapho, who wants to keep Mr. Lamb’s fortune while ridding herself of a husband who is an uncontrollable menagerie, begins considering that it is not murder to kill an animal…
The Stray Lamb has been in and out of print many times since 1929. It is in many public libraries, and it is out of copyright so there are several free complete reprints on the Internet. It is also included in The Thorne Smith 3-Decker (Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1933; also reprinted often and on Amazon.com) with his Turnabout and Rain in the Doorway; the latter two not anthro but very funny fantasies. The department store in Rain in the Doorway has a pornographic book department. The transformations in The Stray Lamb do not begin until fifty pages into the story, but they are witty and hilarious after that.