“All it takes to turn the real into the unreal is the slightest of twists.”

That was the advice of J. Sturgis Tarboski to any young turk writers that approached him about his secrets. And secrets they were: he had an unbroken string of relatively successful science fiction stories and novels spanning the 1950s to the 1980s, the longevity of a Heinlein or an Asimov but with a far grittier sensibility. Where other writers concerned themselves with spaceships and ray guns, galactic wars and the like, Sturgis Tarboski wrote stories set in a recognizable, if often out-of-phase, mid-century America. Where other writers used a modern setting as a springboard for social criticism or utopian/dystopian dreams, Sturgis Tarboski preferred to focus on his characters.

He might have been considered closest to Vonnegut (but for the two men’s long-running enmity stemming from a fierce elevator argument over religion and politics) or a Bradbury (but for Tarboski’s fierce dislike of Bradbury’s longtime friends Forrest J. Ackerman and Gene Roddenberry). And, hagiography aside, it’s a little disingenuous to pit Sturgis Tarboski against such luminaries; a dedicated attendance at science fiction and fantasy conventions and legendary openness to fans helped mask the fact that he was successful and comfortable in the upper tiers of the genre’s minor leagues.

He’s probably best-known for his 1978 short novel The Othering of Deerton which describes the slow infiltration of a fictional small town by powerful artifacts of unknown origin and the unpredictable effects that were wreaked thereby. It shows a certain degree of influence from other authors, most prominently the Strugatsky brothers, but is unique in that it is told entirely through found artifacts–transcripts, interviews, depositions, newspaper articles, and the like.

The bizarre “painbridge” is perhaps the most noteworthy artifact in Tarboski’s story. Appearing like an unnaturally heavy ceramic mug with three radial handles, it has the curious and horrifying effect of violently killing whoever touches it with bare skin while causing an exact duplicate of that person to appear somewhere in a 5-mile radius exactly 19 minutes later. The struggle over the “painbridge” and its use dominates the latter part of the book, which ends with the item lost in a collection of actual novelty coffee mugs owned by a local eccentric. “Painbridges” of later fiction, including the Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits revival episodes, featuring a “death cup” and a “duplicup” respectively, can be traced directly to Tarboski.

Upon his death at age 80 in 2013, Tarboski–who had never married and outlived most of his close relations–asked that the contents of his estate be auctioned off to “fellow writers and fans.” Accordingly, his executors arranged an auction to correspond with the interval between the 2014 Nerdicon and 2014 SciCon conventions. The first item up for bid? A ceramic cup with three handles inside a plexiglass box.

There were no takers.

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