“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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I even tended to refer to him with the informal pseudo-affectionate nickname “Teddy” even though I knew through a little bit of research that he’d hated being called that by anyone who wasn’t a close family member. Then again, Theodore Marlowe was the sort that knew the value of a name: born John Theodore Marlow, it had taken the judicious dropping of a too-common first name and the addition of an unnecessary vowel to make his a name fit for literary immortality.

Deerton held its annual Marlowe Days events at the same time as the county fair as the only vestige of tourism a tiny burg like that was able to eke out. After all, Teddy had been born at what was then Deerton General (now Infrared Health Systems Mid-Michigan Campus no. 27) and attended what was then Deerton Elementary (now John T. Seymour Elementary) until the age of 10, when his family had moved to Grand Rapids and thence to Detroit. He’d been shortlisted for a Nobel, his novels and stories were still in print, and film adaptations had made millions of dollars over the years.

I prickled a little under the management role I had in Marlowe Days, though, for the simple reason that Theodore Marlowe hadn’t been all that find of Deerton at all. Biographies tended to give us a sentence, if we were lucky, before going into exhaustive detail on Marlowe’s days in Grand Rapids and Detroit. I had been through reams of interviews, and all the man ever had to say about us was negative. There was the CBS interview from 1969 where he talked of “escaping the stultifying atmosphere of small-town mundanity,” for instance, or the 1978 radio talk where he said “everything that made me who I am is of the furniture and automotive cities.”

As in not Deerton.

After moving away, he hadn’t visited once despite plenty of Marlow and Higginsfield relatives. Invitations to speak at DHS commencements or other events were returned unopened. His books, powerful as they were, spoke to the salad days of Michigan industry giving way to the rust belt.

Big city problems.

Only in death, it seemed, did Teddy have anything for us. His estate agreed to Marlowe Days less than two months after the author died in 1980.

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The blank wall behind Revere’s in Deerton hadn’t been used since they stopped showing drive-in movies on it in 1987. Feeling that the big off-white wall (ringed with advertisements for businesses that had long since failed) was an eyesore, the city council approved a proposal to paint a mural there. So long as the painter didn’t expect to be paid much and provided their own paints, of course.

Dan Kelly, normally handyman and janitor at the Presbyterian Church on Buchanan, laid down a coat of primer with the idea that the mural would be added once it was dry by students from the advanced art class at Deerton High.

When the class arrived the next day, though, they found that a mural had already been painted. It depicted, in lurid if classically-rendered detail, Councilwoman Strasser removing money from the city purse and showering it on Ed Pilgrim, a local construction magnate. A little investigation on the part of a junior attorney revealed that the two had conspired to divert business to Pilgrim Construction LLC largely as the result of an affair that the two were having.

As that particular bombshell was worming its way through Deerton’s psyche, Dan Kelly painted over the mystery mural with primer in expectation that Deerton High would have another chance. Once again, a mysterious artist delivered instead: a mural that, in classical terms, revealed that the “new baby” the Stearsons had welcomed was in fact their grandchild (and intimated that the parents of said child were their daughter Crissy and Derron Washington, captain of the high school basketball team).

Nobody investigated the latter claim, though the gossip circuit soon hummed with the indisputable fact that the Stearsons both had blue eyes while little Jayden’s were indisputably brown. The entire family took an extended vacation to Europe not long after.

Once again, Dan Kelly painted over a salacious mural that had exposed a (by Deerton standards, anyway) seismic scandal. This time, Sheriff McClade assigned a pair of Tecumseh County deputies to guard it for fear of what might be revealed next. Deerton High successfully got their mural (a paen to the city’s Native American and natural history).

One day later, it had been painted over by a fresh bit of gossip.

Political movements in Deerton had a way of being triggered by the oddest occurrences. There was the time Angus McPherson took his S-10 through the Deerton Wash & Wax without removing his rod and tackle from the bed, for example. The gear had been plucked out by the washer arm and tangled in it, so the next three cars through the wash were scratched and pummeled by whirling hooks and sticks. The Wash & Wax’s owner refused to pay damages, and her husband was the mayor; before long the entire administration was swept out of office.

The turmoil of ’05 began when a ram escaped from Casey Winterburn’s goat farm on US 313 and made its way into the Mountaintop and Pinewood apartment complexes. Both were cul-de-sacs surrounded by drainage ditches, leaving the animal with no way out, and were peopled by commuter students from Osborn University. Most of the students were out-of-staters or from one of the big east state cities–not the sort to take meeting a ram in social settings well.

At the time, Tecumseh County Animal Control was run by Mayor Routon’s brother-in-law. They received dozens of calls from Mountaintop and Pinewood, some from panicked big-city folk who’d barricaded themselves inside, but took their sweet time responding. TCAC claimed overwork at the time; scuttlebutt later had it that the truck was being used to move furniture between houses and wasn’t dispatched until that task was done. Even then, the situation was handled in a way guaranteed to provoke the complex residents: rather than using a tranquilizer (which would have cost $10 per shot), the TCAC used a .22 caliber rifle and took three shots to down the ram. Residents emerging afterward found bullet marks in the wood exteriors of their buildings.

The mayor refused to force TCAC to issue an apology, despite the fact that Casey Winterburn had made the rounds the next day doing just that. And the stage was set for confrontation.