As we pass into the reality of a cyberpunk future, and stories about brain-hacking move away from down on their luck noir-types in trench coats infiltAs we pass into the reality of a cyberpunk future, and stories about brain-hacking move away from down on their luck noir-types in trench coats infiltrating space stations, it starts to feel like the future of the genre will simply consist of various rewrites of Flowers for Algernon--which I am surprisingly okay with. Certainly, we're bound to get uninspired rehashes, like Speed of Dark, but we'll also get more interesting looks, like this one from the famously anonymous Aussie Hugo-winner.
Appropriately enough, I found this story on my Kindle with no recollection of where I'd gotten it or what it was meant to be--jut another overlooked blip in the system. For the first few pages, I assumed it was some Gawker-style first person confessional that I'd saved for later--until it became obvious that the 'cutting edge' medical science being discussed is somewhat beyond our present capabilities.
The fact that Egan can so readily capture the confessional style without pushing it too far speaks of his prose skills, as he delivers on the timely theme of 'what makes a mood disorder?' Instead of a journey through IQ, as in Algernon, we get one through emotional capability, from one extreme to the other, and Egan does an excellent job of hitting the right notes throughout.
His final question: what might we choose for ourselves, if we could choose our own emotional reactions (or would we be able to make the choice at all, without sliding into a self-destructive spiral of highs and lows) is poignant, and I would have liked to see him push it a little further, make it a little dirtier and uglier--instead it's left largely as an open question.
But even without that final push, it's a solid story, and I'm glad that I found it--or that it found me....more
The title story of this collection is exactly what you would expect of a fairy tale written by a minister and subtitled 'a parable', which is to say iThe title story of this collection is exactly what you would expect of a fairy tale written by a minister and subtitled 'a parable', which is to say it's not particularly fantastical, and feels a great deal like reading a sermon. Condescending and blandly didactic--MacDonald never lets an image or symbol stand on its own, but must always hem and haw about it, telling us what is right and what is not.
There is little enough wonder in it--we are told what to think and why. the focus is always on little errors and rules and flaws of character, never upon anything grander, nothing to ignite man’s imagination or awe--indeed, it is all terribly petty.
He seems to think of children as awful little monsters, naturally disposed to self-destruction--and the only way to fix them is to put them through a series of strange tortures. They are not corrected and taught by example, or by interaction, or explanation, or by forming any kind of genuine relationship with the child, but rather by leaving them alone and letting them grow more and more confused, miserable, and terrified. At one point the 'wise woman' uses her magic to make a child think she has accidentally killed her playmate.
Of course, anyone familiar with the tradition of English Boarding schools, whether through 'school stories' or the autobiographical accounts of figures like Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and George Orwell will recognize this sort of distant, abusive ‘hard love’ that English schooling became infamous for.
His view of humanity just comes off as so negative--so prejudiced and judgmental--and at the same time condescending. The Wise Woman of the story is entirely convinced that hers is the proper way, that no matter what she puts the children through, abandoning, confusing, and demanding things of them, it is the right thing, and will prove so in the end. Of course, in fantasy the author can create whatever sort of world they want, one which reflects his own whims and judgments, and which in the end justifies them, producing whatever effect is required.
That is why didactic works like this are so far inferior to open-ended works like Dunsany’s, which show us remarkable things, lead us through strange, new thoughts, instead of insisting that we take from it any particular message or lesson.
Dunsany is not top-down, he does not require that you believe as he does--he is not so conceited. Instead, he intends to open the world to you--not to tell you something which he thinks you ought to know, but to share an experience with you, not doling out from on high, but engaging in a give-and-take--an opportunity for both author and reader to learn and grow and see the world anew.
All in all, it is not surprising to learn that MacDonald mentored C.S. Lewis, as there is that same sense of being alternately scolded and coddled by a pretentious schoolmaster. However, the last few stories which make up this collection, while much briefer, do not suffer from this same voice. They are a bit plain, but they are not judgmental or sermonizing--indeed, there are some clever and humorous bits of dialogue in them.
It gives me hope that perhaps some of MacDonald's other stories are more pleasant and wondrous, and that I've just chanced to stumble upon him at his worst--I've certainly heard promising things about works like Phantastes and The Princess and the Goblin, but I fear it will be some time before this foul taste disperses and I feel up to cracking open another of his books....more
I've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do thiI've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do this isn't to malign the East, or to produce propaganda--these are just the secondary results--indeed, it isn't really about the East at all, it's about the author and their own personal self-invention.
It is the dark and coursing undercurrent of European perversity, sensuality, and violence which inspires these writers. It is an obsession with transgression, with things that cannot be openly and plainly discussed. The technique here is to express and explore these forbidden topics, but then to blame them on the image of the East in order to create the necessary safe distance, providing the author a buffer, a layer of deniability.
There are whole structures in our language built to produce just this kind of distancing. We talk about 'French' kissing, or 'Greek' love--we named buggery for the Bulgars, and mutual female desire for the residents of Lesbos. Even as we discuss, request, and engage in these acts, we blame them on someone else. Even as we perform them, we typify them not as our own behaviors, but the behaviors of others.
It's not as if our desires to do these things are going to go away, so instead, we personify and externalize those desires. A man sees an attractive woman on the street, he desires her, and he thinks of her as the source of that desire--but while it might be true that she inspired the desire in him, it is still he who is desiring, the desire comes from within him. Her role is passive, because she can inspire such desire without even being aware of it.
And yet, there are men who will blame her for that desire, who will project their own desires onto her: 'she wants it, if she didn't, she wouldn't dress that way, it's flattering, girls like being appreciated'. It is just an attempt to justify this desire, to justify feeling it, or even acting on it.
The same pattern of justification is evident in colonialism: that the colonized power must want to be colonized, must need it. Again and again, the argument was made that they wanted to be ruled, that they couldn't make it on their own, that they were immature, brutal, uncivilized, and that to be ruled was a gift. Domination stems from a desire for power and control, for profit, to take advantage of others, everything else is merely excuses, projections onto the passive party to blame them for being acted upon.
As such, the notion of the East became a natural site for displaced desires. Pulp stories are sites of sex and violence, which has long been their bane, as it makes them a target for censorship and blame. As such, it makes sense that pulp authors would use projection and justifications of this kind to ‘take the heat off’, to present sex and violence with a naturally built in buffer, a socially accepted rationale: we’re presenting it not simply to revel in it, but to present cultural dynamics that we all know are true.
But this means that, beyond simply condemning such presentations of the East as racist and convenient, we can look at them as they actually are: messy representations of the Western id run rampant, presented under a thin veil of obfuscation. After the colonial adventure tales of Kipling and Haggard slipped out of popular venues and were related to study in classrooms, the vision of the 'Mystical East' on which they relied found a new home in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and there may be no more pure and evocative representation of it than here in Smith's Zothique.
The prose is precise, unusual, powerful--the voice of a poet. It is neither the plodding dulness of Lovecraft nor the sometimes grasping repetition of Howard. This is the true and unique world of Sword & Sorcery fantasy which some other authors labor to inhabit, rich and perverse and full of deathly passions. Lovecraft cannot match it, nor Burroughs, nor even Howard, its most notable practitioner. The lineage of influence stretching from Smith to later fantasists is obvious, for instance the sense of humor that pervades these tales, which Vance reproduced in a tone much more dry, and Leiber in one very much less.
Even they were not quite able to capture the pervasive world Smith presents. It may be painted in crude images of ebony-skinned, thick-lipped, obese enchanters, but if it’s crude, that’s only what it’s meant to be. A complex, nuanced view of the imagined East would deny its presentation as a photonegative of the West (or at least, of how the West likes to imagine itself). The oversexed, overly violent projection of the id can hardly be presented in subtle terms.
The fairy tale must be drawn in broad strokes, lacking the subtlety that allows for various interpretations. It denies the reader access to the inner workings of the piece, denies them the privilege of interpretation. Instead, it is done as propaganda, simplified enough that the sides are clear.
This is why the post-modern habit has been rewriting and reimagining these fairy tales, looking at them through the eyes of the ‘villain’, looking at the absurdity of the symbols on which the allegory relies, symbols which inevitably fly apart when analyzed closely. The story deconstructs the tale by going through all the same steps, but refusing to make the same assumptions.
As such, is it possible to recreate the invented East in a modern tale, or is that the equivalent of taking the allegory it represents for granted? Does injecting any kind of subtlety, realism, and other such space for interpretation make the wild, strange, exotic setting impossible? I'd be curious to see a skilled author try it.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, as evocative as his uncanny realm is, it tends to dwarf his characters, making it difficult to get into their heads, or to care much about them. This was one area where Howard outperformed him, producing figures of suitably 'gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth' to fit their grand stage--and Leiber took the same formula even further.
To some degree, this is a deliberate aspect of Smith's style: he is not interested in whether his characters thrive or survive, indeed their wry downfalls are often part of the charm. Yet, these are not quite the tonal explorations of Dunsany, where characters are entirely secondary to description, rhythm, and feel. We do spend time with Smith's characters, with their thoughts and feelings, their desires and motivations, and yet, for all this, they rarely manage to stand out.
And while this collection has some very strong stories, the presentation sometimes suffers. The final story has a strong premise, interesting themes, but Smith presents them simply, in straightforward narration, making it feel more like an outline or summary at times than a story. Though he has a strong poetic voice and interesting language, in comparison to an author like Dunsany, he lacks a light touch, the subtlety that weaves magic throughout. A story’s theme should become clear to us based on the events described, the characters, the details, the use of words--not just explained to us in so many words.
Though he is certainly a writer with flaws, the sheer idiom of his style draws us in: the strength of his voice, and the unusual, playful way that he treats his tales. In the few stories where either the characters manage to sparkle, or Smith simply allows them to subsist in the background as the true protagonist, his setting, takes its rightful place, this series contains some true gems, visions which have inspired not merely other authors, but the very innovators of fantasy, writers who have changed its course, and who have created unique worlds in their own right. Smith is a stylist and a grandfather to stylists, demonstrating that often times, the only way to write is to take things too far, to indulge, to get lost at play, to produce a repast so rich and overwhelming that we cannot savor it--but neither will we forget it....more
Style is a curious thing in writing: the words we use, the tone of our voice, the images we create, the themes we love to explore. Every author has thStyle is a curious thing in writing: the words we use, the tone of our voice, the images we create, the themes we love to explore. Every author has their own style, even though some don't realize it--indeed, it is those writers who are least aware of their style who will be dominated by its little vicissitudes.
We spend our whole careers cultivating our style, improving it--and yet, style is also a crutch, a limitation. As Bruce Lee observed: the best style is no style at all--to be able to move fluidly, unpredictably from one moment to the next, doing precisely what is required when it is required instead of falling back on tired old habits.
It is what we all would be, if we could: equal to any genre, any mood, any audience--but alas, far-flung ideals are not to be held in our meager grasp. Style develops not only through our strengths, but our weaknesses: through practice, we become increasingly aware of what we do well, and what trips us up, and we modify our style to take advantage of that.
Of course, it tends to become self-fulfilling, since the more you work within your area of comfort, the more skilled and specialized you become. Many authors who distinguished themselves by turning their years of knowledge and experience onto their preferred type of story end up stumbling awkwardly when they step outside of that, and discover that their chosen voice is not universally applicable. Style is always a trap--but it's also a necessity.
Campbell has the enviable reputation of being the 'greatest living horror writer', named a worthy successor to the likes of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Chambers, Bierce, Poe, and M.R. James. Certainly, he demonstrates an able pen here, but this collection is not the one to convince me that he belongs in the Pantheon of Terrors.
The lead story gets a pass, since it's the first one he ever submitted for publication--a plot-free mass of explanations and worldbuilding that apes the worst of Lovecraft's style. It inspiring for any writer to see just how far Campbell has come from these early roots, that he does eventually develop the ability to tell a story, and not a bad one.
However, unfortunately the key term in that compliment is 'a story'--almost all the tales in this collection could have been created by my patented Ramsey Campbell Story Generator:
John is a (Writer/Literary Agent/Publisher/Editor) and he likes (Jigsaw Puzzles/Hiking). His favorite music is (Bach/Mozart/Schubert). He has no children, no wife, no girlfriend--not really any family to speak of. He just doesn't really connect with people, he prefers to be alone. His few 'friends' are jerks who he avoids, when he can. He finds people on the street threatening--especially youths--though he always watches them from his window.
On the way home from work, he always has to walk by a dark and dingy (Underpass/Bus Shelter/Abandoned Building/Alleyway), lit only by the (Sodium/Mercury) light of the streetlamps. He heard that someone died there, once. He finds part of a dead (Cat/Pigeon), but the next day, it isn't there. In the shadows, he hears sounds like (Armor Clinking/Rustling/Scratching).
He tells himself it's 'probably (Old Papers/Bags/Rats/Birds)' making the sounds. He sees something in the shadows: a (Plastic Bag/Heap of Clothes/Pile of Trash)--at least it 'must be a (Bag/Heap/Pile)'. A little later, he realizes something is following him--probably the teens, he thinks, but no, it's something else. He tries to stay calm, but panics and runs, then slips and falls, hurting himself. He has a sudden, inexplicable revelation of just what this thing is, what's happening to him, and why.
He thinks for a moment he's gotten away--but no, it's right next to him. It's a lumpy hobo shape, its body the wrong shape for a person. It's reaching for him, making moist noises. As it closes in, he's thankful he can't see its face.
Now, this isn't a bad story--indeed, taken on its own, each story is perfectly good: well-written, well-structured--but that doesn't make it any more interesting to read it over a dozen times in a row with slight variations. It's almost as if Campbell is trying to refine a very specific, focused style--a one-story style, as we develop in the process of drafting and editing: ever focusing, tightening, improving--this collection provides an apt example for why we don't include all our early drafts alongside the final copy.
Now, there are a few stories that stand out, but not always in good ways. There is precisely one female narrator in the collection, but it's still the same story, just with a perspective shift: we still have our standard Campbell Protagonist, while the woman narrator seems to be one of his various jerk friends.
Tellingly, the woman is alone, like all of Campbell's narrators, but unlike the men, she doesn't prefer it that way, instead falling into the tired role of the old maid, desperate to make a connection, but too afraid to do so. She's also the only narrator allowed to survive, in the end--women are too delicate to kill off.
Otherwise, the women in the stories stick close to archetypes: they are either mother figures, nagging wives, sex objects, or witches. While the default villains are men (even when inhuman, they take the shapes of hobos), the female villains are all witches. Additionally, while the male threats seem to be evil and powerful unto themselves, the witches are portrayed as secondary, having power only through sexual relationships to men, a la the old 'Bride of Satan' trope, they are not evil objects themselves, but merely its subjects.
There are some cute novelty stories in the collection: an evil hack author, an evil story collection editor, an evil vacation slide show--which do help those individual stories stand out a bit more.
The oddest thing is that the last two stories in the collection are completely different from everything that came before: experimental, unpredictable, unusual--with variance in voice and tone that are estimable. To end such a repetitive book on an incongruous change felt almost like a punchline--though what the joke might be, I couldn't say.
Whatever it was that woke Campbell from his literary slumber, it should remind all of us of the necessity of being shaken up, driven from safe pastures and forced to fend for ourselves for a bit, to figure things out all over again. We never know when these moments will come, or where they will come from, but that is the other side of the coin when we are developing a style: first we labor narrowly, focus, recreate, rehash, perfect--and then we must be thrust outside of that, forced to come to terms again, lest we grow too complacent, too narrow in our view, too satisfied with what we have.
Whether Campbell deserves his laurels, this collection is not fit to demonstrate, but the fact that it does demonstrate growth is a good sign--I only wish the thing had been edited down more effectively--hitting the high points and leaving out the in-betweens, as a 'best of' collection should....more
This 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts seThis 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts setting the mood in classic Blackwood fashion--slow, deliberate, and philosophical:
"The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.
". . . that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man."
"When the seduction of the uninhabited wastes caught them so fiercely that they went forth, half fascinated, half deluded, to their death."
But then, just as he's building this slow-burn terror of strange noises, of things brushing against the tent, of a queer and unsettling scent on the wind, we get our first victim, torn away into the woods at 'furious, rushing speed', and as he disappears, he yells
"Oh! Oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! Oh! This height and fiery speed!"
And so, in one line, all the tension was deflated and I couldn't help but laugh out. The same line gets repeated several times over, which is what reminded me of a campfire tale--that there is a sort of repetitive motif that ties the thing together. Yet it really seemed to be in conflict with the general tone of the piece.
Other than that, and as usual for Blackwood, there were some quite disturbing and effective images, and some unpleasant implications. It really is a thoughtful and well-constructed story, I only wish he had found a voice for the victim's terror that wasn't so oddly specific in observing and reporting on the details of his predicament....more
It is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, oIt is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, or who are of that very culture can still show biases just as deep. After all, as I'm sure you're tired of hearing, The East is a fantasy, just as any unified notion of Europe or America is a fantasy--or really a collection of competing fantasies--and just because someone is born and lives in America does not mean they have an unbiased view of it--quite the opposite.
But then, Howard never pretended he was writing anything but fantasies. Certainly, he spent a lot of time reading, taking notes, getting his details down, forming an understanding of culture and history--but he could still only prevent his own view on the subject, his own experience and philosophy.
In some ways, his views could be short-sighted--particularly his views of racial and cultural 'types'--but there is also a grand thrust of the human spirit in his works which often raises him above mere prejudice--and the thrill of his prose doesn't hurt, either.
Of course, as with all his works, there are problems with his style--he is always somewhat uneven--and it's the same problems: as each short story was meant to be separate there's some recycling of descriptions, and themes, some redundancy in presentation. As always, he picks a certain animal and bases half his metaphors around it: for Conan, it's the panther, for Solomon Kane, the Lion, and for his desert heroes, the wolf.
It works best in Conan, where we can take it as a sort of 'Homeric epithet'--a nod to the purposefully repetitive cadence of epic poetry--but there is no such excuse for stories about cowboys in the Khyber. He also repeats uncommon phrases in a way that makes them stand out unnaturally--such as 'beetling cliff' or 'hell-burst' only a couple of paragraphs apart, or even using the same word within a sentence:
"with a moaning cry the Jowaki released him and toppled moaning from the wall"
And of course, there's the fact that every cliff is 'knife edged', every silhouette 'etched against the sky', every muscle 'corded'. The most frustrating part about Howard's writing is that these are such simple errors to fix--the sort of thing that would have been, if he'd had a competent editor, and that it's clear from other passages that he's entirely capable of perfectly lovely, effective passages:
"Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone stood up like gaunt ghosts in the grey light which betrayed the coming of dawn."
Or this speech about a cursed ruby:
"how many princes died for thee in the Beginnings of Happenings? What fair bosoms didst thou adorn, and what kings held thee as I now hold thee? Surely blood went into thy making, the blood of kings surely throbs in the shining and the heart-flow of queens in the splendor."
It would be remarkable to see a Howard story where he maintained the care and skill he takes with such passages throughout the whole tale.
Yet his works are not just about well-put phrases, but quick and balanced plots, which Howard had a gift for. His tales are always exciting, always moving, always with some thrust of clear motivation to lead us from one scene to the next, full of odd characters and curious coincidences and hardships to test our hero.
It is interesting, as noted in the critical essay that accompanies this collection, that each of his desert heroes has a different approach to life, different desires and motivations for what he does. Some are scoundrels, some men of deep moral fiber. It's the fact that he succeeds so often in many areas of storytelling, from the prose to the structure to the characters, that raises him above other writers of the pulps--and indeed, above many modern-day genre authors, for all the sophistication of years that they can call upon when writing their story, where Howard had to make much of it up as he went along.
But then, that may also be the source of his power as a writer: that he wasn't writing a 'known subject', pre-defined and set up with a hundred different tropes that allow any hack to construct such a story 'by the book'. Howard instead had to piece his stories together from real histories, from classic adventure writers, and from legitimate authors of literature, which tends to give them much more depth and variety than simply following a standard model.
So, if the East is a fantasy, then what is Howard's fantasy? Not surprisingly, it is the fantasy of freedom, of a man making his own way in the world, unfettered by arbitrary social concerns. When the American Southwest becomes too civilized, crowding out the adventurer to make space for the cattle rancher and the homesteader, Howard's heroes go to Arabia, to Afghanistan--to places where life is not defined by train schedules and banking firms, but by will to survive, by camaraderie, and where the system of governance is the tribe and the warlord.
It is, for Howard, a place much like the ancient Hyborean world of Conan, a pre-modern world where the industrial revolution has not reshaped everything for convenience and assembly labor. Yet he can set his stories in modern times, with guns and trains and bombs, using modern characters with modern concerns, but still able to tell the same tales of valiant personal combat, where one man, alone, can make a difference.
It is the same fantastic life that men like 'Chinese' Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, and Richard Burton made for themselves--mixing fact, fiction, and self-mythology into lives that sound like they belong in fiction, not history. Howard's desert heroes have direct antecedents as well: white men who worked as soldiers and warlords in the 'Great Game' of the colonial powers as they struggled for control of central Asia--men like Josiah Harlan and Alexander Gardner.
It's certainly not difficult to see why such tales appealed to Howard, who was fascinated by the man out of his element, the clash of culture--as well as the mutual coming together of disparate cultures. There is, of course, a less flattering tradition of such stories as delivered by writers like Haggard, of the White Savior who out-nobles the Noble Savage--luckily Howard's characters, being loners with little interest in leadership roles, are less prone to this than many of their contemporaries.
Overall, these stories possess less depth and variety than the Conan stories, but they are largely well-crafted, apart from Howard's little bad habits, and perfectly enjoyable....more