A handsome binding (regrettable use of the papyrus font notwithstanding), but I still prefer the Del Rey editions, which use Howard's original manuscrA handsome binding (regrettable use of the papyrus font notwithstanding), but I still prefer the Del Rey editions, which use Howard's original manuscripts, untouched by magazine editors or later, inferior authors like de Camp.
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 often finds himself watching them from his window.
On the way home from work, he 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 male 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 novelties 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