Dunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as hDunsany is best known as one of the masters of fantasy, possessing one of the most complex, developed, and subtle voices in supernatural fiction, as he displayed to peerless effect in The King of Elfland's Daughter, one of the few fantasy books I've read where the magic actually felt magical, instead of just being a contrivance or allegory. And yet, so many times, when I discover these great authors, it takes me a long time before I read another of their books.
I'm not sure why I possess this habit--perhaps its that, once I've found something really good, I know it's there, waiting, and so I can get on the search for the next revelation and return to my cadre of Great Authors when I'm too tired of disappointment. Then of course, there are also those authors, like Leiber, who start out brilliantly and become rather disappointing, themselves, as time goes on.
So there is always a certain hesitancy when approaching a new work by a well-loved author, because few things are more unpleasant than to watch someone do something poorly when you know it is perfectly within their power to do well. Gladly, when I cracked this collection of tales fictionalizing Dunsany's experience in The Great War, I discovered that Dunsany's skill was to be felt in all its force.
Within, you will find his knack for creating odd little characters who feel real by virtue of their unrealness--that same gift that lent Peake and Gogol their brilliance. Likewise he demonstrates his fine sense of mood and rhythm, and of curious turns in his language, which never fails to remind me that he wrote all his stories longhand, with a quill pen. There is also a great variety of mood and theme, from stories of small life to unsettling, eerie tales to his meditations on the ancient, fey spirit of the land, and the crass stupidity of war.
Unfortunately, coming to the middle of the book, this variety of approaches begins to wane, and he gives us a number of stories which harp on the same themes over and over--namely, the foolishness of the Kaiser and the destruction of the ancient beauty of France. Some of these are quite powerful and affecting, but others rehash the same ideas over again, and it becomes rather dull. Its not that any individual story is weak, but it feels like we're looking at many drafts of the same idea, some stronger than others.
This was really the only reason that I dropped the rating down from five stars. Indeed, its one of the few examples I can think of where the removal of some stories would have improved the book. In any case, it did nothing to reduce my opinion of Dunsany, and I'll have to make a note to myself to visit his lovely works more often than has erstwhile been my habit....more
One of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characterOne of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characters, their little joys and quarrels and concerns. There's this humorous self-awareness throughout the story that makes the whole thing read as if its being told, given over to the reader in a particular voice.
Certainly, this can be carried too far and made condescending, as with C.S. Lewis, but it goes to show what a winking authorial presence can lend to a work, especially to a melodrama adventure. Too often among the lesser class of 'thrilling' books, we get flat characters who are so profoundly competent and neutral that they lose any chance of possessing a personality.
It just goes to show that a good story, be it action or horror or what have you, still requires some humor, some wryness to inject suitable depth and humanity, just as a good comedy can profit from a bit of pathos and tension. Of course there are some rather insensitive colonial notions woven into it, which some readers are quick to forgive as being a 'symptom of the time', but a perusal of Wells shows that it was not an inextricable part of the Victorian man's mind.
The story's notions are delightful, made up of the sort of thing that can still fire up a young man's imagination today, and it's hardly surprising to see that they were picked up and elaborated upon by numerous later authors, most prominently in Burroughs' 'Tarzan' and 'The Land That Time Forgot'.
The latter book I actually read as a child and mistook for Doyle's work, and it was only recently that I realized and rectified my error, and I'm glad I did....more
December 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysteriDecember 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysterious manner, one of the premiere American horror authors passed on into the undying realm of night. Bierce was the preeminent innovator of supernatural stories between the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft--and to be quite honest, I'd place him head and shoulders above either of them.
While those authors tended toward a dour, indulgent, overwrought style, Bierce preferred a lighter touch, built upon precise, carefully-constructed prose and driven by a deeply morbid wit, somewhere between Nietzsche and Alexander Pope. What may be most interesting about his tales is that, despite their simplicity, they often require quite a bit of thought from the reader: when you reach the end, you know something terribly unnatural has occurred, but piecing together precisely what happened requires a moment of reflection, where the discrete details of the story come together to imply something much more grandly dark than the apparently simple narrative would seem to contain.
To me, the sheer mirthlessness of Poe and Lovecraft denies their stories a certain depth--they are not capturing the whole human experience, but concentrating obsessively on one particular part, as befits the natures of such odd, affected men--men who we imagine to be just as off-putting as the strange, damaged characters in their stories. Bierce's aberration if of a different sort: that of a deep cynic who turns to laugh at the world, at its every aspect, life and death, joy and horror. In missing this from their stories, other horror authors reject a large part of the palette with which horror and madness can be painted.
Chambers dabbled effectively in this laughing tief, as well--but with more uneven results, as his horror career slowly transformed into a series of bland drawing-room romances. Dunsany also has a sense of wit, and of the humor of desperation, but none has so devotedly focused the breadth and depth of their talent on the intersection of the amusing and terrifying as Bierce.
Some of the stories in this, the last of two such collections Bierce published, are similar, but there are also those inexplicable and masterful standouts which differ in both their approach and the effect they achieve from any other horror author. In the end, there is no mistaking Bierce's handiwork, it is in every line: in every carefully laid comma and semicolon, every aphoristic turn, touch of frontier Americana, vivid picture of awful war, and wryly bitter observation....more
I came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium EI came across Hogg through his interactions with de Quincey, and so I grabbed his most notable work from Project Gutenberg, expecting another 'Opium Eater' about some clever reprobate's adventures through the Victorian. If you know anything about this book, then you can imagine my shock and wonder at discovering the story it actually contains.
It begins simply enough, as a witty picaresque set in Scotland and making some mockery of self-righteousness and Calvinist pre-destination in particular. But then the thing breaks off, it becomes suddenly clear that it is impossible for it to continue as it began, and we are split off into a second telling of the same events from a new point of view, a la Rashōmon. This second version is much darker and the prose becomes experimental, until we seem to be dealing with a crazed serial killer attended and impelled by a strange figure who may be the devil himself--if indeed he exists, at all.
The narrator is what we'd call a 'flat character', as despite his doubts and concerns, he remains static throughout and does not go through a great revelation about his state. This can be somewhat frustrating, as often, the only thing we desire of the character is for him to show the slightest bit of self-awareness, but the story is also a kind of satire of allegory, and those of us who recall The Pilgrim's Progress, Piers Plowman, and Everyman will see that Hogg's work provides a sort of parallel to Candide, and that the wooden characters are a fuel for mockery, and for deeper thought.
Yet I found Hogg's work much more interesting than Voltaire's, for as much as Voltaire turned the allegory on its head, in the end that's just an inverted allegory, relying on the same stereotypes for its message, but mocking instead of lauding them. Hogg, on the other hand, manages to make the whole thing conflicted, self-consuming, deluded, and mad. His treatment of Calvinist doctrine might be said to play rather straight, but all the other notions his story is concerned with intermingle and subvert beyond any straightforward interpretation.
But for all that, I'm not sure what to say about it. As a piece of art, it is powerful and unusual, prefiguring existentialist and experimental literature, but for what it all means, I feel somewhat less qualified to say....more
This most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, BiThis most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, Bierce, and Chambers as worthy of even a discerning reader. Like many such stories, it starts somewhat slowly, establishing first that picture of normal life from which we must soon, and by gradations, deviate beyond recall. I grew to feel it may have been a bit too slow--though it is always difficult to strike such a balance. So much of the story was carried on the particular delivery of the concept, so I'm not convinced that quite so much preparation was really necessary.
But then, Blackwood does sometimes struggle with delivery, falling back on repetition to ensure that his points come across, which makes sense for an author writing in an experimental genre for a wide serial audience and who may be concerned about coming off as too obscure--but whether it was a bit of long-windedness on his part or editorial preference I cannot say.
In any event, after the setup is complete and we start descending into the otherworldly, the story starts to pick up pace, and by the time the concept is laid before us, I was deeply impressed by the insight and imagination with which the thing is handled. The presentation of the uncanny is so complete, so infectious, and so grand in its implications that I am hard-pressed to compare it to any other contemporary author but Dunsany, who achieved a similar effect in fairy tale.
Indeed, it's difficult to name another author who so subtly depicted the cosmology of shifting worlds until Moorcock (who did it in a rather rough style) or the Strugatskys, who took on the same event and expanded it until it dwarfed the entire world of man. It is no wonder that this work is so influential, because it asks many difficult questions of the reader, and invites us to expand upon it, to sit and dwell and try to produce our own understanding of just what is actually going on, and what it means for the insignificant people caught in the middle.
It has certainly altered the way that I think about the writing of horror, and it goes to show that the particular treatment an author gives their idea can make or break a story....more
When reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were realWhen reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were really that horrible, but that the protagonists thrown into them happen to be rather skittish, lily-livered, and needing only the slightest nudge to push them off the edge in the first place. Lovecraft's heroes, in particular, can be rather touchy fellows.
So there has been a desire to explore what it might be like to see a more strenuous and competent individual trapped in the same situation. After all, we get glimpses of these characters, such as the denizens of Innsmuth, the magic-working cultists, and Lovecraft's Tale of Charles Dexter Ward, where it is clear that it's possible for people to get a better grip on the paranormal world, and even to use it to their own advantage.
Of course, these days, the pendulum has swung rather to the other end, and you're likely to see shotgun-toting sorcerer heroes who shoot at Cthulhu with rocket launchers, until the term 'psychological horror' is no longer remotely applicable. It's not that characters should be defeating the elder menace, any more than they should 'defeat' a hurricane, but it is interesting to see a character with a greater penchant for survivability.
Paranormal investigation has quite a long history in literature, with sorcerers and priests capturing and exorcising ghosts and other spirits, but the modern notion of the non-denominational specialist has a much more recent origin: the Theosophical movement of the Victorian period.
During this time of high colonialism, Europe was bringing back myths, practices, and ancient texts from every corner of the Earth, and then trying to get them all to match up into some kind of metaspiritual tradition. Predictably, the whole thing was a nonsensical, poorly-researched mess, and thus, wildly popular. Clubs were started up, seances were held, and charlatans rooked old ladies out of their inheritance. Blackwood, himself, was a member of the most notorious of these societies: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
So, by the time he got around to creating his fictional investigator, the whole thing was all rather tired, which is quite clear in the stories, for Mr. Silence is constantly taking pains to separate himself from that 'other class' of psychics who make extravagant promises and talk about possessing a 'gift'.
So it's interesting that one of the first full-time paranormal investigators in fiction (that I'm aware of) is already somewhat subversive and on the edge--but then, as a calm, rational figure after the style of Dupin and Cuff, he's somewhat out of place with charismatics and wealthy eccentrics.
Blackwood here retains his unfortunate habit of sometimes over-explaining or giving us information more than once, but for that, the stories are well-devised and contain some quite interesting cosmological hints. Oddly enough, two of the three stories in this collection take the most profound interest in the ways of cats and their relationship to the spiritual realm which, while perfectly interesting, didn't seem to profit from re-examination, particularly not within the same brief collection.
However, I am curious to see what else Blackwood might do with the character, particularly if he manages to put him into more sticky situations. So far, we've seen him competent and self-controlled--often the real danger comes from whether he will be able to save the other characters from themselves before its too late--but I'm curious to see what Silence is capable of, when pushed....more
Another bland and poorly-written fantasy series that knowledgeable fantasy reviewers have steered me away from (Kelly's Review, Mark's Review). IndeedAnother bland and poorly-written fantasy series that knowledgeable fantasy reviewers have steered me away from (Kelly's Review, Mark's Review). Indeed, even the positive reviews I've read don't make it sound like a book worth reading, comparing it favorably to Martin (whose work I couldn't stomach), and that the plot often hinges on the reader recalling some apparently unrelated detail from two books ago, which they apparently enjoy, though to me it sounds like the worst sort of 'word search' writing.
Moreover, most of the positive reviews cite the intensity and depth of Erikson's worldbuilding, but every fantasy book I've heard praised for this has turned out to be dull and flat with poor characterization and an aimless sense of structure for which the aphorism 'murder your darlings' was made.
Yet another request from some precocious author that I check out their book. I wish they would at least take me out to dinner, first (as the saying goYet another request from some precocious author that I check out their book. I wish they would at least take me out to dinner, first (as the saying goes); but no. So once again, I go and look at the book's page, where I invariably find that the book has only one rating (five stars, of course) from the author themselves.
I've said it before and unfortunately, will likely find reason to do so again: no one who would rate their own book five stars is capable of writing a five-star book--indeed, I'd set the upper limit for such folks at two. The defining trait of a marvelous mind is not plentiful self-assurance, but plentiful doubt.
Continuing on, I discover that the author has alsofavorited several dozen of his own quotes (edit: oh no! he unfavorited them! guess he decided they weren't so great after all). Then there is the fact that this self-published, self-rated, self-lauded work also features a blurb which describes the author as a 'revolutionary mystic'--I wonder who penned that. Certainly, there is a fine line between self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, but I believe we can agree when it has been duly crossed.
However, there is a certain delight in imagining this lone man, having set himself up as his own guru, reading his own work for inspiration, going to himself for answers, completely self-sufficient and heedless of the world--his own master, acolyte, critic, and sole source of praise.
As to the text, itself, you can check out a few exemplary passages here for your edification--and see that our author has taken up some ideas of Epicurus and placed them into a Socratic narrative--along with other similar exercises. I guess I never thought of typing up my freshman philosophy notes, giving them chapter headings, and self-publishing them as a book. As such, there are no intriguing ideas here; but why develop those when one is already self-confirmed in the exalted ranks of mystical revolutionaries?
The author's page also informs us that he is an indy musician, linking you to a page where you can listen to some of his music and read a little anecdote about how awesome he is at music. It also links to something called The Constitution of the Individual, which he describes as 'the movement he founded', a sort of one-man march which asks the question "Why should the constitution of an individual hold less weight than the constitution of a nation?", to which we might provide many answers:
We could take the Utilitarian route and suggest that the needs of the few (or the one) are outweighed by those of the many, or the social Darwinist route and suggest that individual human beings don't tend to perform well as sovereign states. We could take a cue from Rousseau and respond that the social contract is already an unspoken constitution between an individual and his society which lays out natural rights and boundaries. We might point out, as Alan Moore has observed, that the whole world is a state anarchy ruled by brute power, and that individuals do not have the power to back up their personal insistences. Or we could just reply:
'I don't care if you declare yourself to be the king of Youtopia and send up a flag with a picture of your face on it, Geoff, just please return my weed-whacker'.
Unless I'm misreading him and he's just suggesting that the documents which define the governing of a nation are of less importance than a brisk walk, with which I am tempted to agree.
Now, I'm no fan of ageism, and I don't want to suggest that the author is in some kind of 'phase' or premature state, because we all know that pretension knows no race, creed, sex, or stage of life--but reading this does make me glad that, at the moment in my life when I felt I knew everything, no one was there to capture that fact for posterity. Then again, who knows if I might not learn something new tomorrow or next week and realize that I've been an unwitting ass all along.
I could have written up these concerns in a private message to the author, but goose and gander, these authors always cold-call, so they can hardly cry 'unfair' when I give them the same treatment in return. Besides, I know that this is an awkward bother for pretty much all the top reviewers, who get these unsolicited requests daily, and I figure the least I can do when someone asks for a review is to quickly provide one.
So, tack on a star to counteract the author's own self-swelling, and I think we can call it a day. Perhaps soon, such authors will start messaging me out of the blue begging me not to review their books--I can but hope....more
And so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar andAnd so the adventures of Oswald Bastable continue, thrusting him yet again through the barriers of time and into a strange Earth at once familiar and disturbing. The themes and characters we explore are similar to the first volume, featuring at the center yet another Nemo-esque warlord whose methods give our narrator uneasy pause. By the end, we find ourselves liable to agree with Mr. Bastable's suspicion that time is having a laugh at his expense, forcing him to experience history as 'variations on a theme', and not a theme he appreciates reliving.
Usually, describing a book like this as 'alternate history' is a malapropism, since 'alternate' means to shift back and forth between things while 'alternative' means 'of a different sort'. So, if we described wind power as an 'alternate energy' to coal, that would mean we would be constantly switching between wind and coal, not replacing one with the other. But in Moorcock's case, both terms are actually applicable, which must be a boon to sci fi fans that have trouble keeping words straight.
So, if our theme is 'world-shaking war', the variation here is 'global politics of racism'. There is a certain tension throughout the book because Moorcock presents a lot of genuinely racist characters of different stripes and degrees, and even lets prejudice slip into his narrator's mouth. It's clear that the violence and rhetoric of the Civil Rights Era tickled Moorcock's unyielding imagination, so we get quite a few powerful (and somewhat unsettling) scenes charged with the complexities race dynamics.
Moorcock also seemed to take a bit more time with his narrative as compared to the last book, and didn't rely quite as much on bare exposition to carry the story along, which was nice--but as usual with Moorcock, it was a fairly straightforward adventure with some interesting concepts driving it along throughout, but lacking polish and care.
Reminds me of this charming episode of Neal Degrasse Tyson's StarTalk where sex researcher Mary Roach talks about the fact that long-term couples experience better sex because they tend to take their time and get lost in the moment, whereas newer couples are often 'going through the motions' of what they think should work. It's the same with writing books, people: don't just go through the motions when you should be in the moment, taking the time to give your narrative the attention it deserves....more
As ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would letAs ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would let his stories play out. The characters and their relationships were intriguing and promising, but Moorcock tends to fall back on exposition instead of showing the development of his characters and plot through interaction and carefully-constructed scenes. The scope of his tales rarely seem to match the length of his books.
I have great appreciation for the freedom he allows his imaginative drive, so that he has no compunction about sticking a bit of inexplicable Lovecraftian time travel in as a framing story for his zeppelin combat narrative. That sort of pulp zaniness combined with an authorial voice that can be subtle and clever and precise will keep drawing be back to Moorcock's writing--indeed, he is an inspiration for authors of speculative fiction, if only he'd spend a little more time polishing up.
Some of his political satire was a bit rough, lacking in the precision that makes satire truly effective, but other sections showed a much lighter, knowing touch. Likewise, there were errors in his structure, particularly the killing off of a certain character in a large battle that seemed entirely unnecessary--there was no apparent reason that he needed to be sent into sudden danger when he was, especially as the conflict could have been (and eventually was) resolved by a much simpler method. It seemed he was only thrown to the wolves to procure a bit of drama, which seemed rather cheap to me.
Hopefully as the series continues Moorcock will take a bit more confidence in his voice and let the story play out instead of interposing interesting scenes and rather more bland exposition....more
I must say that I greatly enjoyed Balzac's exploration of the idea that in art, it is not enough to simply copy reality. There is a reason that 'art'I must say that I greatly enjoyed Balzac's exploration of the idea that in art, it is not enough to simply copy reality. There is a reason that 'art' shares its root with 'artificial'. When we take the form of life and reproduce it on the page, or in sculpture, it becomes reduced and limited by the medium, losing its vitality and becoming corpselike. When we reduce a breathing, three-dimensional figure to the unmoving, flat plane of the canvas, depth is inevitably lost. So, as artists, we must replace that true vitality with some other energy, with creative energy, producing forms that are stylized, idealized, more beautiful, more grotesque, and more meaningful than can exist in nature. Mimicry of life without purpose and direction is the least form of art, if indeed it can be called art at all--the only style which the that author lends to his work is only the result of his flaws as a craftsman....more
Based on everything I've heard about Rand, from her supporters, her detractors, or in interviews with the author herself, I feel there is no reason toBased on everything I've heard about Rand, from her supporters, her detractors, or in interviews with the author herself, I feel there is no reason to believe that this book or any of her others contain anything that is worth reading, not even as 'cautionary example'. Since my goal here is to read as many good books as possible and to do my best to avoid bad ones, I'm going to be giving Rand a wide berth....more
Based on everything I've heard about Rand, in conversation and online, from her supporters and her detractors, or in interviews with the author or artBased on everything I've heard about Rand, in conversation and online, from her supporters and her detractors, or in interviews with the author or articles by her, I feel there is no reason to believe that this book or any of her others contain anything that is worth reading, not even as 'cautionary example'. Nothing about it sounds the least bit appealing or reasoned.
Watching interviews of Rand, herself, I wonder if she wasn't somewhere on the autism spectrum--her entire Objectivist philosophy seems like the sort of approach autistic people have to develop to deal with a world full of emotions, sympathies, and signals they cannot recognize or comprehend. The fact that this philosophy has since been picked up by Silicon Valley culture, itself notorious for high levels of autism, seems logically to follow.
Likewise, it would have an appeal for certain types of sociopaths, who also do not feel strong sympathy or emotional connection. Objectivism can thus be seen as a kind of justification for the lives they choose to leave: isolating themselves, putting work and financial achievement above social life, using others to get ahead, then blaming them for being emotionally open, and hence susceptible to manipulation.
It's unfortunate that Rand's method focuses on brutalizing, blaming, and denying people who are unlike her, instead of working with them and trying to understand them--recognizing and cherishing those differences, the fact that a society requires many different types of people to run effectively.
But then, looking at her life, and her inner circle--the isolation, disappointment, depression, and awkward love affairs as depicted in something like Adam Curtis' Documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, one sees a Rand who is wounded, alienated, and fragile--a far cry from the philosophy of power and dominance she wrapped around herself like armor--so of course she would lash out at the world and blame it.
There is also a curious parallel between her representation of the world and the moral certitude and will to power of modern fantasy novels. She seems to engage in the same sort of 'worldbuilding', where characters and events are structured to uplift a certain philosophy of life, where the story is abandoned for long passages to explain in minute detail the finer points of the constructed world.
As such, it's not surprising that she attracts a similar fanbase with her doorstop novels: a group of privileged middle class white folks who feel disaffected and are looking for a mythology structured around them and their struggles, which justifies their biases, privilege, and preferred way of life.
So, as nothing about any of her works has ever sounded appealing or interesting to me, and since my goal here is to read as many good books as possible and to do my best to avoid bad ones, it seems best to give Rand a wide berth....more