The first volume in Vance's Lyonesse trilogy felt like such a departure for the author--not that it didn't have his characteristic wit and oddness, buThe first volume in Vance's Lyonesse trilogy felt like such a departure for the author--not that it didn't have his characteristic wit and oddness, but I really felt it was one of the first times that I was invited to feel for his characters. His usual fare is light and disconnected, skipping across the surface without taking time to reflect. His characters are often clowns, comically suffering for their own errors and bruised egos, motivated by base urges, like spite and greed, and lacking more personal depth--yet I found Suldrun's subtle sense of alienation and melancholy to be vastly more intriguing than all of Cugel's adventures in Dying Earth, no matter how wacky they became.
Which is why it was a disappointment that this second volume returns to more of the same from Vance: largely episodic picaresque scenes. And yet, unlike the more silly and freewheeling style of Dying Earth, here his silliness is at constant odds with his larger, more serious plot of war and politics and betrayal.
The explanations of politics and history fall particularly flat, trying to drum up some interest in the intrigue and battle which would be better served by personal connections from the characters through whom we experience the tale--as opposed to references to (thankfully brief) appendices and lengthy descriptions of architecture and food.
He gets caught up in these explanations and descriptions, in reminding us of where we are, what's going on, and what the characters' motivations are. These are central aspects of the story, so the fact that he feels that he has to keep restating them just highlights the fact that he's struggling with focus, structure, and pacing in a longer, more interconnected story.
These explanations extend to the characters--we're often being told why they do what they do, and it's not just that we're in their heads, but that Vance seems concerned with making them transparent to us. It’s not really an effective use of words to sit and tell us why the characters do everything. The reader should be able to figure that out from the behavior and details, from how they are presented. If it isn’t clear from how it’s presented, then you don’t really gain anything by sitting down and telling us.
It’s also a denial of the reader’s act of interpretation, that instead of looking at the character and trying to figure them out, to read them, we are instead told what ‘the truth’ of it is. This doesn’t mean we should never get into the characters’ heads, but what makes a character intriguing is to see their conflicts, and the gradual progression of those conflicts, which eventually lead to a point of climax, where we see that conflict come to some kind of fruition. Of course, these conflicts should also relate to the character’s outer life--the problems they have to face should reveal those internal conflicts, and force the characters to come to terms with them.
During one section, Aillas knows there is a spy in his midst, but doesn’t know who it is. So, he goes on to mention several times that he’s concerned that there’s a spy, and that he wonders who it might be. As readers, of course we’re curious, but it’s just redundant to have the character keep mentioning it in the same way without any kind of progression or fresh view on the subject.
Certainly, sometimes a writer has to remind their reader of a fact, to catch them up, and it's admittedly always a challenge to find a way to do this without being obtrusive or repetitive, and to find a balance between too much explanation and not enough--but that's what sets an author of skill apart.
In the first book, Vance managed to do a better job giving us Suldrun's and Aillas' internal conflicts without overstating them, and letting them develop naturally, over the course of the book--and besides Suldrun and Aillas, we also had the strange intertwinings of Faude Carfilhiot and Melancthe, these figures trying to discover their own identity, at once competent but unfulfilled, literal half-creatures searching for wholeness.
In The Green Pearl, there is a similar relationship between Melancthe and Shimrod, but we really only get one side of the story. We see Shimrod's pining after her, his attempts to romance her, his thoughts and desires, but not hers. She is meant to be a mystery, and we do get some explanations for why she behaves the way she does, but by and large, she serves mainly as a motivation and foil for Shimrod's romantic intentions, the source of his desires and frustrations--which is unfortunate, since she seems to be a much more interesting character, with more intriguing motivations.
That Vance faltered here may be because the emotional depth he's dealing with isn't as intense as the star-crossed romance in the first book--and also because a star-crossed romance is much easier to get your head around, rather than the existential struggle with identity that Melancthe and Shimrod go through as magical creatures.
Vance’s villains also tend to be more interesting than his heroes, not an uncommon trait in writers, because villains are, overall, given more free reign in terms of behavior and personality. This being said, they are still rather flat, often acting out of malice and spite instead of more complex internal motivations. It's more that they have more vigor, that they are more demonstrable in their personalities because they are given freer reign.
All in all, it shouldn't be surprising that Vance should struggle somewhat with this series. Here is an author who tends to prefer silly, amoral heroes motivated by greed and self-preservation now trying to produce characters of depth and pathos, who prefers episodic, humorous, unstructured stories but is now trying to relate a long-running, large scale political conflict, who tends to tell stories about character faltering and ultimately failing, now trying to depict a rise to power, who usually portrays sex as a lewd joke, but is now trying to capture deeper romantic feelings.
It's all outside of his comfort zone--which is why the true surprise is that he did so well with this experiment in the first book. Then again, the second volume in a trilogy is notorious for lagging and struggling along between the promise of the opening and the excitement of the climax. I'm still intrigued to see where this experiment ultimately ends up....more
Fantasy has always had its moralizers and its mischief-makers, those who use the symbolism of magic to create instructive fables, and those who use thFantasy has always had its moralizers and its mischief-makers, those who use the symbolism of magic to create instructive fables, and those who use the strangeness of magic to tap into the more remote corners of the soul, and then obscure their transgressions behind the fantastical facade. Like Moorcock, Leiber, and Vance, Harrison is playful, he is rebellious.
Indeed, in his swift, pulpy approach, Harrison very much resembles those authors, but his voice sets him apart. There is a scintillation, a sophistication, a turn of phrase which shows a practiced hand, and unlike many fantasy authors, Harrison's voice is very consistent. He is aware of what he is doing, the effect he means to produce, and he generally succeeds.
Moorcock was fond of saying that he was a 'bad writer with big ideas', and the same can be said of many genre writers, from R.E. Howard on, but Harrison is not a bad writer, and it's enjoyable to see someone of his skill take up the torch--leaving no doubt why he was so successful in inspiring New Weird authors like Mieville and VanderMeer to tear into genre (with varying degrees of success).
He had already made a name for himself as an editor and ruthless critic working at Moorcock's New Worlds, often lamenting the shallow predictability of genre fiction (his critical work has been collected in Parietal Games), and this is clearly a stab at trying to break out of that monotony--to practice what he had been preaching. It is rather less wild and experimental than his later works, but there is something very effective in the straightforward simplicity displayed here.
The most obviously groundbreaking aspect of the work is his setting (not, as Harrison would insist, his 'world'). He combines science fiction and fantasy tropes quite freely, but with much greater success than Leiber's clunky attempts, and much more overtly than Moorcock's nods to quantum physics in Elric. It acts as a reminder that despite all the purists trying to drive a definitive wedge between the genres, they are really doing the same thing: creating physical symbols through which to explore ideas (it's Clarke's Third Law again).
An easy example is Star Wars, a fantasy story about wizards, prophecy, spells, magic swords, funny animals, good vs. evil, and the monomyth which adopts science fiction only as an aesthetic, a 'look'. It isn't forward-looking, it's mythical, which is why the laser beams only shoot at a fixed point in front of the ship, like World War I biplanes. Nowadays, the concept of mixing fantasy and sci fi has trickled down into the public consciousness, showing up in cartoons like Adventure Time--and to a large part, we have Harrison to thank for that, because his version (complete with laser swords) came years before Star Wars, and also presents a much more nuanced view of the world.
On the surface, Harrison's rusted-out future world resembles Vance's, but it's much closer to fellow New Wave Britisher J.G. Ballard (or Le Guin): a fantastical headspace of extremes, when everything is dying and collapsing around you, and yet life goes on--dwindling, certainly, but fundamentally not very different from how it has always been. It’s a portrait of existential dread, our fear of being alone, our foolish habit of nostalgia, of seeing the past not as it was, but as a sort of promised land, a missed opportunity for our neurotic brain to cling to.
The dying world is the legacy of poets (at least, of the Victorians, who have the most influence on our modern notions of the poetic self), from Byron’s Darkness to Shelley’s The Last Man and the mythology of Blake--and of course arch-pilferer Eliot’s The Waste Land. Indeed, in this post-modern world, it’s become almost trite to riff on The Waste Land and it’s world built around the sad, intellectual man who regrets that all meaning has been stripped away, and he’s left to figure it out on his own.
However, fantasy has long been lagging behind, particularly highly-visible epic fantasy, like Tolkien’s, which behaves as if existentialism and skepticism never happened, instead inundating the reader in a top-down, authoritative voice full of message and allegory and obvious symbolism--though Tolkien himself often denied that this was the case, as a believer, to him the real world was a symbolic allegory.
The 'dying Earth' is the same old trick of fantasy, to take a state of mind and literalize it, to produce a setting that reflects it, and through which the author can explore it. It's like how in a Gothic novel, it rains when people are said, and lightning strikes as the villain observes the results of his cruelty.
Sure, it's also what a comics writer does when he puts the fate of the world at stake to increase the tension--but I won't say it's a bad trick, or a dirty one--it all depends on the magician who is using it. Are the a con artist, trying to win us over and sell us something, or are they a trickster like Houdini or James Randi, forcing us to confront the fact that we can so easily be fooled--indeed, that we may want to be fooled.
I find Harrison to be a trickster, an invoker of our better nature, if only because he realizes that the mind can be unsure--it can change--so, what happens to a world founded upon a changing mind? It's a question Harrison only touches on here, before diving in headlong in the next book, and finally getting a grasp on it in the third and fourth.
Unfortunately, one area where Harrison fails to meaningfully improve upon earlier genre outings is the portrayal of women. They are rarely present, and when they are, they tend to the weak and distant. We don't get inside their heads as we do the male characters, and so they do not really feel like complete characters, but objects of focus and motivators for the men around them. I mean, it's not like we're getting a trite Madonna/Whore love triangle, like Tolkien's, but moving from 'bad' to 'neutral' isn't much of an improvement, especially for a book written in the seventies--and the portrayals don't get much deeper in the later books.
I've often complained that many genre authors (like fellow dying-earther Gene Wolfe) give you two hundred pages of plot buried in four hundred pages of explanation, description, exposition, repetition, and redundancy--but I'm glad to say that in Harrison's case, he's happy to give us the two hundred and leave off the rest.
There are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is thaThere are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is that, despite these things, there is always something that carries them through it, some verve or strength that makes up for it.
This is especially true for pulp and genre authors: their work may be unpolished, even bordering on the cliche, but some aspect of their approach and vision still shines through. Lovecraft's pacing and voice often left much to be desired, but his unique vision of cosmic horror still makes much of his work intriguing. Early on, Moorcock struggled with subtlety and sophistication, but his odd conceptual approach often saved him. Indeed, for Howard, the more polished his style became, the more it lost the vitality that set it apart.
With Wagner, I struggled to find the unique aspect of voice that makes a story worth telling--and worth reading. Certainly, there are some things he does well: his writing shines when he is setting a scene, in descriptions of places, structures, weather, the tapestry of a landscape passing the lonely traveler by. There is some real loveliness there, some fine turns of phrase and genuine tone.
However, outside of these passages the style becomes finicky. The action scenes get bogged down in deliberate, meticulous description, preventing them from flowing, from being dramatic and wild. It all begins to feel like a foregone conclusion. Wagner doesn’t seem to be able to create interesting tensions within the action to keep us interested.
In actions scenes, there is always the obvious, overarching conflict that must be resolved. In combat, it is the naked question of who will prevail, whose sword arm will prove stronger. In the chase, it is the question of whether the quarry will escape, or be captured. In order to lengthen these into full scenes, there must be a sequence of smaller conflicts playing out which are progressively dealt with en route to the final conclusion.
However, it is vital that these smaller conflicts be interesting in themselves, and not just be an extension of the larger. So, it cannot just be ‘our hero sees a new foe before him’, to be cut down and defeated in a repetitious succession of thud and blunder. There must be some wrinkle, some particular that must be overcome in a way that requires something specific of our hero, that engages him. It is not enough simply to have a quick foe, or a massive one--that quickness or size must be given some particular thrust--some detail that makes it feel true to the reader, that makes it imperative to the hero’s momentary survival.
Kane is meant to be preternaturally skilled and competent--but even the most certain man must grit his teeth and will his way through at least some of his struggles. The combat often ends up lacking a sense of danger or thrill or unpredictability to keep things moving. It shows how difficult it really is to produce the kind of exciting flow that Howard seems to create so effortlessly--almost thoughtlessly--in the Conan stories.
Wagner’s dialogue likewise shows a niceness that causes it to lose much of the punch it might otherwise have. Firstly, he walks that line le Guin marked in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in that when he makes his language conversational, it can start to feel overly modern and plain in the mouths of these outlandish characters. That isn't to say that characters in fantasy should all speak like chivalric knights errant, but creating conversation that is both rough and retains a period feel is no easy feat.
Secondly, like many authors unsure of their own voice, he seems to fear being misunderstood. So, he leaves nothing implied, allows no subtle nods, instead making sure the whole is stated outright for the reader. So, if we have our hero speaking with a shady character, a dark-cloaked spy who works both sides, you can be certain that at some point, there will be an aside where he thinks to himself ‘I’m not sure if I can trust him’. If two characters are planning to break into a castle, one will probably mention that he doesn’t want to be caught and tortured.
There’s a reason that writers don’t do this: ‘While fully dressed and facing forward, he walked with his feet across the green grass lawn’--most of those words simply aren’t necessary. The exact same image is communicated by ‘He walked across the lawn’. The true job of a writer is deciding what needs to be shown versus what can be left unsaid. If our hero walked backwards on his hands while naked across a perfumed lawn of purple bones, that might be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it makes Wagner’s writing tedious to get through--less like characters engaged in conversation and more like two writers plotting the outline for a script.
The Cthulhu bits are played too straight, too matter-of-factly. Wagner isn’t adding anything or putting his own spin on it, he’s just lifting Lovecraft’s descriptions whole cloth. Indeed, the characters often speak of magic and demons with all the wonder and fear of a mechanic talking about rebuilding an engine.
Moreover, the events of the story don’t really seem to touch Kane, to change him moment to moment. Of course, his immortality would give him an unusual point of view, and it’s certainly not unthinkable that he should feel disconnected from the world--jaded and detached. But even so, this jadedness does not seem to drive him, it does not modify his reactions, it simply leaves him blank. With Moorcock's Elric, we get the idea that he has grander desires that drive him, even if they tend to be personal ones, and he otherwise feels separate from the world.
Now, if the intent were to explore the existential ennui of immortality, that could make for an interesting story, but the events of Kane’s life are very much the norm for a sword & sorcery hero--battles and demons, pirates and assassins. His own actions in this world are also very much the norm, so it’s not as if we’re being provided with some fresh outlook or approach to underscore his unique perspective.
I was excited to try this series, based on it's reputation--a darker Conan, a modern take on Eddison's and Anderson's violent, blood-and-glory tales--unfortunately, the tone, characterization, dialogue, and plotting simply weren't up to the challenge. Ultimately, though Wagner is certainly reaching for what might be an interesting vision of fantasy, he never quite succeeds at bringing it to life, on the page.
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
In the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more rIn the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more regrettable to see just how thoughtless and cliche depictions of race and sex tend to be in the genre. Part of what excited me about the prospect of reading this hard-to-find series was that it is very much about race, a self-aware deconstruction of one of the genre’s historic failings.
It is that--as well as a dip into African History, a fascinating (and vast) slice of the human story that is too often ignored and downplayed--especially in the face of the endless pseudo-Medieval setting that covers the fantasy genre like a fetid swamp. However, the parallels with modern, Colonial slavery and the complexities of identity of American Blacks born to that tradition are a bit too on-the-nose. I would have appreciated more of a Humanistic look at the role slavery has played in human history, as well as the way that racial identity is coded and manufactured socially--it’s a vast and important set of ideas that needs more than simply the xenophobia of Lovecraft versus the modern, post-Civil Rights view to encapsulate it.
It was pleasant--particularly after trying the Kane series--to read stories which are so intensely focused upon the hero's internal life: his decisions, thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Never was there that struggle to connect the character to the world and to the story--as so often crops up in tales of ‘impossibly muscled’ heroes who cleave their way from danger to danger by the sweat of their brow, but otherwise remain aloof.
Unfortunately, Imaro’s successes were too often the result of a sort of generic ‘strength’--an overcoming by gritting one’s teeth, and simply coming out the other side unscathed. It’s always a shame to see a writer give in to such a simplistic resolution--but it's very common, and not only in the fantasy genre. There are few things more escapist, more wish-fulfilling than the notion of achieving something simply by wanting it enough, willing your way through, and forcing your preferences on the world. If only the world would bend to us, recognize that we are right, and let us have our way--but such a fantasy makes for a poorer story.
I wished that these internal struggles felt as personal and emotional to the character as his motivations. Intense conflict is such a great place to reveal a character, to show how he differs from everyone else on the page--what unique approach he takes, in light of his experiences and personal style.
Of course, that requires the imagination and skill of a seasoned author, while this is only Saunders' preliminary outing. There's certainly a lot of room for improvement, but also a lot of strong elements that make the story engaging and readable. I'll have to give Imaro another try, down the road, and see how he progresses....more
The problem with most Utopianists, as game designer Ken Levine points out, is that they don’t take into account the nature of humanity. Instead, theyThe problem with most Utopianists, as game designer Ken Levine points out, is that they don’t take into account the nature of humanity. Instead, they lay an ideal on top of humanity, and because it is a nice idea, just assume that it will just automatically smooth everything out. But, of course, the world has always been full of nice ideas, and despite that fact, greed, ignorance, brutality, and lust always end up getting in the way.
But then, the Utopianists were some of the first fantasists, authors who created and explored strange, false world of representational ideas, the world of Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, and Morris’ News From Nowhere--but alongside these were the satirists, those who created fantastical realms because of how effective such creations are when we want to mock the arbitrary traditions of our own world: Lucian’s Storia Vera, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In the end, De Mille’s fantastical world has too little to do with reality to make it really interesting.
The book starts off rather promisingly, giving us some amusing characters and then rushing full-bore into life-or-death adventure in a strange, new land--anyoine who has read Burrough's John Carter of Mars books or Haggard's Quatermain stuff will recognize it immediately: our hero must learn to survive amongst the unpredictable, alien culture. Of course, De Mille was the one who did it first, and there is something to be said for that.
Unfortunately, he can't keep up the pace, and by the midway point, we’re completely stagnated in goofy worldbuilding: the hero speaking at length to the natives about their world, then turning and speaking directly to the audience for a further chapter where he repeats everything. Then we break off to the frame story--a set of sailors reading this mysterious manuscript out loud--as they sit around theorizing what type of extinct creatures the narrator was describing, and whether the Antarctic race he encountered were the tenth tribe of the Jews or a race of Red Sea troglodytes, complete with a discussion of Hebrew phonemes.
Yet this culture isn’t particularly interesting, even though it sometimes gets close--the idea of a culture that idealizes the poor and downtrodden, that thinks fondly of death and sees wealth as an evil is not really all that odd. Eventually, De Mille has his narrators mention that it sounds like Buddhism or the Ascetic Christian tradition that sprung up from that Indian mystical influence. Unfortunately, De Mille doesn’t take cues form these cultures and add in details that make his little world unusual enough to be interesting, nor does the culture make much sense: the system which he describes seems to have no way of supporting itself as it is explained. Instead, like the Utopianists, he merely sets up a world that is the opposite of ours and never bothers to question how it might come about or why human beings would follow it, once it were established.
Of course, if it were just a bit of background info, lightly touched upon, the setting for an otherwise rip-snorting adventure, I might not mind so much, but since he spends chapter upon chapter trying to explain its nonsensical intricacies to us, its silliness and flaws cannot really be overlooked. Once again, I am reminded of my own person writing rule that it is better to imply than to explain, to show the world as it is through the action rather than sitting down and trying to explain it. The only thing that achieves is revealing to your audience all the holes in your ideas.
Then we head back to the frame story where the characters all talk about dumb and poorly-written the book is, and how it doesn't really make sense, though one gets the impression that De Mille is doing it in an attempt to be funny and clever. Then they start talking about the thematic meaning of the book, that even though the people in this culture have all the things we want, that we think will make us happy, they still aren't happy, and in fact they want all the stuff that we despise.
I suppose that would be a somewhat clever premise, but it isn't actually how the action or characters are set up. Since the culture is arbitrarily set up and (despite a lot of discussion on the subject) there's never any clear psychological reason for the characters to behave the way that they do, the satire falls rather flat. De Mille evokes Swift by name, talking about representational satires that reveal something about our world to us, but he simply isn't funny or clever enough to pull it off, and so it just becomes the same allegory over and over, occasionally interrupted by some very welcome action scenes. Indeed, the book described by the characters in the frame story sounds vastly more interesting than the one we actually get.
The lesson of Lucian, Swift, and Carroll is that the reader is less concerned with complex explanations about the author’s intentions than with story, character, action, wit, and insight. But then, their worlds were attempts to explore ideas through extended metaphors, whole nations and peoples that represented complex and unusual ideas--the truest definition of magic in literature being a metaphor, physically realized.
De Mille’s is just an example of contrarianism: he has taken the world as it is and turned it upon its head without much rhyme or reason to account for it, and as Quentin Crisp points out in his introduction to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series, being original is not the result of looking at what everyone else is doing and performing the opposite, but of finding a purpose that drives you, a philosophy that gives meaning and direction to what you write. De Mille possesses neither that purpose nor an exciting tale to tell in lieu of it, so I suppose that really does make this book the prototype of the modern fantasy tale....more
I just remembered that I read this, back when I was hugely into big, fat fantasy books. However, I don't think I can recall a single character, event,I just remembered that I read this, back when I was hugely into big, fat fantasy books. However, I don't think I can recall a single character, event, or scene from the whole thing--which is particularly odd for me, since with every other book I've ever read, I at least remember the basic plot and a few choice moments. Clearly this one, beyond all others, was entirely unremarkable.
Read, write, and study books for long enough, and you'll eventually start to recognize how stories work. You'll find yourself saying things like "Oh,Read, write, and study books for long enough, and you'll eventually start to recognize how stories work. You'll find yourself saying things like "Oh, this character's going to die soon because the author just resolved the ongoing tension they had with the hero" or "Ah, the mysterious stranger must actually be the orphan child of the Baron that people keep talking about". To people who don't know how to do it, it seems like a magic trick, but the only thing you need to do is pay attention to details and to ask yourself "where is this story going to go next?", and it becomes surprisingly obvious.
Anyone who has read one of those endless 'Cthulhu collections' which contain one story by Lovecraft, two by the editor, and the rest by nameless authors knows that horror stories are particularly prone to follow certain patterns. If the character finds a big, carven stone gate in a cave, you can bet he's going to go in there and discover some weird, ancient stuff. If the old farmer won't let him see the barn, you know there's something bad in there.
And at first, reading The House on the Borderland, one of the all-time classic works of supernatural horror, I thought I had things pinned down pretty well. We ease into a familiar old 'evil creatures' story for the first third, with our main character getting more and more weirded out by all the strange things happening around his old house. However, if you'd asked me to predict the rest of the book based on the beginning, I wouldn't have come anywhere close.
Suddenly we're wrapped up in time and dimensions, in a kind of grand metaphysical horror that seems to be completely removed from everything that happened before, and it's only at the end that it all finally comes back around and the reader is able to piece together just what has been going on.
Usually, early, influential works in a genre are fairly straightforward--often, they are fumbling, as the author tries to figure out what it is they are trying to say. Hodgson's story, on the other hand, is more wild, imaginative, and unfettered than any modern horror tale I've read. It really stretches the limits of the reader's comprehension, and leaves behind many intriguingly incomprehensible images.
It is sometimes a bit slow-going, and there is also the problem that some of the elements seem a bit silly. Of course, if you saw them in real life, in the flesh, they would be terrifying, but Hodgson isn't always able to bring home to the reader the pure weirdness of it, to shake us up enough that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. That's something every great horror author must be able to do in order to be effective, particularly in the early parts of the story, where seemingly normal but odd things are slowly building to a head. However, many of the ideas and images Hodgson gives us are perfectly unsettling on their own, without any need for an intermediary.
If I was ever concerned that the supernatural elements I put into my period horror stories are 'too strange for that era', I clearly need not worry. No one is going to out-weird Hodgson any time soon--nor, I think, do any other living writers provide much of a threat to his well-earned reputation....more
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
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 prefer his approach to either of theirs.
While those authors tended toward dour, indulgent, overwrought prose, 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 terrible 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 story 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 abberation 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 depicted.
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 subject 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 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 careful comma and semicolon, every aphoristic turn, touch of frontier Americana, vivid picture of awful war, and wryly bitter observation....more