"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft interesting is the degree to which he was a student of the Horror genre. As his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature shows, Lovecraft was a voracious reader who went far afield in his search for interesting Horror authors. If Lovecraft hadn't been such an odd recluse, and instead pursued an academic career, we might not have had to wait a century for scholar S.T. Joshi to drag the genre into the sphere of literary criticism.
Due to his vast knowledge, Lovecraft was able to pick through influences and styles when he wrote his stories, but instead of synthesizing all of those disparate inspirations into a new vision of his own, Lovecraft was more likely to work in bits and pieces, creating recognizable, sometimes formulaic story types in which we can easily trace the ideas he drew from Dunsany, Blackwood, Hodgson, Chambers, or Bierce.
Beyond that, his style was not always engaging, relying as he did on rather purple prose and extended explanations of his characters' innermost thoughts, instead of letting the actions and subtle cues speak for themselves. As such, his stories tended to lack the power and poetry of the great Horror authors who influenced him, but Lovecraft was such a prolific author, and so invested in his genre on a conceptual level that he did create a number of classics.
He also had a considerable influence on other writers through the vast correspondence which he kept up throughout his whole life with lasting, notable authors such as R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Derleth, Clarke Ashton Smith, and numerous others, not only introducing them to the many ideas and authors Lovecraft had collected, but opening himself up to the thoughts and experiences of all those young, up-and-coming authors.
Then there is the lasting effect of the 'Mythos' (sometimes called the 'Cthulhu Mythos'), that interconnected set of ideas and approaches that became a sort of 'shared world' for other authors to explore--whit are still being explored in an unabated string of short-story collections published every year despite the fact that all the stories in them tend to be terrible. But the Mythos was not quite Lovecraft's original invention, it was instead an attempt to take the worlds of the previous great Horror authors and combine them into one grand setting.
Probably the most unique aspect of Lovecraft's work was his combination of the chilling, aloof alienness of Dunsany's elves with the otherworldly, interdimensional terrors explored by Hodgson to produce that characteristic 'Cosmic Horror' which, while not invented by Lovecraft, was brought to a higher lustre in his works.
Though the Lovecraft stories that I find most interesting are not his 'Poe pieces', his straight Horror works--which should not be surprising, since I'm not especially fond of Poe--but his Dunsany-inspired Fantasies, such as The Silver Key and several other entries in his Dream Cycle, which tend to be rather less formulaic recreations of the styles and forms of earlier authors, than explorations of the mind, and of possibility. Beyond that, Lovecraft's very deliberate, thoughtful style seems to work better in a world of waking dreams than one of world-hopping adventure and monster attacks.
However, in the end, I would suggest that the most lasting effect of Lovecraft's work was born in his intense dislike of seafood, which gave his monsters and beasties their shapes, and proved a much more effective choice than Hodgson's odd distaste for pig. Indeed, Lovecraft's disgust must surely rank among the most influential gustatory preferences in the history of literature.(less)
Not many people outside of literary study or detective fiction fandom realize that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Poe's Dupin. Dupin...moreNot many people outside of literary study or detective fiction fandom realize that the character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Poe's Dupin. Dupin was the brilliant and insightful idle noble who occasionally aided the authorities in particularly difficult cases. However, unlike Holmes, Dupin took it up merely as a hobby, mimicking Holmes' brother Mycroft.
I'm not fond of Poe's poetry. Emerson's leveling of 'Jingle Man' is appropriate. Poe puts sounds together, but usually says very little with them. It is unusual that his prose was so varied while his poetry tended to obsessive repetition. Poe presents an example of the turning point when poetry ceased to represent the most complex and dense literary form (as in Milton and Eliot) and became the most frivolous and unrefined (the beat poets), while prose moved contrarily from the light-hearted to the serious.
When divorced from his single-minded prosody, Poe's mastery of the language elegantly serves the needs of mood, characterization, and action. This is not always the case: his Ligeia retains his poetic narrowness, but his detective stories have a gentleness and wit found nowhere else in his oeuvre.
The three Dupin stories helped to inspire detective fiction, using suspense and convoluted mystery to tantalize and challenge the reader. He may not have been as influential or innovative as Wilkie Collins, but his contribution still stands.
Any book of Poe's is worth purchasing simply for these three stories. They are studies in the careful use of language to develop mood, character, and drive--even in a sparse plot. They are not quite the equals of Ambrose Bierce's short fiction, but they are solid enough.(less)
There is a vein of dull misery running through much of modern realism. It is not even tragedy, because tragedy requires that the person be suffering a...moreThere is a vein of dull misery running through much of modern realism. It is not even tragedy, because tragedy requires that the person be suffering as a result of their actions, and that they be emotionally complex enough to understand what is happening to them, and to feel the whole of that pain.
These stories of misery have none of that, they are tales of the ignorant, of the emotionally stunted, who bumble into one stupidity after another, never realizing why or what it means. Is there a certain kind of realism in this? Sure--but fundamentally, it's only half the story.
Sure, we all might feel that way sometimes, if we're depressed, and so we look at the world and say 'it sucks out there, and always will'--and part of it is that we want that to be true, too. We want it to suck, and for us to have predicted it, because that means that none of this is our fault. If things suck, it's because that's how they're meant to be, not because we happened to fuck up.
But the world just isn't that bad. Life isn't that bad, even when we feel like wallowing in it, that's not reality, that's just our own baggage, our own coping. So, for an author to take that kind of nihilism and turn it into a book just ends up feeling silly. It's empty, it's self-centered, and it's not profound. We did Nihilism already, and found better things to supplant it.
But that's what's amazing about Chekhov, because by all rights, that is what his stories should be: these little moments of sad life for these miserable little nobodies who don't know any better. And yet, they're not. They're somehow beautiful and delicate and profound. There's this undefinable Will to Joy in each one that makes it come off as sweet and sympathetic.
And his people are so strange. Each one is a true character, because none of them are just 'types', place-fillers. That's the lesson Chekhov took from Gogol: that describing a man's head as looking like a dented pumpkin feels somehow more real than just saying it was big, and not entirely round, and somewhat over-fleshy. Making someone flat and grey doesn't make them seem miserable, because misery is vivid and colorful and overwhelming--that's what makes it such a damn bother. If it were colorless and bland, it could never roll over a human mind.
Now, I'm just as willing to hate stupid people as anyone--and back in college, I was even more ready to disregard them. Yet Chekhov's stupid little people are impossible to hate, because they seem real. Like everyone, they try to put up a front, but you can see little bits, between the seams, that show you just how vulnerable and desperate they are for something, anything, which brings out that fundamental human thought: "Oh god. Me too."
And yet, not everyone sees it. I know they don't, because one girl asked my professor "Why is Chekhov such a pessimist?" He was utterly confounded by the question, he couldn't understand where it came from, how anyone could come to that conclusion. I mean, here's an author showing you the beautiful soul of another human being, in the midst of whatever turmoil or failed search for meaning, and somehow doing it in the span of a few pages--and you call that pessimism?
But then, Nietzsche was also misunderstood in that way, as was Machiavelli. These weren't men talking about the world as they thought it should be, but the world as they saw it, every day, all around them--and their reaction to that darkness was not to give in, or fold up, but to say 'we can fight our way through this'. Not out of it, perhaps, but definitely through it.
But then, to a certain type of idealist, even admitting that things can be bad, or will be bad, is seen as pessimistic, defeatist. I don't buy that. If I'm fighting, I want to know what I'm up against. I want to know everything about them, because that's how I'm going to win. To me, optimism isn't self-delusion, it isn't being in good spirits when things are going fine--that's too easy, anyone can do that--it's pushing on even when time are hard, even knowing they will probably still be hard tomorrow.
They will be hard tomorrow. But I'll still be here, and Chekhov will still be here, and if that's not enough for you, then you're only in it to get attention, anyways.(less)
Sex, violence, and humor are often painted as low and primitive: the signs of a failing culture. Yet it is only in cultures with a strong economy and...moreSex, violence, and humor are often painted as low and primitive: the signs of a failing culture. Yet it is only in cultures with a strong economy and a substantial underclass that such practices can rise from duty to pastime. As Knox's introduction reminds us, Ovid's time was one of pervasive divorce, permissive laws, and open adultery, and our humble author participated in all of them.
Eventually, the grand tyrant closed his fist over the upper classes, exerting social controls and invoking the moral standard of an imagined 'golden age' in order to snatch power and discredit his rivals. Though already a popular and influential author and speaker, Ovid was exiled for being wanton and clever--either one he could have gotten away with, but both was too much.
Both he and Virgil were sent to the extremities of the empire by Augustus, and both wrote epics to equal Homer's. While Virgil's was a capitulation to the emperor, honoring his fictitious lineage and equating heroism with duty, Ovid's was a sly, labyrinthine re-imagining of classic tales, drawing equally on the gold of Olympus' brow and the muck between a harlot's toes.
Ovid remained more coy about his dirt than Apuleius or Seneca, maintaining plausible deniability with irony and entendre throughout the complex work. Every view, vision, and opinion is put forth at some point, and very rarely are they played straight. Ovid's characters are remarkable creations, each one a subversion of the familiar legend that surrounds them. Of course, by this point many of us are more familiar with Ovid's versions than the ones he was making light of.
Virgil inspired the proud, righteous men of words: Dante, Tasso, Milton. Ovid created a style for the tricksters and the conflicted: Petrarch, Donne, Shakespeare, Ariosto, Rabelais. Each of Ovid's myths was a discrete vision, not only by plot, but by theme. His tales were not simply presentations of ideas, but explorations that turned back on themselves over and over.
The metaphysical poets would come to adopt this style, creating short works that explored themes, even ritualizing the idea's reversal in the sonnet's volta. The active, visual nature of Ovid was a progression from the extended metaphors of the philosophers to what could be called a true conceit: a symbolic representation at once supportive of and in conflict with the idea it bears.
Each of Ovid's tales flows, one into the next, building meaning by relations, counterpoints, repetition, and structure. Each small part builds into a grander whole. Just as all the sundry stories become a mythology, the many symbolic arguments become a philosophy.
Instead of the Virgilian heroic mode, where one man wins, thereby vindicating his philosophy, Ovid shows a hundred victories and losses, creating an aggregate meaning. Virgil was writing of what he thought one man should be: loyal, pious, righteous, strong, noble. Ovid was more interested in asking what it is possible for a man to be--what are the limits of the mind?
The Greek myths are an attempt to understand the mind, to observe what we do and create types, to develop a system for understanding man. In collecting these various tales, Ovid was creating the first psychological diagnostic manual, of which the DSM is the modern child. The Greeks invented everything, after all, and here, a few thousand years before Freud, is a remarkably coherent and accurate picture of the mind and its disorders.
Freud did little more than reintroduce the Greek system, which is why his theories--the Psyche, the Oedipus Conflict, Narcissism--are drawn directly from that source. Of course, to any student of literature, it's clear that this is how the terms have always been used. All the great works alluded to these Greek ideas because this was the central collection of knowledge about the mind, a set of terms, phrases, and examples which formed the basis of any discussion of the mind.
Indeed, the Greeks were much better at it than Freud was--he even screwed up the Oedipal Theory, the thing he's best known for, despite the fact that the Greeks had it right from the very beginning.
Freud's patients, being middle-class Europeans, were raised by nannies and nursemaids until they were of age, and had fairly little interaction with their parents. Human beings imprint on people who we are around a great deal before about age six as 'family', and therefore, out of bounds sexually. Since his patients were not around their parents much before this age, they did not imprint correctly. Now: what's the first thing that happens to Oedipus in the story? That's right, he's taken away from his parents and raised elsewhere. Cause, disorder, symptom--it was all right there, and Freud still missed it.
So, Ovid was indeed tackling a grand theme in his tales: the mapping of the human mind as it was known to Greece and Rome. That isn't to say that there isn't depth and conflict between characters and ideas in Virgil, but his centralized, political theme deprived him of the freedom to move from one idea to the next, as Ovid did.
This lack of freedom is a boon for most authors: structure gives tangible boundaries and tools with which to create. With no boundaries, the author has no place to start, and no markers to guide his path.
Imagine a man is given all the parts to a lawnmower. His chances of building a lawnmower are pretty high--but that's all he can do. Now give the same man all the uncut materials and tools in a shop. He could build a lawnmower, or nearly any other machine, but it's going to take a lot of doing. That kind of freedom--real freedom--tends to paralyze most people.
Likewise, it's easier to write good poetry when the rhyme scheme, scansion, and meter are pre-determined than to create a beauty and flow in blank verse. Yet Ovid deconstructed his stories, starting and stopping them between books and moving always back and forth. He provided himself with absolute freedom, but maintained his flow and progression, even without the crutches of tradition.
While his irony and satire are the clearest signs of his remarkable mind, the most impressive is probably this: that he flaunted tradition, style, and form, but never faltered in his grand work.
Virgil knew what he did when he attached himself to Augustus' train; likewise Ovid recognized how his simultaneous praise and subversion of Augustus' legacy would play: none could openly accuse him of treason, but anyone with a solid mind would see the dangerous game Ovid played with his king and patron.
He did not shy from critiquing Augustus even as he wrote for him, for his nation, and for history. Ovid's parting shot is the famous assertion that as long as Rome's name is spoken aloud, so will be Ovid's. This has been echoed since by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, so that what Ovid realized we would never doubt today.
Even banished to the wilderness, out of favor, the only way to silence the artist is to kill him, and this must be done long before he has an audience. Augustus got his month, but his empire fell. Ovid's empire grows by books and minds each year, and its capital is still The Metamorphoses.
I researched long trying to decide on a translation. Though there are many competent versions out there, I chose Martin's. I recall seeing the cover and coveting it, but distrusting the unknown translation. Imagine my surprise when my research turned up my whim.
I enjoyed Martin's translation for the same reason I appreciate Fagles': the vibrancy, wit, and drive of the language. Both are poetic, exciting, risk-taking--but also knowledgeable and deliberate. Every translation is a new work of art, all its own, and I respect translators who don't pretend otherwise.
The translators of the fifties were more staunchly academic, capturing meaning and precision, but in enshrining the classics, they fail to take the sorts of risks that make a work bold and artful. Contrarily, the early translators, like Pope, recreated the work in their own vernacular--not merely as a translation, but as a completely new vision, as Shakespeare's plays are to Plutarch's Lives.
Martin (and Fagles) take the more modern approach, championed by the literary style of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, whose works are solidly grounded in their tradition, deliberately and knowledgeably drawn, but with the verve and novelty of the iconoclast. There is something particularly fitting in this, since Ovid himself was an iconoclast who mixed formalized tradition with subversion and irony.
Martin proved himself utterly fearless in the altercation between the Pierides and the Muses: he styles their competing songs as a poetry jam, drawing on the vocal forms of rap music. I must admit I was shocked at first, and unable to reconcile, but as I kept reading, I came to realize that it was not my place to question.
Translation is the adaptation of one style to another, one word or phrase or invocation to something more familiar. In his desire to capture the competition and skill of song in these early contests, he drew on what may be the only recognizable parallel to modern man. What is remarkable is not how different the two styles are, but how similar.
It is comical, it is a bit absurd, but so was the original--and in any case, he is altering the original purpose less than Pope, who translated all of the poetry into anachronism. I never thought I would prefer a translation of Ovid which contained the word 'homie', but if Martin can be true enough to the poetry to write it, I must be brave enough to laud it.
I still laugh, but only because Martin has revealed to me something of the impossibility and oddity inherent to translation. This certainly isn't your grandfather's Ovid, but then, your grandfather's Ovid wasn't the real one, either.
I also appreciated Knox's introduction in both Martin's and Fagle's work, though Knox's Homeric background is stronger. I found the end-notes insightful and useful, though they are never quite numerous enough to suit me--but such is the nature of reading a work in translation.(less)
It took a bit of time, at least from this particular volume, to recognize the reasons for Wodehouse's pre-eminance as British Humorist. I still did no...moreIt took a bit of time, at least from this particular volume, to recognize the reasons for Wodehouse's pre-eminance as British Humorist. I still did not find that those reasons were able to upturn Adams or Pope, but Wodehouse has a wit and verve which cannot be denied.
What I expected (and eventually got) was a bit of mastery of the art of the ridiculous situation, where the escalation of events and unlikely (but usually, rationally-following) coincidences provides an equal escalation of hilarity.
Wodehouse's wordplay is strong, but it is likely that my estimation of him fell in that it was not as strong as the aforementioned authors. I find that the greatest wit and humor comes with that one must work for; a sense that you have shared something with the author: bridged time and space and come to a coy little understanding. For me, the sense of such a wink and nudge which moves even beyond death connects the fundamental tragedy which underlies humor to the absurd tragedy of life, itself.
Not everyone needs such bizarre little requirements met, however; nor the ego-stoking of matching wits with some great author. Wodehouse presents little idiomatic tales which achieve the greatest challenge of any author: making pointless drivel seem as important in writing as it is in our everyday lives. In a world where books seem to have the ability to make all-powerful, beautiful, serendipidous, charming gods into boring cliches, he is a welcome refreshment.(less)
I think what would really make this book complete would be two more chapters. Then it would be wide enough to correct the short leg on my dining-room...moreI think what would really make this book complete would be two more chapters. Then it would be wide enough to correct the short leg on my dining-room table. As of now, the thing can have no possible purpose.(less)
I wish Harlan Ellison's books were as good as his editorial work. Somehow, his cleverness and mastery of language gets left behind once he starts hash...moreI wish Harlan Ellison's books were as good as his editorial work. Somehow, his cleverness and mastery of language gets left behind once he starts hashing out fiction. I know this is an earlier work of his, but comparing the stories here, even 'I have no mouth but I must scream' to something like his introduction to Gaiman's Sandman shows two very different styles. Unfortunately, the former failed to engage me.(less)
Beautiful and wonderful. Works of genius by a man who freed himself enough that he could give himself up to that genius instead of trying to make sure...moreBeautiful and wonderful. Works of genius by a man who freed himself enough that he could give himself up to that genius instead of trying to make sure that it came out perfectly. As pleasing as his other works are, none I've read can match the joy, humor, simplicity, and odd truth of these.
Like children's literature should be, these stories never lose their humor or punch. Despite some redundancy with actual myths and some cases of artificially lowering complexity for children and hence growing transparent, eminently enjoyable.(less)
A writer whose self-absorbed mendacity cannot but shine through even in his completely unadorned and occasionally witty style. One wonders what he mig...moreA writer whose self-absorbed mendacity cannot but shine through even in his completely unadorned and occasionally witty style. One wonders what he might have been without the inescapable self-hatred which ended him.(less)
Donoghue combines self-righteous messages with blatantly didactic interior monologues which can only appeal to those already believing everything she...moreDonoghue combines self-righteous messages with blatantly didactic interior monologues which can only appeal to those already believing everything she says. She spurs no thought which was not already there, and in writing a book which never aspired to art, has done what your average writer does: increase the general volume of words in print, and nothing more. A string of random monkey-typed characters would have aided mankind as well.(less)
In Asia, aphorism is a high art; there, the greatest of poems may be said in one breath. In the West, our greatest poems come in books numbered twelve...moreIn Asia, aphorism is a high art; there, the greatest of poems may be said in one breath. In the West, our greatest poems come in books numbered twelve, and only the greatest of men can remember the length of them.
However, we still maintain our aphorists, though often consider them as comical wits, would do well to remember the skill of indicating truth is with them. There is the poet, Nietzsche, who is also a philosopher and who summed up the goal of the aphorist well: "It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book — what everyone else does not say in a whole book." There is the politician, Disraeli, who found that ruling men meant understanding a plural and remarkable simplicity. There is the self-concerned wit Wilde, who told us that genius lies in misunderstanding and is so widely and unknowingly quoted that it is a cliche.
Speak what you will of Twain, but Bierce is America's entreant into the minute art; Twain would admit as much, himself. Indeed, Clemens considered 'The Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge' to be the single greatest short story of all Americans.
The man who copies the Psalms onto a grain of rice has condensed space, but the author who places the depth of a book into a short story has condensed meaning. The utterly deliberate and unfettered Owl Creek is a difinitively superior work, just as the man who strikes the bull's eye with his arrow by chance is never the equal to the one that may do so at his leisure.
There is an old French film which makes an excellent adaptation of this work, and which was once featured on the Twilight Zone, if that lends any notion of its quality.(less)
Roland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the...moreRoland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the differences between deliberate works and those which are too bumbling, too one-sided, or too ill-informed to make the reader think.
While The Yellow Wallpaper brings up interesting points, it does not really deal with them. The text has become part of the canon not for the ability of the author, which is on the more stimulating end of middling, but because it works as a representational piece of a historical movement.
As early feminism, this work is an undeniable influence. It points out one of the most apparent symptoms of the double-standard implied by the term 'weaker sex'. However, Gilman tends to suggest more than she asks, thus tending toward propaganda.
It may be easy to say this in retrospect when the question "is isolating women and preventing them from taking action really healthy?" was less obvious back then. However, I have always been reticent to rate a work more highly merely because it comes from a different age. Austen, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti, and Woolf all stand on their own merits, after all.
This symbolism by which this story operates is simplistic and repetitive. The opinions expressed are one-sided, leaving little room for interpretation. This is really the author's crime, as she has not tried to open the debate so much as close it, and in imagining her opinion to mark the final word on the matter, has doomed her work to become less and less relevant.
This is the perfect sort of story to teach those who are beginning literary critique, because it does not suggest questions to the reader, but answers. Instead of fostering thought, the work becomes a puzzle with a solution to be worked out, not unlike a math problem. This is useful for the reader trying to understand how texts can create meaning, but under more rigorous critique, it is not deep or varied enough to support more complex readings.
Unfortunately, this means it is also the sort of story that will be loved by people who would rather be answered than questioned. It may have provided something new and intriguing when it was first written, but as a narrow work based on a simplistic sociological concept, can no longer make that claim.
The story is also marked by early signs of the Gothic movement, and lying on the crux of that and Feminism, is not liable to be forgotten. The symbolism it uses is a combination of classical representations of sickness and metaphors of imprisonment. Sickness, imprisonment, and madness are the quintessential concepts explored by the Gothic writers, but this work is again quite narrow in its view. While the later movement was interested in this in the sense of existential alienation, this story is interested in those things not as a deeper psychological question, but as the allegorical state of woman.
Horror is partially defined by the insanity and utter loneliness lurking in everyone's heart, and is not quite so scary when the person is actually alone and mad. Though it does come from the imposition of another person's will, which is horrific, the husband has no desire to be cruel or to harm the woman, nor is such even hinted subconsciously. Of course, many modern feminists would cling to the notion that independent of a man's desire to aid, he can do only harm, making this work an excellent support to their politicized chauvinism.
I won't question the historical importance or influence of this work, but it is literarily very simple. A single page of paper accurately dating the writing of Shakespeare's Hamlet would also be historically important, but just because it is related to the threads of literary history does not mean it is fine literature.(less)
Though Leiber wasn't the first to write swords and sorcery adventures, the imagination, verve, and whimsy of his writing not only set him above his co...moreThough Leiber wasn't the first to write swords and sorcery adventures, the imagination, verve, and whimsy of his writing not only set him above his contemporaries, but have made him one of the most influential authors in epic mythological fiction. He is responsible for Thieves' Guilds and Wizard Scrolls, as well as numerous elements of characterization and tone.
However, he didn't simply pluck these concepts from the waiting air. Like Howard, Leiber enriched his work with details from ancient tales and histories, thereby adding forgotten traditions of literature back into the modern style. He took Thieves' Guilds from an adventure story of Cervantes (himself the innovator of the modern novel and adventure story), taking hold of a disparate and forgotten thread and weaving it back into the pattern.
As modern offers, we should gratefully accept these gifts, and there is no better way to thank the grandmasters than to reinterpret their ideas for a new readership. However, we should also take a further lesson, and recall that Leiber was not satisfied to simply rewrite Howard's tales, but also looked to change and challenge his own style. Too many authors, particularly in fantasy, seem happy to write the same stories that have already been written, with only the names changed to protect the guilty.
This first collection presents the way in which Leiber's most famous creations, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, met; and also presents stories of their origins before their portentous meeting. They are as imaginative and fast-paced as any of Leiber's stories, but are not Leiber's best work.
These stories were actually written much later, when Leiber began to try codifying and structuring his world more deliberately. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be a fruitful direction for Leiber, often robbing his stories of their characteristic unpredictable energy. The next three collections of earlier stories show greater wit, depth, and willingness to experiment with plot and characterization.
Despite their weaknesses, they are certainly superior to the sad wane of the last two books of the series. So read this book for fun, or for completeness, or because you're tired of the scores of less audacious fantasy writers treading water in his wake.
This was much better than I was expecting. I enjoy a good pulp now and again, but this nearly reached the mirth and derring-do of Dumas' Musketeers. M...moreThis was much better than I was expecting. I enjoy a good pulp now and again, but this nearly reached the mirth and derring-do of Dumas' Musketeers. Many of these stories were written before those of the first collection. They were short magazine submissions, and it was only later that Leiber thought to write introductory stories.
Being written in the early part of Leiber's career at different times and places, the stories show a great deal of pleasing variance. Each short tale presents its own setting, its own locations, and its own feel. They are all loosely connected into a grander arc, and the reader is invited to draw connections and conclusions about the interstitial parts, evoking real historical accounts.
It's not difficult to see how, writing these stories without a clear path, at many times throughout his life, we get a grander scope of his world, from vibrant, rough stories to more complex, idea-driven ones. This somewhat piecemeal approach is engaging and unpredictable, especially in comparison to Leiber's later work on the series, which is unfortunately repetitive and narrow in scope.
There are a few sections which grow a bit silly and stilted, but it is altogether quick and enjoyable, with the vivacity, wit, and creativity to keep the reader occasionally surprised and often amused.
Read this for a class by the author. There's certainly nothing wrong with the fairy tales themselves, but I learned more from the dust jacket than I d...moreRead this for a class by the author. There's certainly nothing wrong with the fairy tales themselves, but I learned more from the dust jacket than I did from taking a class from the editor. We spent most of the semester watching 80's made-for-TV films based off of bad feminist re-writes of the fairy tales.(less)
There is something I mistrust in a man who hates his own time, who sees in it only folly and wrong-headedness, and who lives in a dreamed-of world in...moreThere is something I mistrust in a man who hates his own time, who sees in it only folly and wrong-headedness, and who lives in a dreamed-of world in his head, a world of he has invented from the Glorious Past—and which he expects in the Glorious Future to come—but which never actually existed, and never will.
Every period has had its share of ignorance, of brutality, of waste, and of mismanagement. History is vivid with error. So, when a man looks at his own time and declares it worthless, saying that ‘things were better before’, it is only his own poor recollection and need to believe in something pleasant, whether or not it is true. All periods have been troubled, and pretending yours is worse is just a way to create a false sense of importance.
Preachers have always claimed that these are the End Times, since they so clearly see how far we have fallen. People have claimed that radio would kill books, then television, then the internet, despite the fact that more books are written and published every year.
Many look at the world around them, seeing all the flaws, and feel that if things are this bad, something is wrong. So they invent a ‘Golden Age’ when everything was better, so they have something to identify with (since they are clearly too good for this messy little world).
Whether it’s the mythical 50’s of the baby boomers, the ‘Reagan Era’ for neocons, or the Courtly Medieval for Victorians, many people are too pessimistic to see the admirable or wonderful things in the world around them. So they create an unreachable ideal which they can self-righteously preach to others about.
They look at people, systems, and events, and, seeing only flaws and drawbacks, declare them useless, suggesting we replace them with some ill-defined, impossible dream. It is all so easy for them to see, it is all so clear that they can hardly understand why they would need to explain it to anyone else; to them it seems so obvious that any fool should immediately comprehend what they are getting at. Yet others don’t understand, or won’t understand, but that’s alright: it’s just another proof that the world is bad.
Any time something doesn't fit, it can be lumped in with the 'bad' and ignored. That’s what makes me feel uncomfortable: idealism is so ultimately self-serving, and in the end, it contains no route to compromise or understanding, because ideals are distant, inflexible, and have little in common with the real world, with real world people, or their problems. Fundamentally, it is pessimistic, and like any pessimism, it leads to a shut-down.
My Chekhov professor once expressed confusion when a student asked him why Chekhov was so pessimistic. He asked the student why she thought he was, and she pointed to the fact that his stories often showed people suffering and trying to get through hardship.
“But isn’t that a real part of life?” “Well, yes” “Then it wouldn’t be Pessimism, which is seeing the world as worse than it is, it would be Realism.” “Hmm” “And doesn’t he show people persevering through their problems, finding ways to get along, finding little moments of humor, of satisfaction?” “Yeah.” “Well, I’d say an author who depicts people going through personal hardships but retaining a positive attitude despite their suffering would be an Optimist.”
But to any idealist, a world which has hardship, inequality, ignorance, and suffering is a pessimistic world, because to them, the only world they will believe in is the fantastical one which they personally inhabit. And it is just such a world that Morris constructs for himself.
He is primed for it, undoubtedly, possessing a vast enough fortune that he never need worry for himself, never need suffer physically. But he also went through trauma: the early death of his father. Like C.S. Lewis, he saw a world which was fundamentally flawed and needed an escape, so he created one.
Morris’ escape is socialism, though not on economic principle—as he tells us in an essay, he enjoyed Marx’s rhetoric, but was unable to comprehend the theories involved. Despite his lack of comprehension, he dedicated himself to the cause of his downtrodden fellow man (whom he read about in journals, talked about with his wealthy friends, and wrote of as being very ugly in many of his stories—which undoubtedly, they were).
There is a pain in reading the work of the idealist, who does not back up his arguments fully because they already make sense to him. But to read the moralizing, instructional tone of a wealthy man who developed his theories while gabbing with his wealthy friends in their private club is yet more unpleasant. All revolutions start with the educated bourgeois, and when they are over, that is who profits from them.
Morris, himself, admits as much, but doesn't see how his could fall into the same trap. The benefits of following an ideal blindly are that you will keep fighting, and will never be borne down with the difficulties that crop up in achieving it. The drawback is that you won't know, if it were achieved, whether it would be any better than what you fought so hard against. Indeed, it might be worse.
The early pieces in this collection are interesting: small works of fantasy with a strict aesthetic sense, borrowing the repetition of the Eddas and the Greek myths to create a lulling, magical dreamworld. I sought Morris out chiefly because he is a contemporary of Dunsany, whose fantasy work is excellent, but this collection is disappointingly light on the fantasy.
We then move on to The Main Event, which is The News From Nowhere, a political tract dolled up as a bit of semi-fantastical fiction. Unfortunately, it does not have the dreamlike, unusual quality of the early stories, though it is rather vague and nebulous. Neither does it have the conciseness of some of the essays in the next section. My full review is here, suffice it to say that it is an idealist’s view, looking backwards and forwards at the same time but unable to see that mankind always lives in the present, and always has.
The following lectures are likewise vague, and repetitious, constantly reminding us of things we have already been told, because Morris realizes he has not effectively established the facts, but not seeing a way to do so, has nothing to do but repeat them. His muddled sense of Marx is evident in these passages, with strong opinions on many topics, but little rhetoric to back them up.
Then we reach The Hopes of Civilization, another lecture, but one which is so remarkably lucid, well-argued, full of rhetoric, showing a comprehension of Marx and Ruskin, and which is damn-near convincing, and certainly comprehensible—especially since it was written years before his other works—that I cannot reconcile it with the sluggish, moralizing, idealistic Morris who shows through everywhere else. Perhaps this is a glimpse of Morris the master bookbinder, the greatest textiles designer since the Middle Ages, who rediscovered half a dozen lost arts, a polymath who changed the direction of art. Until now, I had been seeking him in vain.
And now I get another chance to bring up The Turpentine Effect: if you are a skilled, innovative artist constantly working on perfecting your physical craft, you probably don't have the time to devote to a serious study of critical theory. Like actors waxing on about their political theories, it's clear that talent in one field is in no way related to your abilities in any other field.
And Morris spent a lot of his time on his art. He could afford to, and it pleased him to do so. Most of the hardship he had, he made for himself, because, despite reviling the world as unpleasant and inadequate, he didn’t really have to deal with it. He got to do what he wanted, but even then, he looked around and thought ‘this isn’t good enough’. It wasn’t hard for him to imagine a world where work was play, because he lived it.
There’s something insulting about a man who lived a busy, happy, privileged life and then decided he needed a vague, idealistic fantasy to inhabit—one where he knew the obvious ‘truth’ lost on everyone else. Where he, due to his special understanding of the past and future, didn’t really have to live in the dirty modern age, but merely skimmed through it, as a traveler from the superior past (or future), which is precisely how Morris depicts himself in his political fantasies.
But I’d still like to check out some of his longer fantasy work, because he’s clearly a weird, obsessive dude who is always sure of himself and who liked to passionately (and vicariously) indulge in the suffering of others. At least, it sounds like a better setup for fantasy writing than political theory. I mean, hell, this guy literally lived in a fantasy world of his own making and that still wasn't enough fantasy for him, so he went out and wrote some up about other people.