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.
Carthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet theCarthage holds a certain fascination for me, as a classics scholar, in that it was an empire of power, influence, and grand personalities--and yet the legacy Carthage has left to us, her history, her culture were deliberately erased, burned to the ground with nary a trace remaining, and then replaced with the politicized fictions of Rome, who destroyed her, followed in her footsteps, and replaced her. The shadow of Carthage looms large across the ancient world, but she is always a shadow: dark, unknowable, menacing, cloaked in rumor. Her real presence, her real character still remain unknown to us.
Some things we do know: that she was a colony of Phoenicians who became a power in their own right, the figures of Hanno the navigator, Hannibal the general, and some other greats, mostly sprung from the grand Barca line. Yet our knowledge is always filtered through Roman eyes, Roman words--to the point that the great Roman cultural epic, Virgil's Aeneid, personifies Carthage in the figure of Dido: the angry, jilted lover intent on preventing Rome's ever being born. In the end, warmongering Cato's oft-repeated line Carthago delenda est--'Carthage must be destroyed'--was followed to the letter.
In preparation for this book, the follow-up to his acknowledged masterpiece of psychological Realism, Madame Bovary, Flaubert spent months researching, burying himself in ancient histories, trying to recover the lost empire--even visiting its former site. One can see the fruits of his labors in the book's mostly delightful details--which at their best evoke the poetic list-making of Ovid or Milton--while at other times, they run to the banal, as a certain lengthy explanation of the difference between the catapult and the ballista.
There is definitely a sense that Flaubert is working more in the milieu of history here, not melodrama--which is unfortunate, because the story cries out to be told with pathos and character, to be sung. We're never allowed into the characters, psychologically--instead of seeing their thoughts develop toward the moment of decision, Flaubert sticks us with mere descriptions of what has happened. What a Shakespearean performance this might have been--full of contentious dialogues, arguments, coercions, seductions--I longed to see these grand figures strutting the stage, demonstrating their mastery, their force of personality, their depth of emotion. It's no wonder that luminaries like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff tried to craft operas from the tale.
Without these passionate struggles, these subtle turns and manipulations, the entire melodrama grows ever more flat, preconceived, inevitable. Yet, as the author, himself wrote:
"I would give the demi-ream of notes I've written during the last five months and the ninety-eight volumes I've read, to be, for only three seconds, really moved by the passion of my heroes."
Sometimes, alas, the work simply does not come together as we wish it might--as indeed we know that it can, for that is what draws an artist to the project in the first place: his sure knowledge that there is a story here worth telling, and the reader surely comes away with that same impression, that there is fertile ground here.
The bloody anecdotes--especially an early one about the crucifixion of a full-grown lion--are rife with opportunity for symbolism, for multilayered writing, if only it had all come together. If only. They do not work as pure history--Flaubert lacks that scholarly depth and breadth, for all his researches--but neither can he quite turn them to an artistic purpose.
In the end, the most interesting way to view the work--and indeed, likely the reason it failed--is as a grand piece of Orientalism. We do not quite get Carthage-as-Carthage, but neither do we get Carthage-as-France. Instead, we get a distancing, a view of Carthage as unknowable, as impossible to sympathize with--that same distance that the Orientalist stance was constructed to produce.
It is either fitting or ironic that we end up here, since in many ways, Carthage-by-way-of-Rome is the original example of the Orientalist posture: the foreign power is destroyed, conquered, converted, and then rewritten by the conqueror as self-justification. The voice of Carthage, its power and influence was so great that Rome had to reduce it, to transform it into something less threatening--even as Rome dutifully copied both the technology and the methods which Carthage established as the necessities of the first true maritime trade empire to dominate the Mediterranean.
Aeneas is not merely a snub to Carthage, after all--but also an attempt by Rome to rewrite Persian greatness into their empire, which was always more Cult of the God King than Rhetoric of the Demos--then, in the wake of the Renaissance and the Reconquista, the European powers once again take on the Roman cause and identity, intent on making an abused lover of Islam, which had so long dominated and loomed over them. For France, Algeria became the colonial site where they most fully explored the perverse decadence that is the ruler's right--at the same time blaming the natives for whatever was inflicted upon them, through the standard process of Orientalist distancing--a process we still use to this day, insisting that any group who cannot prevent themselves from being dominated must, in some way, be asking to be so dominated.
The most extreme example of alienation and vilification crafted by the Romans against the Carthaginians is the Tophet--a site where, it was claimed, infants were sacrificed to the brutal gods as offerings to stave off defeat, disease, and blight. Flaubert repeats this accusation in the most florid and merciless way, as the blood-mad crowd gives up child after child to the mechanized maw of their titanic idol. Recent archaeological study suggests that the Tophet was used for interring the numerous stillbirths and victims of high infant mortality in the ancient world.
Though clearly influential on adventure writers like Haggard, Kipling, and Mundy, Flaubert does not quite achieve the rollicking pace that make those stories enjoyable. Neither can he deliver upon the wild personalities which might have carried the tale as a proper melodrama--the required psychological distance between himself as a French citizen and the necessarily depraved East is too vast a gulf for authorial sympathies to bridge. Neither can it quite be called a history--it is rather too close and personal, too invested in the blood and depravity for its own sake to maintain more objective judgment.
Perhaps Melville--if anyone--could have melded these disparate types of story, through extended symbolism and precisely-constructed moments into a tale that managed, ultimately, to hang together and surpass the mere sum of assembled parts. In the end Flaubert, despite his particular skills and the time he invested, could not....more
I used to defend Lovecraft's reputation, arguing that he'd suffered the same fate as fellow pulp author Howard: that later writers, hoping to profit oI used to defend Lovecraft's reputation, arguing that he'd suffered the same fate as fellow pulp author Howard: that later writers, hoping to profit off of his name, put it on the cover of all sorts of middling short story collections--cliche and badly-written stuff that (if the reader is lucky) might actually contain one or two stories by the original author.
However, in this tale, Lovecraft proves that he can write just as badly as his gaggle of followers. It is meant to be a story of the fantastical, of the supernatural, of mystery and suspense--yet it is full of the very things that kill off any sense of wonder or the uncanny. Nothing demysticizes like familiarity, and this book is full of precise descriptions of his monstrous creatures, their histories, their habits--Lovecraft even spends a few paragraphs telling us how they like to furnish and decorate their living rooms. A tip for writers of the supernatural: if you want a being to be mysterious and unsettling, don't go off on a tangent about its commitment to feng shui.
In the Annotated Lovecraft, where I most recently read this story, noted critic S.T. Joshi claims that Lovecraft wasn't a pulp author, but something else, something greater--yet this story, one of Lovecraft's most well-known, is rife with all the worst habits of the pulps: pointless details, repetitive descriptions, crutch words, extensive exposition, little change in tone or voice, convenient plotting, and impossibly insightful protagonists. Beyond that, Lovecraft doesn't even deliver on those things that make pulps worth reading in the first place: verve, action, dynamic characters, and tension.
The whole story is basically a scientist explaining to the reader a series of carvings that he's looking at. The actual plot--the fact that he and his team of researchers are trapped in Antarctica and think that something is killing them off--is treated as a secondary concern.
The thin story is padded out by interminable details, the same comments and observations, repeated over and over, page after page. Like a bad game of Dungeons and Dragons, every new room is needlessly described: they entered a spheroid oblong, 63 yards long and 41 yards wide, the walls were worked stone, and there were carvings on the walls depicting some tentacled creature. There are always carvings.
As we go along, the protagonist describes the carvings to us minutely, with a level of insight that grows increasingly laughable. At one point, he mentions that he can somehow tell, by a series of ancient carvings left by an alien race, that they had lost the skill of telepathy and switched to spoken communication. In the real world, archaeologists struggle their entire careers to figure out what particular people, places, events, and objects are being represented in ancient carvings, but our plucky narrator doesn't suffer a moment's confusion on how aliens artistically rendered telepathic powers some hundred million years ago.
Indeed, the entire expedition seems to have a level of knowledge and familiarity with 'eldritch tomes' and 'esoteric history' that is quite impressive. Keep in mind that these aren't paranormal researchers, but regular geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, &c.--and yet, every time they enter a new room, they never fail to comment that this or that carving reminds them of something they once read in the Necronomicon. They throw off references to the mi-go and the shaggoth as if discussing nothing so remarkable as varieties of sparrow, and recall in detail historical events of a hundred million years ago with the utmost nonchalance. Apparently, far from being an incomprehensible mystery the mere overhearing of which accursed syllables invokes incurable madness, the History of Cthonic Horrors is in fact a basic undergrad class required at all proper universities, and Marty's favorite topic when he's trying to impress drunk girls at the Young Scientists mixer.
Now, perhaps the reason that the narrator never fails to stop his headlong flight from horrid monsters in order to examine and explain the carvings is meant to represent the fellow's meticulous character--which brings up an important writing lesson: once a fact has been established in the text, it does not need to be reiterated ad nauseam. After all, you don't have to mention the character's clothes and sword in every scene, because once those things have been described, the reader isn't going to suddenly assume the character is suddenly naked and defenseless just because the scene changed. Having the character demonstrate this trait once or twice in a story is just as effective, without wasting a lot of space reiterating.
Reading this interminably long list of details reminded me of nothing so much as discussing writing with a teenage would-be fantasy author: ask about his book, and he'll spend forty minutes telling you what color swords the southern nation has, how many priest-kings ruled in succession over the Lost Isles, what city-states exported the most grain since the mana-plague, and the convoluted rules he's put together for how a fire spell works.
In short, by the end, he hasn't mentioned anything that resembles a story: no sense of character, psychology, pacing, tone, plotting, structure, theme, climax, pivotal scenes, conflict, tension, style, language, dialogue--never forget that, when it comes to a good story, setting is irrelevant. Get together some costumes and props, build a set, arrange the furniture, get your lighting perfect, and guess what: you still don't have a play.
Yet you can perform Shakespeare in a blank room, all the actors dressed in nondescript black, and you'll still get a great story, great characters and emotions and moments. Change the setting to a space station, an elf kingdom, a Wild West boomtown, a port full of pirates, and it doesn't matter--the story is still the thing that carries it.
It's frustrating to watch an author just obsess over details, because overall, it's something they do to please themselves, not their audience. It's like a set dresser carefully filling all the drawers on set with realistic, accurate props that will never be used in the play, never seen by the audience. At some point, it's just a self-indulgent game.
However, that doesn't mean I don't understand the appeal of this story--indeed, it has consistently been popular, republished over and over throughout the years as a 'Lovecraft classic'. It's chock-full of exposition and explanation, and there are few things that fandom likes more. To have Lovecraft's world, his mysteries, his horrors laid out so simply, so fully, makes them easy to understand, easy to tie together--and easy to obsess over. That collection of little details, of the inner-workings of a fictional world is what much of fandom is built on.
A proper mystery, a story of true terror and fantasy doesn't give out simple explanations, because that would undermine the very sense of terror, of the fantastical on which such a story is based. Mystery and explanation are antithetical to one another: once the mystery has been explained, then the mystery has ended. Yet, there are many readers who come away from a fantastical story asking 'what really happened?'--which, of course, is the wrong question, because what really happened was that an author sat down and created a piece of fiction from his imagination. There is no reality outside of the story, the story exists to be a good story, to have feeling, pacing, and structure that works. A story does not actually exist in any concrete world 'out there' to be discovered and enumerated.
The error Lovecraft makes here, the same error Mike Mignola made with Hellboy more recently, was taking a strange and fantastical world and trying to 'lock it down', to make it into something explicable, predictable, fundamentally known. Some might suggest that this urge opens up that world to other authors, by allowing them to know what 'really happened', but in truth, it closes off the world, it limits fundamentally what that world can be, and what stories can take place within it--not only for other prospective authors, but also for readers.
It shrinks the whole thing down and makes it more easily digestible--which is diametrically opposed to the central theme of Lovecraft's stories: that there are things, both objects and ideas that are larger than we are, that are too grand for us to ever truly understand, things that cannot be simply encapsulated through a simple summary of events. This story, more than any other, is a betrayal of the very thing that set Lovecraft's work apart, that made it interesting and influential in the first place. Instead, we get something along the lines of 'true tales' of Atlantis and the Hollow Earth that charlatans were peddling at the time, and which have since transformed into shows about 'Ancient Aliens' on the History Channel--and it's quite sad that that's the most visible legacy of Lovecraft's work--well, that and cute Cthulhu plushies....more
Style is a curious thing in writing: the words we use, the tone of our voice, the images we create, the themes we love to explore. Every author has thStyle is a curious thing in writing: the words we use, the tone of our voice, the images we create, the themes we love to explore. Every author has their own style, even though some don't realize it--indeed, it is those writers who are least aware of their style who will be dominated by its little vicissitudes.
We spend our whole careers cultivating our style, improving it--and yet, style is also a crutch, a limitation. As Bruce Lee observed: the best style is no style at all--to be able to move fluidly, unpredictably from one moment to the next, doing precisely what is required when it is required instead of falling back on tired old habits.
It is what we all would be, if we could: equal to any genre, any mood, any audience--but alas, far-flung ideals are not to be held in our meager grasp. Style develops not only through our strengths, but our weaknesses: through practice, we become increasingly aware of what we do well, and what trips us up, and we modify our style to take advantage of that.
Of course, it tends to become self-fulfilling, since the more you work within your area of comfort, the more skilled and specialized you become. Many authors who distinguished themselves by turning their years of knowledge and experience onto their preferred type of story end up stumbling awkwardly when they step outside of that, and discover that their chosen voice is not universally applicable. Style is always a trap--but it's also a necessity.
Campbell has the enviable reputation of being the 'greatest living horror writer', named a worthy successor to the likes of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Chambers, Bierce, Poe, and M.R. James. Certainly, he demonstrates an able pen here, but this collection is not the one to convince me that he belongs in the Pantheon of Terrors.
The lead story gets a pass, since it's the first one he ever submitted for publication--a plot-free mass of explanations and worldbuilding that apes the worst of Lovecraft's style. It inspiring for any writer to see just how far Campbell has come from these early roots, that he does eventually develop the ability to tell a story, and not a bad one.
However, unfortunately the key term in that compliment is 'a story'--almost all the tales in this collection could have been created by my patented Ramsey Campbell Story Generator:
John is a (Writer/Literary Agent/Publisher/Editor) and he likes (Jigsaw Puzzles/Hiking). His favorite music is (Bach/Mozart/Schubert). He has no children, no wife, no girlfriend--not really any family to speak of. He just doesn't really connect with people, he prefers to be alone. His few 'friends' are jerks who he avoids, when he can. He finds people on the street threatening--especially youths--though he always watches them from his window.
On the way home from work, he always has to walk by a dark and dingy (Underpass/Bus Shelter/Abandoned Building/Alleyway), lit only by the (Sodium/Mercury) light of the streetlamps. He heard that someone died there, once. He finds part of a dead (Cat/Pigeon), but the next day, it isn't there. In the shadows, he hears sounds like (Armor Clinking/Rustling/Scratching).
He tells himself it's 'probably (Old Papers/Bags/Rats/Birds)' making the sounds. He sees something in the shadows: a (Plastic Bag/Heap of Clothes/Pile of Trash)--at least it 'must be a (Bag/Heap/Pile)'. A little later, he realizes something is following him--probably the teens, he thinks, but no, it's something else. He tries to stay calm, but panics and runs, then slips and falls, hurting himself. He has a sudden, inexplicable revelation of just what this thing is, what's happening to him, and why.
He thinks for a moment he's gotten away--but no, it's right next to him. It's a lumpy hobo shape, its body the wrong shape for a person. It's reaching for him, making moist noises. As it closes in, he's thankful he can't see its face.
Now, this isn't a bad story--indeed, taken on its own, each story is perfectly good: well-written, well-structured--but that doesn't make it any more interesting to read it over a dozen times in a row with slight variations. It's almost as if Campbell is trying to refine a very specific, focused style--a one-story style, as we develop in the process of drafting and editing: ever focusing, tightening, improving--this collection provides an apt example for why we don't include all our early drafts alongside the final copy.
Now, there are a few stories that stand out, but not always in good ways. There is precisely one female narrator in the collection, but it's still the same story, just with a perspective shift: we still have our standard Campbell Protagonist, while the woman narrator seems to be one of his various jerk friends.
Tellingly, the woman is alone, like all of Campbell's narrators, but unlike the men, she doesn't prefer it that way, instead falling into the tired role of the old maid, desperate to make a connection, but too afraid to do so. She's also the only narrator allowed to survive, in the end--women are too delicate to kill off.
Otherwise, the women in the stories stick close to archetypes: they are either mother figures, nagging wives, sex objects, or witches. While the default villains are men (even when inhuman, they take the shapes of hobos), the female villains are all witches. Additionally, while the male threats seem to be evil and powerful unto themselves, the witches are portrayed as secondary, having power only through sexual relationships to men, a la the old 'Bride of Satan' trope, they are not evil objects themselves, but merely its subjects.
There are some cute novelty stories in the collection: an evil hack author, an evil story collection editor, an evil vacation slide show--which do help those individual stories stand out a bit more.
The oddest thing is that the last two stories in the collection are completely different from everything that came before: experimental, unpredictable, unusual--with variance in voice and tone that are estimable. To end such a repetitive book on an incongruous change felt almost like a punchline--though what the joke might be, I couldn't say.
Whatever it was that woke Campbell from his literary slumber, it should remind all of us of the necessity of being shaken up, driven from safe pastures and forced to fend for ourselves for a bit, to figure things out all over again. We never know when these moments will come, or where they will come from, but that is the other side of the coin when we are developing a style: first we labor narrowly, focus, recreate, rehash, perfect--and then we must be thrust outside of that, forced to come to terms again, lest we grow too complacent, too narrow in our view, too satisfied with what we have.
Whether Campbell deserves his laurels, this collection is not fit to demonstrate, but the fact that it does demonstrate growth is a good sign--I only wish the thing had been edited down more effectively--hitting the high points and leaving out the in-betweens, as a 'best of' collection should....more
Found this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it iFound this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it is a fairly standard example of Invasion Literature, featuring a dashing young aviator and inventor, his girlfriend, and his best mate trying to single-handedly fight off the dastardly German menace nightly loosing bombs over London....more