This 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts se...moreThis 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts setting the mood in classic Blackwood fashion--slow, deliberate, and philosophical:
"The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.
". . . that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man."
"When the seduction of the uninhabited wastes caught them so fiercely that they went forth, half fascinated, half deluded, to their death."
But then, just as he's building this slow-burn terror of strange noises, of things brushing against the tent, of a queer and unsettling scent on the wind, we get our first victim, torn away into the woods at 'furious, rushing speed', and as he disappears, he yells
"Oh! Oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! Oh! This height and fiery speed!"
And so, in one line, all the tension was deflated and I couldn't help but laugh out. The same line gets repeated several times over, which is what reminded me of a campfire tale--that there is a sort of repetitive motif that ties the thing together. Yet it really seemed to be in conflict with the general tone of the piece.
Other than that, and as usual for Blackwood, there were some quite disturbing and effective images, and some unpleasant implications. It really is a thoughtful and well-constructed story, I only wish he had found a voice for the victim's terror that wasn't so oddly specific in observing and reporting on the details of his predicament.(less)
It is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, o...moreIt is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, or who are of that very culture can still show biases just as deep. After all, as I'm sure you're tired of hearing, The East is a fantasy, just as any unified notion of Europe or America is a fantasy--or really a collection of competing fantasies--and just because someone is born and lives in America does not mean they have an unbiased view of it--quite the opposite.
But then, Howard never pretended he was writing anything but fantasies. Certainly, he spent a lot of time reading, taking notes, getting his details down, forming an understanding of culture and history--but he could still only prevent his own view on the subject, his own experience and philosophy.
In some ways, his views could be short-sighted--particularly his views of racial and cultural 'types'--but there is also a grand thrust of the human spirit in his works which often raises him above mere prejudice--and the thrill of his prose doesn't hurt, either.
Of course, as with all his works, there are problems with his style--he is always somewhat uneven--and it's the same problems: as each short story was meant to be separate there's some recycling of descriptions, and themes, some redundancy in presentation. As always, he picks a certain animal and bases half his metaphors around it: for Conan, it's the panther, for Solomon Kane, the Lion, and for his desert heroes, the wolf.
It works best in Conan, where we can take it as a sort of 'Homeric epithet'--a nod to the purposefully repetitive cadence of epic poetry--but there is no such excuse for stories about cowboys in the Khyber. He also repeats uncommon phrases in a way that makes them stand out unnaturally--such as 'beetling cliff' or 'hell-burst' only a couple of paragraphs apart, or even using the same word within a sentence:
"with a moaning cry the Jowaki released him and toppled moaning from the wall"
And of course, there's the fact that every cliff is 'knife edged', every silhouette 'etched against the sky', every muscle 'corded'. The most frustrating part about Howard's writing is that these are such simple errors to fix--the sort of thing that would have been, if he'd had a competent editor, and that it's clear from other passages that he's entirely capable of perfectly lovely, effective passages:
"Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone stood up like gaunt ghosts in the grey light which betrayed the coming of dawn."
Or this speech about a cursed ruby:
"how many princes died for thee in the Beginnings of Happenings? What fair bosoms didst thou adorn, and what kings held thee as I now hold thee? Surely blood went into thy making, the blood of kings surely throbs in the shining and the heart-flow of queens in the splendor."
It would be remarkable to see a Howard story where he maintained the care and skill he takes with such passages throughout the whole tale.
Yet his works are not just about well-put phrases, but quick and balanced plots, which Howard had a gift for. His tales are always exciting, always moving, always with some thrust of clear motivation to lead us from one scene to the next, full of odd characters and curious coincidences and hardships to test our hero.
It is interesting, as noted in the critical essay that accompanies this collection, that each of his desert heroes has a different approach to life, different desires and motivations for what he does. Some are scoundrels, some men of deep moral fiber. It's the fact that he succeeds so often in many areas of storytelling, from the prose to the structure to the characters, that raises him above other writers of the pulps--and indeed, above many modern-day genre authors, for all the sophistication of years that they can call upon when writing their story, where Howard had to make much of it up as he went along.
But then, that may also be the source of his power as a writer: that he wasn't writing a 'known subject', pre-defined and set up with a hundred different tropes that allow any hack to construct such a story 'by the book'. Howard instead had to piece his stories together from real histories, from classic adventure writers, and from legitimate authors of literature, which tends to give them much more depth and variety than simply following a standard model.
So, if the East is a fantasy, then what is Howard's fantasy? Not surprisingly, it is the fantasy of freedom, of a man making his own way in the world, unfettered by arbitrary social concerns. When the American Southwest becomes too civilized, crowding out the adventurer to make space for the cattle rancher and the homesteader, Howard's heroes go to Arabia, to Afghanistan--to places where life is not defined by train schedules and banking firms, but by will to survive, by camaraderie, and where the system of governance is the tribe and the warlord.
It is, for Howard, a place much like the ancient Hyborean world of Conan, a pre-modern world where the industrial revolution has not reshaped everything for convenience and assembly labor. Yet he can set his stories in modern times, with guns and trains and bombs, using modern characters with modern concerns, but still able to tell the same tales of valiant personal combat, where one man, alone, can make a difference.
It is the same fantastic life that men like 'Chinese' Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, and Richard Burton made for themselves--mixing fact, fiction, and self-mythology into lives that sound like they belong in fiction, not history. Howard's desert heroes have direct antecedents as well: white men who worked as soldiers and warlords in the 'Great Game' of the colonial powers as they struggled for control of central Asia--men like Josiah Harlan and Alexander Gardner.
It's certainly not difficult to see why such tales appealed to Howard, who was fascinated by the man out of his element, the clash of culture--as well as the mutual coming together of disparate cultures. There is, of course, a less flattering tradition of such stories as delivered by writers like Haggard, of the White Savior who out-nobles the Noble Savage--luckily Howard's characters, being loners with little interest in leadership roles, are less prone to this than many of their contemporaries.
Overall, these stories possess less depth and variety than the Conan stories, but they are largely well-crafted, apart from Howard's little bad habits, and perfectly enjoyable.(less)
This collection has a very strong start: the first few stories are gems, just wonderfully-well crafted, evocative, sympathetic tales of life. There ar...moreThis collection has a very strong start: the first few stories are gems, just wonderfully-well crafted, evocative, sympathetic tales of life. There are humorous clever bits and heartbreaking bits, and it all has the ring of truth about it. I kept getting hints of this in The Home and The World, but Tagore couldn't seem to sustain it.
Unfortunately, that proves to be true here, as well, as several of the stories don't quite come together, and get hung-up on clumsy construction. My previous complaint with Tagore was about his habit of just telling us (or having the characters tell us) the subtext, instead of actually letting it play out in dialogue and action.
The plot and actions of a character are not what give them personality--it's how they do things that makes them unique. After all, there are endless books that share roughly the same plot, for example the Hero's Journey story of a young, inexperienced man who goes out into the world and, with the help of his wise mentor, defeats a great threat and returns older and wiser. Some of these stories are dull and vapid, others are engrossing and fascinating--so it's not the mere litany of facts, but the way in which they are shown to us.
Most stories have subtext: a meaning that's never quite stated outright, but which becomes obvious through the relationships as they are depicted. So, in one of Tagore's stories, we have a girl who can't speak, and the story is about the difficulty of her life. There's a great concept for a bit of subtext in the story, but the way Tagore delivered it was very disappointing.
In the opening paragraphs, we are told:
"her mother looked upon her as a deformity in herself."
That would be a very poignant way of looking at the relationship--except that when the author just blandly states it instead of actually showing it in action, it loses a great deal of its strength. Then, Tagore ends the paragraph:
"Her mother regarded her with aversion as a stain upon her own body."
So, not only is the story's subtext just blandly laid out for the reader, it's done so twice in the same paragraph. This is the kind of sloppy execution that makes a lot of Tagore's writing disappointing, especially when other sections are crafted with so much more skill and care.
It's certainly well worth reading for the number of excellent stories that it contains, but as a whole, it's uneven.(less)
Another paranormal investigator in the tradition of Van Helsing, Dr. Hesselius, and John Silence, I was curious to see what Hodgson would do with the...moreAnother paranormal investigator in the tradition of Van Helsing, Dr. Hesselius, and John Silence, I was curious to see what Hodgson would do with the idea, especially after reading his House on the Borderland and finding it to be refreshingly uncanny. Unfortunately, the Carnacki stories are so flat and formulaic that they add very little to the subgenre.
Every case follows the same pattern: a group of men gather at Carnacki's house and sit around for a bit before he suddenly launches into his story: he's called out to investigate some occurrence, he describes some incident as giving him the 'creep', he refers to a number of other cases 'which you fellows certainly remember' (but which are never, themselves, described), he piles on a lot of colloquialisms, follows this with some goofy made-up terms ('Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual'), mentions someone 'lacking pluck', describes a vague feeling and insists 'we must know what he means', eventually blinds himself with a camera flash, sets up his 'electric pentacle', then explains the whole matter (barring a few mysterious details), and sends his friends out into the night.
Sometimes, the cases are supernatural, while other times we get a full 'gothic explique' that tries to account for the apparently supernatural elements as mere tricks. So, there is some variation in the subject matter, but not very much, especially when compared to the John Silence tales.
Worse than that is the fact that Carnacki himself is a very flat character, somewhat unflappable and matter-of-fact, but otherwise entirely unremarkable and without much sense of interior personality, despite all his friendly colloquial expressions. In Silence, for example, we get a figure who actually seems affected by the cases in which he takes part, who has an investment in the people involved, and in what those cases suggest about the reality of the world. Silence has a perspective, a sort of bias which makes him feel like an actual person caught up in a lot of strangeness.
Carnacki, on the other hand, is so matter-of-fact about everything that there is very little unique about his approach. He's not a figure who must deal with the implications of the supernatural, of the long-term effects they have on a human mind, but an implacable force that solves whatever is before him. Certainly, sometimes he has a fright, but the horror in these tales is all of a very physical variety.
There is always some menacing thing, some murderous force which is acting upon him, which must be fought and overcome. The force is never dangerous to the mind, or the perception of the world, only to the physical body. As such, the Carnacki stories form a prototype of the jump-scare movies which are popular today: there are always half seen things in the shadow of the corner of the room, lurking around every corner, malicious and violent and only held off by Carnacki's magic circles.
I do have to say that I find the idea of his 'electric pentacle', a vacuum tube ring which protects him from supernatural forces to be terribly amusing. Again, it somewhat negates from the supernatural aspect, turning the thing into a physical scientific investigation, but its such a wacky, Ghostbusters idea--I only wish he'd been able to do more with it, that the stories had been odd enough and psychologically intriguing enough to make of the pentacle more than a mere plot object.
There's also an odd continuation of the pig-based horror that Hodgson explored in House on the Borderland, which illustrates just how lucky Lovecraft was to base supernatural monsters on his intense distaste for seafood, since kosher law seems not to translate as well into the disturbing and horrific.(less)
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 h...moreDunsany 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.(less)
December 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysteri...moreDecember 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.(less)
When reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were real...moreWhen reading many of the weird horror writers of the early Twentieth Century, one sometimes gets the sense that it's not that the situations were really that horrible, but that the protagonists thrown into them happen to be rather skittish, lily-livered, and needing only the slightest nudge to push them off the edge in the first place. Lovecraft's heroes, in particular, can be rather touchy fellows.
So there has been a desire to explore what it might be like to see a more strenuous and competent individual trapped in the same situation. After all, we get glimpses of these characters, such as the denizens of Innsmuth, the magic-working cultists, and Lovecraft's Tale of Charles Dexter Ward, where it is clear that it's possible for people to get a better grip on the paranormal world, and even to use it to their own advantage.
Of course, these days, the pendulum has swung rather to the other end, and you're likely to see shotgun-toting sorcerer heroes who shoot at Cthulhu with rocket launchers, until the term 'psychological horror' is no longer remotely applicable. It's not that characters should be defeating the elder menace, any more than they should 'defeat' a hurricane, but it is interesting to see a character with a greater penchant for survivability.
Paranormal investigation has quite a long history in literature, with sorcerers and priests capturing and exorcising ghosts and other spirits, but the modern notion of the non-denominational specialist has a much more recent origin: the Theosophical movement of the Victorian period.
During this time of high colonialism, Europe was bringing back myths, practices, and ancient texts from every corner of the Earth, and then trying to get them all to match up into some kind of metaspiritual tradition. Predictably, the whole thing was a nonsensical, poorly-researched mess, and thus, wildly popular. Clubs were started up, seances were held, and charlatans rooked old ladies out of their inheritance. Blackwood, himself, was a member of the most notorious of these societies: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
So, by the time he got around to creating his fictional investigator, the whole thing was all rather tired, which is quite clear in the stories, for Mr. Silence is constantly taking pains to separate himself from that 'other class' of psychics who make extravagant promises and talk about possessing a 'gift'.
So it's interesting that one of the first full-time paranormal investigators in fiction (that I'm aware of) is already somewhat subversive and on the edge--but then, as a calm, rational figure after the style of Dupin and Cuff, he's somewhat out of place with charismatics and wealthy eccentrics.
Blackwood here retains his unfortunate habit of sometimes over-explaining or giving us information more than once, but for that, the stories are well-devised and contain some quite interesting cosmological hints. Oddly enough, two of the three stories in this collection take the most profound interest in the ways of cats and their relationship to the spiritual realm which, while perfectly interesting, didn't seem to profit from re-examination, particularly not within the same brief collection.
However, I am curious to see what else Blackwood might do with the character, particularly if he manages to put him into more sticky situations. So far, we've seen him competent and self-controlled--often the real danger comes from whether he will be able to save the other characters from themselves before its too late--but I'm curious to see what Silence is capable of, when pushed.(less)
This most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, Bi...moreThis most famous work of Blackwood's is one of those classic short stories of weird horror mentioned alongside pieces by Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, Bierce, and Chambers as worthy of even a discerning reader. Like many such stories, it starts somewhat slowly, establishing first that picture of normal life from which we must soon, and by gradations, deviate beyond recall. however, I grew to feel it may have been a bit too slow, though it can be hard to judge such a balance. So much of the story was carried on the particular delivery of the concept, so I'm not convinced that quite so much preparation was really necessary.
But then, Blackwood does sometimes struggle with delivery, falling back on repetition to ensure that his points come across, which makes sense for an author writing in an experimental genre for a wide serial audience and who may be concerned about coming off as too obscure--but whether it was a bit of long-windedness on his part or an editorial decision I cannot say.
In any event, after the setup is complete and we start descending into the otherworldly, the story starts to pick up pace, and by the time the concept is laid before us, I was deeply impressed by the insight and imagination with which the thing is handled. The presentation of the uncanny is so complete, so infectious, and so grand in its implications that I am hard-pressed to compare it to any other contemporary author but Dunsany, who achieved a similar effect in fairy tale.
Indeed, it's difficult to name another author who so subtly depicted the cosmology of shifting worlds until Moorcock, who did it in a rather rough style, or the Strugatskys, who took on the same event and expanded it until it dwarfed the entire world of man. It is no wonder that this work is so influential, because it asks many difficult questions of the reader, and invites us to expand upon it, to sit and dwell and try to produce our own understanding of just what is actually going on, and what it means for the insignificant people caught in the middle.
It has certainly altered the way that I think about the writing of horror, and it goes to show that the particular treatment an author gives their idea can make or break a story.(less)
It was June of 1816, during The Summer that Never Was, when a volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused frost and snow through the summer, killing crops a...moreIt was June of 1816, during The Summer that Never Was, when a volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused frost and snow through the summer, killing crops and leaving uncounted numbers in a state of starvation. Meanwhile, in the rented Villa Diodati, a party consisting of Lord Byron, Dr. Polidori, Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin and her fiancee, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and stepsister Claire sat down and read aloud from a collection of French stories. It was perhaps the most momentous night in the history of the Horror story.
Soon, the guests declared that they would each have a hand at their own 'tale of terror', from which Mary was to write Frankenstein, Byron his 'fragment of a novel', and Polidori 'The Vampyre', the first story about such a creature published in English. Though the stories in Fantasmagoriana (published as 'Tales of the Dead' in English) are not the most remarkable or best-crafted, there is no lack of melodrama to be had.
Most of all, anyone who reads this collection will witness the marked difference between these simple tales and the complex, thoughtful treatment given to the subject by the attendees of that fateful reading. It just goes to show that a skilled and philosophically-minded author can tackle any theme or genre, and make of it something profound and immortal.(less)
After the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror i...moreAfter the overblown Frankenstein and the undercooked Dracula, it's pleasant to find that the language and pacing of the third great pillar of horror is so forceful and deliberate (especially since I was disappointed by Stevenson's other big work, Treasure Island). But then, this is a short story, and it's somewhat easier to carry off the shock, horror, and mystery over fewer pages instead of drawing it out like Shelley and Stoker into a grander moralizing tale.
But Stevenson still manages to get in quite a bit of complexity, even in the short space. As I was reading it, I found myself wishing I didn't already know the story--that it hadn't been automatically transmitted to me by society--because I wondered how much better it would be to go in not knowing the answer to the grand, central mystery, but instead being able to watch it unfold before me. Much has been said about the 'dual nature of man', the good versus the evil sides, but what fascinated me about the book was that despite being drawn in such lines, it did not strike me as a tale of one side of man versus another. Indeed, it is the virtuous side who seeks out a way to become destructive, showing that his virtuosity is a mere sham.
Likewise, neither Jekyll nor Hyde seem to have any real motivation to be either 'good' or 'evil', it is more that they are victims of some disorder which compels them to be as they are--that causal Victorian psychology which, in the end, robs anyone involved of premeditation for what they do. Dracula kills to survive, Frankenstein does so because he is the product of the ultimate broken home and Hyde does it as a self-destructive compulsion despite the fact that he loves life above all else, yet is unable to protect himself well enough to retain it.
This is not the evil of Milton's Satan, or of Moriarty, who know precisely what they do and do it because of the way they see the world before them, but that of the phrenologist, who measures a man's head with calipers and declares him evil based upon the values so garnered, independent of any understanding, motivation, or reason.
And yet this is not an unbelievable evil--indeed, Stevenson uses it as an analysis of addiction and other self-destructive behaviors, where the pure chemical rush of the thing becomes its own cause, despite the fact that the addict will tell you he wishes nothing more than to be rid of it, to be normal again, never to have tasted the stuff in the first place. It is a place a man might fall into through ignorance and carelessness, never realizing how hard it could be, in the end, to escape.
And that's something we can all relate to, far more than the sociopathy of Moriarty, which requires that you have complete understanding but just a completely different set of emotional reactions to the world around you. It is much easier for most people to say that there is some part inside them that they do not like, that makes them uncomfortable, some thoughts and desires which rise unbidden from their brain, and which they must fight off. And it is the fact that they are strong enough to need to be fought off that unsettles us and gives us pause, for we do not like to think that such incomprehensible forces might always be there, working, just beneath the surface, and which might come out not due to some dark desire or motivation, but due to simple, thoughtless error.(less)
Back when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be working...moreBack when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be working with students who might have been fencing for a few weeks or a few months when a new face would walk in. I'd put a sword in his hand and set him up against one of the others and, as often as not, the newcomer would win, despite having no foreknowledge of fencing.
His frustrated opponent would sigh, shake his head, and declare "it's not my fault, he was doing weird stuff". When we first begin to practice any activity, we have no preconception for how it's going to feel, for the rhythm or the most effective techniques--we just do what comes to mind.
Then, we are taught all the basic rules, and these rules can be constraining. I could beat every one of those regular students because I knew how to deal with circle parries, ripostes, and balestras. There was nothing about the direction of attack or the changes in distance that was going to surprise me. Learning the rules changes how you think about the game, and it makes you predictable.
I've seen the same pattern in writers: often, their first few works are vivid and unusual, difficult to pin down. Writing is still a challenge to them, an unfamiliar thing which they must figure out as they go along, and creativity is the result of trying to overcome difficulty.
After a while, they begin to settle in to a mode. They have figured out what works for them, they have the methods and shortcuts down. But without hardship to drive them, this can lead to predictable, repetitive work.
This is the second volume in Del Ray's collection of the Conan stories, and it is the only collection of all Howard's original manuscripts for those stories, untainted by later editors. As I mentioned in my review, the earlier stories from the first volume are wilder, and show more variability, depicting Conan at many points in his life, dealing with a number of different situations.
This volume is more homogenous: they are about an older Conan embroiled in political machinations, which was enjoyable for a student of history, as anyone who has read Tacitus or Sallust cannot fail to recognize Howard's stylistic inspiration.
That isn't to say that the stories do not also contain the patented bloody action which Conan is known for, but for the first time I began to feel that Conan didn't need action. His stories are always about human desires, about interaction and struggle, and open conflict is only one way to resolve such conflicts. Howard shows he is willing and capable of exploring other aspects of his world, and that, unlike other authors who wrote about the character, Howard never forgets that Conan is not merely some emotionless killer, but a man with "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth".
But the style and tone of these stories becomes predictable. We do not get the subversive women or eccentric secondary characters, instead there are mostly cliches and placeholders, dull copies of figures we've seen in earlier stories. It seems like Howard has settled into a groove here, which isn't beneficial for pulp or weird fiction.
But there is one thing in this collection that is new for Howard: length. Many authors have tried to transition from short works to novels, and it's rarely a pretty thing to watch. For later master of Sword & Sorcery Fritz Leiber, the additional length meant a loss of pace and depth. Whereas before, a hundred pages would hold a half dozen stories, each with its own tone and setting, now it was all the continuation of a single tone.
But Howard shows that he is able to make the transition without losing his fast pace or his myriad views of the world. Though the novel-length Hour of the Dragon takes many themes and ideas from previous stories, the way they are woven together with action, intrigue, and a larger, overarching plot is skillful. There is no filler there--indeed, there are a number of scenes that could have run on longer, with more detail, without hurting the book's pace.
The larger plot is reliant on that genre standby: the fetch quest for the magical mcguffin--but Howard's treatment of it is not as simplistic or convenient as most genre books. Conan doesn't port the thing around in his pocket and pull it out to get himself out of jams, the same magic both opens and closes the action of the plot, and the item itself has its own history, distinct from the events of the plot. Beyond that, any careful reader familiar with the Mythos connection between Lovecraft and Howard will see numerous clues about how magic in Conan's world has a more insidious, cosmic source.
What was disappointing in the story was the fact that, despite depicting an ancient, pre-deluge world, the combat was all described in terms of high chivalric cavalry charges, longbows, and heavy armor. It would have been more interesting to see a take on Greek or Roman warfare instead of a rehash of Doyle's White Company.
So it seems that after his early experiments, stories that were sometimes erratic but rarely repetitious, Howard has settled into a more predictable style, that plateau we all hit after we have learned and internalized a set of rules. But then, why learn them in the first place? The secret is that once we have mastered those rules, once they are second nature, we can begin again to experiment, and to become unpredictable.
Though many think of a 'black belt' as the sign of a master, in truth it is the sign that a student has learned all of those basic things which must be gotten out of the way before the real learning can start. Once those basic elements no longer occupy us, we are free to really explore.
So, here's my hope: that in the third volume, Howard will be able to combine the creativity of his early works with the reliability of this middle stretch so that his final stories will will live up to their reputation as the strongest of the Conan tales.(less)
My favored definition of wisdom has always been 'a recognition of one's limits', and as such, wisdom is vital for writers. When an author knows their...moreMy favored definition of wisdom has always been 'a recognition of one's limits', and as such, wisdom is vital for writers. When an author knows their capabilities and their flaws, they are in prime position to write a story which takes advantage of their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses.
Yet what is preferable for an artist: to stay within the bounds of their skill, or to work to always to exceed them? The first sort will be able to create precise and deliberate works of mastery, while the latter can produce wild and intense works of vision. All authors experiment and take risks while writing; should such experiments be left in, even when are not entirely successful?
There are works, like Moby Dick, which are masterpieces precisely because they are full of numerous, unusual experiments, not all of which were effective. Many critics are hesitant to praise works which are grand, yet incomplete, stitching together many wild ideas and disparate techniques to create a vision which is powerful and inspirational, despite being conflicted.
In fantastical genres, it is perhaps an even more central question, since they are so dependent on the strength of idiomatic vision. Perhaps the clearest illustration of the importance of that creative force that drives in driving conceptual genres is the vast influence of the pulp authors. Their style was defined by unbridled exploration and a thirst for new ideas. They went headlong into the fray without pretension, for authors who erred on the side of caution tended to be left behind. What they lacked in style, character, and plot they tried to overcome with an abundance of ideas.
In horror, the line between restraint and unfettered creativity is usually defined by what the author chooses to describe, and what is left to the reader's imagination. As many a skilled writer has demonstrated, the reader is often better at scaring themselves if the setup is strong enough. The strongest example may be when the author begins to describe some terror, then breaks off with 'but it was too horrific for words to describe, too awful to comprehend, too shocking for the mere mortal mind to revisit'.
Though many authors--particularly of the Victorian--use this technique, I tend to associate it with Lovecraft. It has been a running joke in my writing circle that Lovecraft's monsters are not actually that terrifying, it's just that his protagonists are so nervous and sensitive that even the least imp would totally unnerve them.
Machen uses this technique throughout the story, leaving much of the action implied so that we must piece together the reality from the occasional detail. His constant drawing back from actual descriptions helps to remind the reader that, for the purposes of a story, what the Thing looks like, or what it is capable of are not fundamental to the story itself. The story is about people, about their reactions and the progression of events, and if the structure is strong, there is no need to explicate the monster.
Machen's writing is competent and precise--he does not give in to the purple prose and long internal monologues which typify Lovecraft, nor does he trudge along, workmanlike, in the manner of Stoker. The gradual unfolding of the story and its mysteries is artful, and the uneasy tone consistent.
Yet there are problematic aspects. The characters are not vivid or well-differentiated, which makes them difficult to connect with, and the story harder to follow. We are often casting about between different individuals and their experiences, and since they all speak in a similar voice and have similar backgrounds, it can be a task to keep them apart.
And while the gradual unfolding of the action is enjoyable, the structure is somewhat imprecise, going back and forth and sometimes repeating itself. Though Stoker was rough and guileless and Lovecraft often overwrought, at least they both focused on the central motivations and desires of their characters throughout.
Despite these flaws, it isn't difficult to see why horror authors from Lovecraft to King have cited this story as an influence, and have worked to recreate its haunting, slow-burning build.(less)