Friday, October 7, 2016

Scary Reference Libray

I'm a fan of lists and histories. Which means when it comes to genre fiction, I have a habit of grabbing reference and guide books when I can. I have an excellent selection of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy references. While not as large as any of those, the section dedicated to horror is reasonably adequate, if in need of some serious updating.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King
I only just picked this up after not reading it in years. It's a history of horror in popular culture and King's life from 1950 to 1980. It looks primarily at movies and books. 

I remember buying my first copy (my present one's at least my second, maybe my third) at the Barrett Book Trader and devouring several chapters while waiting for the bus and during the ride home. As eminently readable as the best of King's fiction, its a great, personal take on a field with which, as he describes it, "is mortally involved."

Horror: 100 Best Books (1988) by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
Two British horror masters (Jones edits the absolutely amazing Best New Horror anthologies - half of of which, I just learned, are available as e-books) put together this list book. Two things make it valuable: first, the actual list and second, the essays by notable authors on each entry. Jones' website provides this handy page showing the books and the authors who wrote about them. Personally, I bought about twenty books based on the list. There is just no way I would have ever bought John Farris' Southern Gothic-voodoo All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By if I hadn't been snagged by what David Schow had to write about it, or what Craig Shaw Gardner wrote about J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World.

Horror: Another 100 Best Books  (2005) by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman

Jones and Newman returned nearly twenty years later with another list. It has fewer pre-20th century works (8 vs. 22). Again, Jones provides the list and essayist's names on his site. I've only bought two or three books based on this list (I already owned a bunch), but if you like criticism and reviews, the essays are plenty worth your time.

The Weird Tale by S. T. Joshi
Yeah, so this is packed with sweeping, assertive judgments common to Joshi's criticism, which is what makes it so much fun. You will learn and you will be ticked off. If you aren't ticked off, you are dead. 

I haven't read it cover to cover, though I did just read the chapter on Arthur Machen. Joshi carries himself as the arch-empiricist, without the slightest use for any sort of supernaturalism and bludgeons Machen repeatedly for his transgressions against those things. And still, Joshi provides some useful information and a coherent (if wrong) critique of Machen. Sometimes, I like criticism I disagree with even more than some I like. It forces me to think harder about why I actually like something. 

Joshi wrote a companion volume, The Modern Weird Tale (available as an e-book) that covers (according to the Amazon blurb) Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aickman, T.E.D. Klein, and Thomas Ligotti all of whom he holds "as considerably superior" to the best-selling Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Anne Rice. Other writers such as William Peter Blatty, Thomas Tryon, Robert Bloch, and Thomas Harris are also discussed. I'll probably buy it.

Like I said, it's not a big selection, but it's useful. I should also add the forewords and introductions (mostly by Robert M. Price) in the Chaosium Mythos fiction collections. If you want a perspective on HPL that includes both fannish and academic takes, these are valuable. The same thing goes for David Hartwell's lengthy intros to The Dark Descent and Foundations of Fear.

I write a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, and I rarely make it up out of whole cloth. While offering my own take on books, etc., I want to be able to draw on what has gone on before me, written by people who've spent way more time and expended way more effort than I.

Do you have any horror reference books? Let me know.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Haunting Short Story Collections

The best horror comes in small doses. Just like that harsh creak in the night becomes some skeletal prowler in our imaginations and just the sound of an old house settling, an author's darkest terror can fade away into nothing when exposed to the harsh light of five hundred pages of storytelling. Restricted to the confines of a ten or forty pages, and that terror will leave you feeling there's something wrong with the universe or something's lurking just outside of your peripheral vision, waiting for you to make a false move. Just think about some of the most famous and best names in horror - Machen, James, Blackwood, and Lovecraft are all known best for their short stories.

As I described in the previous post, horror took a turn toward novels in the seventies that continues to this day. The general turn away from short stories in publishing only accelerated that trend. Today, though, some of the best horror is once again found in short stories. Laird Barron has written a few novels, and they're good. His stories, though, are among the finest, most unsettling weird stories I have ever read.


The children's librarian at the Stapleton Library, Miss Herz, knew exactly what kids wanted to read. Alongside all the books that we needed for school papers, book reports, or that our parents thought we should read, were Andre Norton, Robert A. Heinlein, and collections of scary stories. There were a bunch of different books, but there's only one I have any memories of: Witches, Witches, Witches, edited by Helen Hoke. I haven't seen a copy of this in years, but I remember it being pretty frightening. If the few interior illustrations I've been able to find it might still provide a little jolt of terror. Unfortunately, other than finding someone posts saying it holds a mix of fairy tales and legends, I have no idea what is actually in the book. I'd like to find out more, because they were some of the very first scary stories I ever read.

There are tons and tons of horror anthologies and single-author collections. Just looking at my e-book library, I've bought a stack of collections over the past few years that I'd never read before. Among them are four collections by Brian Lumley, three collections by Laird Barron (and one top-notch tribute collection inspired by Barron), Voodoo Tales: the Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead, The Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, and the monumental The Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer.

This book is a monster - in its effort to explore a century's worth of weird stories, it's 1153 pages long and has 110 stories and novellas. The VanderMeer's goal was to show the evolution of weird fiction over that span. While it includes horror, weird, as they define it, is more than just haunts and ghouls. Looking to the Old Man of Providence, the VanderMeers have this to say:
A 'weird tale', as defined by H.P. Lovecraft in his nonfiction writing and given early sanctuary within the pages of magazines like Weird Tales (est. 1923) is a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale, both popular in the 1800s. As Lovecraft wrote in 1927, the weird tale 'has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains'. Instead, it represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane - a 'certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread' or 'malign and particular suspension or defeat of...fixed laws of Nature' through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this, and it sure as heck surprised me. In the early years, there're plenty of classic stories, like HPL's "The Dunwich Horror" and Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows, there's also less genre-bound things like Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" and Jorge Luis Borges' "The Aleph". As the collection progresses down the century, the tendency is towards authors less and less beholden to the pulp tradition, and for want of better terms, more to literary or experimental writing. So, while Laird Barron and T.M Wright are included, so are Ben Okri and Haruki Murakami.

This is an amazing book, and not just because dozens of these authors and stories were completely new to me. The VanderMeers set out to survey the evolution of not a genre, but a style. Recently, Raphael Ordonez wrote
"a genre is a dead thing, a pigeonhole in a commercial classification system depending on the presence or absence of various material elements."
That is exactly what The Weird rejects utterly. This book is filled with the scary, the creepy, the mad, and the bizarre. Like the book coming up, this should be part of any horror reader's library.

I can't emphasize how important the late and lamented, at least by me, Barrett Book Trader on Staten Island was to me. It opened sometime in the mid-seventies and remained so until the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. In my youth, the only thing I cared about was it great, double-stacked sci-fi and fantasy section. As my tastes widened, I discovered the equally good mystery and literature sections. 

Thinking back, though, my favorite section was the horror section. It was located at the very back of the store, perhaps to keep the folks browsing the romance shelves from coming across the bloody skulls and creepy children on horror covers. I reveled in those stacks of gore-dripping drenched. That's where I discovered Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Hugh B. Cave, and many others. It's also where I discovered a battered and worn copy of Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces.

McCauley was a superstar agent, repping authors like Roger Zelazny, George R.R. Martin, and most significantly here, Stephen King. With Dark Forces, he planned to create an anthology for horror that would possess the "same scope and dynamism" of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967). The latter was a collection of original speculative fiction stories by a diverse crowd of writers, ranging from old hands like Robert Bloch and Frederik Pohl to up and comers like Larry Niven and Roger Zelazny. 

To achieve that goal, McCauley approached "every living writer who had tried his or her hand at this type of story." Many were unable to respond, by time or a lack of inspiration. In the end, though, he snagged twenty-three contributions from Stephen King, Gene Wolfe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Robert Aickman, and nineteen other true greats. 

This is a book I love, and I write that while admitting there are some stories in it I have read only once, when I first bought it. On the other hand, Stephen King's "The Mist", T.E.D. Klein's "Children of the Kingdom", and Dennis Etchison's "Night Shift" and Karl Edward Wagner's "Where The Summer Ends" are stories indelibly stained on my brain. Again, if you read horror and have any degree of self respect, you should own this. I myself have a battered old paperback, but discovering the e-book is only $4.99, just bought that too.

Other collections like these worth finding are the late David G. Hartwell's two lengthy genre surveys: The Dark Descent (1987) and Foundations of Fear (1992). Both are excellent, and thick, collections of stories stretching from around the mid-19th century to the late 20th.

Two I want, having only read library copies of once, are the Boris Karloff edited Tales of Terror and And The Darkness Falls. Tales he edited chose and edited himself. According to an essay by David Hartwell, for Darkness, M. Edmund Spears sent Karloff a huge stack of stories to read. Karloff, while on tour with Arsenic and Old Lace, selected sixty-nine. Sure, it's a bit of clever marketing, but these are really good collections.

In A Lonely Place (1983) by Karl Edward Wagner

While Wagner is well known for his Kane swords & sorcery stories, he wrote some of the best horror tales of the last century. If you need proof of that, this is where to go. This single, slim book holds all of Wagner's very best horror stories. Along with the Oliver Onions-inspired "In the Pines," there's the urban terror of "Where the Summer Ends," the Lovecraftian "Sticks," the paranoid of "The Fourth Seal" along with three other great stories.

I bought this at the Manhattan Forbidden Planet during college. I had already read "Where the Summer Ends" in Dark Forces, but I all the rest were totally new to me. Since then, I've probably read this a half dozen times and picked it up and read a story or two at random another half-dozen times.

Wagner is one of the most important figures in 20th horror. As a writer, he was one of the best. As the editor of The Year's Best Horror for DAW for fifteen years, he was as important to the genre as Lin Carter had been for fantasy. According to his forwards, Wagner scoured every pro, semi-pro, and fanzine he could find for each volume's contents. When big novels dominated the field, were a reminder of the power of short stories. Sadly, I lost my copies to basement flooding.

There are too many single author collections to mention them all. From contemporary authors, all of Laird Barron's collections are good, but as it's got the deeply unsettling "The Men from Porlock," I suggest you check out The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013) first.

From older authors, Hugh B. Cave's Murgunstrumm and Others (1977) is a must-own. As the magazine market for horror shorts had dried up, by the late sixties Cave had retreated from the field. In the early seventies, Karl Edward Wagner and David Drake established Carcosa Press, and as a labor of love published this massive collection of twenty-six stories. Not only did it remind the world of Cave's existence, it revived his career as a horror writer, and he wrote nearly a dozen novels and dozens of stories between its publications and his death in 2004.

I have a full set of the S.T. Joshi edited, late 80s Arkham House Lovecraft collections. Together, the four books include all of HPL's original stories and revisions he did for others.

There's a special place in my heart, though, for the very first collection of Lovecraft stories I ever read: The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror (1971). It was actually published by Scholastic Books. It's a haphazard mix of good stories ("The Colour Out of Space" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth") and lesser ones ("The Transition of Juan Romero" and "The Festival"), but between nostalgia and the cover, I'm glad to have a copy of this on my shelves.

Stephen King reputation rests on his novels, but he started as a short story writer. His first collection, Night Shift (1978) is chock full of greats (as well as being the source material for several nigh unwatchable films - The Mangler, Children of the Corn, Lawnmower Man, and Maximum Overdrive) that have held up to multiple rereadings. His second collection, Skeleton Crew (1985), is equally good. Later collections are more hit or miss, but never without their gems.

One of the coolest things about the e-book revolution is the availability of free versions of public domain books. Twenty years ago, I searched high and low before I found an overpriced paperback copy. Now, along with Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, and Robert W. Chambers (and many, many others), you can get most of his work for free. Same for the more literary ghost stories of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

That's plenty of stories that should carry you through the Halloween season and beyond. And they don't even scratch the surface. Let me know what collections you find yourself reaching for each year when the temperatures cool down, the leaves turn, and the air fills with the vile smell of manufactured pumpkin spice.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Prelude to the Spooky Season - a review and some of my favorite horror novels

I've seen the name Michael McDowell kicking around the horror stacks of used book stores forever, but until the other day had never read anything by him. Based on its very cool cover and how good several persuasive reviews made it sound, I bought The Elementals. It's very good and I heartily recommend it.

The Savages are one of the oldest and richest families in Mobile. Each year they summer at Beldame, a Victorian home they built on a nearly inaccessible beach at the bottom of Mobile Bay. There are two other identical houses there: one owned by the family of Dauphin Savage's wife, and a third, seemingly empty and abandoned for years. This being a Southern Gothic haunted house story, it's not abandoned. Not at all.

The nature of the evil is elusive and chimerical. Those most familiar with it are unsure of its true nature. What they are know, though, is it is vicious and able to draw on its victims greatest fears and desires in shaping its attacks. McDowell introduces this element with such subtlety it's easy to wonder if it's even there at all. Only slowly does it creep into the real world, which itself is very oppressive and disturbing. So much so it doesn't seem like there's room for the supernatural, but the evil in the third house is real.

The first sign that something isn't right with the house is that it is slowly being subsumed by sand. While the other two houses remain clear, sand has started to pile up against the third house, rising in places as high as the windows. What starts as a simple sense of uneasiness grows slowly into an understanding that things are very wrong to outright terror.

McDowell said, "I am a commercial writer and I'm proud of that. I am writing things to be put in the bookstore next month. I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages." That may be true, and I've only read a single book of his, but he writes with far more skill than the average spinner-rack horror novel I grew up in the eighties.

The Savage and McCray families pulse with life, even as they suffocate under the murderous heat of summer at Beldame. There are disturbing family mysteries and pitiable human failings scattered all over the The Elementals. As the heat beats down the characters, sapping them of all energy, their conversations become languid, thick with fear and dark memories. All this feels so painfully real, it's startling how well McDowell introduces and weaves in the taint from the third house.

This is one of those books people say is written better than it needs to be. I said that myself on Facebook the other, but really, that's condescending - both to the genre and to McDowell. For me, if horror is to really work, if it's to unsettle, even scare me, not just by relying on Grand Guignol gore, it needs a setting and characters that seem real. McDowell does very well in The Elementals. If you have a taste for haunted house stories, this is one of the best I've read in a long time.

Finishing off The Elementals, I started thinking about my favorite horror novels. Here's some of my favorites. While I know in this deplorably secular age, it's common to see thrillers like Red Dragon or Psycho on best horror novel lists, you won't see them on mine. I appreciate the frisson from those works as much as anyone else, but for me, horror must include at least he possibility of the supernatural and create an atmosphere of wrongess in the Universe. Serial killers are too common, unfortunately, to do that for me.

Favorite Horror Novels

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The best haunted house story of them all. Is Eleanor being haunted or is she simply an unreliable, mentally disturbed narrator spiraling toward a breakdown? I won't tell.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub
It's been a while since I've read this and it's probably due a reread. It was inspired in part by Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan and it's filled with nods to classic ghost tales. It's a big eighties horror that doesn't disappoint. What is the worst thing the members of the Chowder Society did and who was Eva Galli?

The Other by Thomas Tryon
I saw the very creepy movie based on it first, late at night, by myself, and without the slightest clue of what I was in for. It's one of my favorite movies, any genre. Good twin, evil twin, summer in rural Connecticut, circa 1930, but so much more as well. I won't say much more about the plot. It's the work of a master magician, always distracting you with one hand, pulling off the trick with the other. It was a huge seller in its time, and if it hadn't gotten a snazzy reprint from The New York Review of Books, I would have said it's been forgotten.

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King
Early King is where it's at for me. Some of his later books are more polished (and tell good stories), but I've found that polish sands away too much of the grit and horror. I think I read this after the equally good The Shining, but this was the first horror novel I read where things happened on a big scale and effected scores of people. Each time I've reread it, I've been expecting to find some great flaws in it, and instead I'm just wowed again by the whole thing.

The Shining by Stephen King
As I wrote in the previous post, I first heard about this book from a radio ad. Two actors played Jack and Danny Torrance and it creeped the heck out of me. When I saw my aunt had a it, I asked her to borrow it and she didn't bat an eye. I was probably 12, but I'd already read the novelization of The Omen, and had started reading Lovecraft. That doesn't mean it didn't scare me, it definitely did, but I was prepared for it. Nonetheless, it sure did work my youthful little fear centers over. When I've reread it as an adult, I still appreciate the fright aspects of the book, but I also zero in on the tragedy of Jack's fall.

In many ways, it's the perfect King book. Whether by his hands or an editor's, The Shining is stripped down to its bare bones. For most of the book, there's only the Overlook Hotel and the Torrances. There are no real side plots (except Dick Halloran's rescue mission), just the hotel versus the family. It's lean storytelling with a sharp eye for human failings.


There's plenty more spooky novels I like, but it's the ones above that I've gone back to several times apiece over the years. Still, here're a few more spooktastic (there, I said it!) books for the season.

Jumping first to mind is T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies, like Ghost Story, is spun from the threads of a Arthur Machen story - this time, "The White People." Basically, an academic rents a cabin from some Mennonite types and gets a front row seat for the end of the world. The book came out in 1984 and that's pretty much it from Klein.

Proving I'm not always gore-shy, I really like Richard Laymon's early novel, The Woods Are Dark. It is about as disturbing a bloodfeast as imaginable. It's got all of its creator's touchstones: hyperviolence, freaky mutnat monsters, sexual creepiness, and a kickass girl. Because he worked those things to death, his books bored me after a while, but this and a few others are real monsters.

If I scoured my brain longer, I might come up with more, but this is what I got right now. As I said, it's in short stories that horror best flourishes. So next time, folks, it'll be the anthologies and collections that I keep dipping into time and time again when I need a good frightmare (rimshot!).

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Shiny Horror Covers From My Youth

The mid-seventies saw the birth of the big horror novel. There had always been novels, - see Conjure Wife, The Haunting of Hill House, and Rosemary's Baby - but short stories seem to have been the heart of horror.

Stephen King changed all that. His first published book, Carrie, sold a million paperback copies. After that, publishing being publishing, looked to replicate that success. Anne Rice, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz all spring from that era.

What brings me here today are the covers. These are the books that I loved when I first read them thirty-odd years ago and have held up to repeated rereadings. And they're shiny.

I first learned of this from a radio ad, probably on WNBC AM. It spooked the heck out of me, but when I saw my aunt's copy I grabbed it. And it grabbed me. The book, I'd argue, is perfect, without a wasted word. Whether King or an editor did it, this book has had every useless bit pared away, leaving a tragic story of a man broken and descending into madness.  I loathe the movie, not because of its lack of allegiance to the text, but because, like most of Kubrick's films, I find it static. Nicholson's Torrance holds no nuance or mystery. He's nuts from the start. It's not a question of will he hurt his family but when. 

In ninth grade, my friends Gordon R. and Danny F. both told me to read this. I read it the first time listening to Black Sabbath and it scared the crap out of me. It's still my favorite vampire story. Later, the same year, my friends told me to read The Stand - which, after the plague's outbreak, bored me to tears. NOTE: Not only is the cover shiny, it's 3-D. Do they still make embossed covers? 

This is another case of hating the movie. CBS made a two-part miniseries starring David Soul, James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia, and Lance Kerwin. I hated the way they made Barlow, the vampire, look and I hated that they left a few of my favorite bits out. Rewatching it, it's not so bad.

My friend Alex R. turned me on to this book, freshman year too. His English teacher had recommended it to him. I thank them both to this day. Having just read a pretty dismissive old review in the AV Club, I think it's time for a reread. 

A movie was made of it, starring Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. It stinks to high heaven.

I grabbed this at the late Barrett Book Trader because I had just finished Ghost Story and wanted more. It's not really a horror novel, but a fantasy novel. It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1981. Two boys spend the summer with a magician and come to realize they're learning real magic. Another book to reread, I think.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sci-fi Covers From My Youth

There were certain books in the boxes my dad kept in the attic that always caught my eye. These covers still hold places of honor burned deeply in to my hippocampus. Some are realistic, others impressionistic. Whichever they are, they helped form my vision of what sci-fi should look like. The aliens, spaceships, and heroes of my imagination had their roots in cover art as much as in the words behind the covers. Here are some of my favorite.

With barely a hint of what's inside other than something weird and mysterious, these three covers by Don Punchatz for the original Foundation trilogy were more than enough to entice me to pick them up. More than now, as a kid I picked up books based on cover art. The stark two-color schemes and cartoonish characters made these books look strange and alien - exactly what 12-year old me wanted in science fiction. I haven't read these in nearly twenty years, but I remember the clunky dialogue and outdated science did nothing to detract from their appeal. Asimov's idea - history as manipulatable math problems - is still big and just ridiculous enough to be cool. One reason I read so little modern sci-fi is that it just seems small.

Kelly Freas was one of the greatest sci-fi artists of all time. Just follow this link and look at his work to see what I mean. Lots of my dad's books had wilder Freas covers, but these are the ones I remember most.

The austere looking on Soldier, Ask Not with star and starship behind his shoulder still strikes me as the perfect mil-sci-fi picture. Dressed in utilitarian black uniform, dark circles under his eyes, and a brooding look on his face, he seems resigned to whatever calamitous event he's about to suffer. I didn't read the book for ages even though I'd read Dorsai! and Tactics of Mistake years earlier. It's been ages, which I suspect haven't been overly kind to the series, but Soldier was the best volume.

There's no doubt the man on the cover of Tactics is a hero, a man of destiny. Dickson's character, Cletus Grahame, is exactly that. A military genius, he lays the groundwork for the mercenaries of the planet Dorsai to become something other than just dedicated fighters, but instead galactic super soldiers, bred from the womb to combat perfection. Even thirty-five years ago, I thought the book was a too pat and Grahame's ideas worked way too well too often. Man, though, Freas' painting is awe-inspiring, like some New Soviet man or Fascist hero from the thirties, daring the future to thwart him. Probably exactly NOT what Dickson wanted you to think.

Dune and Dune Messiah came out in the sixties, so they were already in the attic by the time at eight or nine when I started rooting around for books to read. Children of Dune came out when I was ten and it must have been huge, because I even saw it in the spinners at the A&P. Three different artists, three different styles, all amazing, all etched in my brain.

John Schoenherr's cover of Dune imprinted itself on me only after I read the book. Which I did in a single, long day when I fourteen or so, the first time I'd ever done something like that. From practically the first page, Herbert's eco-themed space opera and its teenaged hero, grabbed and shook me hard. I still hold that it's one of the greatest works of sci-fi and that it didn't need any sequels.

I probably reread it three or four times before reading Dune Messiah and Children of Dune in my thirties. Once I read the book, that's the cover stuck with me. Under a huge outcrop, a small string of Fremen cross the endless desert of Arrakis. There are other covers, even one to by Vincent Di Fate to match Children, but whenever I think of the Arrakis, it looks like that.

Dune Messiah's  cover by Jack Gaughan is just freaky. I think it's supposed to be the tomb where Paul Atreides buried the skull of his father, Duke Leto,  but there was no way for me to know that before reading it. Instead, it was just some bizarre, giant head rising out of the sands for no apparent reason. I guess I just assumed it was some sort of spooky memorial to Paul. It's a tremendously striking cover that would never pass muster with these days.

Taking a much more realistic approach, Vincent Di Fate applied his sharp-edged style for the cover of Children of Dune. Pretty much mimicking the orange tones of Gaughan's art, Di Fate's Arrakis looks even harsher than Shoenherr's vision of Dune. Thinking back, probably because of its ubiquity, this is one of the first sci-fi covers I can really remember seeing. Di Fate's spaceships decorate tons of books I've read over the decades and I love their long, clean lines. While there isn't one of his iconic rockets here, on Children,  the red sky and skyline, composed of razor-sharp lines, feels pure sci-fi to me, and I love it. As much as I like wild cover art like on the Foundation books, I also like sleek realism.

Not only do I not like many modern covers, but reading mostly e-book, I don't even really see covers much anymore. Just for a second after I open the kindle app and before I click open the book file, and then it's gone. New books don't sit on my desk, cover face up burning its artist's impression of them on me. Since I don't have space for more physical books, I guess it's okay. As someone raised on the work of artists like Kelly Freas and Richard Powers it's just one more part of my past lost.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

To Tie-In or Not Tie-In

I've been ambivalent about tie-in novels for a very long time.  I say this as someone who grew up reading movie novelizations (particularly Alan Dean Foster's) and has really liked the pair of Warhammer 40K books I read. Andre Norton's Quag's Keep was good fun. I also admit my main reason lies with my terrible experience with the first of TSR's Dragonlance books: Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night. It's hard to remember what I disliked specifically about them, but I know by the time I made it to the middle of the second book, I wasn't going to even open the third, Dragons of Spring Dawning, even though I'd already bought it. 

What worked for me as a gamer - classes, alignment, definite rules of magic, etc. - became wooden on the page. Characters had defined roles to play that weren't interesting or intriguing. I would like to think I saw the coming flattening of fantasy fiction into generic mush, but I think I just found the books boring. Their "epic" stylings were old hat to me, having read hundred of fantasy books by that time, from Tolkien to Karl Edward Wagner to Ursula K. LeGuin. It didn't help that I also detested Larry Elmore's cover art, with its dull-eyed, moody characters and silly-looking faux-barbarians.

From that point in 1984, I watched the shelves of the Waldenbooks in the Staten Island mall fill up with more and more TSR novels and fewer and fewer ones non-TSR novels. When the Forgotten Realms books came along it got even worse. 

I looked at the FR books, but there was nothing there that looked appealing or caught my eye. I know there are loads of people who grew up on R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt books, but I'd already read the adventures of a moody, racial turncoat in the Elric books a decade earlier. 

And then the FR books just kept coming and coming. ISFDB lists nearly 250 books written in the setting. There's a point of overproduction and diminishing returns. Again, I didn't read those books, so my inclination to avoid them was based on prejudice, but acknowledging that doesn't mean I'm going to change my mind. There's way too much original fantasy with weird or cool ideas to choose from to make me. Watching what DL and FR did to D&D and gaming in general, rejecting its wide open nature for a highly delineated setting, didn't endear them to me either.

So why did I read and review Matthew Hughes' Pathfinders Tales book, Song of the Serpent, and why did I buy Howard Andrew Jones' Plague of Shadows and Stalking the Beast? Simply, I already know really like the authors' work. Hughes' Vancian Raffalon stories are a hoot and Jones Dabir and Asim are classic historical S&S.

I also like what I've seen of Pathfinder's Golarion setting. It's got the feel of an up-to-date version of TSR's old World of Grayhawk with room for any sort of campaign or adventure and is generic enough for the ref to mold it to his own vision. Its roots look more in keeping with D&D's pulpier roots than the mass-market epic ones of Dragonlance. Which strikes me as the perfect game setting to write stories for. I know I just complained about the generic qualities of DL, but by offering writers a generic one to play in it can be like the sandbox settings of early gaming, and therefore anything and everything goes. Which is a good thing.

My review of the Hughes book, Song of the Serpent is up over at Black Gate. It's a mixed review. The book's first half is just what I wanted in a Vance-pastiche, the second half, not so much. It mutates into a "big quest" story too different in tone and style from what came before. Hughes is a very good writer, so he's able to make the quest appealing and knows the material so he knows how to draw you in, but it wasn't what I wanted at that point. 

It didn't turn me against Golarion, though. The world, as interpreted by Hughes is a good one, with room for oddball Vance-style societies alongside a classic dwarf citadel and a sorta Old West boom town. Scanning the rest of the Pathfinder titles, they don't look like they're dominated by any single storyline or character (see Elminster or Drizzt). They're also fairly short, looking more in keeping with seventies era fantasy than the bloated tomes and endless series of the last thirty years. It's not that I don't have time to waste on those sorts of book, I just mostly don't want to. Then I found this quote by Pathfinder author Tim Pratt made me smile.

“It’s a strange and sprawling world where you can tell any kind of fantasy  story you want,” said Tim Pratt. “From weird Westerns with gunslingers,  to Gothic horror, to supernatural heist novels, to barbarian tales, to lost-world adventures, to archaeological expeditions with mystical monsters, and more. I’ve written Pathfinder books featuring killer robots from beyond the stars. It’s an amazingly wide-open world.”

How can you not be snagged by that quote? Still, I probably won't be rushing out to buy lots of of Pathfinder books, unless by an author I already like or recommended by someone whose tastes I respect. What I will say is, I'm not going to reject these sorts of books simply out of hand ever again.

So what do people think? Do you read these sorts of books? If so why, and if not, why not? 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mail Bag

Being my birthday a few weeks back, I got some new books. Some I ordered for myself (with birthday $ and Amazon cards) an one as a present (though plucked from my utterly-forgotten-by-me Amazon wishlist). 

From the first story I read by Raphael Ordoñez , "The Goblin King's Concubine", I was hooked by his writing and the rotting, Antellus (no longer called that for reasons you can read here) It combined pulp elements with compelling prose, and told a very good story. Last year, he published his first novel, the absolutely wonderful Dragonfly. Now, more than a year later, the sequel's appeared. Like its predecessor, the cover, painted by Ordoñez, is as wondrously strange as the story.

The grimdark books to shame all other grimdark books, is how I've referred to Bakker's Second Apocalypse series. If you think you have a high tolerance for violence and despair, these books might test you. Now, five years after the last book, The White Luck Warrior, a sequel has appeared. Originally, Bakker planned on a single concluding volume,  but the publisher decided two books were better. Then he wrote more material to make this better able to stand on its own. Whatever, as long as The Great Ordeal is here.

Matt Hughes' Raffalon adventures are the finest Jack Vance-inspired stories around. When I learned he'd done a Cugel the Clever pastiche for Paizo I bought it at once. I've already started Song of the Serpent (and will review it at Black Gate next week) and, so far, it's a hoot. 

Not only did I buy Matt Hughes' Paizo book, I bought the second of Howard Andrew Jones'. I'm one of those readers who look more than a little askance at game tie-ins. Perhaps it was the horrible experience of reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night. I'm not sure, but game-based novels never sat right with me. Following Jones' posts while he wrote Stalking the Beast and its follow-ups convinced me, maybe it was time to the format another go, I mean, heck, it's been over thirty years. Seriously, though, Jones is good, Golarion looks like a fun setting, and I love the cover. NOTE: I originally wrote this was his first. I was wrong, and rectified that by also buying the first, Plague of Shadows.

I have high hopes for Skelos. I just got the mobi file and the trade paper copy showed up in the mailbox this morning. High hopes, people, high hopes. 
I have never read McDowell, but his reputation is high and this looked good. Haunted house stories are a weakness for me, but too often they stink. Actually, it's more that they rarely compare favorably to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House or Anne River Siddon's The House Next Door. The Elementals might have the mettle to pass the test.
I totally forgot I put this on my wishlist last year. My sister-in-law didn't though, and got me it for my birthday. Campbell's early HPL-pastiches are some of the most fun fan fiction I've ever read. Unlike Lin Carter's weak undertakings, these, silly as they can be, are animated by a love and joy for the material coupled with an inherent talent that would surface in his original works a few years later. This edition of The Inhabitant of the Lake includes early drafts and facsimiles of Campbell's correspondence with Arkham House.