Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Charles Saunders' Abengoni Gets Reviewed

My review of Charles "Father of Swords & Soul" Saunders Abengoni: First Calling went up this morning at Black Gate. It's his first effort at writing epic fantasy instead of his more usual S&S. He's succeeded brilliantly.

Abengoni features a larger cast and number of narrative lines than anything else I've read by Saunders before. There's even a glossary of people, places, and things in the back.

Unlike they typical fantasy doorstopper, A:FC comes in at under 400 pages unlike Erikson's bazillion page long Malazan tomes. Saunders doesn't wast time and wordage, instead keeping things on target.

The sideplots he does include never lose sight of what they're doing; introducing characters and exploring things not readily important but that will be. Too many epics get lost in jungles of extraneous matters that make you pine for the them to get back to telling the main story. A: FC doesn't do that at all.

I was surprised when a commenter over at Black Gate said he had never heard of Saunders. That he isn't a much more well known writer is one of those things that just makes me scratch his head. Imaro was groundbreaking as well as great S&S. It's one of the first times African themes were used as the basis for a fantasy world, eschewing the typical European tropes of Fantasyland.

But I get it. I only became aware of Saunders in 2001. At that point he'd fallen silent for a decade an a half and his novels were long out of print. I tracked them down in used book stores but it wasn't easy. Getting my hands on The Trail of Bohu, the third and final book in the series (At that point. A fourth has, The Naama War, has since been published), was extremely satisfying.

Now the man is on a roll. He's cranking out books, getting them published come Hell or highwater. He's working with Milton Davis editing anthologies. Which is great for me as a reader.

Last week I learned the Muffs, one of my favorite bands, have a new album out. It's their first in ten years. When I wrote this past weekend I listed to all their albums.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Chaosium's Mythos Fiction

   Way back in October 1993, Chaosium, publisher of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, started publishing what was to become a long line of short story anthologies centered around various elements of Lovecraft's fiction. From the very first book, The Hastur Cycle, edited by Robert M. Price, it was clear this was going to be an intriguing series. Not only was it going to include Lovercraft's own stories and those of authors inspired by him, it was also going to include other writers who had served as influences on him. This meant Bierce, Dunsanay, Machen and Chambers were going to get a chance to be read alongside the Lovercraft stories they helped inspire.

   I've managed to get my hands on the most of the series. I bought most of them in the  NYC Compleat Strategist as they were published. They looked more like game supplements than fiction anthologies and were stacked on the shelf right next to the CoC rules and supplements. Later ones I picked up via Amazon. 

In certain cases I didn't pick up second editions (The Book of Eibon) when they became available, while in others I did (The Hastur Cycle, and Encyclopedia Cthulhiana). I only bought the new editions when they had something extra to offer. The Hastur Cycle wasn't able to get the rights to Joseph Payne Brennan's "The Feaster from Afar" the first time around.

Maybe the book collecting gods think that's sacrilegious but I've always been more interested in the contents of a book than the cover. The Tindalos Cycle, published not by Chaosium but by Hippocampus Press, I'm only finally getting while typing this. I also never bought The Klarkash-Ton Cycle: Clark Ashton Smith's Cthulhu Mythos Fiction as I already owned the magnificent Night Shade Books omnibuses and I can't justify the replication. Again, those book collecting gods must be looking to toss a lightning bolt or two my way.

 It's an amazing series. Price is one of the leading authorities on HPL's fiction and weird fiction in general. He's not the sole editor of the series but he seems to have been the driving force behind it. He brings a fan's love of the stories and some often pretty serious literary theorizing to his essays in each collection that lacks (mostly) the often arrogant style of S. T. Joshi, the other great HPL authority. I sometimes think Joshi dislikes pulp fiction and want to elevate HPL above his origins while Price seems to revel in the good, pulpiness of many of the original Mythos stories. That said, the volumes of Robert W. Chambers and Arthur Machen's fiction are edited by Joshi.

   The stories, mostly reprints, are a great amount to one the greatest surveys of Mythos fiction. Stories by Chambers are contained in the same volume as ones by Karl Edward Wagner, Richard Lupoff, Lin Carter, and Lovecraft himself. Several of the volumes are reprints of earlier significant volumes of Mythos stories. If you want to see how this sub-genre of weird fiction was born and evolved over the decades this is one of the greatest ways to do it. 

1. The Hastur Cycle, ed. Robert M. Price
2. Mysteries of the Worm by Robert Bloch
3. Cthulhu's Heirs, ed. Thomas M. K. Stratman
4. The Shub-Niggurath Cycle: Tales of the Black Goat With a Thousand Young, ed. Robert M. Price
5. Encylopedia Cthulhiana by Daniel Harms
6. The Azathoth Cycle: Tales of the Blind Idiot God, ed. Robert M. Price
7. The Book of Iod by Henry Kuttner
8. Made in Goatswood: New Tales of Horror in the Severn Valley, ed.  Scott David Aniolowski
9. The Dunwich Cycle: Where the Old Gods Wait, ed. Robert M. Price
10. The Disciples of Cthulhu: 2nd Revised Edition, ed. Ed Berglund
11. The Cthulhu Cycle: Thirteen Tentacles of Terror, ed. Robert M. Price
12. The Necronomicon: Selected Stories and Essays Concerning the Blasphemous Tome of the Mad Arab, ed. Robert M. Price
13. The Xothic Legend Cycle: The Complete Mythos Fiction of Lin Carter, ed. Robert M. Price
14. The Nyarlathotep Cycle: The God of a Thousand Forms, ed. Robert M. Price
15. Singer of Strange Songs: A Celebration of Brian Lumley, ed. Scott  David Aniolowski
16. The Scroll of Thoth: Tales of Simon Magus and the Great Old Ones by Richard L. Tierney
17. The Complete Pegāna: All the Tales Pertaining to the Fabulous Realm of Pegāna, ed. S. T. Joshi
18. The Innsmouth Cycle: The Taint of the Deep Ones, ed. Robert M. Price
19. The Ithaqua Cycle: The Wind-Walker of the Icy Wastes, ed. Robert M. Price
20. The Antarktos Cycle, ed. Robert M. Price
21. Tales Out of Innsmouth: New Tales of the Children of Dagon, ed. Robert M. Price
22. The Book of Dzyan by Madame Blavatsky
23. The Yellow Sign and Other Tales: The Complete Weird Tales of         Robert W. Chambers, ed. S. T. Joshi
24. The Three Impostors and Other Stories: Machen 1, ed. S. T. Joshi
25. Song of Cthulhu: Tales of the Spheres Beyond Sound, ed. Stephen       Mark Rainey
26. Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard, ed. Robert M. Price
27. The Book of Eibon, ed. Robert M. Price
28. The Disciples of Cthulhu II, ed. Ed Berglund
29. The White People and Other Stories: Machen 2, ed. S. T. Joshi
30. The Terror and Other Stories: Machen 3, ed. S. T. Joshi
31. The Tsathoggua Cycle: Terror Tales of the Toad God, ed. Robert M. Price
32. The Yith Cycle: Lovecraftian Tales of the Great Race and Time Travel, ed. Robert M. Price
33. The Tindalos Cycle ed. Robert M. Price

Those are the books I have and the ones I consider the real series started all those years ago with The Hastur Cycle. Chaosium published a few novels under the series banner but I've dismissed them. They don't serve as part of the massive survey of Mythos short fiction. All are otiginal, contemporary works and haven't had any time to play in the development of this massive body of communal work that goes back over eighty years.

There are also a few anthologies that have been produced without the guiding hands of Robert Price. They also don't look as good as the ones he oversaw. For both those reasons I haven't bothered buying them.

Keith West's review of Lin Carter's The Spawn of Cthulhu got me thinking about "The Whisperer in the Darkness", one of my favorite HPL stories. That in turn got me thinking about this series. It's on the top shelf so I don't pull any of its volumes down that often. Considering the time and effort I spent acquiring the books that seemed a little sad. 

So I'm going to start rereading them and reviewing them. I'd love to read one a week but I know that's not going to happen. I'm too slack and I don't want to fall behind in my other reviewing plans and obligations.

I'm also not sure if I'll review all of them. Some, like The Book of Eibon and The Book of Dzyan are really collections of "esoteric wisdom", explicitly fictional in the first and purportedly true but obviously nonsense in the second. I'm probably not going to do more than skim them. I've already read and reviewed Richard Tierney's The Scroll of Thoth several years ago (didn't like it), so I'm not going to do it again.

However this works out, it's going to be a fun project and I hope folks find it interesting. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

That's hardboiled gold in that durn basement!

It pays to check out those boxes of books you've got stashed out of sight and mind. I've got a large batch of books set aside for eventual disposal. Going through them for an upcoming yard sale I discovered two anthologies I'd bought nearly twenty years ago and never read a single story in.

The first is City Sleuths and Tough Guys, edited by David Willis
McCullough. It's a historical survey of urban crime stories ranging from Edgar Allan Poe through Sue Grafton. This looks like it's worth holding on to for a little longer.

The second book is a definite keeper. It's Tough Guys & Dangerous Dames, edited by Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg. The table of contents is basically a list of the best hardboiled American writers from the last century. There's Chandler, Raoul Whitfield, Norbert Davis, Hugh B. Cave, Paul Cain, John D. MacDonald, and a host others. Discovering this one made me very happy.

A Disappointment

I've written a fair amount about Andre Norton's Witch World series at this point. Just this morning my review of Sorceress of the Witch World posted at Black Gate. In the past between this site and Black Gate I've reviewed Spell of the Witch World, Three Against the Witch World, Warlock of the Witch World, and Year of the Unicorn

Sorceress concludes the trilogy started in Three and continued in Warlock. I was pretty keyed up to read it. While there's some great stuff in it, including a wizard being used as a power source for a city of cyborgs, it's a disappointment.

All the novels in the series I've read suffer from a stilted style I assume was meant to sound more olde tyme. That's something that doesn't alway work and it totally fails in Sorceress. It makes the heroine sound dull and affectless when she definitely shouldn't.

She's smart as well as clever. Even stripped of her overt magical powers as a consequence of things that happened in Warlock she's still a dangerous foe. But she sounds like she was hit in the head one time too many.

Then there's all the action she's in the middle of. The way she tells it she might as well be describing paint drying. It's just dull, dull, dull.

Still, this is a pretty great series overall. The very first book, Witch World, starts with some terrific world-building and mind-blowing pulp plotting and great action scenes. From there it only gets niftier.

Actually, the books seem to get less pulpy as they go on but I don't hold that agains them. The first two, Witch World and Web of the Witch World are pure science fantasy, complete with ray guns, flying cars, and super computers along with swords and psychic talents.

The later books are more serious and darker. The the stories set in High Hallack focus on the effects of a long, brutal war. War in these stories is less of an excuse for the heroes to be heroic than a terrible thing that must be done to survive. The cost in human lives and human potential is tremendous and is rarely recovered.

For what were initially marketed as YA books, there's a lot of heavy stuff going on. There's genocide, the aftermath of war, opressive gender roles, and lots of violence.

There's a constant atmosphere of loss that permeates much of what I've read so far. There are constant reminders that times were better in the past and the future may not get better. Even when the good guys win it's at terrible costs.

Norton hit on something and then ran with it pretty much for the rest of her life. Unless the rest of the books become amzingly bad I easily see myself finishing this series in the next year or so.

The next book for me is one I'm really looking forward to, The Crystal Gryphon. It features characters from "Dragon Scale Silver" and "The Sword of Unbelief", two excellent stories. I'm not sure when I'll get to that. I've written before that as much as I've like the novels, the short stories are what I've liked best. Probably not until next year.

So my carefully planned reading schedule has gotten knocked out of order already. Next week I'll have my review of Charles R. Saunder's first work of epic fantasy: Abengoni: First Calling. From what I've read, this is a book he's wanted to write for a long time. Thanks to the changed nature of publishing, technology, and the mighty Miltonn Davis, it's finally happening. With Milton behind him I thhink it's a safe bet that the rest of the series will actually get published unlike when DAW and Night Shade were involved.

Then I've got to do the short story reivews. HFQ came out the other day. Without even looking at I feel safe in saying I'm bound to find at least one story I like in it. Plus Swords and Sorcery Magazine's usual two stories and whatever else I can finnd in BCS and the last Fantasy Scroll.

I guess then I'll get back to P. C. Hodgell's Seeker's Mask and Lin Carter's first three Thongor books. And really, if Robert Price is overseeing Carter's bookks why the heck hasn't he let someone make cheap e-books of these things? Very annoying.

Musically, it's been a very Southern time here in Vredenburgh Manor. In anticipation of the Gov't Mule show we're going to in December, I've been listening to a lot of them. Also, lots of Allman Brothers and Derek Trucks Band. Right now I've got a video of Skynrd playing Freebird in England back in 1976. Watching Gaines and Collins play off each other is a blast.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Night

After watching a mostly not-too-spooky movies for most of the month, the luminous Mrs. V. and I will send the holiday out in style with a few creepier films. The highlight will be The Haunting, Robert Wise's effective adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

If there's time, we'll also watch Donnie Darko and Halloween. The latter was the first horror movie I saw in the theater and I remember it scaring the heck out of me. Even knowing it inside out it can still give me chills if I let it (and I will).

Writing this, I'm thinking about what other spooky movies I need to get my hands on. First, The Innocents, a 1961 version of Henry James' "Turn of the Screw" and William Archibald's stage adaptation of the novella.

Then I need to get my hands on the original Universal Lon Chaney Jr.-starring The Wolfman. It's not a perfect film but Chaney's Talbot is great and I'm a big Claude Rains fan (sadly, how many people can say that these days?)

I should also get good copies of all the Frankenstein movies. I hadn't watched all three in years. The first two are beautiful, channeling all sorts of German Expressionist film techniques and really introducing Boris Karloff to the world.

So have a fun Halloween and don't eat too much crap.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oh, yeah, this blog is supposed to be about swords & sorcery

One plug ugly cover
Until today's review of John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian over at Black Gate. I haven't been writing about swords & sorcery much of late. Between hardboiled crime stories and light fantasy, I've drifted away from my core subject. And it still is what I want to write about most.

Maybe that's part of the reason I reacted so favorably to Jakes' blond hero. The stories are a mixed bag: the first two are eh, the second one okay, and the last two almost pretty good. But in the end I liked the entire book. It's like a palate cleanser. After weeks of reading light books by Teresa Edgerton and James Blaylock, and crime stories set in the real world, Brak's adventures were just the sort of pure heroic fantasy fun to reset my engines. 

Jakes' stories have a stripped down feel to him. He wasn't trying to anything but write good adventure tales and at that he succeeded. He isn't interested in barbarism vs. civilization or collapsing the genre's assumptions. He just wanted to set a guy with a sword loose against villains and monsters. 

While the last two stories, "Ghosts of Stone" and "The Barge of Souls" are really good, I'm looking forward to checking out at least one of the novels. Jakes clearly hit his commercial stride as a novelist, not short story writer. I'm hoping the same skills that led to his success as a historical novelist will be present in the Brak books. I'll let you know how that works out.

I'm really looking forward to getting into Sorceress of the Witch World tonight. I've written several times about how I came to Andre Norton's series later in life. I'm still so grateful I finally decided to give it a chance. All five novels and two collections of short stories I've read previously are great. Her world and characters keep growing and getting richer with each new work. 

Anyhoo. After turning Howard Andrew Jones' discussion of the terrific Fast One by Paul Cain into an discussion of the merits of James Ellroy's White Jazz, I figured I'd take a look at it. I haven't read it since it first came out in 1992 and I pretty much abandoned his books after American Tabloid and Hollywood Nocturnes. He just kept working the same ideas over and over again to no end and the violence and plots became increasingly baroque and ludicrous. 

But I remembered that White Jazz had brought the monumental L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L.A. Confidential) to a dizzingly psychotic close. Its machine-gun paced prose and brass knuckles to the side of the skull craziness were the culmination of everything Ellroy had been doing before. 

I'm only a few chapters in so far but it's been worth it. I don't remember a lot of the book's details, but I'm hip to the sorts of games he plays so I can see certain movements in the plot forming already. And I don't care. It's like jumping onto an out of control train careening down the rails, getting faster and faster. Once you get on you really can't get off. Gripping stuff.

I met Ellroy at New York is Book Country back in early nineties. He was sitting at a table signing and selling books. He asked me to buy his latest, American Tabloid. I told him I already had. So buy something else, he said. I told him I'd bought and read everything he'd written. So he thanked me. Then he signed my friend's girlfriend's balloon with these immortal words: "Cougar Blood Boil!" Still no idea what it means but it was pretty cool.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Brak the Barbarian and Other Things to Come

I've need to start planning a little better beforehand what I'm going to review at Black Gate for some time now. There've been a few weeks where I didn't pick something until the Thursday before. First, it means I avoid longer books, and secondly, whatever the length, I still have to rush through it faster than I'd like.

So, next Tuesday - John Jake's first volume of unabashed REH inspired tales of Brak the Barbarian, called Brak the Barbarian. I've read part of it and it's not that bad. In fact some of it's pretty alright.

After that I'm going to go back to Andre Norton's Witch World series with Sorceress of the Witch World, finishing the trilogy started in Three Against Witch World and continued in Warlock of the Witch World (both reviewed in Black Gate). I'm looking forward to how she ties the trilogy together.

Then it's back to P. C. Hodgell's Kencyrath Cycle and the third volume, Seeker's Mask. Again I reviewed the earlier books,  God Stalk and Dark of the Moon over at Black Gate. I've read this one before and I can tell you it's a great gothic mystery (with ensorcelled chickens and wandering towers).

Finally, I'm going to review the coected Thongor books of too many people's favorite punching bag; Lin Carter. I'll be doing it in two parts: first, Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria, Thongor and the Dragon City, and Thongor Against the Gods, second, Thongor in the City of Magicians, Thongor at the End of Time, and Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus.

John O'Neil's piece on fan fiction last week over at Black Gate inspired me to revisit one of the possible progenitors of stuff, I've written before, as John very kindly mentions, that Lin Carter was essentially a fan fiction writer who managed to get published. Most of his books are pastiches of his favorites. That means lots of ERB, Leigh Brackett, Lester Dent, and of course, REH and HPL imitations.

Four years ago I reviewed Thongor and the Wizard of LemuriaIt was harsh, and while the book warrants harsh, but a little too flippant. . I've grown a little softer on Carter in the ensuing years. I really dug Young Thongor and Kellory the Warlock's a solid middle-of-the-road book. So I'm going back to it.

I'm also readng a bunch of other stuff, mostly in conjunction with the reading days going on at Howard Andrew Jones' site. That means some hardboiled crime stories for Mondays and Lord Dunsany for Firdays.

So far it's been a lot of fun. I haven't read a lot of crime fiction lately and Jones has put a lot of stuff I have never heard on my radar. I've never read more than a few Dunsany stories at all so this has been a great chance to read them and read some interesting commentary.

So that's what going. Fun reading times ahead!