Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Black Company Reread

I recently read some comments on that the Black Company books by Glen Cook are terrible. The prose is non-descriptive and the books are just dialogue-driven. I disagree with those complaints vehemently. Almost all the modern military and grimdark books owe an extreme debt of gratitude to Cook's 35 year old series.

When I read the first book, The Black Company, back in 1984, it was like nothing I had read before. Cook told a story of an epic struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of even greater darkness. He told it in alien-sounding contemporary dialogue and from a ground-level view. The narrator, Croaker, is smart, but he isn't one of the important strategists or commanders of the titular mercenary commanders. 

The second book, Shadows Linger, is one of the most hard-boiled fantasy books I've ever read. The initial protagonist is pure noir protagonist. For money and lust, he gets ensnared in the vilest of plots. When he tries to extricate himself, he falls into the hands of the Black Company. It might be my single favorite book in the whole, long series.  

The last of the initial three book run, The White Rose, is epic and weird. It's got flying whales, talking menhirs, and the resurrection of the series' Sauron figure, the Dominator. Again, Cook shows us events from a grunt-eye view (or at least a surgeon-eye view), and it's a mean, brutal vantage point.

Except for the last two installments, Water Sleeps (1999) and Soldiers Live (2002), I've read these books three or four times at least. I might have read the first three another two or three on top of that. Everything above is from memory. Next to PC Hodgell's Kencyrath books, Cook's series is my favorite. What separates it from its grimdark descendants is it never succumbs to their penchant for misery porn and cheap cynicism. So many current authors seem to think Cook's work succeeds because of the darkness, so that's what they go for. I also think a lot of them can't do the plotting and character creation of Cook, so they settle for gore and sadism. 

In case you doubt my opinion about the quality of Cook's prose, here are the opening paragraphs of the entire series. 
   There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye's handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.
   Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts or livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.
   Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.
   But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.
   We should have been better prepared. We did have four modestly accomplished wizards to stand sentinel against predatory tomorrows - though never by any means as sophisticated as divining through sheeps' entrails.
   Still, the best augurs are those who divine from portents of the past. They compile phenomenal records.
   Beryl totters perpetually, ready to stumble over a precipice into chaos. The Queen of the Jewel Cities was old and decadent and mad, filled with the stench of degeneracy and moral dryrot. Only a fool would be surprised by anything found creeping its streets at night.
That is how you open a series. You know you're in for crazy and wild, you're in for a world painted shadows and blood. There's also a clear current of cynicism that was almost bracing back then. You know you're in for something that will stand in stark contrast to the Terry Brooks-style fantasy that was getting churned out. 

Yeah, Cook's prose is sparse. It's not devoid of color and life, however. It's sharp and economical. You don't get pages wasted on extraneous sideplots. I get the love for Erikson's Malazan books (I read five of them before I quit), but I found them nowhere near as tight or exciting. The more I write, the more I'm looking forward to starting these in a couple of weeks. Woo hoo!

I don't love the morions the Company members are wearing, but more than any of the other covers (most of which, admittedly, stink). They're for the French editions and they're by Didier Graffet.

The Black Company
Shadows Linger (The Black Castle)

The White Rose 

The Books of the North

The Silver Spike

Shadow Games

Dreams of Steel

Bleak Seasons

She Is the Darkness I
She Is the Darkness II

Water Sleeps I

Water Sleeps II

Soldiers Live I

Soldiers Live II

The Books of the South

The Books of the Glittering Stone I

The Books of Glittering Stone II

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Some Thoughts on Opinions and Reviews

I'm old enough that I can remember the time when politicizing everything was the province of cranks and curmudgeons - like my dad. He wouldn't watch a Jane Fonda movie or read anything in the New York Times by Anthony Lewis or Tom Wicker. He would never think of buying the old New York Post when it was run by Dorothy Schiff. Today, though, way too many people submit everything to a political litmus test. If a writer disagrees with a reader's politics, than that reader is willing to avoid any of their work completely.

I'm also old enough to know that feeling strongly about politics and social/cultural arguments is serious business for many people (though far, far fewer than reading social media might lead you to believe). Sometimes I'm one of those people. I have very strong beliefs and opinions on a whole host of topics, and I also know I disagree in some way with every single one of you reading this right now. Trust me, I do.  

Most of you are probably blissfully unaware of the brouhaha surrounding the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic a few weeks back. It's not something I want to talk about specifically, but I do want to point to an article, "A Dissent Concerning Kevin Williamson," by one of the magazine's writers, Conor Friedersdorf. While it was written in support of not firing Williamson, what made it important for me was its call for everyone to back up, simmer down, and don't force people you disagree with out of publications and spaces in the middle. It reduces conversation to an echo chamber. I think it's a valuable article for the fraught and stupid times we live in. If we can't live alongside people we disagree with, - and residential self-sorting means we increasingly don't have to - what will we become?

I don't want to talk politics, especially here. I started this blog to write and talk about swords & sorcery. If I had to judge a book by its writer's politics, there are lots of books I wouldn't read. Sure, there are lines an artist might cross that'll exclude their work from my consideration (think Marion Zimmer Bradley or Bill Cosby). Few, though, actually cross those sorts of lines.

The thing is, lots of artists say vicious things or stupid things without it making their art vicious or stupid. Many live less than exemplary lives. So where do you draw the line? Do you not read Republican writers? Or do you not read Democratic writers? What if you're a Socialist, does only China Miéville make the cut for you? What about men who treated women like garbage? Where do you draw the line?

I'm bringing this up because a commenter on my recent Black Gate post lamented the political tweets of Cirsova's editor, P. Alexander. His posts are political, but they're only as political as those of plenty of folks on the opposite side of the spectrum. I generally avoid the more political comments from writers and editors I follow. Mostly because they bore me. It bores me deeply when people feel the need to be some sort of activist should crowd out their artistry and they have to expound on everything under the sun. Be political all you want, just don't expect me to care.

I care about and am intrigued by an artist's politics where they intersect with their art. Steve Brust and Jerry Pournelle's stories are infused with their politics. That's where I want to see what a writer believes come out - in the stories they tell, not in a series of tweets. I want to see how it affects his work aesthetically and thematically.  

If a writer engages in polemics, does her artistry enable her to create an engaging and rewarding story? It can be done, but it's difficult. That's why when that's achieved, I can enjoy a book even if it's pushing an agenda I disagree with. With that sort of book, I'll be more than happy to discuss the author's politics, heck, it's imperative that I talk about the politics. It would be unfair to the work and the writer if I didn't. I'd be doing it as a critic of art, not of politics, though. 

In my reviews, I will not allow myself to get yanked into political discussions that don't have bearing on the actual works. If you think Isaac Asimov's or Robert Heinlein's politics sucked, good for you. Unless you can show me where how they're important to a better critique of Second Foundation or Rocketship Galileo, move on.

Most of what I review is entertainment, no matter its author's views. I don't know and I don't care what Karl Edward Wagner's or Fritz Leiber's politics where, and I'm glad. I'm sort of pissed off that so many contemporary writers insist on telling me and everyone where they stand on everything.

I'm getting off track, though. As much as I don't want politcs everywhere, it seems like that's how things are going to stay for the time being. If we don't want to be at each everyone else's throat, we all need to step back when someone says something we disagree with we need to step back and think instead of screaming that the speaker should be cast out or running away. We need to learn how to engage with people we disagree with and discuss and debate. 

I came across another valuable article, this time at Psychology Today. By Pamela Paresky, it's titled "No Decent Person..." In it, she describes the response of someone to an innocuous tweet from conservative writer, Charlie Sykes.

The general response she got on Twitter was "Not a chance." One person tweeted:

“I can't consider someone who favors stripping healthcare and food from those who need it a 'decent person.' Ever.”

I'm not going to get into the politics of Sykes, the tweeter, or the larger political debate here. What matter to me is, if you want you're political views to succeed and to be accepted by enough people to bring them to bear in the public sphere, refusing to talk to or see anyone on the other side as ever being decent, you'll probably fail. If you persist as seing everybody you differ from as an enemy, you're going to work yourself into a constant state of fury. 

Instead, for all sorts of reasons, - as an American, as a man, as a Christian - I strive to start by seeing people as decent and go from there. Sometimes it isn't easy, but I have to try. If I learn we differ on how we think healthcare should work in the US, I will not send you to Coventry. If you want to discuss and debate it, cool. I'm not going to scream and holler at you. If I do that, I'm treating you like less-than-human, and I'm giving up control over my own actions, the only ones I can control. Things improve by how we treat each other face to face.  

If you're going to say I'm naive or foolish, try to think of a novel way to tell me. I know what it's like to be deeply caught up in politics, both as someone with deeply held beliefs and as someone who has logged thousands of hours workign for politicians and on campaigns. I take politics incredibly seriously. What I don't believe is that it's the sum of who I am. They're only a part. Most of the people I've known who are the sum of their politics are people I'd rather not spend my time with. They're dull, monomaniacal, and rarely know less about the issues than they should. But, yeah, I know what it is to be completely wrapped up in politics and it's a lousy way to live.

I'm rambling here, so I'll bring it to a close. But, if it's not clear already, here's where I stand: I'm not going to not read a book because I don't like the author's views or what he or she tweets. All of us are far more than our politics. We owe it to each other to listen and try to understand where someone is coming from and why he believes what he does. If these things are important to us, whatever we're talking about, then we should be willing to explain explore them with someone who holds the opposite opinion. Right winger and left wingers, evangelicals and atheists, straight and gay, libertarian or Marxist, apathetic and apolitical, you're all welcome in my library. The one caveat is, you have to write a good book.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Berserker Covers

from If Magazine
It's been a long time, but I remember Fred Saberhagen's Berserker books with great fondness. The short stories were better than the novels, but even those weren't bad. I only read the first seven books. Saberhagen went on to write another ten books, and I have no idea how good or bad they are.

For those who haven't read them, in the far future, humanity is attacked by titanic, intelligent, self-replicating machines. Ages past, they were created by a species to wipe out its enemy. Now, only the machines remain, operating under their original programming: destroy all bad life.
"Mr. Jester" illustration from If

While the novels tend toward military sci-fi and thrillers, many of the short stories are good old fashioned problem stories. As most of the plots have faded from my brain (except "Mr. Jester"), so I'm thinking of digging them out and giving them a spin soon. When I do, I'll try to write something about them.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Covers from Another Unread Classic: Saberhagen's Empire of the East

Another one of the books everyone I knew growing up read and loved and that I never got around to myself is Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East. Presented as a single, big book, it's really an omnibus comprised of three novels: The Broken Lands (1968), The Black Mountains (1971), and Changeling Earth (1973). I even bought a copy some years ago, but I lost it or traded it in or something or other. Whatever happened, I don't have it anymore. Well, until yesterday when I grabbed a copy in THE GREATEST USED BOOK STORE IN THE WORLD (which I'll talk about later). 

I started reading it almost at once, and so far it's great. Very iconic stuff -- young boy, family murdered by villains, mentoring wizard, etc. Saberhagen isn't the most poetic of writers, instead writing in a clean, contemporary style. It's appropriate for a story that isn't pure fantasy, but one set in a post-apocalyptic super-science and magical setting. 

The Broken Lands

The Black Mountains

Changeling Earth

 Empire of the East

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ramsey Campbell Lovecraft Mythos

Everybody knows (or should know) the story of sixteen year old Ramsey Campbell submitting stories set in Lovecraft Country to August Derleth. Derleth sent them back suggesting he set them in his native England instead of alien New England. Thus Campbell's Sevren Valley was born. Instead of Arkham there's Brichester, for Innsmouth there's Goatswood, and for Kingsport, Temphill. 

The Chaosium published tribute to Campbell's Mythos fiction, Made in Goatswood has none of his early stories. I decided, in that case, I had better go and read them, first, for the fun of it, and then to get a better feel for what the collection authors' were hoping to emulate and memorialize. So, I'm also reading the latest edition of Campbell's first book, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants.

The edition I have (2013, Drugstore Indian Press) includes an introduction by Campbell and his early correspondence with August Derleth. It's fun thinking of Derleth doing what Lovecraft did for him for Campbell. Derleth offered many suggestions that led to Campbell creating his own English setting and new deities for Mythos-inspired fiction. It's interesting to look at how Campbell turned out - one of the most important and revered horror writers - versus how Derleth did - a poor Mythos writer, but a solid editor.

If you haven't read Campbell's pastiches, they're clunky and more about monsters than atmosphere. Nonetheless, they are a bunch of fun. Some are only echoes of stories by HPL, but in others you can already sense his eventual predilection for grotty, urban unease forming.

The best thing about them, though, has to be the monsters. They're more intimate than HPL's critters, and what they do to their victims more personal. Where Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth's kid just step on you, Gla'aki and Eihort gut you up close and you can feel your life seeping away, torturous moment by torturous moment. So, today, I give you monster pictures.

Byatis: "It had but one eye like the Cyclops and had claws like unto a crab. He said also that it had a nose like the elephants...and great serpent-like growths which hung from its face like a beard in the fashion of some sea monster. .." 
from "The Room in the Castle"

Gla'aki: "The centre of each picture was, it was obvious, the being know as Gla'aki. From an oval body protruded countless thin, pointed spines of multicolored metal' at the more rounded end of the oval a circular, thick-lipped mouth formed the centre of a spongy face, from which rose three yellow eyes on thin stalks. Around the underside of the body were many white pyramids, presumably used for locomotion. The diameter of the body must have been about ten feet at its least width."
from "The Inhabitant of the Lake"

Eihort: "Then came pale movement in the well, and something clambered up from the dark, a bloated blanched oval supported on myriad fleshless legs. Eyes formed in the gelatinous oval and stared at him."
        from "Before the Storm"

Y'golonac: "He saw why the shadow on the frosted pane yesterday had been headless, and he screamed. As the desk was thrust aside by the towering naked  figure, on whose surface still hung rags of the tweed suit, Strutt’s last thought was an unbelieving conviction that this was happening because he had read the
Revelations…but before he could scream out his protest his breath was cut off, as the hands descended on his face and the wet red mouths opened in their palms."
        from "Cold Print"

Thursday, March 22, 2018

An Appendix N Read: Burn, Witch, Burn by A. Merritt

A few weeks back I asked for what A. Merritt book should I start out with. The support everybody gave for their favorite title was equally enthusiastic. Finally, I settled on Burn, Witch, Burn (1932) because the Appendix N Book Club podcast made it sound insane. I finished it this past week. If you haven't read it, let me say right here that it is.

Narrated by Dr. Lowell (not his real name, he tells us), spins a tale of madness and terror in New York City that involves medical experts, gangsters, and, of course, a witch. The witch is a terrifying individual, spiritually and physically.
   Prepared though I had been for the extraordinary by Walters’ description of the doll-maker, her appearance gave me a distinct shock. Her height, her massiveness, were amplified by the proximity of the dolls and the slender figure of the girl. It was a giantess who regarded me from the doorway—a giantess whose heavy face with its broad, high cheek bones, mustached upper lip and thick mouth produced a suggestion of masculinity grotesquely in contrast with the immense bosom.
   I looked into her eyes and forgot all grotesqueness of face and figure. The eyes were enormous, a luminous black, clear, disconcertingly alive. As though they were twin spirits of life, and independent of the body. And from them poured a flood of vitality that sent along my nerves a warm tingle in which there was nothing sinister—or was not then. 
The vile Madame Mandilip, by means evil and unknown, crafts perfect miniature simulacrum of people she intends to kill. These she then animates and sends out to kill their models. It gets even weirder from there.

I read somewhere that Merritt wrote with "lush, florid prose," but that wasn't the case in Burn, Witch Burn. However he may have written his other books, that's not the case here. He writes, yes, with occasional overwrought flourishes, but with precision. His prose rushes the reader along, winging him deeper and deeper into the story's nightmarish events. 

With the nighttime arrival of a patient who seems to be suffering from no known malady, accompanied by his mobster boss, Merritt kicks the book off at full speed. With each ensuing chapter, the tension builds and Lowell and his compatriots' fear increases. Gradually, the action moves from crisp and clinical corridors of Lowell's hospital to the druggy, psychedelic chamber of Madame Mandilip, highlighting the fight between reason and unreason. Slowly the curtain obscuring the villain is raised, until we see her in her full, dark horror. Merritt knew how to grab you by the lapels and keep shaking you with increasing ferocity to the very last page.

Serving as a stand in for the reader, Dr. Lowell narrates with an eye to scientific precision. He's the realist among the story's characters, refusing, almost to the end, to believe Madame Mandilip's powers are supernatural. A man of the moder nage, he is unable to accept that sorcery ever existed. Instead, he insists it is no more than natural phenomenon that is yet unexplained.
After the body had been taken away, and as I sat waiting for McCann to return, I tried to orient myself to this phantasmagoria through which, it seemed to me, I had been moving for endless time. I tried to divest my mind of all prejudice, all preconceived ideas of what could and could not be. I began by conceding that this Madame Mandilip might possess some wisdom of which modern science is ignorant. I refused to call it witchcraft or sorcery. The words mean nothing, since they have been applied through the ages to entirely natural phenomena whose causes were not understood by the laity. Not so long ago, for example, the lighting of a match was “witchcraft” to many savage tribes.
No, Madame Mandilip was no “witch,” as Ricori thought her. She was mistress of some unknown science—that was all. 
Contrasted with him is Julian Ricori, mob boss and believer in witchcraft; he's also the best of the Burn, Witch, Burn's characters. Merritt has him speak in an odd cadenced way, which I imagine is supposed to imply the cautious precision of a non-native English speaker. I suspect it's meant to be humorous and make Ricori, a notorious criminal, likable. What I like most about Ricori is that whenever Lowell tries to explain away whatever crazy nonsense has just happened, it's the mobster who steps in as the true voice of "reason," insisting that what's going on is supernatural. 

Horror novels have a long history. The earliest, such as The Castle of Otranto (1765), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and Frankenstein (1818) are part of the great Gothic wing of horror fiction, and their authors had artistic connections to Romantic movement. There were loads and loads of penny dreadfuls in the decades following those first novels. At some point novels like Strange Case Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885)  and Dracula (1897). At some point, the genre evolved into something 

I'm not sure, though, where the modern, slick horror novel got its start. I can't claim Burn, Witch, Burn is the first (Merritt's own Seven Footsteps to Satan was published four years earlier), but it's got to be an early example.  There are none of the Romantic or Gothic trappings of many previous horror novels. It doesn't eliminate atmosphere, but does rely on shock and violence to deliver the frights. 

Burn, Witch, Burn is a direct ancestor of the horror novels from the genre mass-market heyday in the seventies and eighties (which remind me, I really must get a copy of Paperbacks from Hell). It's got the same sort of mad, lurid plot, and it's in a contemporary setting. It's visceral and doesn't beat around the bush. It gets to the point - MURDEROUS DEVIL DOLLS! - quickly. It's a good reminder that books don't need to be long and bloated to be effective.

I got some grief when I admitted I'd read nothing by Merritt other than "People of the Pit" (in Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's monumental tome, The Weird). I deserved it. Burn, Witch, Burn isn't the great lost horror novel, but it is a very, very good one. If you haven't read it, it's easiest enough to come by, including for free from Project Gutenberg Australia.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Chaosium Mythos Covers and the Chaosium Mythos Fiction Project

   I'm not sure if I'll ever complete my Chaosium Mythos Fiction Project, something I abandoned after only four posts (not counting an early non-project review I did of the The Scroll of Thoth). Even though I made it to the most excellent Mysteries of the Worm by Robert Bloch, struggling through the most execrable The Xothic Cycle by Lin Carter knocked the wind and the snot out of me. 

   Still, they those books, all 33 of them, call to me, chillingly, enticingly, from their place on the top shelf, every now and then as I walk past them to the attic. I hear their papery whispers summoning to pull them down and peruse secrets man was not meant to know. To once again hear the Dhol Chants, wander the streets of Ulthar, and spy upon the towers of Y'ha-nthlei beneath the ocean's waves. You know, the normal stuff books do.

   Lately, as I've been listening to podcast about HPL, those voices from above have pulled with a little more vigor. Some of the collections are really very good; especially the ones inspired by Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley's Mythos stories. There's a lot of dross between those covers, but there's also some really top-grade stuff, some of it by people no one's ever heard of. I'd really like to go back to the project, but we'll have to see what happens.

   Robert Price and all the other editors did a really good job scouring the world for great stories. A lot of the bad stuff, especially in Price's volumes also arises from the desire to present a complete history of Mythos fiction, meaning whether you want it or not, August Derleth's and Lin Carter's stories get included. Like 'em or not, they're important to the development of Mythos fiction as its own genre. 

   It doesn't just stop there, though. Price in particular was intent on using the collection he put together to explore Lovecraft's fiction as part of a greater context that stretches before and after his stories. For an full example of what I mean, read the post on The Hastur Cycle. Price includes writing from Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, and Robert Chambers and shows exactly where some of HPL's ideas and names came from. I don't agree with everything he says, but in the scheme of Mythos fiction, they're important collections and his arguments bear listening to.

1. Chaosium's Mythos Fiction 11/9/2014 
2. Chaosium Mythos Fiction: Have You Seen the Yellow Sign? : The Hastur Cycle, edited

The Covers: The early releases' covers were by Dreyfus, aka Andrew Caines. They're not bad, but not anything we haven't seen before. They made the books look more like gaming supplements than fiction.  

It was with the later edition covers by H. E. Fassl that the series took on a distinctive look. I don't know what techniques he employed. It looks like he sculpted sets and figures and made dioramas he then photographed. The sculpted pieces remind me of Clark Ashton Smith's creations. However he did them, they possess an eerie, organic quality that is deeply weird. They're a far cry from the pulpiness of the first covers or the later one. Instead, Fassl's work looks to the surrealness of Mythos fiction. Funny enough, though, my favorite is one that doesn't appear to be a diorama: Nameless Cults. Just what the heck is that screaming mouth mounted on, an egg? Very, very freaky. It's a shame they weren't able to have him do all the covers and give the entire series a unified, and very particular look.