Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas and All That

It's Christmas time here in stately Vredenburgh Manor and my reading time has been limited. I was hoping to finish off The Xothic Legend collection tonight and that just didn't happen. Also, if you didn't catch me saying it on the facebook, it's very, very dull. Try as I might to let Robert Price's introductions whip up some modicum of enthusiasm in me for Carter's stories, it just ain't happening. To get the taste out of my mouth, I'm going to try to read one of the books Carter republished in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, The Last Unicorn.

On the other hand, I am gearing up to see Gov't Mule Tuesday night, so I got that going for me. Actually, I'm very excited. The thing about the Mule is anybody can just show up and play with them. They also do all sorts of cool covers in addition to their own bluesy power trio originals. I don't see much live music these days other than the luminous Mrs. V's various bands so this is a big deal.

So that's all I got to say for now. I hope everybody has had a great Christmas ans has a Happy New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Chaosium Mythos Fiction: Have You Seen the Yellow Sign? : The Hastur Cycle, edited by Robert M. Price


Starting with The Hastur Cycle in 1993, Chaosium Games started printing a series of  Lovecraftian fiction anthologies. Robert M. Price seems to have been in overall charge of the project, with others editing from time to time. Most of the volumes focus on a single aspect of the Mythos, be it a location, like Innsmouth, or a deity, like Cthulhu. Several collect the Mythos fiction of notable authors such as Clark Ashton Smith or Lin Carter. There are several general anthologies in the series, including a reprint of Edward Berglund's seminal Disciples of Cthulhu. You can read the previous entry here.

I'm hoping to reread and review as many of them as possible before I lose too many SAN points. I hope you'll drop by with each new post.

Pt. 1

I love Lovecraft. I love the betentacled, squamous, squelching monsters. I love the brooding atmosphere and cosmic horror. I love the strings of adjectives. I love I share my birthday, August 20th, with him. 

The understandable debate around the appropriateness of using the Gahan Wilson bust of HPL for the World Fantasy Award doesn't change the centrality of his work to weird fiction. He wasn't alone in introducing cosmic weirdness or non-supernatural evil into horror fiction, but I'd argue he's the most important person to have done so. If vampires and werewolves were proving less frightening in an age of growing secularism and scientific progress, he he shows you how the universe is still a harrowing, psyche shredding place. In his best, scariest stories, man is a speck 

I started reading Lovecraft when I was almost eleven years. The very first story I read was "The Festival." It was the night of the 1977 NYC Blackout and I read it out loud to my friend, Jesse B. who was sleeping over while his parents were out of town. It didn't really scare us but it was creepy enough to make me read the rest of the book, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror published by Scholastic Books( !). 

As an introduction to HPL's work, it was a pretty alright place to star. While it includes weaker stories like "The Transition of Juan Romero" and "Imprisoned With the Pharaohs", it also has the monumental "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." That book made me a fan for life. 

Pt. II

The Hastur Cycle, edited by Robert M. Price, is a good book with some dull stories in it.  That isn't as contradictory as it sounds. For each gem there's a snoozer only worth reading for its place in the development of the Lovecraft Mythos. Price, one of the major contemporary Lovecraftian, scholars lays a marker down in his forward about what he hoped to accomplish in this volume and I believe he makes a pretty good case for himself.

Price makes the claim that Lovecraft's mythos is part of a larger body of work that includes stories that predate his own. The HPL tentpole story in the book is "The Whisperer in Darkness." There are works that inspired Lovecraft by Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers, and Arthur Machen. Then there are stories that followed in HPL's wake by the likes of Karl Edward Wagner, August Derleth, and James Blish,

August Derleth wrote to Lovecraft that he should call the emerging shared world of stories The Hastur Mythos. While Price thinks Derleth just wanted to use the name of the god that was starting to loom large in his own stories, it evinces a brief moment of insight on the young author's part. The shared world of tales shouldn't be named after HPL's own creation but one that indicated the Mythos extended before HPL and would continue to beyond him into the future. 

The first two stories, "Haïta the Shepherd" (1891) and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (1886) by Ambrose Bierce, introduce some of the names that will become part of the central invented lore concerning the figure of Hastur. In the first, Hastur is a the god worshipped by the titular character. The second is a presented as the transcription of a spirit speaking through a medium. This is where the ruined city of Carcosa is mentioned and Hastur's eventual home, the star Aldebaran, first appears.

I don't have anything to say about the two (very short) tales. Their importance lies in helping inspire the next two stories, Robert W. Chambers' nutzoid "The Repairer of Reputations" (1895) and "The Yellow Sign (1895)." Chambers took character and place names from Bierce and added The King In Yellow, a fictional, decadent play apt to drive its readers mad. Mixing these elements together, there's a hint of reality that only heightens the more disturbing parts of his stories.

"Repairer" is a story told by a man manipulating his way to ruling an alternate 1895 America, replete with state sponsored suicide chambers along Washington Square Park and a German invasion of New Jersey. Or it's mad man with head trauma spinning his delusions into a web of paranoia and murder. 

Whichever it is, that dangerous book, The King in Yellow that sits at the heart of the narrator's tale. This startled the heck out of me when I first read it twenty years ago and it still does today.

"The King in Yellow" is a more straigh forward frightener. A louche artist (and reader of The King in Yellow) living near Washington Square Park, sees a strange man working at a nearby church. Soon his dreams are invaded and things start to go terribly wrong. His relationship with his virginal model starts to go wrong and soon all sorts of unpleasantness occurs.

Chamber's invented book clearly points in the direction of Lovecraft's own tome, the Necronomicon and all the various invented volumes evil lore that followed. Only the barest hints of the contents of the The King in Yellow are given which of course lets the reader's imagination run wild. Just where is Lake Hali and what is the Pallid Mask? What is the Yellow Sign that the narrator is asked if he's fouind? This is a magniicent story that still disturbs more than a century after it was written.

Stealing a line from "Over at the Frankenstein Place" from Rocky Horror, "The River of Night's Dreaming" (first published in Whispers III, 1981), by Karl Edward Wagner, is an excursion into madness, again triggered by The King in Yellow. An escapee from a psychiatric hospital finds herself involved in dark, decadent doings in a old mansion in an abandoned and decaying town. Again, is it real or madness?  I'm a big fan of Wagner's but I never particularly cared for this story. Rereading it in the context Price has created I liked it much more. The descent into despair or madness the protagonist suffers is well portrayed and quite unnerving.

While primarily a science-fiction writer (Cities in Flight, A Case of Conscience) and critic, James Blish, like so many others, was a youthful correspondent with the Old Gent from Providence on matters of horror. Part of a real letter he wrote to Lovecraft, asking if he ever intended to write a complete version of the Necronomicon, forms part of Blish story "More Light (first in Alchemy and Academe, 1970)." It posits that Chambers actually sat down and wrote out The King in Yellow and Lovecraft came into possession of it. A writer named William Atheling (Blish's own real-world pen name) has come into possession of it and he wants his friend to read it.

The contemporary portion of the story is good enough, but, sadly, by attempting what Chambers and Lovecraft never did, in creating large chunks of text for The King in Yellow, the story falls flat. It's neither chilling or disturbing. But I don't think that matters. I don't think it's possible for anyone, even a writer as talented as Blish, to create a play that's able to generate madness.

Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" (1895) seems to have introduced the idea of a race of semi-human beings who live under the earth and are the truth behind stories of the little people and changelings. Machen drew on Margaret Murray's silly theories of pastoral, goddess-worshipping humans who retreated into the the wild spaces of England. Price believes that Machen's story informed Lovecraft's own stories of strange creatures living and lurking behind the legends.

The story is a part of Machen's novel of interwoven tales, The Three Impostors. A young woman, destitute and on the verge of giving up, encounters an eminent scientist. He hires her as his children's governess thereby saving her from despair but also bringing her in to contact with the primal terrors lurking under England's green and pleasant hills. I love this one and it's borne up well after multiple rereadings.

Finally we come to Lovecraft's own "The Whisperer in Darkness (first in Weird Tales, 1931)." It's linked to Bierce's stories by the use of Hastur, though clearly he's no longer a shepherd's god. There are also mentions of the Yellow Sign, the Lake of Hali, and Dunsany's Bethmoora for good measure.

For those who haven't read it, well, you should. It's one of Lovecraft's big ones. While less subtle than I remembered, it still does a great job at creating a feeling of impending isolation and doom as the mysterious being hiding in the Vermont hills take action to prevent their discovery. The ending might seem cliched at this point but the first time I read it I was suitably creeped out.

A professor from Miskatonic University is caught up in a debate over whether strange bodies found in the wake of the Great Flood of 1927 are simply bloated animals or strange beings said to live on isolated hilltops. He is skeptical of any claims of boogie men hiding in the woods. Soon after his argument graces the pages of the newspapers he begins he is receiving letters, and later phonograph records, from a retired academic in Vermont that begin to make him change his mind.

Price makes a strong case, based on the general theme of a hidden race, as well as numerous little tips of the hat to Machen, that Lovecraft's story is "essentially a rewriting, a new version of Machen's."

Reading them back to back, I can see his point. Instead of human throwbacks hiding behinds stories of goblins, it's aether-riding aliens (winged, fungus-crab things from beyond our solar system if you must know) obscured by stories of the Yeti and strange figures moving above the Vermont treetops by night. This (and Robert Bloch's "Notebook Found in a Deserted House") made me more than a little uneasy during my first drive through the Vermont woods decades ago.

Robert Lupoff's "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" (first in F&SF, 1982) is a sequel to Lovecraft's "Whisperer." It takes claims made by the antagonists in the earlier story seriously and spins out what might have happened next. It's an interesting spin on things but I found it dull. Dull to the point I had to keep forcing myself to pick the book back up and finish the story. Ultimately, it's pretty much a body-swap love-story mashup that I could've done without.

"The Mine on Yuggoth" is one of Ramsey Campbell's earliest stories, first seeing print in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (1964) which was published when he was still a teenager. It's not great, but it's not terrible either. There's a verve that I've rarely found in stories by those other pasticheurs, August Derleth and Lin Carter. More of a science-fantasy story than horror, there are still a few very good bits that make it more than worth the fifteen minutes or so it takes to read.

James Wade's "Planetfall on Yuggoth" (HPL, 1972) is about a space mission to Pluto. Lovecraft's fiction exists in the story but it soon becomes clear it was more than just storytelling. Then we discover Ramsey Campbell's stories are more than fiction as well. It's slight, a bit of a goof, and perfectly enjoyable.

Then we get smacked in the face by August Derleth's terrible "The Return of Hastur (Weird Tales, 1939)." It's one of his early Mythos stories and I can't say anything about it except it's awful. Price's introduction includes a letter from Clark Ashton Smith to Derleth advising him how to fix the story. Every bit of advice was rejected and the story suffers for it.

Aside from the whole elemental take on the Mythos he would become infamous stinking up the story, Derleth's characters are never believable. There's barely a moment of suspicion or incredulity about the spooky goings on. Within a few pages people are glibly talking about strange fish-men from Innsmouth and gods and demons. And none of it's scary, or fun, or even very interesting.

It feels like Derleth wanted to fit the disparate bits and pieces of Lovecraft's stories and make it all make sense. Price states that Lovecraft explicitly didn't want everything to make sense: "Lovecraft always explained to correspondents that he did not achieve perfect consistency in his various stories, say, in what each said about Cthulhu or the Necronomicon, for the very good reason that he wanted his shuddery allusions to these eldritch items to reflect the inconsistencies, duplications, and redundancies of actual ancient myth cycles, where, e.g., we find two of three origin tales for the same goddess or shrine."

Things pick up considerably with "The Feaster from Afar" by Joseph Payne Brennan. It was first published in the original Disciples of Cthulhu (1976) but rights issues meant it didn't make Chaosium's reprint. Price was able to snag it for the 2nd edition of The Hastur Cycle.

Again it's set in the "real" world, where Lovecraft exists and is a writer strange stories that turn out to be real. I don't love that conceit, never finding it to work very well. How did HPL write what he did without getting killed right away? Nobody except the narrator or some inbred yokel knows he was telling the truth? Nope, it just doesn't work for me.

On the other hand, the story itself is pretty alright. A successful writer of mid-list historical fiction makes the mistake of going to Lovecraft country to find some peace and quiet so he can work on his next novel. Try to guess what happens to him. Despite it's lack of an original plot, Brennan does a good job with it and the feeling of swiftly encroaching doom is well done.

The Hastur Cycle concludes with a series of poems by Lin Carter. Inspired by Bierce, Chambers, and James Blish's work in "More Light." They're a mess and Price says so as well. Carter was driven by the need to make all the pieces fit together and make sense even more than Derleth. As much as I'm looking forward to reading The Xothic Cycle, Carter's collected Mythos stories, these poems made me dread it a little bit as well.


There are better books in this series than The Hastur Cycle but not many that make Price's case as well as this one. Each step of the way you can see how each story sort of moves on to the next one: Lovecraft builds on Machen and on Chambers who built on Bierce. Wagner looks back to Chambers and Wade looks to Lovecraft and Campbell. The book makes as good a case as possible that the Cthlhu Mythos is something greater and more inclusive than just the stories of HPL.

From the forward:

"In the same way, it seems to me highly misleading to take Lovecraft's stories and myth-concepts as the definitive version and to view Chambers and the others as leading up to it, Derleth and the others as representing a declension from it. Each has its own integrity, its own priority. Lovecraft has his moment upon the stage, but then he is replaced by a new teller of a new version."

When this volume first came out, many of these stories were not familiar to me at all. "Repairer of Reputations" blew me away and still does. It's the same for "The Novel of the Black Seal." I don't totally agree with Price's thesis, but I know he comes back to it again in later volumes. As much as Lovecraft drew on earlier authors I think he was doing something entirely different than them. I also see too many of the later authors as too more concerned with mimicking HPL instead of trying to contribute to a larger, inclusive Mythos. Still, after finishing The Hastur Cycle I admit I'm looking forward to see if I can be swayed to Price's side.

The later, post-HPL stories are a decidedly mixed bag of tentacles and pincers. Several are very early examples of Mythos fiction. Sadly, Derleth's is a perfect example of the bad path taken by many other writers. Explain everything, don't bother to build any sort of atmosphere, then explain everything a second time. It's not good.

Still, if you want to see how this great blobby mass that is the Cthlhu Mythos was influenced and grew, this is a good place to start. The less well known stories were hard to come by in 1993. By pulling them together with several important (and great) ones Price did a great service for Mythos readers. Price's essays are major bits of Mythos scholarship, well worth reading. Definitely get the 2nd edition with "The Feaster from Afar" in it.

Next Time: The Xothic Cycle, The Complete Mythos Fiction of Lin Carter, edited by Robert M. Price.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Mail Bag

It's been a while since I've mentioned new books bought. So here goes.

This was on sale and I wanted a digital version of Ramsey Campbell's "The Tugging." And there's a Charles Saunder's story in there to boot.

Reading a lot of hardboiled over the past month prompted me to finally get a copy of this

I only recently learned of Kersh and the terrific title story. For $1.99 you can't go wrong.

This I borrowed for free from Amazon. I like the Christopher Lee movie based on it, and loved his first novel, A Scent of New-Mown Hay

'Cause why not? Great so far.

This just popped up on radar last night. For $.99 how could I not buy it even without the gorgeous Josh Kirby covers.

Between this omnibus, the rest of the Thongor books, and the upcoming Xothic Cycle, it looks like I'm going to be having a very Lin Cartery New Year.

Finally, I should have the first Chaosium Mythos Fiction review up this week. The Hastur Cycle, despite some weak stories, has really rekindled hpl, my interest in Mythos stories. This site's gonna become very Cthulhuly for the next few months.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Have You Read the Book Bound in Pale Leather? - P.C. Hodgell

One of the original goals of blogging here and at Black Gate was to promote books that have fallen under the larger fantasy readership's radar. Be it due to age, lousy marketing, or simple bad luck, they haven't garnered the attention they deserve.

P.C. Hodgell's Kencyrath series is definitely a treasure too many people seemed to have missed. Don't get me wrong, I think there's a fair amount of critical appreciation of the books, and, going by her site (, she's got a pretty hardcore and involved group of fans. But when your read lists of important fantasy books you don't see Hodgell's name.

 In  a day when there's increasing clamor for female action heroes you'd think cat-clawed Jame would be just what folks want. I consider it pretty criminal that these books are not as commercially as successful as many much less worthy books.

God Stalk was the fifth review I did for Black Gate. It's still one of my favorite books and I never saw much about it so I knew I had to tell folks about it. I think I was pretty successful and I hope that continues as I work my way through the rest of the series.

Since then I've reviewed the first two sequels; Dark of the Moon over the summer, and Seeker's Mask just today. In the next few months I hope to get to the rest of the series, none of which I've read before.

I haven't read them because Hodgell writes books dense with plots and characters and she doesn't make it easy to follow along at times. Every time a new book's come out I felt I need to go back to the beginning and get back up to speed. Well, that never happened. Until now.

Chaosium Mythos Update - Real life intruded and I'm a little behind finishing off The Hastur Cycle. I'm hoping to get it done next week. I've got Thongor books to read and a presentation on Stapleton, my Staten Island hometown, to deliver (and I don't love public speaking, so that's got me a little freaked out.) Oh, and Thanksgiving.  So soon, but not this week.

I'm also not sure if I'll write about the Mythos books in order. For some reason #13,The Xothic Legend Cycle by Lin Carter is plaintively crying out to me. Maybe it's my fate this year to rouse a little interest in the late ultimate fan.

So that's all for now. Have a happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

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
34. The Klarkash-Ton Cycle: Clark Ashton Smith's Cthulhu Mythos Fiction

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!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Matter of Britain, Pirates, and Tough Guys

Statue of Boudica in London
I'm diving back into Henry Treece's Celtic tetralogy for Black Gate this coming week with Red Queen, White Queen. It's set during Boudica's bloody uprising against the Romans in 60 AD. Instead of the bloody queen, the book's perspective is from two soldiers, one Roman and the other a Briton. Where Artos and Medrawt in The Great Captains (reviewed at Black Gate) were building the great myths themselves, the protagonists here are only mortal moving through a legend-wreathed and spirit-haunted world.

Caractacus faces the Romans

The remaining books in the quartet are The Golden Strangers and The Dark Island. The first is set during the invasion of Britain by bronze using proto-Celtic tribes and their conquest of the stone age natives. The second is about Caractacus' war against the Romans.

I continue to be enthralled by the myths and history of early Britain. Even though my own roots are with the Saxon invaders, these stories have suffused the earth of the island itself and imprinted themselves on to all its inhabitants, including me through my ancestors. British resistance to foreign domination, be it Spain, France, or Germany, feels like it has its roots in the battles of Caractacus, Boudica, and Arthur. The seemingly endless struggle to bring a modicum of justice in times of chaos that lies with those stories as well.

I just finished off Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood books: Brethren of the Main, Captain Blood: His Odyssey, Captain Blood Returns, and The Fortunes of Captain Blood. I'll go into more detail on them later (with Howard Andrew Jones - the worst instigator of book buying around these days). For now, just let me say that they, are rollicking, swashbuckling adventures of the first order.

I've also gotten back into some good hardboiled books as well. I finally picked back up and polished of Bait Money, Max Allan Collin's first Nolan book. The reason I hadn't finished it was it wasn't grabbing me. Nolan's a little too nice and the caper wasn't shaping up as something too thrilling. I think part of the problem was that years ago a friend told me Nolan was nothing more than a Parker knockoff and I went in expecting something more brutal and cynical than it is.

While inspired by Richard Stark's master criminal, Collins had his on take on that archetype and explains it afterword. He wanted to look at that sort of a man in the later years of his career as well as exploring Collin's own baby boomer generation through the character of Jon. But when I first started reading the book I was expecting something different.

Well, I'm glad I returned to it. The end is explosive and a great setup for the sequel, Blood Money. And don't get me wrong, there's a fair amount of cynicism, it's just tempered compared to what you find in the Parker books.

I'm also in the middle of Fast One by Paul Cain. I'd never hear of Cain until seeing him included on Jones' (Chris Hocking's actually) list of hardboiled books the other week. In keeping with its title, this is one of the most fast-paced books I've ever read. Within a few pages it's like getting hit by a train, a bloody, booze-soaked train. Not done yet but great so far.

Based on that list I also bought The Mouse in the Mountain by Norbert Davis, The Complete Casebook of Cardigan: Vol. 1. by Frederick Nebel, Solomon's Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer, and The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe. All look like a lot of fun, but I have to admit I bought the Davis book because it's got a big dog in it.

There are really a lot of similarities between hardboiled fiction and swords & sorcery. Both are tougher, more cynical and feature heroes more concerned with staying alive or getting the money than fighting evil. Richard Stark is to Agatha Christie as Karl Edward Wagner is to Prof. Tolkien. This has been talked about before (can't find the links, but trust me, people have discussed this), and reading the Cain and Collins only reinforces this belief in me.

So that's what's going on off the pages of Black Gate for me bookwise. I'm not even sure what heroic fantasy book I'm going to pick up next. I think I need to find something truly odd and from off the beaten track (of course, lazy as I am, I probably won't make the effort and I'll just grab something I've read already).