Friday, August 26, 2011

Charles Williams: A Caution


The repentant sadist chastens rude Caucasia with the blade of too Euclidean love
In that place where Simon Magus sits playing with his cards
Queens
Kings
Knaves
Placing her under the unmerited obedience of the hazel rod
Which is
A ruler fit for bookstore clerks and men that play at being kings
Simon Magus
Simon Magus
Simon Magus in the mirror
The unicorn has lost her mate which found her when the wild hazel was young
But now it has all been turned to rods that are his horn
To rub between a maiden’s bosom
And she grieves for the wild hazel which was young in spring
Who knows the proper use of horns
Seeking him ever in the heaving breast of Gaul not knowing that he is gone to Logres
Simon Magus
Simon Magus
Simon Magus in the mirror
There at Pentecost saw Taliessin the young king Arthur crowned
And Bedivere rejoiced
And Balin swore
As rays of vert and rose and azure smote down upon the window and danced about the king
But Taliesin there in Arthur’s face upraised beheld, but brief, the image of himself
Until Percival was half turned and plain Sir Bors let fall a single snicker at
Simon Magus
Simon Magus
Simon Magus in the mirror
Mr. Eliot, lately of London, searched for a volume between repentant coffee spoons
To pass the time and as a means of general beneficence toward one so stately and so low
Offered for purchase
Magia
Goetia
And other things to those who needed waking and those already asleep
As the deck was no longer cut and the hazel rod stood idle in the southern seat of Logres
For Taliessin had of late removed to a city more congenial and perhaps Peter was short on change and
Might have grown tired of fishing
Penny for the old guy?
Penny for the old guy?
Penny for the old guy?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Howl my Moving Castle Lost its Legs:The Platypus Reads part CXXVII

We're finishing out the summer here with a trek back through the films of Hayao Miyazaki and with that a little look at some of his source material.  In this case, that means a read through Diana Wynne Jones' "Howl's Moving Castle."  The film adaptation of this book is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films and I've watched it numerous times over the past several years.  This is the first time, however, that I've turned to pick up the novel.

Stepping into Diana Wynne Jones's world of whiny wizards has been a treat.  There's a quirky fractured-fairy tale feel to the whole book that's actually subtle enough not to overwhelm the story with irony; what Tolkien calls "the author's wink at the other adults in the room."  The characters and settings function well both as archetypes and as individuals so that the fairy tale feel is preserved right along with all the trappings of a modern psychological novel.  For those who were introduced to the story with the film, it is pleasant to find that Miyazaki preserved enough of the original story to make it familiar and intelligible when turning to the novel and yet provided enough changes and omissions to keep the book fresh and interesting in its own right.  So far, my appreciation for neither the film nor the book has been diminished, and that's quite a rare thing.

We're only half-way through the book right now, so I'll have to stop there.  If the story continues the way it's going currently, however, they'll be nothing but good news to report once its finished.  Good luck in the meantime! 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Earthsea and Inception: Film Platypus

After the herculean task of blogging through "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy," it's been good to take a bit of a breather.  I'll have to ponder a bit more before I can definitely say what I learned from the experience.

Meanwhile, I have not been idle.  My wife and I have been working through some of the Tolkien Professor's lectures with all the accompanying reading that entails.  We've also started re-reading the Harry Potter books.  In addition to that, we've been making use of our Netflix account.  With that, we come to the real purpose of today's post.  This week, we've had the fun of watching two recent visually rich films; real treats for the eye.  The are studio Ghibli's "Tales From Earthsea" and Christopher Nolan's "Inception."

"Tales From Earthsea" is actually the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro.  In that respect, the film is just a fun chance to see the next generation of studio Ghibli directors strut his stuff.  I also happen to love Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books.  Put those together, and how could this not be a movie to watch the instant I became aware of it?  So, watch it we did.

Now, what do I think?  This is an adaptation of several Earthsea stories, so don't expect to see "The Wizard of Earthsea."  However, the screen play is done by Hayao himself and shows all the marks of his own peculiar genius for adaptation.  If you like the work Hayao Miyazaki has done with other adaptations like "Howl's Moving Castle," the adaptation itself should be right up your ally.  If you're an Earthsea purist, don't waste your time.  Questions of adaptation aside, Studio Ghibli does a wonderful job of bringing the world of Earthsea to life visually.  Every panel has that wonderfully rich touch we've come to expect.  The overall effect of the movie is somewhere on par with "Castle in the Sky" or "Naussicaa of the Valley of the Winds."  If you go in expecting to see "Spirited Away," or "Princess Mononoke" you'll be disappointed.  Of course, this only makes sense if you remember that those two movies are products of the elder Miyazaki at the height of his career.  This is still definitely a "first movie."  That said, Goro seems to have some real talent, and it will be worth watching his own style evolve over the years to come.

Moving on, we just finished watching "Inception" last night.  I have to say that it was worth watching this one at home if only so my wife and I could keep stopping the movie and dialog about what was going on and how we guessed it would turn out; sort of like reading a mystery novel together.  Nolan has a passion for playing around with cognition and it was nice to see him return again to his first love.  It was also enjoyable to watch Nolan take his talent for coming at a genre "sideways" and totally reinvigorate the "heist" movie.  The overall effect of the movie is so masterful that I'm sure this will be the new "Matrix" on college campuses for the next few years.

This, of course, brings us to the question of whether "Inception" is really just an action flick with fancy window dressing.  I'm not sure what I think about that question.  Christopher Nolan isn't Terrance Malik, nor does he claim to be.  However, his ideas seem to have more urgency and coherence than those of the Wichowski brothers.  If there is something that Nolan is toying with throughout the movie, I'm going to guess that it's the idea of "the thought that stops all thought," ala G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy."  There's also the obvious idea that art can plant memes in people's minds, but I think this Chestertonian angle is actually the deeper thread.  I think that's all I'll weigh in with for now.  We'll see what I think after more time and reading a few reviews.    

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Finishing the Mammoth Book of Fantasy: The Platypus Reads Part CXXVI

The Edge of the World by Michael Swanwick

Well, it's been a long hall.  Shifting constantly from author to author, from genre to genre, can take a lot out more out of you, page for page, than just sticking to one.  Maybe that's why I've never liked fiction anthologies.  I usually just skip over that section in the bookstore.  Still, reading through this particular anthology was worth it.  It's expanded my knowledge of the genre and put new and interesting authors on my radar.  With that preface, let's turn to Michael Swanwick.

"The Edge of the World" is a fitting name for the last short story in this collection.  In a sense, we've come to the boarders of the genre.  Like Swanwick's protagonists, we've shifted from great and mighty heroes, to cynical adventurers, and withered into broken, whiny teenagers frantically hoping someone will notice them.  There no longer seems to be any purpose or meaning to existence, so why not cease to exist?  This ultimate expression of the will to nausea in fantasy literature seems to signal the final failure of the genre.  Our imaginations have soared passed the "Wall Around the World" and found instead of the promised faerie kingdom a vast nothing.  Perhaps more than the exhaustion of genres or modes, this is the question that haunts modern fantasy: is there any point to the imagination?  Tolkien believed that it could be used to imitate God, and help us turn our hearts toward the greater reality beyond this vale of tears.  If that's all rubbish, then we are left with the burning question of why bother.  Oh, we will still go on writing fantasies, of course, so long as we're unwilling to chuck in the towel and disappear, but that underlying purposelessness will always be there, like a worm, gnawing away the strength from all we do.

So here, at the shores of the sea, I must leave you.  I will not say 'do not weep,' for not all tears are evil.

Until next time, gentle reader. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXV

The Phantasma of Q--- by Lisa Goldstein


This piece has a bit of a steam-punk flair mixed with the "lost world" fantasy that we saw with A. Merritt's "The Moon Pool."  It also has a touch of the "turn-about" mystery we see in Tanith Lee's "A Hero at the Gates."  All of this is in keeping with the trend of the last few stories in the collection toward an increase mixing of genres and techniques.

It makes sense that fantasy writing becomes more complex the closer you get to the present.  Think about it.  When Dunsany created his unique voice, or when Robert E. Howard got Sword and Sorcery up and running, the novelty of their creation was enough to hold the audience's attention.  Once they had done their thing, however, there was only so much of a spin subsequent writers could put on it before everything in that genre or mode came to sound like a pastiche.  As genres and modes proliferated, so did the number of authors writing in them until all the major possibilities were explored.  The only option for aspiring new writers of fantasy then became mixing genres modes to create new permutations that sound fresh and original.

All this means, however, that the genre is running the risk of exhausting itself (or has already has).  This matches my own experience, where the more contemporary the fantasy gets, the less I find it enjoyable or well-crafted.  All this serves as an introduction to the second to last story in the collection.

Audience by Jack Womack

I can only call this a work of surrealist fantasy.  I might call it fantasy of the absurd, but the overall tone is too somber for that.  There are some works whose meaning can't be ferreted out by traditional means.  You either "get it," or you don't.  I don't get "Audience.

One more to go. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXIV

Nets of Silver and Gold by James P. Blaylock

Blaylock gives us a piece that combines Harlon Ellison's minimalist fantasy with Theodore Sturgeon's "what if?" stories.  In so doing, it also fits in with Charles de Lint's penchant for writing fantasy in a pedestrian modern setting.  However, Blaylock adds a new twist in that he doesn't feel the need to explain the source or the meaning of the fantastic element.  It simply occurs, and we are left to guess its origin and import or else simply revel in the imaginative oddness of the tale.  I think the author would prefer that we do the latter over the former.  As del Torro reminds us when commenting on "Pan's Labyrinth," the old faerie stories never bother to explain the fantastic element; it's simply something that is.  G.K. Chesterton makes much of this in his essay The Ethics of Elfland, which serves as part of his larger autobiographical work "Orthodoxy," by saying that never really know the causal connection between any eventThus, it is nearer the mark to say that things happen by magic than that they happen by scientific law.  In this aspect, then, Blaylock's story recovers a bit of what the old fantasies do for us.  It reenchants the natural world around us by reminding us how little we grasp of the actual nature of things.  We don't know that there isn't a faerie world in the key hole, we bet on it, and betting means that occasionally we might be wrong. 

Next Up: The Phantasma of Q--- by Lisa Goldstein 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXIII

The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard  

Yes, I am slowing down.  Reading two short stories a day, or even one, is beginning to prove existentially exhausting.  I'm not sure if that's because I'm reading other things as well or not.  Perhaps this story hasn't interested me as much as some of the others?  I don't know.

"The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" is about a young artist who proposes to kill an already half-dead dragon that dominates a town by painting him.  The idea is that the toxins in the paint will eventually build up in the dragons system and finish him off.  Being desperate to get rid of the beast, which still exerts a psychic influence over the town, the magistrates empower Meric Cattanay to carry out his massive plan.  The story continues, interspersing bits of biographical work about Meric and his painting with scenes from Meric's life as he labors to cover the dragon in paint.  We are allowed to see Meric's first exploration of Griaule, his brief and sad affair with the foreman's wife, and the finishing of the painting and the artist's death.

I can't say that I particularly like the character of Meric Cattanay.  He isn't virtuous, and he doesn't have any great passion or charm to redeem him.  Mostly, he just drifts through life.  Griaule is more of a presence than a character, so there's not much to cling to there either.  The side characters are interesting, but we don't get to see very much of them.  There is an ironic twist to the story's conclusion which I won't spoil for you.  Perhaps you can make something of it?  If there's a greater point to the story, that's where it will be found.

Next Up: Nets of Silver and Gold by James P. Blaylock

Monday, August 08, 2011

Visiting Pan's Labyrinth: Film Platypus

 I think teaching makes you late for a lot of things.  It makes me late for film.  Usually, I'm not missing much, but sometimes I am.  This is one of those times.

I liked "Pan's Labyrinth."  I liked the lighting.  I liked the costumes.  I liked the story and the leisurely way in which it unfolded.  Seldom have I seen anything so richly imagined on film.  Predictably, it wasn't done by Americans.  The New Zealanders, the Japanese, and the Spanish all have us beat.

Yes, there was violence in the film, but I was surprised at how little del Torro seemed to relish it.  This movie could have been packed with bloodshed if he'd wanted it to be.  What is there is in the service of fleshing out his world and helping him ask the questions about pain, fantasy, and transcendence that he wanted to ask.  Maybe he still guessed wrong on the amount needed, but I'm not skilled enough a critic to know.

One thing I can speak on is that fighting Fascists doesn't make you a hero (as Hellboy knows); especially if your side does all the same things.  Being on the losing side doesn't make your cause any more just than being on the winning side.  We'll just never know what evils you would have perpetrated had you won.  Still, I'm not a Spaniard, and del Torro's pain is not my pain, so I won't say any more on that head lest I ere.

All this is dancing around what the movie is actually about: "is hope for a better world just a child's dream?"  I'm sure del Torro has volumes to speak on that topic, but he's careful about what he says in the film.  At the end, it really is left open to interpretation.  That's ok.  Sometimes it's ok just to pose a question.  The nature of the answer we get directly corresponds to the nature of the question we ask.  Finding the right question and the right way to ask it is a worthy effort for a story teller, or any other person.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Be Your Own Traveling Hero in Homer's Greece: Platypus Nostalgia

My annual summer video game is now complete.  I have finished my first action rgp, Titan Quest.  All in all, it was a satisfying game.  The world was richly imagined, the learning curve was fair, and if you know what you're doing it can be beaten on the first go (contra Diablo?).  Of course I didn't know what I was doing, but it was possible to get back on track without playing the game over again.  My only only critique: I would have liked more cinematics and a little more development of the plot (which was rather interesting and written by Randall Wallace of Braveheart fame), but I understand that some fans of the genre feel that these things get in the way.  If you like video games and ancient history, this one is worth checking out (especially since you can get a package deal at Amazon for 8 bucks!).

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.):The Platypus Reads Part CXXII


The Moon Pool by A. Merritt

Evidently, A. Merritt was popular at the turn of the century and then promptly disappeared from the public mind.  However, one can see strong similarities between his work and more well known contemporaries H. Rider Haggard and H.P. Lovecraft.  There's quite a bit of similarity in tone and plot to Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."  That said, Merritt's inclusion of women as major characters keeps him from simply being "Lovecraft before Lovecraft" and places him in with Haggard in terms of sensibilities.  All that to say that if you like either of the other two authors, it's worth giving Abraham Merritt a try.

The plot of "The Moon Pool" falls into the "lost world" genre, and narrates the quest of Dr. Throckmartin and company to uncover a lost Pacific civilization in the doctor's own words.  As a clever Platonic move, Dr. Throckmartin himself is not our narrator, but his friend Mr. Goodwin, thus placing us a two removes from the events of the story.  At the point at which Goodwin  begins his narration, Dr. Throckmartin has lost his fellows and is mentally disturbed.  The two friends meet on a boat traveling to Melbourne.  When Goodwin witnesses a mysterious being traveling by moonlight to trouble Dr. Throckmartin, Throckmartin decides to tell Goodwin his tale and plead for help.  As it turns out, Throckmartin claims to have discovered evidence of an incredibly ancient and incredibly advanced society having once lived in the far reaches of the Pacific ocean.  Predictably, the locals are all terrified of the ruins and it takes quite a bit of money to induce any to come and help in the excavations.  In the end, several of the natives agree on the condition that they be released from the dig every full moon.  The reason for this becomes clear at the full moo when mysterious music comes from the ruins and Thora, Dr. Throckmartin's wife's friend, has a fit of temporary insanity.  Convinced that the natives are behind the music and withholding some secret ritual or knowledge from the party, the explorers decide to hide out among the ruins at the next full moon.  When the time comes, the party finds a mysterious door charged with unexplainable energy.  When the full moon strikes it, the music begins and all but one who hear it are struck with sleep or immobility.  The one of the company who is not is carried away by mysterious lights.  One, by one, the company is carried off until only Throckmartin and his wife, Edith, remain.  Deciding to be proactive, the couple waits by the door and the doctor rushes in as the moonlight opens it.  He descends to a strange pool which seems to be the source of the light and music.  Out of its depths comes a strange apparition that Throckmartin attempts to combat.  The noise of the conflict brings Edith down from the door and she is caught and dragged into the water by the creature.  Throckmartin wanders mad for days until he is picked up by fishermen.  He tells Goodwin that he is now attempting to put together a rescue for his friends, who he believes to be kept alive by the creature, and enlists Goodwin.  Before they can carry out their plans, the light and music return and Dr. Throckmartin is carried off.

"The Moon Pearl" is a caution against scientific arrogance and the corresponding refusal to acknowledge the supernatural.  Throckmartin and his company all meet their end through a dogmatic unwillingness to acknowledge that there may be some things science cannot bend to the human will.  In this aspect, "The Moon Pearl" can also be seen as the ancestor of works like "Jurassic Park."  It also bear comparison to earlier works such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula" or Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."  Cautions against scientific arrogance abound in Western literature, but they seem to serve more as outlets for our fears than actual breaks or checks on the scientific enterprise, but whether you're seeking a morality play or just a gripping read, A. Merritt's "The Moon Pool" is worth the read.

Nota bene: There is a novel length treatment of "The Moon Pool" which Mike Ashley warns readers against in his brief write up.  The version I have read and the version he puts forth in the collection is the original short story.

Next Up: The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXI

Pixel Pixies by Charles de Lint

I have to confess that I've been interested in reading a little Charles de Lint ever since I saw John Howe's impressive covers in "Myth and Magic."  Of course, seeing a John Howe cover can make me want to pick up just about any book.  I made that mistake a while back with David Gemmel's "Legend."  Now I remember not to judge a book by its cover.  That said, I am pleased to report that in the case of Charles de Lint the picture matched the writing.  I haven't gotten as much delight out of any of the other stories in the collection as I have out of "Pixel Pixies."

Enough gushing, let me summarize.  "Pixel Pixies" tells the story of Bookstore owner Holly Rue and her resident Hobgoblin Dick.  Holly doesn't know Dick exists, but he helps keep her shop in order every night so long as he has free range of the books.  This nice little relationship is threatened when a gaggle of pixies begin running a muck on the store computer.  Their mischief is initially checked by the quick thinking of an artsy customer, but at night the pixies break out of the computer and begin wrecking havoc all over town.  Dick is able to save his mistress from being enchanted by the pixies, but is powerless to keep them from wrecking the shop.  Seeing the devastation, Holly gives her mysterious customer a call.  She arrives and promptly calls forth Dick, much to Holly's surprise.  Dick in turn reveals that the customer is a high born member of a faerie court.  Together, the three unlikely protagonists contrive a way to lure the pixies back to the store and then trap them in the computer.  Having been discovered, Dick contemplates relocating, but in the end decides to stay.      

"Pixel Pixies" is the sort of piece that makes you want to rush off to the computer and start writing yourself.  That, or grab a group of friends and start a "Scions" campaign.  It delights in subcreation, that filling in of the spandrels that God has purposely left in the universe so that his creatures can imitate their creator.  Seeing that de Lint may (I don't know for sure) bat from the neo-pagan side of things maybe he'd begrudge me that remark but I hope he'd allow it, if only for Tolkien's sake.  I mean it when I say "filling in the spandrels," because that is what de Lint has done: imagine a complete faerie world that fits nicely into the empty space of our own.  As nice as a hob in his hole.

Well, there's only one review today as "The Moon Pearl," by A. Merritt has turned out to be rather long.  As soon as it's finished, you can expect a review here.  Best wishes all!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXX

Paladin of the Lost Hour by Harlan Ellison

A lonely Vietnam war vet saves an old man from hooligans at the cemetery and then takes him in when he finds that the old fellow has no place to go.  They're an odd couple, even being different races, but they form a powerful friendship that helps them deal with past events they could never have tackled on their own.  Sounds like it could be a great story.  And it is.  Then there's this other story about a Pope who hid an extra hour inside a watch and gave it to his most trusted servant to guard because should the watch ever open, it would mean the end of the universe.  This watch has been handed down through the generations and now it's last guardian is dying and must find a worthy successor.  Harlan Ellison's task is to somehow combine these two stories into one in "The Paladin of the Lost Hour."

"The Paladin of the Lost Hour" is a sort of minimalist fantasy.  That is the world of the story is as close to our own world as possible with only one key twist.  In this case, the story is just another "buddy story" with the key twist of the magical watch to make it a fantasy.  The question is whether that one fantastic element mars or makes the otherwise realistic narrative.  Deciding whether the technique works or not in "The Paladin of the Lost Hour" is a hard one for me.  Ellison is such an adept writer that his "buddy story" really stands on its own two feet as a beautiful piece of work.  The fantasy elements are equally well written, but seem like an unwelcome intrusion into the world that he was set up.  Ultimately, I think that the fantasy element may detract from the themes and ideas of the piece rather than enhancing them.  I'm not one-hundred percent sure yet, but even the fact that I'm split says something about the dangers in writing this kind of minimalist fantasy.


Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon

In "Yesterday Was Monday," we have a little different spin on the fantastic.  Instead of minimalist fantasy, or alternate world fantasy, or lost age fantasy, we have a great example of fantasy as "what if."  What if a man woke up and suddenly was able to behold the secret workings of the universe; angles set-dressing, and archangels haggling over production schedules?  That's the "what if" that Theodore Sturgeon seeks to imagine in "Yesterday Was Monday."  Our unlikely Dante, a car mechanic named Harry, goes to sleep on Monday and wakes up on Wednesday to find that "Wednesday" is not a day, but a set that is being furiously dressed by angels and their servants for the next act of the cosmic drama.  Harry stumbles about with comic ineptitude, and meets archangels, God, and what might be a demon.  Eventually learning the rules of the production house, he is able to manipulate its denizens and get back to his proper place and day.

This sort of thing is amusing and forms, perhaps along with fairy tales, the most accessible form of Fantasy.  Mike Ashley, the editor of the collection, notes that this sort of fantasy is the kind that commonly appears in mainstream venues like The Saturday Evening Post.  I can remember reading more than a few things in this vein in literature textbooks when I was growing up.  There isn't any real moral to the story, but it does scratch that very human itch of asking "what if."  After all, what is fantasy more than the human capacity to ask "what if" and then set to work trying to answer that question?

Up Next: Pixel Pixies by Charles de Lint and The Moon Pearl by A. Merritt 

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CIX

Lady of the Skulls by Patricia A. McKillip

 As with Tanith Lee, Patricia A. McKillip represents a return to an emphasis on well-crafted language as opposed to break-neck pacing.  Indeed, like Lee, the pacing of the story is much more leisurely, and it also has more than a little of the detective story about it.  Unlike Lee's "A Hero at the Gates," however, "Lady of the Skulls" is not a detective story disguised as a fantasy.  It is instead a modernizing of a traditional fairy tale trope: the choice that exposes the hero's heart.

To summarize the action of "Lady of the Skulls," we are presented with the classic "maiden in an enchanted tower" trope.  The tower resides in the middle of a desert and is filled with all sort of amazing riches over which the lady serves as custodian.  A hero may spend twenty-four hours in the tower, but after that he must either leave or take what he believes to be the most valuable thing in the tower and leave.  If he guesses right and indeed takes the most valuable thing in the tower he will live and posses the whole tower.  if he guesses wrong, he will die the minute he steps outside the gate.  In a modern twist, the story is told with the maiden, not the hero, as the focal character.  We get to see what it might be like to be the custodian of an enchanted tower.  Of course, you can guess how the rest goes.  A gaggle of heroes comes and falls to deciding what treasure is the greatest.  One of them picks a "smart" answer, water, and dies.  The other are horrified except one who's nicer and smarter than the rest.  Can you guess what he chooses?  Yep, the lady.  Incidentally, the story ends before we find out if he's chosen right.  The real interest of the story comes when the knight learns how the lady was made custodian of the tower.  She used to be prostitute until she refused to service a wizard.  The wizard, seeing that a life of selling herself for money had forced the woman to erect a "tower" within herself, magically sets her as the undying guard over a real tower in the desert.  So for years, she has lived in the tower by herself with plants grown in the skulls of the tower's victims as her only solace (hence her name "lady of the skulls.")

"Lady of the Skulls" marks a departure with the last several tales in that it presents us with an explicit moral point.  The fact that we never find out if the knight did guess right may obscure it for a moment, but it is no more than a literary technique to get us to think more carefully about what we've just been told.  I'll take my stab at what I think the moral is, though if I'm wrong I won't drop dead the next time I step out the door.  I think the wizard has given the woman what she wants: a place where no man will abuse her again and those who do ignore her person-hood will pay the ultimate price.  The only way she can leave or be taken from this place of safety is if a man comes who values her more than all the treasure, or one she feels safe enough to confide her story to.  It may not be a fool-proof plan, but it's good enough for wizarding work.  Of course, the problem is that it takes years of waiting alone in the tower for Mr. right to come and that can get awful dispiriting in addition to having to watch so many people get hurt.  Putting that into the cogitator, I think the moral comes out thus: if we are vulnerable and open to relationship, people will take advantage of us and hurt us, but the emotional and psychological costs of removing ourselves from all relationships are too high not to risk it.
   
Sunlight on the Water by Louise Cooper

Cooper's tale is in a similar artistic vein to McKillip's.  The feel of the work also seems to bare a strong similarity to Ursula K. LeGuin.  As with Dunsany's "The Horde of the Gibbelins," this story really needs to be read through tabula rasa, so I'll leave it at that.  See what you think of the ending and the moral.  I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on this one.

Next Up: Paladin of the Lost Hour by Harlan Ellison and Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CVIII

The Bells of Shoredan by Roger Zelazny

Zelazny follows Moorcock and trumps him in matter of pacing over elegance.  His dialog sounds even more like a pastiche and his naming faculty is even weaker (ie. the "green boots of elfland").  Nevertheless, the pacing is so well handled that once you start reading its almost impossible to put down.  Short stories, lacking time for minutely developed plots and characters, seem the ideal form for this style of writing.  If this wasn't a short story I think that I might have burned out on mere pacing or that the thinness of the world would have overcome my interest and credulity in Dilvish's daring-do.

Speaking of Dilvish (sounds like devilish?), Zelazny, as with Moorcock, Vance, and Howard, continues in the sword and sorcery tradition of creating anti-heroes.  This is something we don't see very much in earlier pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (or do we?).  Howard is a bit ahead of the trend, but the other writers seem to be situated squarely in the mid to late 60s, and that may explain a good deal.  Still, it may be an American quirk, brought over from frontier stories and general American antipathy for respectability, refinement, and authority.  Whichever it is (or both), this point transitions nicely to Tanith Lee and her unique way of toying with the anti-hero in "A Hero at the Gates."


A Hero at the Gates by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee sets us up almost from the beginning of her story to believe that we've stumbled on another mercenary anti-hero.  She also sets us up to believe that we're reading another run-of-the mill fantasy adventure.  I have to confess that I was fooled on both counts.  Form follows function, and just as nothing within the story is as it seems, so the story itself is not what it seems either.  The hero Cyrion is really a hero, but his proper genre is Noir and the story's proper genre is crime fiction.

"A Hero at the Gates" sets us up for a traditional "kill the bad, get the girl, get the shiny" story.  We are presented with a mysterious desert town whose inhabitants are plagued by a bloodthirsty monster that stalks the each night ala "Beowulf."  The prince of the city, like a desert Hrothgar, is impotent in face of the evil.  He begs Cyrion to rid him of the monster and promises gold in return.  Cyrion walks carefree and haughty through the whole opening and has us pretty quickly convinced that he is an urbane but mercenary thug who merely wants to take advantage of these poor people for his own benefit.  We then have a twist.  While resting in his room, Cyrion hears a voice calling his name and discovers a small hole in the floor.  Through the hole in the floor, he can see a beautiful woman.  The woman tells Cyrion that he has been trapped and that the inhabitants of the city intend to capture him and sacrifice him and the woman to the monster.  His only apparent hope of escape is a secret door in the wall which leads to the monster's cave.  If he can defeat the monster now, he may be able to rescue the girl and escape.  Cyrion hears all this and makes several heartless responses that drive the poor woman to tears.  Nevertheless, he brave the secret passage and effortlessly kills the beast.  So far, so good.  Now things begin to become strange.  Instead of rescuing the maiden, he hacks off her head and presents it to the prince.  The prince is instantly relieved and informs Cyrion that the woman was really a witch that was holding the entire town hostage.  Cyrion then boasts that he knew this and proceeds, ala Hercule Poirot, to list all the things that had tipped him off.  He the goes to the treasury and claims the finest things he can find for his reward.  The grateful prince offer him the rule of the city, which Cyrion declines.  On the way out of the gates, the citizens stage a celebration.  Upon seeing the faces of two children, however, Cyrion throws his bag of treasure at the prince and promptly beheads him.  The astonished guards ask how Cyrion knew that the prince was also an evil enchanter.  Cyrion lists his observations and then scatters the treasure to the people showing himself to really be the traditional hero of fantasy and fairy tale.

This was a great little piece that made amends for some of the artistic defects of the last two writers.  Maybe it was reading Moorcock and Zelazny back to back before this story, but I was not expecting all the clever little twists, and was taken completely by surprise.  I don't want to denigrate Moorcock and Zelazny, who have proven themselves to have real talent, but I think that Lee was able to achieve a superior effect without making the artistic sacrifices of the other two authors.

Next Up: Lady of the Skulls by Patricia A. McKillip and Sunlight on the Water by Louise Cooper  

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part XVII

Moving on from Vance and back into darker fare, we come to Darrell Schweitzer and Michael Moorcock.

King Yvorian's Wager by Darrell Schweitzer

When I read the first few pages of this, I swore I was back in Earthsea.  Yvorian and his people seem strangely similar to fair-haired men of Karego-At and their god kings.   It is also similar in concept and tone, though not ending, to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Last Hieroglyph."  The form that the story takes, however, is that of a parable or a morality play.  The message we've heard before: it's better to be poor and have love and meaningful work than to be rich, loveless and idle.  Schweitzer is able to couch this moral in a story that, while still conventional, is able to capture the audience's attention and carry them through to the finish.  Overall, there is nothing outstanding about the piece except in so far as it shows the author's ability to tell a compelling tale.  So far in this collection, that's becoming a bit of a theme.

Kings in Darkness by Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn

With Michael Moorcock we come to a subtle shift in the collection.  To be precise, it's the point at which the verbal craftsmanship in the stories takes a sharp decline.  Previously, all the authors in the collection have been preeminent wordsmiths, carefully selecting every word on the page to create a distinct tone or voice that draws us into another world.  With Moorcock we run into an author that puts his creative eggs into another basket.  Moorcock's writing seems a little phoney and slap-dash, but it's not where the power of his story comes from, that lies instead on a firm mastery of pacing.  The speed at which the action occurs in "Three Kings in Darkness" is what keeps the reader reading, as well as the well-timed (and short) breaks in the action which provide just enough time to rally before something else exciting occurs.  I suspect this emphasis on fast pacing owes more than a little to Robert E. Howard, but even Howard's admittedly pulpy prose seems much more planned than Moorcock's "git 'er done" style of writing.  I also sense that unlike the earlier authors, Moorcock doesn't care about verisimilitude in creating his imagined world.  The names, places, and the way that the characters speak all has a phoney, trumped-up, note about it as if someone is casually remembering their high school Shakespeare and trying to reproduce it on the page in slip-shod fashion.  Still, as with author Terry Brooks, good strong pacing can amend for much and "Kings in Darkness" still turns out to be a page turner.  It's a good reminder to aspiring authors that there isn't one sure path to literary victory.

Next Up: The Bells of Shoredan by Roger Zelazny and A Hero at the Gates by Tanith Lee