Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane: The Platypus Reads Part CCLII

I needed a break from A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (too many authors and too many styles coming in too fast) so I decided to turn back to an author whose work I've enjoyed exploring: Robert E. Howard.  This time, however, I decided to skip over Howard's famous Conan yarns and instead take a look at one of his earlier creations, Solomon Kane.  The idea of a puritan occult detective was too intriguing to pass up.  I have the whole collection of Kane's tales and I do intend to blog them all.  Right now, my little literary detour has only encompassed the first two short stories so I'm going to record my thoughts on them right away and get back to the rest as I have time.

Skulls in the Stars

Solomon Kane makes his debut with this classic bit of English Gothic including a haunted moor, a vengeful ghost, and a solitary miser.  Howard's Kane fits the portrait of the archetypal puritan: grim, principled, metaphysical, with an iron sense of right and wrong.  I have a feeling Cotton Mather might have liked to see himself portrayed this way in a graphic novel.  What the author adds to the mix is his own adoration of courage and brute strength that while rightfully absent in his character is explicitly present in his narrator.  This creates an odd, ironic gap between the main character and the teller of the tale that allows the audience to cheer Kane on without feeling encouraged to adopt his worldview.  If that tone persists, it may be one of the keys to the likability of this early Howard creation.

The Right Hand of Doom

The title looks like a nod to Milton and seems to have received a nod from Mike Mignola in return (Hellboy Volume V is titled The Right Hand of Doom).  This short-short makes novel use of the standard puritan trope: the witch hanging.  Howard is careful to preserve the feel of the 16th-17th century in this piece while also including the pacing and action that a modern audience expects.  His knowledge of folklore works hand-in-glove with both the features to bring the whole story home in a way that is worthy of a Hellboy weird tale.  As in the prior story, Kane shows a firm sense of right and wrong which is still subtle enough to be at odds with the breezy moralist.  This helps the stern character earn our respect and if Howard keeps it up it will pay large dividends as the series continues.

So there you have it: The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.  It's not as polished as Howard's latter works, but it still has all of his raw energy and brilliant knack for spinning a rippin' good yarn.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLI

Wow, it's hard to read anthologies at anything other than a slow crawl.  The change from author to author and style to style is exhausting.  Slowing down is a good thing, though, if it makes time for reflection.  That seems like one good reason to create an anthology: to force readers to slow down and reflect.

With that as a preamble, let's move on to today's selections.

The Black Ferris by Ray Badbury

I didn't expect to see this Sci-Fi heavy hitter in a Fantasy collection, but there you go.  I've tried to get into Bradbury once or twice and failed.  His Martian Chronicles, in particular, resisted all my best efforts.  This short story, however, worked like a charm.  The sense of atmosphere in particular is masterfully done (a sort of Tom Sawyer strays into Edgar Allan Poe).  My only complaint is that there isn't more of it, but apparently Bradbury already fixed that by expanding the story into Something Wicked This Way Comes.

This raises a good point.  Bradbury lived long enough to reap the harvest so many Sci-Fi and Fantasy greats planted: he was able to eventually publish his books on his terms.  The rules of the market through mid-century where that Fantasy and Science Fiction were for magazines and comic books and that they were to be read by kids and teens.  The first rule began to change in the 1960s, but U.S. publishers were still unsure if works of speculative fiction could be sold to a mass adult audience.  Fantasy proved it  could draw a mass audience in 1977 with the publication and record success of Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, but that book and its immediate successors were all aimed at pre-teens and teens.  That would mean (if my calculations are right) that mass-market Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels for an adult audience are primarily a thing of the 80s and 90s.  Except for Bradbury, all of the great Fantasists so far reviewed were dead by the 90s (again, if my calculations are correct).  Practically speaking, this means that many of these writers were forced to work under very narrow constraints that inhibited real literary flourishing.  Bradbury's long life ensured that he eventually got out from under these restrictions and made a name for himself as a writer that endures after so many others have been forgotten.

Displaced Person by Eric Frank Russell

Genius.  This is a work of ironic genius.  Maybe a little melodramatic, but pure genius.  Especially if you're a U.S. citizen, this short-short is worth spending a few minutes to read and ponder.  If this one hasn't made at least a few middle and high school literature textbooks, I'd be surprised.  Unfortunately, like so many short stories, this one relies on not knowing the plot or ending to achieve its effect, so I can't really say to much more about it.  If you've read this one or track it down, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section.

Our Fair City by Robert Heinlein

Speaking of authors I didn't expect to see in this collection, here's the Dean of Science Fiction.  This Fantasy Short has all the flair of the best Heinlein pieces but I'd never have recognized it as one of his unless it had been pointed out to me.  That's one sign of a great writer: the ability to work excellently in a variety of fields.  Speaking of variety, this is also one of the few pieces in the collection so far that isn't a horror story.  Our Fair City is a bit of urban fantasy that's actually pretty witty.  After all the heavier fair, this story comes as a welcome change.

In brief, Our Fair City takes place in the contemporary world of 1948 as a parking lot attendant, a sly journalist, and a magical whirl wind attempt to clean up a corrupt city government.  In Heinlein's capable hands, the story skirts absurdity and integrates the realistic and fantastic elements into a believable whole - a feat that minimalist urban fantasy doesn't always succeed at.  As a plus, there's none of the dirty old uncles or sexually frank "modern" women that usually people Heinlein's novels, especially his later works (guess he lived long enough to be allowed to take the kid gloves off too).   

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Factory I Didn't Know Was There: Strange Platypus(es)

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
-T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

There was once a Tiffany Glass factory in the town where I grew up.  I didn't know that.  It's in ruins now, but apparently you can still pick up handfuls of brightly colored glass if you know where to look.

Brightly colored glass.

From pieces of brightly colored glass came all the amazing works of the Tiffany studio.  I've seen them in Boston, Ohio, and even Redlands California.  Wherever I have seen them, Tiffany windows are remarkable for their beauty -and my home town played a part in the making of that beauty.  Much of the downtown is in ruins now and those ruins are slowly being cleared away in a decades-long process of urban renewal.  Whatever once flanked the downtown has been covered by the woods and is now a state park.  I don't know what will happen to the old glass works.  Maybe they've already been cleared away.  What is certain is that those pieces of glass will disappear back into the soil taking their beauty with them.  In the long run, so what: they're just broken glass?  But from those pieces of glass came light and glory that still graces palaces and cathedrals.  What will replace them?

Towns are like that.  One layer of human settlement builds upon the buried remains of another.  The Puritans built upon the old Indian fort.  The Victorians built upon the Puritan township.  The Moderns reorganized what was left when the mills faded into a quaint little suburb.  The suburb stagnated until it found its equilibrium by cutting taxes and luring in a little light industry.  Each generation shores up the ruins of its ancestors; from the fragments a history is made.

I was a little piece of glass picked off the pile and brought far away.

Be mindful of these bones,
Be mindful of these bones.
Wash them, cradle them,lay them in the earth
Till they lie as thick as glacial rock,
In the twinkling of an eye
They will be changed.   

Volsungsaga Rap: Academic Platypus (sortof)

I'll drink up all the mead that you got on your shelf
But first let me introduce myself
My name is Sin-Fee-Oat-Lee
I like my poisons topical most-lee
But if any a you want to go rounds with me
I'll bust out my sword and make you Dee-Ee-Dee.

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCL

Our next two authors are husband and wife team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.  This serves as a reminder that the American Fantasy Market did not stay a boys club for long.  Exactly how hard women had to work to bust up "the smoke filled room," I don't know, but the fact is that they did and its been a co-ed party ever since.

Call Him Demon by Henry Kuttner

We continue our trek through the history of American fantasy with yet another piece in the horror genre laced with Sci-Fi and Fantasy elements.  Kuttner, unlike Boucher, takes up Henry James' cue in A Turn of the Screw that horror is always worse when encountered by children.  James gave us two children in his classic as a way of "uping the ante."  Kuttner gives us four.  While I don't know that that increases the horror, it does allow him to play with the line between children's games and their experience of reality.  Throughout the work, we are always free to doubt the nature of the children's experiences and that filter is what creates the tension in Call Him Demon.  Even at the end, we cannot be entirely sure what has happened.  As with They Bite, this uncertainty is what produces the horrific effect.  The monster is always scariest when you can't quite see him.

Daemon by C.L. Moore

Daemon, by C.L. Moore brings us firmly back into the realm of fantasy.  It also returns us to the first person which we haven't seen employed since The Rats in the Walls.  Like The Rats in the Walls, Daemon taps into the world of Victorian occult pseudo-history (again, an element that has been missing since the Lovecraft piece).  Here, however, the effect of the pseudo-historical element is not to produce terror, but a sense of wonder and loss.  Adding to the sense of wonder is another feature we've seen in Lovecraft and Kuttner: the unreliable narrator.  Luiz o bobo, the character through whose eyes we experience Daemon, is a simpleton and may therefore be a holy fool or simply the victim of hallucinations.

Moving from storytelling technique into message, this is the first piece to introduce the tired Romantic/Victorian trope that Christianity destroyed the artistic beauty of the Classical World: "thou hast triumphed, O pale Galilean, and the world has grown grey with thy breath."  A brief acquaintance with Medieval literature (may I recommend Chaucer's The Knight's Tale and Dante's Divine Comedy) should be enough to blow that out of the water.  The mainstream of Christian thought embraced the Classical World with tact and energy and wove it into Medieval Europe and the Renaissance.  If anything, it is Modernity that has breathed upon the World and religion and made them grey with its breath.  Still, this is an important trope in Fantasy Literature and I'm sure it's not the last time it will come up in this collection.  There is a distinct anti-Christian bias in American Science Fiction and Fantasy that continues (for many reasons) right down to this day.  To clarify: I wouldn't call C.L. Moore's Daemon anti-Christian, but it is peddling traditionally anti-Christian ideas -and she has a right to do that- I simply observe them and dispute their accuracy.  It's one more piece of the puzzle that is 20th century American Fantasy.   

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXLIX

Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon

I've already reviewed Theodore Sturgeon's Yesterday Was Monday, so I'll post the link to those thoughts here.

They Bite by Anthony Boucher

Every now and then I come across a story that really scares me.  This was one of those stories.  What starts out as a spy thriller takes a turn towards folk lore, then urban legend, and finally into outright horror.  The pace is slow and leisurely, allowing the horror to grow without alerting the reader to its presence at any given point.  Then the end comes and wallops you in a literary master-stroke that leaves no room for mercy.  The authorial restraint such a move takes must be phenomenal.  If you have an interest in literary horror, this is one to pick up.  If you have any interest in writing horror, pay close attention to how Boucher manages the ending.  If you scare easily, take a pass.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXLVIII

We continue our journey through A Treasury of Modern Fantasy edited by Terry Carr and Martin Harry Greenberg with tales by C.M. Kornbluth and Clark Ashton Smith.

Thirteen O'Clock by C.M. Kornbluth

The rise of modern Fantasy has been closely linked with that of Science Fiction.  In some pieces, it's hard to tell them apart.  Thirteen O'Clock by C.M. Kornbluth is one of those pieces.  I'm not sure whether we're in a bad parody of Phantastes or an episode of Buck Rogers; possibly, we're just in a seeder part of Oz.  I think this confusion may be intentional.  Thirteen O'Clock has all the hallmarks of a story meant to sell: genre mixing, thin characters, fast-pacing, a little sex, and lots of surprises.  This isn't a work of carefully crafted epic fantasy, but a quick yarn meant to bring home the bacon in a crunched publishing market.  In that respect, Thirteen O'Clock reminds us that American Fantasy grew up in a very different climate from the English one that produced Eddison, Dunsany, Tolkien, and Lewis.  Where these Englishmen were respectable authors writing novels for an established publishing world, Americans like Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and Kornbluth made a living trying to sell short stories to magazines that came and went like mayflies.  It's hard to imagine anything like The Lord of the Rings getting published in such a "down and dirty" atmosphere.  That atmosphere has left its mark on American Fantasy and Science Fiction in a way that even the titanic success of the English authors cannot erase.

The Coming of the White Worm by Clark Ashton Smith

I encountered Clark Ashton Smith a while back during my read through The Mammoth Book of Fantasy.  It was a pleasure to return to his writing: a refined and perfected mix of his two friends', H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, styles.  This particular story had all the best elements of At the Mountains of Madness set in a Hyborian world that was oddly reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea.  In brief, it tells the story of the Wizard Evagh and the great castle of ice that comes to him bearing the White Worm.  Evagh is transported to this strange palace to serve the alien being Rlim Shaikorth along with a number of picked acolytes.  Together, these few men pay homage to the vast worm as he travels the globe destroying coastal towns with the chill of the outer void.  Rlim Shaikorth promises Evagh and the others knowledge and power if they will serve him and the promise seems fulfilled as one after another of the acolytes disappears -supposedly into a higher state of being.  I won't spoil the ending, but you can imagine that Evagh begins to have his doubts.  Like Abraham Merritt's The Woman of the Wood and H.P. Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls, this is one of the pieces that I truly enjoyed.  I don't know how many more stories in the collection will be written in this vein, but I hope to find a few more gems along the way.

Next up, we have a break from the serious with Theodore Sturgeon's Yesterday Was Monday, and then a return to horror with Anthony Boucher's The Bite.       

Friday, December 06, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXLVII

The next short story up for review is Abraham Merritt's The Woman in the Wood.  I read Merritt's The Moon Pearl several years ago and highly enjoyed it.  The Woman in the Wood was a welcome return to Merritt's weird world of pagan peril.  The central image, a shell-shocked World War I vet who finds healing in a chivalric grove of sentient trees is worthy of Tolkien (indeed, I wonder if he read it -the time period would be right).  The eerie tone, however, is all Merritt's own as is the unnerving moral ambiguity of the ending.  Tolkien wouldn't have put much stock in such trees, even if the men who opposed them were as orc-like as those of The Woman in the Wood.  I won't say too much more in case you want to go out and read this one.  Sufficient to say that Abraham Merritt now has my attention and I will look forward to my next encounter with any work that comes from his pen.

After the creepiness of the first two selections, a little levity is in order and that is exactly what the editors give us in Trouble With Water by H.L. Gold.  Trouble With Water reminds me very much of another story in this collection, Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon.  Both stories have that strange and surreal whimsy that one finds in particularly ridiculous bad dreams.  Trouble With Water takes a particularly vexed and harried New York concession stand operator and punishes him ruthlessly for his one callous and cruel outburst.  Specifically, Mr. Greenberg is cursed with an inability to touch water.  That most necessary element runs from him and anything belonging to him for seventeen hilarious pages.  There isn't any deep meaning to the story, but if you think you might enjoy the irksome (but ultimately resolved) torments of a proto-Homer Simpson then Trouble With Water by H.L. Gold is definitely worth your time.

That's it for now.  Up next is C.M. Kornbluth's pulp sci-fi-fantasy mash-up Thirteen O'Clock.