Poctober: The Imp of the Perverse

Continuing on with our seasonally-apropos look at Edgar Allan Poe, we’ve got the short tale “The Imp of the Perverse.”

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Really had to power through the first half (or more?) of this one, which reads for a while like a philosophy essay. Poe throws out all sorts of “word of the day” vocabulary (“supererogation” is a nice one) as he muses about the purposes of men’s actions – why they do what they do. Really the most I can say for this is that he touches upon some interesting pseudoscientific and philosophical ideas. His references to phrenology help create a nice gothic kind of vibe.

Eventually he gets to talking about something that is rather opposite the conscience (man’s impulse to do good) or his selfish sense of self-preservation (man’s impulse to do what is good for him) – what he calls “perverseness.” Perverseness, he contends, is a sort of impulse without a motive that drives a man to do something ill.

The story picks up when he shifts to narrative, telling us of a crime he had committed in a bout of perverseness. Again I won’t give away the ending, but once more there is a sort of madness that overtakes him and causes his undoing.

If you can make it past the first half, it’s a nice, weird little tale.

-Bushi

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Conan, Cugel, karma and Leiber

I’ve been making my way through Swords Against Death, the second collection of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. First off, let me say for the record that I heartily subscribe to Cirsova’s Rule that starting with Swords And Deviltry, the “first collection” of stories, is unwise. Indeed I’d be hard-pressed to think of a situation in which reading by publication order would be a bad idea.

Second, after reading a couple of the “good” stories, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are kinda cool. Or at least entertaining.

Third, I don’t foresee them ever taking a place among my favorite SFF characters. It’s not that they’re overly tropey (even if it sometimes grates, gotta forgive that when reading older tales, for it was fresher back then!). It’s not even that they’re morally gray, for look at characters like Howard’s Conan or Vance’s Cugel. I think it’s more that they’re cads who are cast as the good guys.

Let me rap on that a little bit.

Conan the Cimmerian is a badass dude. He’s also a noble savage, after a fashion. But he’s not really a hero in the sense of being a good guy. He’s a thief, a mercenary, and a pirate. And at times he is a murderer. I’ve seen this one debated, but the opening of the “Tower of the Elephant” is pretty clear-cut to me: a dude insults Conan, Conan gets pissed and lops the guy’s head off.

But we love Conan anyway. Why?

It’s not hard to imagine that Conan may have robbed and pillaged from innocent people. But during the time we spend with him, we don’t see that. Mostly we see him thieving from people who deserve it; fighting monsters; killing men who are bad, or at least worse than him. Often he’ll save a pretty wench, and he never forces himself upon her. As a leader he thinks of his men, and as a ruler he has compassion for his people. We like Conan because not only is he a tough-as-nails man’s man, but he generally winds up doing the right thing. When he does play the rogue, it’s largely targeting people who deserve it.

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Cugel the Clever is not a badass dude. He’s a a charlatan and a scoundrel. I must admit I disliked him throughout a large segment of my Dying Earth reading. But he grew on me as two things happened: one, I tempered my expectations, and two, I recognized the karmatic element to his adventures. First we have to recognize that Cugel is not a hero. He’s not marketed as one, and though he thinks very highly of himself, he doesn’t claim to be one unless it’s material to one of his scams. Second, when Cugel targets the innocent or victimizes the good, he usually pays for it in some way. These misadventures can be fun, but my favorite tales are the ones where Cugel winds up pitted against villains worse than him. In these cases, he is often the initial victim and he plays a part in delivering a sort of justice. He may wind up demolishing a ratmen lair or conning a niggardly merchant out of some valuable wares, and “yay” because they deserved it. It’s possible to appreciate Cugel when you accept that he’s a cur and learn to enjoy both his failures and successes.

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That brings me to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I think what bothers me about them is the fact that Leiber almost suggests that they’re heroes. And to be fair, their battles with the Thieve’s Guild can be fun. But despite being the Best Swordsmen in the Universe (TM) and master thieves, and later also bards and magicians, they aren’t good guys. One story offhandedly mentions that they like to rob merchants on the road (so they’re highwaymen). Fafhrd’s origin story renders him almost completely unlikable in my eyes – the fact that he abandons his pregnant girlfriend because he’s got the hots for a traveling dancer.

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It’s certainly plausible that Conan’s got a bunch of bastards floating around. And maybe if he were in Fafhrd’s situation he would have done the same thing and abandoned his woman rather than be pinned down at home. After all, Conan is driven by wanderlust and a thirst for adventure. But we’re not told that Conan did any of this, and I think that’s important to maintaining his image as an almost-hero.

You may be able to say that justice is visited upon the pair. After all, even if they always survive, they don’t always win. Their plans go awry, they lose the treasure, they get beaten up. But it’s never really presented in the “ha-ha you got what you deserved” kind of way we see when Cugel gets his comeuppance. That’s because Fafhrd and Mouser are supposed to be likable and Cugel isn’t.

For now I’m just trying to enjoy the stories of Fafhrd and Mouser for what they are – the fun exploits of two rogues who get into trouble and do some cool stuff. But when I think about who they are as characters and what Leiber built them into, I’m just not impressed.

-Bushi

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Poctober: the Spinx and the City in the Sea

“The Sphinx” turned out to be an interesting choice for starting off the month. Set against the backdrop of a cholera outbreak in New York, Poe immediately establishes a potent undertone of dread. In the tale, he is staying at the country cottage of a friend for the summer. Though they are distanced from the plague and surrounded by the beauty of nature, the peacefulness is tainted. Daily they receive messages about the passing of acquaintances and friends.

Poe relates his growing anxiety amid the gloom, and eventually shares the story of an experience beyond his explanation. He describes witnessing a giant horror across the river and admits that the sight made him question his sanity. This thread of madness-inducing (or sanity-questioning) horror places Poe’s influence on Lovecraft on full display, for this would become HPL’s brand through and through.

I’ll forgo explaining the ending here, in case you’d like to read it (it’s quite a short story), but suffice it to say it ends on a somewhat humorous note. Rather than madness or death, Poe issues something of a sad trombone to his literary persona.

“The City in the Sea” is a dark piece about a city in the West where Death sits upon a throne. The titular city is visited by a “long night-time” and untouched by the light of heaven. It is a place of riches and impressive constructions – domes and fanes and Babylon-like walls, and towers, and shrines.

In the end, the waters turn red and Hell rises to do reverence to the city.

I was quite impressed by the poem, though I can’t say I fully grasp every element of it. It sounds much as if the city is a domain of Hell on earth (how’s that for a commentary on Western civilization), and yet one of the earliest lines says

“Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest. ”

Perhaps this line is speaking of the West in general, rather than the city. Otherwise I’m not quite sure what to make of this haunting place, beautiful and yet foul, if the best be there as well as the worst.

In an earlier form, the poem was titled “The Doomed City,” and was later reworked and renamed “The City of Sin” and then finally “The City in the Sea.” Inspirations for the work are said to include the Biblical city of Gamorrah and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” It would go on to inspire other creators, including Danish composer Poul Ruders:

Overall, I’d say this was a pleasing reintroduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Much like Howard and Lovecraft before I’d read and researched further about them, his work was more varied than I’d realized.

-Bushi

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Poctober

“Poevember” would probably have been catchier, but here we are. Last year, in honor of Halloween, HP of the Every Day Should be Tuesday reviews blog and I did readings and critiques of Frankenstein. This year, as HP has a look at Rob Howard’s horror stories (an excellent choice), I’ve decided to return to gothic fiction with Edgar Allan Poe.

My exposure to the man’s work is pretty limited. I remember reading his seminal work, “the Raven,” in my school days. I also read the “Cask of Amontillado” at some point. I don’t recall much of my high-school reading, but that one stuck with me.

After soliciting some recommended reading from the tweet gallery, I’ve come away with the following list for this month:

The Sphinx

The Telltale Heart

The Fall of the House of Usher

Imp of the Perverse

The City in the Sea

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

I may explore some others over the course of the month, but it’s my goal to get through and share some thoughts on each of the above by All Hallow’s Eve. This morning I read “the Sphinx” and “the City in the Sea,” and it’s readily apparent how great an influence Poe was on H.P. Lovecraft in particular, and probably the likes of Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many other scifi-fantasy-horror greats, as well.

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Stay tuned!

-Bushi

bushi

 

Frustrations with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been reading more slowly lately. Life, plus an obsession with a mobile game* as a stress reliever.

I am really trying to like Pulp. There is much to like about Pulp. But there is also much to dislike about Pulp.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) provides some good examples of both.

I’ve read enough of ERB and Robert E. Howard that I can get into a pulp mindset where I turn off my writing critic and just enjoy the story.  And *still* ERB annoys with some of his poor plotting mechanics.

I have to conclude that ERB was great at coming up with an amazing archetype of a hero, and then just writing about his bad-ass character. His fame comes from being the first to have such a bad-ass character, rather than from actual writing talent.

Maybe that’s harsh. I know it’s going to irritate some people. But look, I’ve read The Monster Men (which was one of ERB’s later works, and an attempt to be more literary), and while it still had some problems, it was actually a fairly well-written book, with some twists, some character complexity, proper foreshadowing, etc.

But I’m still in the midst of slogging through Gods of Mars, and there are just so many examples of poor writing.

I feel like nearly every 3-4 pages there’s an example of poor writing that jars me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Sometimes it is having incredible luck that saves John Carter from failure/death or otherwise continue the narrative. One would be irritating, but there have been at least 10 so far…way too many.  Examples: How was it John Carter to Barsoom returned just in time to encounter Tars Tarkas? How was it Tars Tarkas wasn’t the Green Warrior surprised by the unexpected jumping tactics of the Plant Men? How did Thuvia and Tars happen to be right at the location where the damaged air car of John Carter, Xodar, and Carthoris comes to ground?  Why does Thuvia have the ability of nearly perfect telepathy with beasts? Is this something other Barsoomians have? The answer seems to be that ERB needed something to get the characters through a nearly-impossible situation, so he just pulled something out of the air and ran with it.

Or the characters encounter an obstacle, and what do you know, they just happen to have the ability/item they need, right at that moment, but ERB just forgot to mention it before then! This is probably the most irritating, because it gives an impression of first draft writing: if your writing leads you to put your characters into a difficult situation, you go back and add the solution earlier in the work, at a time that it won’t seem unusual or significant.  Call it effective foreshadowing, call it effective preparation to  avoid a deus ex machina, I don’t really know the right way to put it. But ERB completely misses the mark for this in A Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars.

One that bothers me even more, however, is when ERB is inconsistent with the world and the rules of the world he himself set up.  In A Princess of Mars, he explains at length that the Green Men have rifles capable of amazing long distance accuracy, and the marksmanship skills to use them at incredible ranges. Yet when the Green Men would reasonably use that advantage in a way that might hurt the main characters, the Green Men conviently forget to use them.  A prime example of this (which I just read, and pushed me over the edge to needing to write this complaint) is when the Warhoons are chasing John Carter’s band after he rescued Tars Tarkas, but the Warhoons merely pursue them instead of shooting their mounts from underneath them. Another example is several pages earlier when John Carter merely follows Tars’ escorting guards through the dungeon, intead of attacking them immediately to free Tars. And immediately following when John Carter regretfully feels forced to ambush Tars’ guards, clearly feeling it was not up to his standards of fairness.  This bothers me because John Carter had not hesitated to attack far more than just four Green Men warriors previously, and he had killed one with a single blow from his fist before. Why would he hesitate in this situation, and why would he finally decide on a somewhat-dishonorable ambush? Inconsistency.

There are other things to like about the book, but this isn’t really a book review. I like it better than the Land that Time Forgot, because when I put The Gods of Mars down, I do want to pick it up again.  But it isn’t compelling me to reach the finish like The Monster Men did.

I’m not saying the book sucks.  But it does spur contemplation on the nature of successful writing. Should I sacrifice quality for speed in writing? Should I just come up with a great character and not stress plot and consistency?  Why does the best of SFF pulp have this many problems, but the best of Western and Detective Noir do not?

Okay, come at me.

* Kingdom Rush. My obsession is finishing every level without using any of the one-time use special abilities you can purchase with diamonds.  I’m almost done. I’m stressed because the new job I mentioned on Twitter as getting hired for FIVE MONTHS AGO still hasn’t given me a start date. Long story there.

MUST READ SFF: Replay, by Ken Grimwood

  • by Gitabushi

It should be no surprise by now that I like books with good stories, good characters, and ideas that challenge me.  Who doesn’t want to be entertained?  But there are so many options for entertainment, so when I read, I want my mind to get a workout.

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This book does that.

To be honest, this book may be generation-locked.  The main character was born in the 1940s, and so is in college in the 1960s, and the culture of the 1960s has an impact on the plot. Growing up in the 1970s myself, I didn’t live 1960s culture…but most of the books I had available growing up were written in the 1960s or early 1970s, and set in the late 1950s and 1960s, so I was familiar with the culture.  For someone who never had to dial a rotary phone or never lived before there was cable TV or microwaves, maybe the book will lack some impact.  I don’t know. If you are one such reader, try it out and let me know.

However, Grimwood does an excellent job capturing the normality of those early times.  The protagonist goes back to his youth, but brings his adult sensibilities with him. And if you can imagine how society has changed just from the introduction of widespread use of the birth control pill, you can imagine how his mature assumptions clash with the culture and society of his youth.

The entire book is written with bedrock-solid descriptions of mainstream life in the United States. It feels real. The characters actions and reactions seem real. The author thinks of aspects I didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) and plays them to the hilt. The result is a book that makes it extremely easy to willingly suspend disbelief. It is easy to get drawn in, to care about the protagonists, what they want to do, and why.

It is also intersting to see things fall apart when the main character gets to experience one of the most common wishes of humankind: “If I knew then what I know now.”  Jeff gets several lifetimes of that wish fulfillment, and it still never turns out like he expects.

From that point of view, the book can be seen as a comfort: you are already doing pretty much the best  you can. More knowledge wouldn’t make your life better, it would just move you along to encounter new problems. Life is life. Stop pining for how things could be different, and start appreciating what you actually have.

In the end, you may get a “Groundhog Day” vibe out of this book, but rest assured: this preceded Groundhog Day by several years.

In fact, I would like to challenge all writers: Take the premise of this book, or Groundhog Day, or Flash Forward, and write your own stories. We have endless takes on zombies, vampires, young adult dystopias. Enough!  These three formats are crying out for additional exploration.

But first, you have to read this. Find it and read it. Let me know if you think I steered you wrong, but I think you’ll love it as much as I did.

Oh, and give me a review of the review. Did it make you want to read the book? If not, what else should I have included to help persuade you?

Replay Radar

 

Writing: Three Elements

  • by Gitabushi

Here are three elements of writing I haven’t seen discussed much before, but are currently at the forefront of my mind.

  1. Tropes. You are writing within a genre. As Daddy Warpig said, genre can be defined by a collection of tropes. You don’t need (or want!) all of them, but you need enough of them to set some parameters for your reader. Your task is then to balance your use of tropes (formulas) against innovation.  Too many tropes, and your work will seem hackneyed, derivative, and boring, and your reader will no longer be willing to Suspend Disbelief.  Too much innovation, and your reader will feel jarred, cheated, and will no longer be wiling to suspend disbelief. I’m still trying to work on how to know if you’ve over- or under-used tropes.
  2. Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Get it from your readers. With it, and you can have plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc. But plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc., destroy your readers’ willingness to Suspend Disbelief.  Make it easier for them to Suspend and stay Suspended: perfect your craft.
  3. Provide a satisfying ending to everything you write. Make every work be self-contained. Even if you plan on writing a trilogy, make each book have its own arc that resolves most of the issues.  See “Chuck” or “The Man in the High Castle” (not until the end of the 2nd season, but we’ll grant them this one) for excellent examples of how to do this.

Discuss

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