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

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

 

Thoughts on Tarzan: it was fine

I recently finished up reading Tarzan of the Apes, because I could no longer respect myself as an Appendix N/old school SFF blogger who hadn’t done so yet (though it may be worth noting that Tarzan isn’t actually Appendix N). I’ve been meaning to write sooner, but my flesh husk has been busy regenerating from a viral plague, among other preoccupations, some of which might involve simulated trucks.

At the risk of becoming the one PulpRev-oriented site that speaks occasionally unflatteringly and repeatedly of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan was okay.

I’ve never been big on jungle adventures, honestly. The Solomon Kane tales that did were excellent because Robert E. Howard is a baller. Seriously, if you haven’t read any of the Kane stories, you should. It’s arguably some of his best stuff – even better than Conan.

But the Jungle Book media that I’ve consumed never impressed me, and I’ve never found King Kong (I know, it doesn’t all take place there) to be particularly interesting.

If you’ve never read it, your image of Tarzan, shaped by clips of old black and white films, the Disney animation, and parodies like George of the Jungle, probably amounts to an adult Mowgli-type dude who was raised by gorillas and swings around on tree vines yodeling.

As is the case with Frankenstein and probably numerous other classics, the modern perception is far removed from the reality of the character.

For one thing, the apes that raised Tarzan aren’t gorillas. They are more intelligent (even having a primitive vocal language of their own) and distinct from the other apes of the jungle.

Tarzan himself may owe a spark of inspiration to Mowgli, but the character is basically a superhero, and I think it helps to think of many of ERB’s protagonists in this way. Tarzan is incredibly strong and adaptable, possessed of superior intellect, and is both primal and cultured. It takes him mere weeks or months to go from a savage ape-man to a European gentleman in speech and manner.

Also, Tarzan does not yodel when he swings around. He gives a ferocious cry after making a kill.

By the way, mild spoiler alert here.

I grew to like the Tarzan character. My main complaints with the story aren’t with him, for the most part. I do think he’s a little too perfect, but again, if you think of him as a proto-Superman (similar to John Carter in some ways), this is fine.

Mostly I found almost all of the supporting characters to be unbelievable and irksome. Tarzan’s French captain companion isn’t bad. He serves his purpose as Tarzan’s main gateway to civilization and the world of Man, building upon the groundwork laid by the cabin of Tarzan’s father.

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The hero’s cousin, Clayton, is also a fine man and a decent character. This presents its own problems. Namely, Clayton is a rival for Jane’s affections and for Tarzan’s title and inheritance. This sets up Tarzan to be noble and self-sacrificing, but it’s also a somewhat uncomfortable feeling for the reader (or at least for me). Clayton is shown to be handsome, brave, and noble. But he’s also an obstacle for the hero.

I don’t intend to read the sequel, so I read the plot synopsis for the Return of Tarzan and I see that ERB deals with this by changing Clayton and making him a coward. This enables Jane to break off their engagement because he is now a cad. Poor Clayton. It would have been better for him had he died in the jungle, it seems. But oh well – Jane has to end up with Tarzan somehow, and we can’t have anyone feeling guilty on Clayton’s account!

Before we get to Jane, her father and his companion are almost insufferable. Wandering into the jungle for no reason, arguing academic and philosophic points while being chased by a predatory cat and then rescued by Tarzan, and then refusing to follow him: perhaps these antics were meant to be comical, but I just found them exasperating.

As for Jane, I agree with my friend Alex of Cirsova, who commented that she is the worst of the ERB women. She is alternatingly indecisive and rash, as well as fickle. Jane is part of the reason Clayton doesn’t work as well as he could have. At the start of the story, the two are taken with one another. And why not? She’s pretty, and he’s a handsome, brave, virtuous, rich British noble. But as soon as she gets a look at Tarzan, she’s instantly over Clayton and smitten with our jungle god. Because man is he hawt.

This may cut close to reality, and we pulp fans do like our alpha males who take what they want. But it reflects poorly on Jane, I think. Clayton is a fine, upstanding man whose only demerit here is that he’s not an exotic demigod. He’s a likable character and he’s just been spurned by the female lead for purely superficial reasons. Understandable, perhaps, and realistic, sure. But not very admirable.

Besides this, at least in the first book Jane doesn’t really show any of the fierceness (or of course loyalty) that Dejah Thoris and even Dian of Pellucidar do.

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A couple things in the book’s favor – ERB was masterful at both action and at hitting certain emotional beats (that he seems to hit in every story, but they keep working!). The same is true in Tarzan. There’s some epic action, and some gripping feelzy moments. I especially liked the story of Tarzan’s parents.

So it was an enjoyable read. I’m glad I read it. But I don’t really feel much desire to continue with the series. I’ve still got a bunch of Barsoom waiting for me!

-Bushi

bushi

A few thoughts on Jirel

My recent posts over at Castalia House have focused on women in SFF; more specifically the fact that they’re nothing new! Contra one of the sub-bullets of The Narrative, great women writers and characters have been present in fantasy and scifi for ages. My latest example is C.L. Moore, who’s gotten a fair amount of recognition in the OSR/pulp scene all along and has seen a little burst of mentions over the past week or two in particular.

Finding a starting point with a writer as prolific as Burroughs or Brackett or Vance or Moore can prove a challenge. Luckily for me, I had stored away in my mindbox a review of Cirsova’s from last year. Jirel of Joiry just sounded both fascinating and different. For those of us who grew up on endless iterations and derivations of Dragonlance and Gary Stu the Emo Elf and a small, merciful injection of the Hobbit, this stuff continues to be mind-blowing:

A fiery barbarian-woman lordess who journeys to hell and blackens her soul to gain a weapon with which to vanquish her conqueror, only to realize too late her love for him.

Holy crap, that’s a weird tale.

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Anyway, here are a few thoughts and takeaways from reading the five Jirel stories written exclusively by Moore (there was one additional one penned in collaboration with her husband, which wasn’t included in the collection I read).

1. I mentioned this in my CH post, but it bears repeating – the Jirel stories aren’t primarily fantasy in the way the genre is understood today. This is probably because the genres didn’t used to be so rigid. Sure, Jirel of Joiry has fantasy elements. But it’s a weird tale; it’s horror.

2. Related – Jirel of Joiry is widely considered by critics to be a foundational, if underrated, member of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. This isn’t something I really care enough about to make an impassioned argument over, but I honestly don’t really see it. “Jirel Meets Magic” could fall into that basket, but the other tales contained very little if any physical combat. That is, she cuts up a few unseen horrors in the first tale, and she shanks a guard through a door in the last (which was admitedly pretty cool), but most of her conflicts are overcome by virtue of her spiritual and emotional strength, her prodigious courage, and her indominable will. There is certainly plenty of magic and an abundance of the strange and supernatural, but not a whole lot of “sword” going on at all.

 

3. Howard and Vance are still my favorite writers. What I mean is that Howard’s prose is just beautiful and flowing and demonstrates a clear understanding of economy of words. As Kaiju noted, it’s “lean and mean.” And it’s poetic.

Vance, on the other hand, knew how to both wield and craft words and build worlds like a true grandmaster. Some people may find it befuddling or pretentious, it’s true, but I absolutely love it.

That’s to say nothing of their titantic imaginations.

Well, Brackett impressed me to a similar, though not quite (yet) matching degree. Moore has, as well. I found the writing in “Black God’s Kiss” to be a little uneven in a purely technical sense, but I think that is most likely because it was written early on in her career and was perhaps less polished than her succeeding works.

Like with Howard, there is a poetic flow to Moore’s writing that not many authors achieve. The Jirel stories are lean, well-crafted, and wonderfully creative.

4. Moore would have fit right in if she were included in Appendix N.

Edit: After arguing on Twitter with some nerd-friends, I’m going to revise this statement. Personally, I found the Jirel stories to have much the same feel, in terms of content, setting, imagination, and characters, as some of the other beloved Appendix N authors. Compelling arguments have been put forth as to why Jirel is not “D&D,” and so I will concede that point. But the more important statement I wanted to make still stands – if you like the Appendix N stuff, you will like Moore.

Not only did she associate with and befriend writers like Brackett, Lovecraft, and Howard, but the way they inspired one another is pretty clear when you read their stuff.

That’s it for now. Go find some C.L. Moore to read.

-Bushi

bushi

Hiero’s Loooong Journey

It feels like I was working through this book forever, but I finally finished it. This statement, along with our title here, will probably hint as to my overall impression of the story, so let’s get the rating out of the way first again.

Hiero’s Journey: 2.5/5

Let’s add a qualifier to that, though – if you’re interested in the evolution of SFF or perhaps doing your own read-through of Appendix N, I’d bump it up a half notch to 3/5.

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Ok, let’s back up a step before we proceed. Hiero’s Journey, published in 1973, tells the story of a warrior priest in the distant, post-apocalyptic future. It’s a world that’s been ruined by “the Death” and is now peopled by scattered human societies laboring to rebuild civilization; mutant, often monstrous, animals of various shapes and sizes; and Leemutes – deformed humanoid creatures that often appear to be some sick blend of man and animal. Psionics are heavily featured, which is a cool change-up from and stand-in for magic.

Hiero, our hero, is assigned a perilous and important task by the Abbey – the theocratic unified Church that presides over matters both spiritual and scientific in what used to be Canada.

It’s a good setup and Lanier’s got plenty of cool, far-out ideas and critters to play with. Unfortunately the execution just fell flat for me. Despite packing in plenty of action, the pace felt slow. In between battles and chases, the author spends pages describing forest or swamp travel. I couldn’t help thinking that a master like Robert E Howard would never spend so many words repeatedly talking about a moose chewing cud or insects annoying the protagonist and his companions.

Another, perhaps related problem I had was with Lanier’s failure to properly modulate the story’s tension. Literally every enemy Hiero encountered was “evil,” “malignant,” “unnatural,” and something that should not be. When you start off your story fighting Lovecraftian-level antagonists, you’ve set a pretty high bar for yourself. Near the end of the book he encountered a whole ‘nother “faction” (if you can call it that) of evil, but the concept had been diminished by that point since everything else he fought was the worst, too.

It’s also very plain that this story is a product of the 70’s. At first I was psyched that the main character was a warrior priest (a “Killman,” actually), but as things progressed it became clear that whatever Christianity had survived in Lanier’s future world wasn’t a version I identify with.

Before getting to spoilers, in summary I’d say that I really appreciated what Lanier was trying to do, and I think he put out some solid and inspirational ideas. He had trouble pulling off a great story, though.

For further reading check out Jeffro’s retrospective at Castalia House and HP’s thoughts at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

*Spoilers*

 

To expound a little bit, I think Jeffro’s remarks about Luchare are dead-on. She starts off as a promising character. The manner in which Hiero encounters her made me think of Howard, actually, for there’s a Solomon Kane story in which the heroic puritan saves a native girl from flying beast-things, if memory serves. And yes, Howard is now my measuring stick for all SFF. But after saving Luchare and some initial awkward courting, she really serves no purpose to the story. Same with Gimp and his sailers, who are conjured up as a vehicle for some minor threads of plot that could have been reworked. When nameless sailors #5 and #6 are killed, we don’t care. They haven’t been fleshed out at all, except for some half-assed explanation about how they were so impressed by Hiero’s duel that they will now follow him anywhere without regard for life or limb.

We’re told many times that Hiero is a great leader, but he never really doesanything to convince me of it. Events kind of sweep him up. Sometimes he gets people killed but they’re just sailor NPCs so, you know. Lolz. The one time he feels bad about it, the sailors’ captain basically just tells him it’s no biggie.

The nature of Hiero’s vocation is also somewhat of a mystery for those who stop to think about it. He’s a Killman, yes – some combination of ranger and warrior (I think we’re told there’s an “assassin” component in there, but that part was never evident). But what is his function as a priest? He says a few prayers, but he never offers mass or gives blessings. Priestly celibacy is not dogmatic, so it’s easy to see how priests would once again be allowed to marry in a fallen, rebuilding society, but Hiero doesn’t marry. He is perfectly content to bang his girlfriend because, hey, they’re as good as married and he’ll get to it when their quest is done. He’s not even conflicted about it! And then Luchare dupes him into playing stud for the strange queen of the plant women, and of course he doesn’t really get pissed or see anything wrong with that. Not very clerical behavior at all.

Then there’s Brother Aldo and the Eleveners. Ugh. Aldo himself is likable enough, though throughout the whole story there’s kind of an undertone of “is he going to sell out the party and humanity to save Gaia?!” He never does, in this book, anyway. But as Jeffro pointed out, Aldo is too powerful. It’s kind of like if Obi-wan had escaped with the group off the Death Star and continued to go on Luke’s adventures. That would have overshadowed Luke’s growing Force abilities.

But the Eleveners and the Brotherhood. Ugh! Basically we’ve got two secret societies lurking in the shadows, infiltrating humanity’s budding outposts and pulling strings. The Brotherhood represents the evil physicists and hard scientists. They’re just so darn evil that they breed orcs and craft lightning guns and stuff. The Eleveners are some kind of next-level ecologist cult that has chosen to eschew technology in favor of oneness with Nature, and indeed will forsake humanity when necessary for the greater good of “Life.”

Thankfully Lanier doesn’t push and push with his Malthusian narrative, but the explanation about how Earth was thrown into chaos and death because of overpopulation, capitalism, and religious fanaticism, and scientific advancement is…well, stupid. So there was at least one big eye-roller.

Was there anything I did like? Well, I was initially partial to Klootz, Hiero’s intelligent mutant moose. But he was quickly overshadowed by Gorm the bear and was mostly relegated to chewing swamp vegetation.

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Hiero’s Journey pretty clearly had an impact on succeeding SFF. I’ve never played Gamma World, but I hear this book played a big part in inspiring that game. I’d also be surprised if there weren’t threads connecting the Fallout series to Lanier’s tale. At the very least I must give multiple props and a single kudo for that.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

 

 

Bridge of Birds

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I read Bridge of Birds as a teen and remember really enjoying it, though I had no real recollection of the story. For some reason or another I was reminded of this book recently and decided to give it a reread. So I picked it up on Amazon and wedged it into my reading queue, and now it’s been read again.

Allow me, this time, to present you with a rating, and then I’ll work backwards. Good read – 3.5/5.

Set in a fantasy version of ancient China, Bridge of Birds reads something like a novel-length fairy tale. It incorporates reworked elements of Chinese mythology as well as threads of the author’s own crafting. If, like me, you’re not super familiar with Chinese culture and folklore, you may be hard-pressed to differentiate the two.

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Like many fairy tales, Bridge of Birds wields a sort of grim humor. Sometimes it borders on silliness, and other times it drifts into downright problematic (in my research for this post I came across one review I won’t link that noted the failure of BoB to pass the Bechdel Test. Lordy!). It also includes healthy portions of action, mystery, romance, and tragedy.

There were some slow points, especially earlier on in the story. These were often “world-building” moments, where Hughart’s narrator protagonist was relating some tall tale or historical event of some small relevance to the story. Fortunately, Bridge of Birds delivers a well-balanced experience. There were times when I felt the story was almost too slow or too silly, but then things would get serious or all hell would break loose and erupt into a fight or chase scene.

That balance may be the tale’s greatest asset. Much of the story is lighthearted adventure starring Master Li Kao (who would be something of a high-level sage/thief hybrid in a game) and the hulking Number Ten Ox – the brains and brawn of the outfit respectively. But every so often – BAM – the story throws you for a loop and delivers the feelz. Importantly, the times this happened didn’t feel contrived to me. They were beautiful, in a way.

*Minor spoiler*

The best example is perhaps the character of Miser Shen, who early on in the story is presented as just that – a greedy, avaricious man concerned only with his wealth. Later on, however, we learn that he was driven mad by the loss of his daughter and had resolved to accumulate enough money to pay the wise Old Man of the Mountain for the secret of bringing her back to life.

Shen’s prayer to his deceased child, which is actually based upon the translation of a real historical text, will probably stay with me for quite a while.

“Alas, great is my sorrow. Your name is Ah Chen, and when you were born I was not truly pleased. I am a farmer, and a farmer needs strong sons to help with his work, but before a year had passed you had stolen my heart. You grew more teeth, and you grew daily in wisdom, and you said ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ and your pronunciation was perfect. When you were three you would knock at the door and then you would run back and ask, ‘Who is it?’ When you were four your uncle came to visit and you played the host. Lifting your cup, you said, ‘Ching!’ and we roared with laughter and you blushed and covered your face with your hands, but I know that you thought yourself very clever. Now they tell me that I must try to forget you, but it is hard to forget you[…]”

*End spoiler*

Another kudo I give the book is how the story really comes together in the end. As Master Li and Number Ten Ox work to solve their mystery, the pace picks up and more and more seemingly unrelated characters and events coalesce to form an even bigger picture.

In some ways Bridge of Birds hearkens back to earlier days of SFF, when genres were a lot more fluid. This isn’t the sort of story I’ve often come across, and it presented me with a refreshing change of pace.

It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you find the premise or the genre uninteresting, I doubt you’ll change your mind. Likewise if you have no interest in Asian folklore or mythology, you may want to give it a pass. But if your interest has been piqued, I recommend you check it out!

-Bushi

bushi

Birds and Flash and junk

Egad – has it really been a week since the last blog post?  I guess when Gita’s not writing the blog-oil recedes to a trickle around here!

I was out of town this past weekend for a wedding. Lots of Thai folk. It’s kinda of amazing, actually – the general expat community in Japan was pretty open in my experience. That is, my circle of friends was constantly assimilating newcomers, who would in turn bring in newbies of their own. Made for some fun parties. The Thai community here in the US, from what I’ve seen through my wife, seems similarly friendly and inviting, but it feels like a smaller world. We met people in North Carolina who had traveled from different parts of the country (and from Thailand), and yet there were varied threads to be discovered. In other words, it wasn’t just “hey, you with the bride or the groom?” There was mesh.

Aside from that, I’ve got a Castalia House post lined up (as in “in mind”), and a couple other things a brewin’. I’m mostly dividing my time between C# study and reading  Bridge of Birds. I’ll have some thoughts on that up soon.

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I’m also halfway through the Greatest Adventure of All, which is pretty dang great so far. Flash Gordon is a beast. Animated Aura’s not so bad, either.

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Soon it’ll be time to power my way through the rest of Hiero’s Journey, and then I’ll once again be confronted with the paralyzing decision of what to read next. Saberhagen? Vance? Some more Brackett? But I haven’t read Tarzan yet! Maybe I will just descend into madness instead.

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-Bushi

bushi