Friday, August 17, 2018

Pre-Tolkien Challenge: The Abominations of Yondo


I selected Clark Ashton Smith as part of my Challenge readings, not only because he was one of the three pillars of Weird Tales, but also since he was one of the writers in the American tradition of fantasy that brought forth H.P. Lovecraft. Thanks to Campbell's Unknown and the explosion of Tolkien copycats, this American tradition of weird fantasy has been relegated to pastiche and parody. Smith's "The Abominations of Yondo", his first short story, shows what's been lost along the way.

An unnamed narrator recounts his journey into the desolated deserts of Yondo, a region at the edge of the world-rin ruined by exposure to the Great Beyond:
I will not detail the indiscretions which had led me, a careless stranger from far-off lands, into the power of those dreadful magicians and mysteriarchs who serve the lion-headed Ong. These indiscretions, and the particulars of my arrest, are painful to remember; and least of all do I like to remember the racks of dragon-gut strewn with powdered adamant, on which men are stretched naked; or that unlit room with six-inch windows near the sill, where bloated corpse worms crawled in by hundreds from a neighboring catacomb. Sufficient to say that, after expending the resources of their frightful fantasy, my inquisitors had borne me blindfolded on camel-back for incomputable hours, to leave me at morning twilight in that sinister forest. I was free, they told me, to go whither I would; and in token of the clemency of Ong, they gave me a loaf of coarse bread and a leathern bottle of rank water by way of provision. It was at noon of the same day that I came to the desert of Yondo. 
So far, I had not thought of turning back, for all the horror of those rotting cacti, or the evil things that dwelt among them. Now, I paused knowing the abominable legend of the land to which I had come; for Yondo is a place where few have ventured wittingly and of their own accord. Fewer still have returned - babbling of unknown horrors and strange treasure; and the life-long palsy which shakes their withered limbs, together with the mad gleam in their starting eyes beneath whitened brows and lashes, is not an incentive for others to follow. So it was that I hesitated on the verge of those ashen sands, and felt the tremor of a new fear in my wrenched vitals. It was dreadful to go on, and dreadful to go back, for I felt sure that the priests had made provision against the latter contingency. So after a little I went forward, singing at each step in loathly softness, and followed by certain long-legged insects that I had met among the cacti. These insects were the color of a week-old corpse and were as large as tarantulas; but when I turned and trod upon the foremost, a mephitic stench arose that was more nauseous even than their color. So, for the nonce, I ignored them as much as possible.
The story is simple, but like all simple things, the quality is in the execution. Smith writes a dense prose equivalent to a tone poem, where each paragraph evokes new horrors through multiple senses. The careless would call this prose purple, but Smith is painting revulsion with words. The current fashion of one sensory word a page is not enough to create the dread required. Like with John Wright, a dictionary is a must with Clark Ashton Smith, and just as rewarding.

Smith is as profligate with description as modern fantasists with history and back-story. By focusing on sensation and mood, he immerses readers within paragraphs, where present-day writers require chapters. And thus Yondo is more memorable than the Three Rivers, Elantris, or Camorr, despite the chapters' worth of words spent on each.

Writers should study Smith's descriptions, while readers can enjoy an eerie tale of an unknown that should rightly be feared, with shivers that grow stronger when read aloud.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Pre-Tolkien Short Story Challenge

One of the often repeated refrains from the vile Cult of Resentment is that so much Fantasy is just rehashed, Tolkien fanfiction. Unfortunately, there is some truth in this, a lot of modern multi-volume fantasy is quite derivative of Middle Earth. Pale imitators lacking the poetic and moral compass of JRRT. Due to the popularity of the imitators, and the almost systematic erasure of most pre-Tolkien fantasy from the public sphere, a new reader often thinks of Middle Earth as ground zero for fantasy, myself included. 
But that is starting to change, big thanks to Jeffro’s Appendix N for one, and also a revival of the pulp aesthetic by indie magazines like Cirsova and Storyhack and the many new writers affiliated with the PulpRev movement.
In order to educate, and also hopefully find some great reading material for myself, I propose a challenge to all my blogger friends. 
Pre-Tolkien Short Story Challenge
  • Identify 3 Fantasy stories written before Lord of the Rings was published. 3 stories written before 1954.
  • Review all three on your blog, focusing on pre-Tolkien differences of similarities, and making sure you let us know where we can find them for ourselves.
  • Share the challenge. I think this will be an interesting exercise. I hope a lot of people join me so I can compile a great collection of reviews that hopefully will inspire others to read older Fantasy.
I floated reading ideas with friends and received enough suggestions to volunteer twice. And the best part, is, with the exception of the occasional short story, these authors will be new to me.

For the first three, I will be reading:
  • "At the Mountains of Madness" - H. P. Lovecraft
  • "The Abominations of Yondo" - Clark Ashton Smith
  • "The Death of Halpin Frayser" - Ambrose Bierce
For the second three, I will be reading works from Lord Dunsany, John Buchan, and Lafcadio Hearn. Availability will determine which stories I will read.

For not reading these six earlier, I offer repentance.  And reviews to come.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Mortu and Kyrus: The Conversation Begins

With the floodgates now breached by The Frisky Pagan, the conversation about Schuyler Hernstrom's "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" has been unleashed.

Jon Mollison had been holding his tongue for a week, but now no longer. The moratorium on spoilers is lifted, so beware.
If you’ve read Mortu and Kyrus, then you know that the classic pair of big burly barbarian and nimble little thief still has a lot of mileage left in it.  Especially when the barbarian is a hog riding, gene-enhanced warbeast whose people revolted against those who enslaved humanity, and the thief is actually a wise priest trapped in the body of a “harmless” little monkey.  You also know that, at its heart, it’s an answer to Le Guin’s Hugo Award winning short, er, story? called The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas. 
It’s been three decades since Le Guin’s revolt against decency revolted me, so take with a grain of salt that my memory is hazy.  If it serves, Le Guin’s story isn’t really a story at all.  It’s more of a travelogue where nothing happens except Le Guin painting the picture of a utopia maintained by the misery of a child.  I won’t reread the story to confirm it – I’ve better thing to do than wallow in the mud of the 60s and 70s world of sf/f.  Too many pedophiles running rampant there, you see… 
Speaking of which, just as a brief aside, has it ever occurred to you that Omelas is not just an example of the postmodern love of encouraging utilitarian thought through the use of narrow and impossible train/lever stories dressed up in sf/f clothing?  Consider for a moment what we now know of the scene in which Le Guin worked. 
Omelas may not be a hypothetical story – it’s Le Guin justifying her decision to live within the real world Omelas of science-fiction and fantasy. Published a decade after the Breendoggle, in which the big names of the sf/f world came together to defend the child raping predilections of Walter Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley, here was an author who had been living in Omelas for years.  It’s no surprise that she should write a story about her decision, nor that the Hugo voters would issue an award to a story that so succinctly…well, it either captured their own experiences, or justified their choice to live in Omelas, depending on who and how the modern reader wants to look at it form the comfy perch of forty-five years down the road.
Jon's opinion is not hyperbole. Even as recently as five years ago, the story was used as a parable in SFF. John Ringo used the story of Omelas to explain the flight of many from convention fandom. Omelas became the approved moral response to many kinds of unpleasantness found at the heart of the SFF scene. That Sky Hernstrom offers an alternative to acquiescence and self-exile represents a rejection of those values. It might be polite accident, but it is telling that the characters to fling this rebuke at the empathy trap of Omelas are a pagan and a Christian. But more on that tomorrow.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Emperor Ponders: Mortu and Kyrus

This month, Schuyler Hernstrom has graced us with two excellent fantasy stories. "The Law of Wolves" is a dark fairy tale, a morality play that plays against the current zeitgeist. But it is "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City" that has many of us abuzz. Quietly, though, for while Mortu and Kyrus is an excellent axe and sorcery in a Dying Earth future, it is also a bloody rebuttal to one of the "classics" of science fiction. Many commenters are holding their tongues, lest they spoil the surprise.

But for those who have read Mortu and Kyrus, The Frisky Pagan from the old Puppy of the Month Club has posted his review at his personal blog. There be spoilers beyond the link:
Now, to the second book, Mortu and Kyrus in the White City. The people I follow who have read it have been quite enthusiastic about the book, and they have also hinted or mentioned that this book “answers” or attacks a classic sf&f short story. I did not know that at first, but it’s relevant as I will explain later if you read the spoilerific part. 
In its outermost layer or reading, Mortu and Kyrus, follows the tradition of sword & sorcery (although not much of the latter being shown explicitly) but set in a world (our world, by the way) following the post-apoc tropes of the Mad Max-inspired settings, with the usual elements: sprawling deserts, ruins of the past civilizations, and so forth. I say tropes because the postapoc elements are aesthetic or background and there isn’t a traditional “apocalypse” either. It’s not a story set just after the global destruction in our era but many epochs later, and the damage to the planet and humanity is not really self-inflicted (nuclear weapons, virus, etc.) as much as a result of an external invasion by immortal and highly-advanced aliens.
Now that the waters have been broken, expect more reviews from critics soon. Both of Hernstrom's stories are just that good. So, if you haven't read them yet, now's your chance. Because the whirlwind is on its way.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Cirsova Kickstarter


Cirsova Magazine is in the last days of its Kickstarter, and it needs $500 or so in pledges prior to Friday to fund the first issues of its second volume. For those interested in excellent short fiction, including that by Schuyler Hernstrom and others, you can get the closing issues of volume 1, featuring:

Issue 9:
Novelette
  • All that Glitters, by Paul Lucas
  • The Orb of Xarkax, by Xavier Lastra
Short Stories
  • The Faerie Pool, by Edward McDermott
  • Our Lords, the Swine, by N.A. Roberts
  • The Bejeweled Chest, by S.K. Inkslinger
  • Antares, by PC Bushi
  • Cirque des Etoiles, by Bo Balder
  • Hot Water in Wormtown, by Robert Lang
  • Littermates (Part 2 of 2), by J.D. Brink
  • Jack's Basement, by Michael Tierney
Issue 10:
Novelette
  • Crying in the Salt House, by B. Morris Allen
Short Stories
  • A Song in Deepest Darkness, by Jason Carney
  • Amsel the Immortal, by Lauren Goff
  • An Interrupted Scandal, by Misha Burnett
  • The Sword of the Mangoose, by Jim Breyfogle
  • When Gods Fall in Fire, by Brian K. Lowe
  • The Best Workout, by Frederick Gero Heimbach
  • Jeopardy off Jupiter IV, by Spencer E. Hart
To help sweeten the deal and bring Cirsova across the finish line, several authors have contributed their own works to the pledge levels. If you pledge at the $20 full vol 1 digital, $20 ($12 + $8 S&H) physical subscription, or higher, you will also receive Grey Cat Blues by JD Cowan, and The Hymn of the Pearl by Brian Niemeier.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The 2018 Dragon Awards Nominee List

The ballot for the 2018 Dragon Awards has finally been released. It has been satisfying to see the joy overflowing from the nominees as they made their announcements over the past week, and, along with the variety of nominees in each category, it bodes well for the future of the award. Congrats to all the nominees.

My picks for the voting are underlined.

Best Science Fiction Novel
  • It Takes Death to Reach a Star by Gareth Worthington and Stu Jones
  • Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
  • The Mutineer’s Daughter by Chris Kennedy and Thomas A. Mays
  • Win by Vera Nazarian
  • Sins of Her Father by Mike Kupari
  • Artemis by Andy Weir
Best Fantasy Novel (Including Paranormal)
  • Shoot the Messenger by Pippa DaCosta
  • War Hammer by Shayne Silvers
  • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Land: Predators by Aleron Kong
  • The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston
  • A Tempered Warrior by Jon R. Osborne
Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel
  • Cold Bath Street by A.J. Hartley
  • A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas
  • When Tinker Met Bell by Alethea Kontis
  • Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne
  • Warcross by Marie Lu
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel
  • Communications Failure by Joe Zieja
  • Points of Impact by Marko Kloos
  • Ghost Marines: Integration by Jonathan P. Brazee
  • Price of Freedom by Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle
  • Legend by Christopher Woods
  • A Call to Vengeance by David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and Thomas Pope
Best Alternate History Novel
  • Dark State by Charles Stross
  • The Sea Peoples by S.M. Stirling
  • Witchy Winter by D.J. Butler
  • Uncharted by Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt
  • Dream of the Iron Dragon by Robert Kroese
  • Minds of Men by Kacey Ezell
Best Media Tie-In Novel
  • Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray
  • Before the Storm by Christie Golden
  • Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson
  • Fear Itself by James Swallow
  • Legacy of Onyx by Matt Forbeck
  • Desperate Hours by David Mack
Best Horror Novel
  • Beneath the Lighthouse by Julieanne Lynch
  • Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
  • A Time to Run by Mark Wandrey
  • The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
  • Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
  • Glimpse by Jonathan Maberry
Best Comic Book
  • Mighty Thor by Jason Aaron and James Harren, Marvel Comics
  • Doomsday Clock by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, DC Comics
  • Aliens: Dead Orbit by James Stokoe, Dark Horse Comics
  • Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads, DC Comics
  • Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, Image Comics
  • Star Wars: Darth Vader by Charles D. Soule and Giuseppe Camuncoli, Marvel Comics
Best Graphic Novel
  • Chicago Typewriter: The Red Ribbon by Brandon Fiadino, Djibril Morissette-Phan, and James Greatorex, Dark Legion Comics
  • Brandon Sanderson’s White Sand Volume 1 by Brandon Sanderson, Rik Hoskin, and Julius M. Gopez, Dynamite Entertainment
  • Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
  • Monstress Vol. 2: The Blood by Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda, Image Comics
  • Vision (The Vision) by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Marvel Comics
  • Paper Girls Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang, Image Comics
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series
  • The Expanse, Syfy
  • Game of Thrones, HBO
  • Lucifer, Fox
  • Supernatural, CW
  • Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access
  • Altered Carbon, Netflix
  • Stranger Things, Netflix
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie
  • Incredibles 2 directed by Brad Bird
  • Thor: Ragnorok directed by Taika Waititi
  • Blade Runner 2049 directed by Denis Villeneuve
  • Avengers: Infinity War directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
  • Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler
  • Ready Player One directed by Steven Spielberg
  • Deadpool 2 directed by Dave Leitch
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy PC / Console Game
  • Fortnite by Epic Games
  • Cuphead by Studio MDHR
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of War by Monolith Productions
  • Destiny 2 by Bungie
  • Battletech by Harebrained Schemes
  • Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus by MachineGames
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mobile Game
  • Planescape: Torment by Black Isle Studios
  • Nocked! by Andrew Schneider
  • Lineage 2: Revolution by Netmarble
  • Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition by Square Enix
  • Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery by Jam City
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Board Game
  • Rising Sun by CMON Games
  • When I Dream by Asmodee
  • Mysterium: Secrets and Lies Expansion by Asmodee
  • Azul by Plan B Games
  • Red Dragon Inn 6: Villains by Slugfest Games
  • Photosynthesis by Blue Orange
Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures / Collectible Card / Role-Playing Game
  • Warhammer 40,000 8th Edition by Games Workshop
  • Force and Destiny Role-playing Game: Knights of Fate by Fantasy Flight Games
  • Bubblegumshoe – RPG by Evil Hat
  • Cooking with Dice: The Acid Test by Oddfish Games
  • D100 Dungeon by Martin Knight
  • Magic: The Gathering Unstable by Wizards of the Coast

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Tales from The Book of the Dead: Son of Texas

Not all of E Hoffman Price's visit to Texas was filled with bad news. Here, he recalls his introduction to Robert E. Howard in person, leaving no doubt that Howard was indeed a son of Texas:
Soon after tucking home a farm style-breakfast, I met Bob: tall, broad, towering--squarish face, tanned to swarthiness--deep chest, short, solid neck--a lot of man. His expression was stolid, phlegmatic until he thrust out a big hand, smiled, and spoke. The quite friendliness of his voice came as a surprise. I'd expected the rumble of a bull, with a bit of lion-mutter. H. P. L., who had never met Howard, had fancifully characterized him in letters to the "Circle," in terms which suggested what I'd expected. 
He was utterly unlike the grim fellows he presented in W. T.  His manner and voice were gracious, winning as his "presence." Presence is that which, if a shipwrecked sailor has it, enables him to preach to the cannibal natives instead of joining his shipmates as part of the long-pig banquet. 
Our meeting, after five or six years of amiable correspondence, was as heart warming as the hospitality of his parents. 
Bob had two idiosyncrasies of pronunciation: W-O-U-N-D, which Conan inflicted whenever possible, was vocalized as in saying, I wound the clock. In S-W-O-R-D, he gave W its full force as a consonant. This was mildly interesting. The first of the several utterances which left me blinking and groping was delivered as he and I strolled down the un-notable main street of Cross Plains. 
"Ed. I am God-damn proud to have you come and see me." 
Like that. Blunt, forthright, and without any relation whatsoever to the context of anything we'd said during our short walk from home. 
"What the hell have you to be proud of? It's the other way around. As I was telling your Dad, you're the only one of the Weird Tales crowd that's breaking into everything but confessions and love pulps!. I'm sweating peach seeds, trying to follow your example. If there's any being proud, it's my turn, being your guest." 
Bob grimaced, shook his head. "Nobody in Cross Plains thinks I amount to much. So I am proud to show these sons of bitches that a successful writer drove a thousand miles to hell and gone out of his way to see me." 
This left me gaping and puzzled. Considering the readership he reached, acceptance in what was just another of many nondescript Texas towns was no great matter. Furthermore, the man rated more than he seemed to realize. There was friendly greetings all along the way to the barber shop where I'd have my first hair-cut in a long while. 
On our way home, I learned that Bob neither smoked nor drank hard liquor. He explained, "The lowest bastard I know in a number of fairy sized counties goes for whiskey and tobacco, so to show my contempt for him and all his breed of stinkers, I turn down drinking and smoking." The dark, stern face brightened in a grin and a chuckle. Then, "She, I know I am inconsistent. That low down skunk breaths, and so do I. Sometimes you've got to compromise in matters of principle."