Monday, October 15, 2018

The White Road

A poem from Weird Tales in 1928, and a reminder that many pulp writers were also poets:

The White Road, by Manly Wade Wellman

The desert is dun at the noon of day
And sable at noon of night;
At dawn and at dusk it is silver-gray
But the caravan route is white.
Across the sand
Like a pallid band,
The caravan route is white.


The traveler's face is drawn and pale
And he prays beneath his breath;
For the bones of Dead Things fill the trail
Like the road to the gates of Death.
Instead of stones
It is paved with bones,
Like the road to the gates of Death.


The men of Egypt, the men of Rome,
The men of many a land
Lay down to die far away from home
On the road through the weary sand.
They died, and each
Left his bones to bleach
On the road through the weary sand.


Men turn from the path when daylight dies;
For after the sun is ser
The ghosts of the Dead Things stir and rise
To travel the roadway yet.
Dead beasts and men
Are alive again,
To travel the roadway yet.


The desert is dun at the noon of day
And sable at noon of night;
At dawn and at dusk it is silver-gray
But the caravan route is white.
The silent dead
Build a road of dread--
The caravan route is white.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

How I Write, by Norvell Page

Norvell Page is best known for the adventures of pulp hero The Spider, but he also wrote science fiction, sword and sorcery, and even dabbled in the spicies. In the midst of the Great Depression, Page became a millionaire thanks to his high output and penchant for weird menace. In 1935, Page was asked to contribute an article on the nuts and bolts of writing. Here is Norvell Page's response:

by Norvell Page

People who talk of "art for art's sake" annoy me. I did it once myself, but I learned better. I write now for two reasons: because I like to, and because I earn a better living writing fiction for magazine editors than I did working for newspaper editors.

I begin this way to avoid misunderstandings. This is an article about how a writer-for-money produces manuscripts which sell.

I turn out 100,000 to 120,000 words a month for the "pulps"—magazines (so called because they are printed on "wood pulp" paper). These words—the pulp writer always talks of words—because he's paid on a wordage basis—are written as well as I am able to write them. I try constantly to improve the quality, the forcefulness and the keenness of character interpretation in my stories. I spend twice as much time on rewriting as on writing.

To me, these things and pride in my work are art enough . . .

But let's get on with the article.

When the editor asked me for three or four thousand words on "How I Write," I smiled. "I don't know how I write," I told him, "I've been too busy writing to analyze my methods."

The editor chased me to my files, looked over some of the stories I had written, and picked out one.

"Tell me how you wrote this one," he said.

I looked at the carbon copy of the story—I file a carbon copy of every story until I can cut the printed story out of the magazine, then I compare them to see how the editor edited my work. Well, here was the carbon copy, and I looked from it to the wall of my office, where hung the covers of the magazines which illustrate stories I have written. It was there, the illustration that went with this story.

It shows a man hanging from a rope over a bloody pool in which floats a skeleton. To the left, a man in a black robe and a hood is holding a red-headed girl clothed only in a scant yellow sheathe of silk. The hooded man is trying to make the red-headed girl cut the rope and drop the man into the bloody pool. You have an idea it would prove fatal if she did.

I grinned at the editor. "Okay, if that's what you want, you can have it."

* * * *

That story is titled "Dance of the Skeletons" and it's of the pulp type called "Mystery-Horror"; that is, it's about foul deeds which are to make the reader's blood run cold and to keep him guessing as to who actually committed those deeds.

The history of this particular story began one evening when I climbed three steep flights to a Greenwich Village attic and invited a writer friend to visit a new speakeasy with me.

My friend was depressed. He sat before a table on which sheets of manuscript were scattered.

"The editor wants me to cut my sixty-thousand word novel to thirty-six thousand," he said bitterly, "and get it in by next Monday. I've only written ten thousand and I like the plot as it is."

My friend decided he wouldn't cut his story and that he couldn't plot and write another in seven days.

"Mind if I have a shot at it?" I asked. "I've never written for that editor, but I can give him thirty-five thousand words in a week, if that's what he wants."

My friend said morosely, "Go ahead," and the drinks were on me.

They have a saying: When you want trout for breakfast, you first catch your trout. Or maybe it's a bear. The same thing applies to writing. When I began writing, I didn't believe that. I'd see a market note in a writer's magazine that a magazine was buying western (or mystery or what have you) stories of a certain length and I'd sit down and write a story which I thought filled the bill and send it in. I didn't read his magazine first—why should I when my story had to be original? But in those days I didn't sell.

Now, when I want to sell a new magazine, I pick up a market tip, and then buy that magazine and read it from cover to cover, with especial reference to the lead story and the blurbs—the score or so of words that the editor writes at the top of a yarn to sell it to the reader.

When you see a blurb like this:

"Through the fog-choked grayness these horrors prowled. Their faces were pale as the fog itself and even knives could draw from them no blood. Yet it was blood they sought, blood they sucked from their victims' headless corpses . . ."

Well, you get the idea that the editor wants it sca-a-arry.

There's more to it than that, of course. You go through your magazine and find that the editor uses some first person stuff; that he has a woman interest in all his yarns, maybe a bit of sex; that the girl should be in danger from the chief menace of your story—this is what is known as "slant" or "formula." Actually it is what the editor likes or thinks his readers like. When a story has it, he buys it. When it doesn't, it goes back to the author.

Having learned this magazine's "formula," I next sought an idea for a story. A story idea is the most nebulous and elusive thing in the world, yet its acquisition can be simple. I believe it is a matter of habit, of training your mind to think in certain grooves.

It is doubtful if any two writers come by their story ideas the same way. A friend of mine saw a corollary between the song "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and the fact that a gangster would talk of "smoking down" an adversary. Another writer went walking and noticed the shadows of people, who passed him, sliding along the pavement. He got a story out of that. I looked out of the window once and noticed the unconscionable number of dogs that clutter the parks of New York. I was seeking a horror story with an overwhelming menace. I thought, "Suppose all those dogs had hydrophobia . . ."

But these are haphazard methods. There are few writers, I believe, who can pull a story out of their brain by staring at a blank wall. Most writers have some system of jotting down ideas. I have a file into which I drop clippings from newspapers, cards on which I have scribbled ideas that occurred to me from time to time, many of which were of no particular use at the time.

This night, when I had finished reading the magazine, I ran through my file. I was looking for some clipping that might suggest horror, that would give me a menace to make the reader's blood run cold. I soon found what I wanted, a typewritten note made after coming home from a motion picture. The movie concerned some lad who had gone up the Amazon for something or another. My note stated that the explorer lowered the carcass of a forty-pound pig into the waters of the river and, forty seconds later, lifted it out a clean white skeleton.

The answer to the stripping of the skeleton was a species of fish known as caribs. The particular type found in the Amazon headwaters are called piranha, and they are cannibals. Only as large as a man's hand, they have remarkably large mouths fitted with a row of razor-like teeth top and bottom.

That much I jotted down after seeing the picture. It was an idea, nothing more. Now, let's see how I maneuvered that into a story. My thoughts ran something like this: I must have a background of terror and mystery. Obviously, these carib fish, operating in the Amazon River, would involve little terror. Furthermore, the solution would be too obvious, hence no mystery either. Then the necessary murders via the caribs must be committed somewhere else, preferably against a city background. So much for locale.

Now then, how shall I use the fish? Obviously, if they are seen at work on the carcasses of the victims, there's no mystery. The point about these fish is the speed with which they work. It becomes apparent then that the maximum of terror would be obtained by converting living men into nice white skeletons within a few minutes, and concealing the method by which this was done. There's the menace decided upon.

Next we turn to motive and the villain. The two are inseparable. The usual resort in terror stories is to devise a "mad scientist" who is making experiments. I've used that. So have thousands of others. It is trite because it is the simplest explanation for unspeakable horrors. Editors don't want it anymore.

I sought frantically for a possible and logical reason for killing people by turning them mysteriously into nice, fresh skeletons (and incidentally, I think motivating stories of this type is the most difficult part of the plotting). My mind flitted to murders for various kinds, torch murders where bodies were soaked in gasoline and burned, murders in which bodies were dismembered and tossed into rivers, . . . ah!

People who commit that kind of murder frequently desire to destroy the identity of the victim. You couldn't do a much more thorough job of hiding identity than by removing all the clothing—and the flesh too. So much for that. Our villain wanted to prevent identification.

But to have the horror of the story to the full, these skeletons must be flaunted in the face of the city, they must appear at the festive board, thud at the feet of the police commissioner entering headquarters. That is obvious intensification.

To motivate such activity, the murderer not only must want to hide the identity of his victims, but he must want publicity for his skeletons. That was rather a tough problem. Also the motive must not be too apparent. That made it tougher. The tip came from the daily newspaper. The stock exchange was fighting Washington over some threatened publicity move. It would ruin the stock market, it was contended, and send shares crashing . . .

This, then, was what I had: The villain feeds his victims to the carib fish because he wants to hide the identity of his victims; he wants publicity for his skeletons also. From the newspaper I learn that publicity harms the value of stocks. Non-sequitur? Well, here's what I worked out of it, though I'll admit the publicity part of it stumped me for a while:

An unscrupulous capitalist who has fallen on hard times sets out to clean up in the stock market by foul means. He kills off certain captains of industry to make the stock of their companies decline. However, mere murder of these men would not depress the stocks. He must contrive to kill them and make it seem they have merely disappeared because the financial condition of their companies is no longer sound. To accomplish this, he kidnaps them and feeds them to carib fish, piranha, which can within a course of minutes eat all the flesh from the bones. The villain then tosses the skeletons in various conspicuous places. By this means, he not only depresses stocks through the mysterious disappearances of leading men, but he distracts the attention of police from the stock market manipulations, by which alone he could be traced. When the skeletons finally are identified, stocks rise again and the villain cashes in both ways. The hero is a detective from a Midwestern city studying New York methods. The girl would be the daughter of a victim, and for a time, a suspect also.

My agent showed the above to an editor who needed a story and he said he'd be glad to see a detailed outline of the novelette.

He'd like to see a detailed outline! Yeah, so would I. There is nothing on earth I hate more than an outline. Some writers never use them, but I find that an outline holds me to the course of my story, keeps me in the right length, helps in a thousand ways. But it's still a job.

I can't compose outlines leaning back on a soft pillow with my eyes closed. I'd go to sleep. I have to sit down at the typewriter and watch the words beaten out by the flying keys. Then my mind works story-wise. The first thing I do is pick my characters. I had already chosen the type of hero, but that was all. I hammered out a character sketch of him, including the old folks back home in the Midwest and the size of his hat. Most of it never was used, but it planted the character firmly in my mind, brought him to life. I never have been able to write a salable story unless the character "comes to life" and actually at some point in the story takes the action out of my hands and runs it himself. And I've found that the spots where that occurs are the best parts of my stories. Or so the editors tell me, without even knowing that those special bits were "inspiration," if you care for the word.

I also did a sketch of the girl, and of the other leading characters I intended to use. Minor characters might be handled the same way. At current word rates, I never had the time to try it.

The next step was to single out the suspects. After that came the brow-wetting labor of digging up detailed information in the library—this time on caribs—figuring out dramatic incidents, and batting the ball around among the suspects. A tried and true device is to throw all the suspicion on one man, then kill him near the end of the story. But when you do that, be sure you have another suspect all ready and waiting to take the burden of suspicion—and don't let him be the guilty man.

I decided to do that, then I sought a dramatic incident to open the story, a scene also that would introduce the leading characters, and the main theme—the Dance of the Skeletons. And, in this case, I couldn't forget the atmosphere. I knew from analyzing the magazine that the editor likes them eerie.

I started "Dance of the Skeletons" in the police headquarters with our hero and his mentor, a hardboiled New York detective, reading a note that invites them to see the skeletons dance. It's a foggy night, etc. Atmosphere. Hero and mentor go to the spot where the skeleton is to dance. An attack in a dark alley, a glimpse of brown-skinned naked men (I brought in the Amazon Indians, too) and finally, in the dark, our hero touches the bones of the skeleton, dangling from the brick wall beside which the two men stand. He flashes on his light and a cold wind brushes them; the skeleton dances!

Back at headquarters, a detective says he has a clue, but refuses to tell what it is. He goes out to follow it—and an hour later, his skeleton is tossed out in front of the police headquarters! And so on. Another skeleton is dumped on the dance floor of a nightclub. The solution—well, it was easy once the thing got underway. The simplest way to carry the fish northward from the Amazon would be a swimming pool, naturally in a private yacht. The villain tortures our hero by lowering him slowly toward the pool of cannibal fish. (See cover illustration.) One gets his toe, that's all, and in the end, the villain himself dies in his own pool of horrors. Our hero tells who else is guilty and how he figured it out and the hero and the girl clinch. Curtain.

That's the outline of the story, and then the hard work starts, the writing of it. Thirty-five thousand words in a week—with deductions of time for outlining, revision and final typing—a finished product ready to go on the editor's desk.



There are some writers making a living in the pulp market today who turn out no more than three thousand words a day. They may or may not send out the story as it falls from the typewriter. I'm the reverse of that. I once turned out 25,000 words in a fifteen-hour day. In pinches, fifteen and sixteen thousand words a day are not unusual for me. I once wrote a draft of a fifty-five thousand word novel in four days.

But these high production days are spurts. No writer living can keep that up long. I knew one who was topping 200,000 words a month—one month he beat 250,000—but he cracked after a while. There came a time when 80,000 was a good month for him. He's made his pile, he says, and doesn't care.

An editor told me that the author of the Shadow stories, which run around 50,000 words each, received an outline for a story on Tuesday and turned in the completed manuscript on Friday.

It's a great life if you don't run out of words.

On my Spider stories, fifty-five thousand lead novels for the magazine of that title which I write monthly under a house name, I have written as many as six different opening chapters, and spent a full day getting the first two thousand words on paper. I may have written eight, ten, twelve thousand in getting those two, and even then, I don't always like them.



I started out to tell you how a writer-for-money produces his stories. I've tried to tell you how I go about it, but after all, this is my private process. It probably doesn't fit the methods of anyone else. I have a friend—one of the three-thousand-word a day men when he's working at it—who never thinks on paper. He reclines, smokes and builds his stories in his mind. He thinks out his sentences beforehand. When he finishes a scene, he stretches out again and dreams over the next scene, even figures out some of the dialogue. And he, too, revises endlessly. That's the way I used to think "authors" worked.

I have another friend who thinks up his plots pacing the floor with quick, springy strides. Now and then he stops and stares up at a corner of the ceiling and suddenly he flings himself at his typewriter like a hungry man at a steak and pounds out his story. But that "plot" was merely an idea. He'll pour the story on paper with only that idea at the start, and turn out as neat a yarn as any writer I know. He swears he doesn't know from one minute to the next what will happen in his story and he'll often leave the last page of a manuscript in his typewriter overnight while he seeks the right ending, the right "tagline." He's the one who burns them out at 2400 words an hour and sells them as they come from his typewriter without revision.

Personally I stand a little in awe of such men. Turning them out that way is one thing, but selling them is quite another and he does that, too. Be damned if I don't think the man is a genius. (And he'll break my neck if he reads this article and finds I said it.)

They tell of another writer who sits before his typewriter in a dark room and writes his story by touch. He sells them to the "slicks."

But these authors all have several things in common. They study the magazines to which they intend to sell; they are close observers of life; they keep files of notes for stories unless they are possessed of exceptionally retentive memories which can recall not only events but actual conversations which occurred years before; they know what they write about, either from experience or research.

May I speak frankly?

I never turned out a story in my life that wasn't plain, hard work. Not that the writing itself wasn't enjoyable. I don't have to sweat out words, or worry about action when my characters "come to life." But somewhere in that story, the work was hard. Getting the idea, working out the outline, revising the copy, trying to get a fast opening that still would carry all the information it should; straining to tell a scene just as I see it in my mind's eye.

That's "how I write." I hadn't analyzed it before, but that's more or less the course on any story, whether it's a four-thousand word short or an eighty-thousand word novel.

Writing for a living is hard work, but I wouldn't trade with any man I know.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Geheimnisnacht

“I am robbed of a mighty death, manling.” – Gotrek Gurnisson
In “Geheimnisnacht”, the first story in William King’s Trollslayer, two adventurers arrive in a small inn on the most unholy and Chaotic night of the year. The innkeepers mourn their son, who went missing among strange Chaos-tinged events. When rumors of dark Chaotic rituals in the nearby forest reach their ears, the adventurers set out to challenge the cultists. Finding the innkeeper’s missing son will likely kill the duo, a fate both eagerly seek.
The Black Library is fond of informing us that Gotrek Gurnisson is either the luckiest or the unluckiest dwarf Slayer, depending on the point of view. To atone for an unthinkable crime against his fellow Dwarves, Gotrek shaved his head and swore the Slayer’s oath. Now the only way he can regain his honor is to die in heroic battle. Most Slayers die within twenty years. To the Dwarves, including Gotrek himself, such an experienced and living Slayer is an embarrassment. It’s taken eighty years of desperate last stands for Gotrek to lose so much as an eye, and the road before him is even longer and bloodier. So Gotrek’s ideas of honor are pricklier than normal Dwarves, and even more alcoholically ill-tempered. When Gotrek makes a promise, he keeps it, no matter how many enemies he has to hack apart in the process. Yet all is not dour with this old soldier, as he is capable of dry, witty, and incisive observations about the Empire, humans, and the society around him. Just don’t try to keep him away from a fight.

Felix Jaeger started out attending university as a bored merchant’s son with dreams of becoming a poet . After a bad duel and a whiff of grapeshot from the authorities, Felix now finds himself trekking in nightmare-infested forests alongside Gotrek as the dwarf marches to his death. A drunken oath has turned Felix into Gotrek’s Rememberer, sworn to recount the Slayer’s mighty deeds and especially the mightiest of all–a Slayer’s death. Felix is rapidly forced to come to grips with the realities that a fine education obscure from fairy tales: poverty, suffering, terror, and bloodshed. The sheer uncaring savagery of nature is a hard dish for Felix to swallow, as the walls of civilization hide these threats. But a promise to a dwarf is a promise cast in steel.
“Geheimnisnacht” excels at creating the mood needed for proper sword and sorcery, the ever-present threat of unknown peril. Night and the thick not-quite German forests provide ample shroud for the cabal of pleasure cultists to move behind, making each step Gotrek and Felix take through the wilderness potentially the last before battle. The tension between impending jump scare and delayed revelation allows fear to work on Felix’s mind–and the reader’s. And when Gotrek and Felix do burst into the middle of cultists and rituals, the horrors discovered are outlined in brief yet evocative strokes, allowing readers to fill in the frightening gaps in detail. And, as film directors from Val Lewton, Alfred Hitchcock, and Steven Spielberg have all discovered, no monster is scarier than the one in the audience’s mind. It’s surprising, but completely welcome to find Weird Tales-caliber mood and action among media tie-in fiction.
Just know that you’ll be paying media tie-in prices for this modern classic of sword and sorcery.
While Gotrek and Felix quickly outstrip the threats of Chaos cultists and cabals for more menacing Orcs, Chaos demons, and dragons–and the entire Skaven ratmen race–“Geheimnisnacht” with its whodunit and the menacing unknown has an immediacy and melancholy to Gotrek and Felix’s perils that is diminished in the later clashes of titans. Power creep in this series is real, and Gotrek is such an unfortunate Slayer that, much like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the tone and formula of the series shifts wildly from the first stories. But the early days of Gotrek and Felix and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are both full of heady tales of a wild and lethal unknown that often lashes out to scar even as it is defeated.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Zorro and Grimdark

Jon Del Arroz gives a brief introduction to the comics of pulp icon Zorro:
Zorro was created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, with the short novel, The Curse of Capistrano, which ran in the magazine All-Star Weekly. The story was soon adapted to film, and the mad success of the movie made Johnston write a lot more stories (he wrote 5 serialized novels and 57 shorts in all). The first novel is very self-contained, and also ends with Zorro unmasking and revealing himself to everyone, as well as his betrothal to a woman Lolita, not leaving much room at all for the character to exist. McCulley simply ignored any continuity and wrote Zorro pretty much as if the first book never happened from there out. 
The story is about a man who dresses up as a vigilante and rescues Californians from a corrupt government in the early to mid 1800s. McCulley doesn’t pay much attention to actual history either, but creates a California suitable to his ideas. 
But despite several popular movies and serials, Zorro didn’t enter the comic medium until 1958, when the Disney show reenergized the character. it was the same year McCulley died, incidentally, when Dell launched its line based on the show with the Bernardo and the fat Sergeant Garcia as hallmark characters, Disney adding a lot to the Mythos. 
The first Zorro comic run came out through Dell, and is comprised of many short one-off adventures that range anywhere from 8 pages up to 32. It’s most notable for several issues drawn by famous artist Alex Toth, who added a beautiful signature touch to the work. The series ran for 15 issues total over three years and is currently collected in 2 volume: The Complete Dell Pre-Code Comics and The Complete Alex Toth by Hermes Press. Overall, these are fantastic comics, and well worth the read. I believe some of these are adaptations of Disney episodes, but I’ve been unable to source the Disney episodes of the show to confirm.
Meanwhile, Fletcher Vredenburgh revisits the origins of Grimdark fantasy:
The concept of Grimdark started as a satire on dark and violent fiction. When the space fantasy game Warhammer 40,000 was created, it consisted of nothing but jokes about what was considered cool and edgy at the time. “In the grim and dark future of the 41st millennium there is only war.” It’s misery and violence and endless atrocities ALL THE TIME and EVERYWHERE. There is no concept of good, only endless attempts to out-evil each other. It was stupid and it was supposed to be stupid.
A lot of modern dark fantasy is just plain old epic fantasy with layers of gore, sex, and charcoal gray morality slathered on. Then it's made out that those things, by their very presence, give a story greater significance and weight. One book I'm thinking of tells a very standard tale of reluctant heroes coming out of retirement to save the world, but somehow the addition of a lot of hot-button issues and some pretty sadistic sequences makes it a better, more important book? It's not an uncommon occurrence in my readings of grimdark fantasy. These stories are seen as more realistic, and therefore more relevant and more important. 
It should be clear that my biggest problem with grimdark fiction is the claim it is something deeper and more relevant and realistic. It's not. There are too many examples of grimdark fiction I've read and reviewed that don't reflect anything like the real world, unless the author's vision was of post-Mobutu Congo. (And as a side note, little of it actually is willing to go the extra mile and get that gritty and "realistic."
What little that does meet that mark strays into the realm of grimderp instead:
Depending on your own personal tolerances for grim darkness of course, it can be taken to the extreme, just like with all descriptive traits. There is a point in which it becomes more ridiculous than anything else, because everything is indefeasibly tragic all the time - the term for this being grimderp, which is explained further below.
On that note, 90% of all grimdark fics are grimderp since writers are under the impression that just making things dark makes it good writing. There are exceptions, but they are rare, because Sturgeon's Law is a thing. On the flip side, however, certain examples have reached the apotheosis of Grimderp and become gut-bustingly hilarious.
Careful with those 1d4chan links especially at work... 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Hitchcock: Terror and Suspense

On Art and Aesthetics listens as Alfred Hitchcock describes the difference between terror and suspense:
In February 1949, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) had a piece published in the Good Housekeeping magazine called “The Enjoyment of Fear” where he distinguished between the feelings and moods of “terror” and “suspense” with the help of vivid illustrations. The essay is included in a book called Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews. The legendary director writes: 
Fear in the cinema is my special field, and I have, perhaps dogmatically, but I think with good cause, split cinematic fear into two broad categories – terror and suspense.
He gives examples to make the distinction definite:
Walking down a dimly lighted street in the late hours of the night, with no other people about, a person may find his mind playing strange tricks. The silence, the loneliness, and the gloom may set the scene for fear.

Suddenly a dark form thrusts itself before the lonely walker. Terror. It does not matter that the form was a waving branch, a newspaper picked up by a gust of wind, or simply an oddly shaped shadow unexpectedly coming into view. Whatever it was, it produced its moment of terror. 
The same walker, on the same dark street, might have no inclination toward fear. The sound of footsteps coming from somewhere behind might cause the late stroller to become curious, then uneasy, then fearful. The walker stops, the footsteps are not heard; the pace is increased, so also the tempo of the thin sounds coming out of the night. Suspense. The echo of his own steps? Probably. But suspense. 
Read more at On Art and Aesthetics 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Introducing Cordwainer Smith at Bushi SF/F

Over at Bushi SF/F, PC Bushi reintroduces a quiet but audacious SF writer from the past, Cordwainer Smith.
In “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal,” the titular commander is suckered by a false distress signal broadcast by a twisted, deviant branch of humanity. The miserable people, colonists to the stars of ages past, encountered a world fatal to females. Determined to survive, the world’s women were scientifically transformed into men. A sick and demented civilization developed, fostering an insane hate for women and for normal humans. Ensnared by these monsters, Suzdal deploys a “life bomb” to a nearby moon along with a number of genetically modified cats, which he has programmed to serve mankind. The kicker – he uses a time travel device to send them back millions of years, to give them time to evolve. Up come their ships from the moon, and the cat people engage Suzdal’s attackers, allowing him to escape. 
Wow.
PC Bushi summaries Smith's life and three more stories, each wildly strange in ways unimagined by the codification of tropes and convention. Learn more about Cordwainer Smith at Bushi SF/F and then read a mindboggling story or two.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Galaxy's Edge: Order of the Centurion

“The Order of the Centurion is the highest award that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in, or with, the Legion. When such an individual displays exceptional valor in action against an enemy force, and uncommon loyalty and devotion to the Legion and its legionnaires, refusing to abandon post, mission, or brothers, even unto death, the Legion dutifully recognizes such courage with this award.”

Tired of sitting out the war on Psydon in a mobile office hab, Legion Lieutenant Washam agrees to undertake a covert and unsanctioned mission with a band of Republic Recon Marines. Inserted deep behind enemy lines, the strike force uncovers a surprise key to ending a bitter war. Now they must navigate a hostile jungle teeming with murderous alien rebels, pushing themselves to the limits of their abilities, to get this vital intel to Legion Command--if they can survive that long. 


With Order of the Centurion, Galaxy's Edge begins its third series of books, dealing with standalone stories of Medal of Honor-level valor--and survival rates. If the main series is Anspach and Cole's take on the Clone Wars, this is their Rogue One. And after two disappointing Tyrus Rexs/Rechs bounty hunter books (the spelling tends to change with the author), the return to infantry combat is welcome. At their best, Anspach and Cole are the best straight infantry military science fiction writers out there, with a cinematic style unencumbered by the all too commonly expected digressions into strategy and why-we-fight motivations. Sure, Wash's personal motivations are explored, but we are not treated to yet more lessons in History and Moral Philosophy by Jean Dubois.

The action is excellent, the description is choke-on-the-dust vivid, and the camaraderie is true. Anspach and Cole set aside their literary flourishes and experiments for what is essentially a timeless war movie set in the Galaxy's Edge universe. It would not be a surprise to learn that this novel was optioned for a screenplay in the near future. That said, this is also the least Galaxy's Edge to date, with only a gloss of science fiction over the well-known tale of heroism from a unit that stumbled into more than it could handle.

If you like your war movies like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down, you need to read Order of the Centurion.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Reading List

I've been on vacation for a couple weeks, and while I've read a lot, I've also let my reading pile build on me. So, at least for the review portion, I'm going to clear my list, one story at a time, before branching out into new stories. Finishing these reviews will keep me busy for a while.

Pre-Tolkien Challenge:
  • "At the Mountains of Madness" - H. P. Lovecraft
  • "The Death of Halpin Frayser" - Ambrose Bierce
  • A short story by Lord Dunsany
  • A short story by John Buchan
  • A short story by Ambrose Bierce
Kindle Unlimited backlog:
  • Order of the Centurion - Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
  • Monsters - James Alderdice
  • Swords Against Darkness - edited by Andrew Offutt 
  • The Sign of the Moonbow - Andrew Offitt
  • Vindolanda - Adrian Goldsworthy
  • Scavengers - David West
  • Grey Cat Blues - J.D. Cowan
  • The Engima Strain - Nick Thacker
  • Some Dark Holler - Luke Bauserman
Castalia House Blog drafts:
A little accountability never hurts, so if there's something that catches your eye, please ask me about it.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Mortu and Kyrus

“Come then, try my steel and I will send you to hell where you belong. The gods of my people look down upon those that prey on the weak. There is no honor in it. There is no honor in you. I will enjoy killing you.”–Mortu

In Mortu and Kyrus in the White City, Schuyler Hernstrom returns to sword and sorcery, blending Dying Earth, Mad Max, and even a little Shaw Briothers kung fu into a future Earth recovering from the heavy hand of an alien overlord. The namesakes Mortu and Kyrus, a pagan motorcycle barbarian from the North and a Christian monk from Zantyum respectively, are on a quest to break the sorcerer’s spell that chains Kyrus into the form of a monkey. On the long road, they find a caravan attacked by nomads and a wayward Christian knight. Mortu and Kyrus intervene with a few sharp strokes of Mortu’s axe, and in gratitude, the caravan invites the duo to their White City. Within moments of their arrival, Mortu and Kyrus are swept up in the dark secrets beneath the foundations of the City.
Following in the well-worn path of sword-and-sorcery duos inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Mortu and Kyrus split the questing responsibilities in the traditional way. When presented with a mystery, Kyrus, as befitting a trickster or a thief, discovers why the mystery happens, while dour Mortu is called in to make sure the mystery ends. But Mortu is more in the mold of Conan than Fafhrd, a barbarian suspicious of civilization, not infatuated with it. Kyrus is a blend of Eastern and Western monk archtypes, a true believer, but a wandering monk nonetheless, full of the trickery and misfortune that such monks herald. Laudably, Hernstrom does not take the easy route and make Kyrus a hypocrite.
But then Hernstrom refuses the easy path throughout Mortu and Kyrus. None of the Christian characters are treated as hypocrites and monsters, a rarity in a genre that has long been hostile to Christianity (as E. Hoffman Price’s The Book of the Dead reveals). He treats the Cross as a civilizing force and a general good, although one Mortu still remains skeptical if it is an absolute good. While this is the first adventure available to readers, this is not an origin story. Mortu and Kyrus’s relationship is presented as established, and we are not forced to follow detailed stories of how Mortu and Kyrus met, how Kyrus got turned into a monkey, or of Mortu’s earlier life as a solo adventurer. At best, we see quick mentions, no more than needed in the course of brief conversation. The departure from current fashion is refreshing, and it hints at a greater world beyond the White City. Hernstrom deftly balances the mysteries of his wider world with the immediacy of sword and sorcery action. He accomplishes more worldbuilding with a few scraps of description than most writers accomplish with paragraphs of exposition. The effect is reminiscent of Vance’s The Last Castle, where entire swaths of human history are revealed in snatches of description and custom.
If Mortu and Kyrus seems a bit more predictable than Hernstrom’s previous works, it is because he has stepped up to the Great Conversation, “the ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors.” Here, readers can see the outlines of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”,  a particularly notable short work dealing with the dilemma of a hedonistic Eden fueled by the suffering of one innocent. The ones who cannot accept that their paradise requires the intentional suffering and neglect of a child walk away from the city, unwilling to benefit from his suffering, but unwilling to rescue the child. Omelas has been a popular parable in science fiction, revisited time and again, and by such notable shows as Doctor Who. At best, the protagonists rescue the child, but leave the society intact. Few, if any, render judgement against the people who benefited from the abuse of the child, nor prevent that society from finding a new child to torment for their pleasures. Mortu settles the Omelas dilemma with an older, more satisfying approach:
“You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin.”
It is the approach of the hero, the pagan barbarian, and the Christian knight, illustrated in blood and adrenaline. One where actions matter more than intentions, and honor has meaning.
Fortunately, Mortu and Kyrus in the White City promises to be the first of many adventures for the barbarian biker and the monkey monk. Whether Hernstrom sets out to gore more sacred cows or just let Mortu gore more villains, I eagerly await the next.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Frederic Brown Editor’s Choice Award For Short Fiction

At his blog, Misha Burnett proposes a new award for short fiction. Please take a look at the full details and comment over at his site. 
Overview: In the interests of promoting independently published short fiction I am proposing the creation of an juried award for short fiction. The purpose of the award would be to showcase the best short fiction of the year, as determined by a panel composed of small press editors. 
Categories: I propose four categories be determined by story length; Short-Short (or Flash), Short Story, Long Story, and Novella. Exact word counts to be determined. Stories of any genre would be eligible. (One of the reasons that I chose Frederic Brown as the namesake for the award is his body of work crosses genre lines.) 
Notes And Cautions: I am not an administrator nor a publisher. I have no idea how to judge the feasibility of this idea. I have no idea of how to fund this project, nor even of a ballpark figure of how much would need to be raised. I am putting this out there in the hopes that people who do have the necessary skills will come forward. If they don’t, then it won’t happen.

Choose Your Enemies and The Rising of the Shield Hero

Commissar Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium, returns in Choose Your Enemies, his eleventh adventure for Warhammer 40,000's Black Library imprint. While on a posting to a remote mining planet, Ciaphas Cain and the 597th Valhallan Regiment unearth a hedonistic Chaos cult. But rooting out the corruption soon takes them to the heavily populated industrial world of Ironfound--and in the direct path of an Eldar raiding fleet. Will elven space pirates, Chaos demons, and crazed cultists finally prove to be too much for Cain?

It's been five years since the last Ciaphas Cain adventure, and, while more Cain is always welcome, the Hero of the Imperium is missing that Flashman scoundrel aspect of his nature that adds depth to his more noblebright adventures in the grim dark future of Warhammer 40,000. What's left is a standard military mystery, enlivened by the narrator's footnotes, if not her antics on stage. It's Cain lite, which is still better than most military-flavored SF, just not at Black Library's prices. Hopefully further adventures will take Cain into the upheaval of the new setting in Warhammer 40,000.

In the first volume of The Rising of the Shield Hero light novel, Naofumi Iwatani discovers a mysterious tome in a library that, when read, takes him to another world. As the Shield Hero, he must join forces with other legendary heroes to defend this new world. However, he is soon slandered and betrayed by a princess of the realm. Forced into penury, Naofumi must rely on his own wits to grow stronger, for the only way home is by saving the ungrateful world he is trapped in. Even if it takes some unsavory measures.


Let's face it, contemporary light novels have not fared well in Castalia House reviews. For every title reviewed, two others don't make the cut. And at first glance, Shield Hero appears destined to join those rejected titles. After all, isekai revenge fantasies usually follow the same script into psychopathic wish fulfillment, especially those based around litRPG mechanics. Naofumi's journey, however, follows a different path, one critical of the standard isekai hero. He is gifted with a useless weapon before falling victim to court machinations that most heroes merely handwave their way through. To survive, Naofumi resorts to unscrupulous measures--including outright slavery--that proves that he does indeed merit the harsh treatment he deserves from his host nation. Consistently forced into disadvantageous positions, Naofumi must figure out how to solve problems and win fights without the blessings that his fellow heroes have learned to enjoy. And when Naofumi eventually wins the day when his more gamer-minded fellow heroes cannot, it only earns him suspicion and jealousy instead of praise. Shield Hero follows Naofumi into some dark places without devolving into venom, diatribe, or secret king preening, creating something unique for isekai, an anti-hero that is not a loser out for revenge.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

How Not to Write a Novel

Warren Murphy, the creator of The Destroyer, shows the pitfalls awaiting many would-be writers in the first lesson of his Writing Class:

*****

You cannot allow this to happen to you. It already happens to too many people.

First, we declare ourselves to be "working on" a novel.

What's this great work of art about?

The old joke is that "it's about 200 pages," but this is serious stuff, so no jokes. Remember, we have decided to become literary lions so this is a book, a magnum opus if you will, and what it's about is easy. It's about us, 'cause all first novels are autobiographies. It'll talk about our trials, our triumphs and how we survived it all and became a beacon of hope for the world, or at least our personal corner of it.

Obviously, we've got to think a little bit about what's in the book but that's no problem, and while we're thinking about it, we'll talk about it. A lot. Cocktail parties are a good place to start.

Another thing we've got to think about is the title. The title's really important and we have to spend a lot of time on that. So we try different titles on our friends. Which one do you like best? "Innocence Reborn?" Or "Winning in the Day of Despair?" Eventually, we pick one and then -- at last, thank God, we get a chance to get down to writing.

And we write a page. That's what we writers do.

And the next day we write another page. Now we've got two pages. Who would have thought this would all be so easy?

But then the car starts leaking oil and, darn, wouldn't you know it, it takes a couple of days to get it fixed. And let's face it, we can't work when cars and doctors and bill collectors keep intruding on our muse. But that'll straighten out soon.

In the meantime, we tell everybody we meet how well the novel is going but then we sit down and read the two pages we wrote and it's not quite what we wanted.

So we put it aside for awhile and work on the dedication to the book. This is real important and it will be even more important if we do it in Latin. That'll show everybody that we are serious authors, not purveyors of some cheap commercial crap that anybody can write.

For a while we were going to settle on a dedication we stole from Jonathan Swift but that's kind of cheesy. Instead, we take a line or two from the Latin Mass. "Introibo ad altare dei. And there I will find my new life."

Okay, back to work. We've got a title now and a dedication and two pages, so let's rewrite those pages to make them perfect. While we're doing that we will continue to read them at cocktail parties....through every change and transmogrification, we'll read them. Over and over again.

Naturally we will get a wonderful reaction. Family and friends know they are listening now to the voice of anguished truth telling not just our story but theirs also. And they always cover their mouths when they yawn.

But no matter how much we rewrite, those pages are still missing something. Maybe it's time to work on our Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

That ought to be worth a couple of weeks and as soon as we're done with it, then we'll get back to that novel and really, really finish it up. We've got two pages already so the book is so close to being done.

* * *

If that sounds like you, please go away now. You will not be happy here; these blogs are for novelists, not wannabes, not fakers.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Story-Writing Hints, by Clark Ashton Smith

Reading Clark Ashton Smith's non-fiction and correspondence can be just as illuminating as his fiction. There's much for the historian to mull over, from the consequences of fandom to the origins of the great divorce of weird fiction into science fiction and fantasy. But for the storyteller, Smith offers quick, poignant lessons. Here's Clark Ashton Smith's Story-Writing Hints:

*****

The main objective of the short story is to stir the reader's emotions. How you stir them or what emotion you stir is not so important as the fact that to hold the reader's interest you must stir his emotions. You must be able to create various emotional effects thru your characters, action, description, setting, etc.

Constant practice is the key to success. You cannot learn music without practicing it, neither can you learn to write without writing. I suggest that, for your own benefit, you write a few hundred words depicting an emotional experience. Write up one of your own experiences or invent one. But remember that you are writing it with the purpose of stirring an emotion in the person who reads it. The sketch is not to be a story but merely an incident-no opening explanations are necessary.

When you are reading a story watch for the passages in which the author is relating an emotional experience and inducing the emotional feeling in you. By studying how that particular author is doing it you will be better able to do it in your own work.

I believe that the following partial quotation from "The Double Shadow" will serve to illustrate the building up of emotional feeling:
... a second day has gone by like a sluggish ooze of horror . . . I have seen the . . . identification of the shadow with the flesh of Avyctes ... I have seen the slow encroachment of the . . . umbrage, mingling . . . with the lank shadow and . . . bituminous body of Oigos, and turning them to ... the thing which Avyctes has become. And I have heard the mummy cry out like a living man in great pain and fear . . . And verily I know not if the thing that has come to us be one or several . . .
But these things ... I shall soon know; for now, in turn, there is a shadow that follows mine, drawing ever closer. The air congeals and curdles with an unseen fear . . . and the great marble women seem to tremble where they stand along the walls. But the horror that was Avyctes, and the second horror that was Oigos, have left me not . . . And their stillness is more terrible than if they had rended me limb from limb. And there are strange voices in the wind, and alien roarings upon the sea; and the walls quiver like a thin veil in the black breath of remote abysses.

Monday, August 20, 2018

"Atmosphere in Weird Fiction" by Clark Ashton Smith


The term atmosphere, in application to fiction, is often used in a somewhat vague or restricted sense. I believe that it can be most profitably defined as the collective impression created by the entire mass of descriptive, directly evocative details in any given story (what is sometimes known as "local color") together with all that is adumbrated, suggested or connoted through or behind these details. It can be divided roughly into two elements: the kinetic and the potential; the former comprising all the effects of overt surface imagery, and the latter all the implications, hints, undertones, shadows, nuances, and the verbal associations, and various effects of rhythm, onomatopoeia and phonetic pattern which form a more consistent and essential feature of good prose-writing than is commonly realized. Many people would apply the word atmosphere only to the elements defined here-above as potential; but I prefer the broader definition; since, after all, the most intangible atmospheric effects depend more or less upon the kinetic ones and are often difficult to dissociate wholly from them through analysis. An attempt to achieve purely potential writing might result, I suspect, in something not altogether dissimilar to the effusions of Gertrude Stein! Or, at least, it would lead to an obscurity such as was practiced by the French Symboliat poet, Mallarme, who is said to have revised his poems with an eye to the elimination of kinetic statement whenever- possible.

A few examples of the use of atmospheric elements, taken from the work of recognized masters, should prove more illuminative than any amount of generalization. Take, for instance, this paragraph from Ambrose Bierce's tale, The Death of Halpin Frayser, one of the most overwhelmingly terrific horror, tales ever written:
He thought that he was walking along a dusty road that showed white in the gathering darkness of the summer night. Whence and whither it led, and why he traveled it, he did not know, though all seemed simple and natural, as is the way in dreams; for in the Land Beyond the Bed surprises cease from troubling and the Judgement is at rest. Soon he came to the parting of the ways; leading from the highway was a road less traveled, having the appearance, indeed, of having been long abandoned, because, he thought, it led to something evil; yet he turned into it without hesitation, impelled by some mysterious necessity.
Note here the potential value of the italicized clauses. The element of dream-mystery is heightened by the unknown reason for traveling the road, by the "something evil" which has no form or name, and the unparticularized necessity for taking the abandoned way. The ambiguity, the lack of precise definition, stimulate the reader's imagination and evoke shadowy meanings beyond the actual words.

In the paragraph immediately following this, the potential elements are even more predominant:
As he pressed forward he became conscious that his way was haunted by malevolent existences, invisible, and whom he could not definitely figure to his mind. From among the trees on either side he caught broken whispers in a strange tongue which yet he partly understood. They seemed to him fragmentary utterances of a monstrous conspiracy against his body and his soul.
Here, through the generalized character of malevolence imputed to things unseen and half-heard, images of almost illimitable spectral menace arc conjured up. It should not be inferred, however, that precise statements and sharply outlined images are necessarily lacking in potential quality. On the contrary, they may possess implications no less frightful or mysterious than the wildly distorted shadow cast by some monster seen in glaring light. To illustrate this point, let me quote again from The Death of Halpin Frayser:

A shallow pool in the guttered depression of an old wheel rut, as from a recent rain, met his eye with a crimson gleam. He stooped and plunged his hands into it. It stained his fingers; it was blood. Blood, he then observed, was about him everywhere. The weeds growing rankly by the roadside showed it in blots and splashes on their big broad leaves. Patches of dry dust between the wheelways were pitted and sputtered as with a red ruin. Defiling the trunks of the trees were broad maculations of crimson, and blood dripped like dew from their foliage.
This, it would seem, is a prime example of kinetic atmospheric description, owing its power to a visual definitude and exactness rarely equaled. Consider a moment, however, and you will realize the added potential element which lies in the unexplained mystery of the bloody dew, and the abnormally strange position of many of the sanguine maculations. Things infinitely more dreadful and more horrible than the blood itself are somehow intimated.
In much of Poe's best work, the atmospheric elements are so subtly blended, unified and pervasive as to make analysis rather difficult. Something beyond and above the mere words and images seems to well from the entire fabric of the work, like the "pestilent and mystic vapor" which, to the narrator's fancy, appeared to emanate from the melancholy House of Usher and its inexplicably dismal surroundings. The profuse but always significant details evoke dimly heard echoes and remote correspondences. Suggestion is less easily separable from statement, and becomes a vague dark irridescence communicated from word to word, from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to page, like the play of lurid gleams along somber jewels cunningly chosen and set. To this suggestive element the rhythms, cadences and phonetic sequences of the prose contribute materially but more or less indeterminably. As an illustration of well-nigh perfect atmospheric writing, embodying the qualities I have indicated, I quote from The Fall of the House of Usher the description of the room in which Roderick Usher receives his guest;
The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsonod light made their way through the trellised panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eyes, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to lend any vitality to the scene. I felt I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
Note here the carefully built impression of spaciousness combined with gloom and confinement, of lifeless and uncomforting luxury. Through the choice and emphasis of material details, an air of spiritual oppression is created, and the idea of a mysterious and monstrous unity between the building and its hypochondriacal owner is cautiously foreshadowed. I have italicized two sentences in which I seem to find a very subtle congruity between the actual sound of the words and their sense. In the first, the frequent repetition of the consonants r, s, fs and t somehow emphasizes the image of "profuse" furniture; and the sharp dentals and sibilants add to the impression of things time- eaten and "comfortless." In the last sentence, the repeated letters, n, r, d, l, m, and v, are all of a heavy or deep-sounding character, giving, with the long, close and sonorous vowels, a hollow and funeral clang that echoes the meaning. Here, too, the very movement of the sentence is like the dropping of a pall.

From certain of Poe's tales and prose-poems, such as The Masque of the Red Death, Silence and Shadow, one can select even more obvious and overt effects of atmospheric color supplemented by sound and rhythm. For illustration, I shall quote a single sentence from the prose-poem, Silence, and leave its analysis to the reader: "And overhead, with a rustling and loud noise, the grey clouds rush westwardly forever, until they roll, a cataract, over the fiery wall of the horizon."

From such instances as these, it will be seen how large a portion of the atmospheric elements in writing can sometimes be contributed by the mere sound of words apart from their meaning. The values implied are vaguely akin to those of music; and it should be obvious that really fine prose cannot be written without an ear for pitch, tone, movement and cadence.

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.