Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction

This one gets a low-res scan designation because it seems rather pointless to spend a lot of time on some of the pieces in this reprint collection.

Low Res Scan: Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction, Brian Stableford, 2007.

In “Slaves of the Death Spider: Colin Wilson and Existentialist Science Fiction”, Stableford talks about Wilson’s Spider World series in a way that convinces me there’s probably not much of merit in them. He finds them not that original – specifically derivative of Star Wars and Murray Leinster’s “Mad Planet”. He finds it ironic that Wilson, who once accused science fiction of being fairy tales for adults who have not outgrown fairy tales, has written, inspired by his occult interests, a story that seems to suggest, a la L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, that mankind’s salvation will come. In short, Stableford says Wilson neither delivers a new plot or anything conceptually satisfying

H. G. Wells and the Discovery of the Future” is a very informative essay on Wells. Stableford points to Wells’ 1901 futurological work Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought as marking a change in his career and approach to speculative fiction. From that point on, Wells’ would attempt to forecast the future rather than just deal with possibilities. His classic works – The First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes – predate this turn. These, and three short story collections between 1895 and 1901, are realistically, what Wells’ reputation as a vital sf writer rests on – not the turgid utopias he wrote later on. Interestingly, Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is seen as an example of Wells’ new direction. Begun as a scientific romance, it diverted to a new direction with the giants becoming an example of  what Wells’ thought humanity should be concerned with in the future. The giants are an example of a “new wisdom and new spiritual strength”. Stableford sees Wells’ participating in a general turn, around 1902, by British sf writers to pessimism, most specifically seen in the natural catastrophe and future war story. As the world became more secular, the belief that salvation and ultimate survival was not guaranteed begun to have effects. After World War I, the British scientific romance became fatalistic to the point of nihilism. Hope for civilization was in short supply. Optimism took a peculiar turn in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men where man goes through various cyclic rises and falls in his civilization. But, says Stableford, Wells’ earlier approach did not go to waste. It was taken up by American sf. Ultimately, Stableford is fairly critical of the later Wells saying his work had a large element of folly. He says that the best of modern sf tries to strike a balance between the two Wells: an energetic, fun, romantic exploration of possibilities tempered with a desire to see and shape the future.

The Adventures of Lord Horror Across the Media Landscape” is a history of a notorious British novel and accompanying multimedia adaptations of it.

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Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950

Well, I’ve known about this book for years, but it was pricey on the second hand market, but I got it for Christmas.

A lot of science fiction crit books from the 1980s I’ve purchased recently seem to be deaccessioned from university libraries. This one came from the Columbus College Library in Columbus, Georgia.  It seems to have been checked out only once, in 1995. That matches Brian Stableford stating, in his essay “The Profession of Science Fiction” that he only sold “157 copies in the UK, not counting remainders”.

While several of the blogs I read are interested in this kind of thing, it’s definitely a niche interest.

Review: Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, Brian Stableford, 1985. 

Stableford makes a convincing case that the British scientific romance was not the same as American sf though the two merged around 1950. The two differed in many respects: publishing markets, tone, subject, and the types of authors that wrote it..

American sf could be published in many magazines. The authors of scientific romances had only the low-brow penny dreadfuls in England, and, until around 18890, novels were published in three-volume installments intended for the upper classes. It also was about that date that magazines aimed at the middle class were first published in the UK. I was also interested to learn that Britain had paperback books slightly earlier than America.  However, they had nothing like the American pulp magazines though you could buy bundles of them (so-called “Yank mags”) that were brought over, supposedly, as ship’s ballast.

The tone of the scientific romance, particularly after World War 1, was pessimistic. Its stories often dealt with civilizational collapse or decadence. American pulp sf was optimistic.

The latter was defined by stories of space travel and interplanetary adventure. British scientific romance produced more stories with evolution and mutation as themes. The scientific romance also frequently featured future war stories.

There was a big drop off in scientific romances in Britain from1918 through 1931 though the presence of an almost entirely British form, the “speculative essay”, increased in popularity in those years. It was closely related to science fiction and first started at least as far back as Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and took off in 1923 with J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus; or, Science and the Future.

The extent writers involved themselves in sf and scientific romances also differed substantially on each side of the Atlantic. Some mainstream British writers wrote one or two works of scientific romance, most notably Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. It was not, however, considered respectable, just eccentricity. The American pulps had many writers who specialized in writing for them.

H. G. Wells, the most famous writer of scientific romance, disparaged his scientific romances when he finally got around to having an omnibus of them published in 1927. Stableford sees early Wells as just exploring ideas and looking at their implications whereas later Wells, the artistically unsuccessful Wells, offered solutions to problems and not very convincing ones either. 

Stableford sees the ideal mix of sf/scientific romance as playfulness with serious intent to look at problems in the world. For him, American sf was vigorous in its action plots and romantic settings but not very serious in looking at the real world. The British scientific romance, with its utopian works, examinations of supermen, and how to avoid another World War, was serious but in a dull way. He thinks the post 1950 amalgam of the two was a good thing. Stableford sees John Wyndham and John Christopher as the two writers who most successfully combined the two traditions.

The book is divided up into time periods with in-depth looks at important authors of the period and its general themes. Each discussed author and their works are indexed.

Stableford makes me want to re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when he notes Huxley’s succeeded where many other authors who dealt with similar issues are forgotten. Stableford credits Huxley’s lighter touch. He had more irony and didn’t, unlike Wells’, make a deliberate statement on the nature of his society. He left unanswered the question of why, exactly, the world After Ford was so bad. People are happy after all.

Interestingly, one of the many forgotten writers mentioned is Muriel Jaeger. Her The Question Mark, which may have inspired Huxley’s novel, has recently been reprinted.   

Stableford makes me now see Olaf Stapledon in a new light as a man seeking psychic communion and community. Interestingly, he was the reverse of so many of the writers Stableford discusses. He was raised by an atheist and became a sort of believer. Most of the authors covered took the opposite trajectory – sons of religious men who rebelled.

Naturally, if you are the type who would read this book, you’ll find new books and authors you want to read. The most prominent names in that regard for me are H. F. Heard, who later moved to California though, even after becoming acquainted with American sf, he still wrote in the tradition of the scientific romance. The other is John Gloag. Stableford actually got to interview Gloag before his death. Unlike many of the authors of scientific romances, Gloag (like S. Fowler Wright) was a man of the political right though Stableford puts this down to a general skepticism rather than loyalty to a particular political creed.

It’s a fascinating read with Stableford ably summarizing many a story and novel.

I would recommend this book to others interested in the history of science fiction, but, I suspect, it’s been superseded by Stableford’s four volume New Atlantis. Published in 2017, it pushes his survey back in time to some works of proto-scientific romance starting with Francis Bacon.

“The Mummy’s Foot”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Mummy’s Foot”, Théophile Gautier, trans. Lafcaido Hearn, 1908, 1840. 

This is a light, frothy bit of fiction.

A great deal of it is taken up with the narrator’s description of a Parisian antique shop where he comes across what he first takes to be the beautiful foot left over from some statue. He wants something cheap to use as a paperweight. He’s told that the foot is not from a statute. It’s the mummified foot of Princess Hermonthis. 

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The Ravine

Usually, I know exactly what I’m going to read after I finish a book. However, back last New Year’s Eve, I thought I needed a break.

A weird western was just the thing.

Review: The Ravine, William Meikle, 2013.

Cover by M. Wayne Miller

While this isn’t my favorite kind of weird western, I think the most inventive ones are science fiction stories that don’t use time travel or aliens, I still found this story gripping and fast moving. 

Meikle starts the action right away with a cavalry squad swept to another dimension where they are recruited in a fight to keep Satan imprisoned. Only one survives, Stevens, who is imbued with the weaponry and power of an angel and returns to our world. 

The second viewpoint character is Joe Clancy. He’s a rancher with his wife Jessie, son Tommy, and hired hand and family friend Paddy Doyle. His ranch is on the brink of being foreclosed on; there is a drought, and he needs the cattle in good shape to make his mortgage payment. Meikle really makes you feel the plight of the Clancys all through this story.

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The Black Throne

This one was read last October. I always try to make time for some Poe in October. I’m not quite that far behind my reviews, but this one got overlooked, so it’s a bit of a backtrack.

Review: The Black Throne, Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen, 1990.

Cover by David B. Mattingly

This novel is a farrago of the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe and involves multiple worlds.

We open with Annie on the shore of a fog shrouded sea. She meets two identical looking boys:  Edgar Perry (Poe’s name when he was a sergeant in the US Army) and Edgar Allan (that would have been Poe’s name if he had been formerly adopted by his step family). They go out into the sea to look at a body. Edgar Allan is near it when he loses contact with this dream world but not before he hears the call of “E-tekeli-li” (from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). Next, we see Edgar Perry near Fort Moultrie (where Poe served and site of his story “The Gold Bug”). Perry sees Annie riding by in a coach. He has long seen Annie in his dreams. Annie, from the coach, seems to telepathically ask for him to rescue her, that she is being taken away to be done harm, and she is possibly drugged. Annie is, of course, the woman from Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.

And so, in the first chapter, we set the tone for what will be a story that works in many of the elements of Poe’s life and his works – some obscure, some obvious. (I’ll admit I recognized most of them, but, for a few, I had to resort to Dawn B. Sova’s Edgar Allan Poe A to Z to refresh my memory.)

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“The Prayer of Ninety Cats”

This is the piece of weird fiction being discussed this week over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Prayer of Ninety Cats”, Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2013.

Cover by Elizabeth Story

Like a lot of Kiernan I’ve read, the plot on this one is rather obscure but the prose lyrical.

It’s more a meditation on movies and the experience of seeing them in the theater, of the compelling nature of light reflected from the silver screen, than about the fictional movie contained within the story. We even are invited to identify with an unnamed movie critic addressed as “you” throughout the story.

We don’t seem to ever get the title of this movie about Elizabeth Bathory von Ecsed, the famed Blood Countess of history. The movie recounts her descent into depravity and her predations on the local women sent to the castle including having one ground into sausage and fed to her unwitting parents.

However, the main part of the story is her relationship to a her lover, a “witch of the woods” named Anna Darvulia.

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“Mrs Midnight”

This was last week’s short story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Mrs Midnight”, Reggie Oliver, 2011.

Cover by Reggie Oliver

As seems to often be the case in the few Oliver stories I’ve read, this story is about showbiz.

Our narrator is the host of the tv show I Can Make You A Star, and the story is propelled by a woman, Jill Warburton, whom our narrator, Danny, fancies. He does not find her exceptionally beautiful, but he likes her personality. 

To be close to her, he agrees to help her on a restoration of the Old Essex Music Hall, a dump of a building in London that has a bad reputation and, says Danny, has only survived because “some nutter slapped a preservation order on it.” 

A lot of the story is Danny’s asides on various characters and his own life rising from humble beginnings. It opens with Danny going, for the first time, to the Old Essex with Crispin de Hartong and Jill. Danny does not like Crispin because he’s clearly putting the moves on Jill even though he admits Crispin is much closer to Jill’s age. Crispin is an architectural expert and hosts a minor house hunting show called Premises, Premises . . . .

The Old Essex is on Alie Street in the Whitechapel district. It was partly destroyed in a fire after the last Ripper murder in the area and has been a hangout for junkies and bikers for years. It’s a much larger building than Danny expects. 

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Myths & Legends of the First World War

Review: Myths & Legends of the First World War, James Hayward, 2002, 2010.

I would have thought the marketing department would have went with the title The Cult of the Clitoris and Other Myths and Legends of the First World War. Perhaps too long?

In a very concise, readable book with all the academic appurtenances of footnotes, bibliography, index and even some photos, Hayward looks at the fake news and rumors that circulated during the war and the false judgements afterwards.

Understandably, like a lot of British histography on the Great War, it focuses solely on the Western Front.

“Spy Mania” looks at the many reports of German spies and saboteurs during August 1914. They were poisoning water supplies and destroying rail bridges. Concrete tennis courts and pools and building foundations were waiting for secret German artillery installations. German spies kept homing pigeons, forbidden them by the Aliens Restriction Order. They signaled offshore German submarines. Winston Churchill even got into the act into hunting down the later. While staying in the Loch Ewe anchorage on the HMS Iron Duke, he thought a searchlight on the roof of a nearby mansion was signaling enemy submarines. Soon a party of Admirals and Commodores found themselves going ashore in an armed party to investigate. Lest we be smug about this in the 21st century, I will direct people to the many contemporary reports of non-existent terrorist actions in Washington, D.C. on Sept 11th.

Or, at least, those were the stories going around. Carl Lody’s execution on Nov. 6, 1914 pretty much ended German spying in Britain. But every German butcher, hairdresser, waiters, watchmaker, prostitute, and governess was under suspicion. Accusations of being German spies and sympathizers were made against several prominent members of the government or their spouses including Lord Haldane, Baden-Powell, and Margot Asquith, the Prime Minister’s wife.

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The Wandering Soul

I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson.

With this post, I think I can claim to have blogged more about William Hope Hodgson than anybody else in the English-speaking world. Whether any of it was useful you will have to judge. But, as Joe the Georgian said, “Quantity has a quality all its own”.

Review: The Wandering Soul: Glimpses of a Rare Life: A Compendium of Rare and Unpublished Works, ed. Jane Frank, 2005.

Since I spent about $50 for this book, something I rarely do unless it’s a reference work, I guess I can now be considered a hardcore Hodgson fan. Considering that was the list price for this book when it was published by Tartarus Press and I got it new, I got a good deal – and there must not be that many hardcore Hodgson fans.

So, what did I get for my money?

131 of the book’s 365 pages is Hodgson fiction, specifically for a collection entitled Coasts of Adventure which was never published in his lifetime. In 2005, that might have been significant (frankly, I didn’t do my blogger diligence and check how many were anthologized before showing up here). But, now, you can get every one of these stories in Night Shade Books’s five volume The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson.

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