“The Letters of Cold Fire”

Yes, postings here have been sparse lately. That should change in the next couple of weeks.

However, I did manage to read last week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones discussion group.

Review: “The Letters of Cold Fire”, Manly Wade Wellman, 1934.

The story starts and takes place entirely in New York City with one Roderick Thorne showing up at a dump of an apartment building to ask about one Cavet Leslie whom he is told is sick and visited daily by a doctor. The landlord refuses to let Thorne see him. 

So, Thorne sneaks back into the apartment building right away. We get some nice, if brief, background on the slums of New York City dating back to the warring gangs of the mid-19th century and the Civil War era draft riots. 

Thorne finds Leslie in a bed, and his opening line is: “You were Cavet Leslie.  . . . Try to remember.” Leslie says he’s forbidden to remember anything but his “lessons”. Thorne gives his name. Leslie certainly knows it. He says it will “be great in hell.” 

Thorne tells him he’s come for Leslie’s book. “It’s worth both our lives, and more.”  Leslie keeps protesting against his name being used. Thorne tells Leslie he knows he has the book. Leslie studied at the Deep School. Everybody who finished the school got the book. “Few finish”, says Leslie, “Many begin, few finish.” 

Thorne reminds him the School was underground, in a place with no light. Light destroys what was taught. “Once there, the scholar remains until he has been taught, or – goes away into the dark.” Thorne knows the book has “letters of cold fire”. Leslie confirms that. They can only be read in the dark. Once a day a trapdoor opened in the Deep School, “and a hand shaggy with dark hair thrusts in food.” Leslie was at the School for seven years. 

Thorne again demands the book. It’s in the room somewhere, he knows. “How do you know?”, asks Leslie. Thorne says it’s his business to know. 

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The Castaways of Tanagar; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I read a novel translated by Brian Stableford, I had to get a Stableford novel off the shelf.

Review: The Castaways of Tanagar, Brian Stableford, 1981. 

Cover by H. R. Van Dongen

The review of this book on the Brian Stableford website which suggests that it is a science fictional working out of ideas from Plato’s The Republic. Tanagar society has three classes, and Stableford combines Plato’s ideas with William Sheldon’s theory of personality determined by body type. Intellectuals are passionless, thin, ascetic, and supposedly not given to emotion. Pragmatists, also not given to much emotion except at chosen times when they “jeckle”, are strivers, rightfully regarding themselves as the only ones who can get things done between the other two classes’ indecision and indiscipline. They are medium-framed, Sheldon’s mesomorphic body type. Hedonists are fat and emotional. 

The novel also partakes of some common themes of science fiction from the 1970s and 1980s: biofeedback, skills obtained through memory implants, nuclear holocaust, and resource depletion on Earth.

Our castaways are those who just couldn’t fit in to Tanagar society. That was the planet settled by a generation starship fled Earth before a nuclear war broke out. The Tanagarians put them in cold sleep.

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Three Soldiers

In keeping with my usual method of associational reading, I decided to read this literary World War One novel.

Review: Three Soldiers, John Dos Passos, 1921

I was rather disappointed with this novel. 

I’m an admirer of Dos Passos’ later USA Trilogy, but his modernistic style wasn’t fully developed yet when he wrote this novel though we do get a lot of snatches of music and a story allotted to several viewpoint characters. There’s also little of his experience as an ambulance driver in World War One. Indeed, there’s not that much actual combat in this novel at all.

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Timeslip Troopers

In keeping with the World War One theme I started with The Russian Origins of the First World War, I picked this book off the shelf.

Review: Timeslip Troopers, Théo Varlet and André Blandin, trans. Brian Stableford, 1923, 2012. 

Cover by Mandy

When Lieutenant Renard rotates into command of a group of poilu defending on a small French village, he finds out that the officers have a very well-stocked wine cellar. But the Englishman who left it – he was shot as a German spy — also left behind a time machine and his journal. While the tone of the book is closer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is explicitly a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine since that Englishman is Well’s time traveler.

When Renard discovers the journal and machine, he shows it to Sergeant Dupuy, the unit’s clever radio man and a mechanic before the war in the factory owned by Renard’s father.

When an accident with a time machine transports a group of French soldiers from the Western Front of World War One to the Spain of 1321, we get a wry, entertaining novel. It’s the first science fiction work I know of in the tradition of radically displacing earthly soldiers in time and space. It blazes – without, presumably, any influence on those later works – the path followed by Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, David Drake’s Ranks of Bronze, Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries, and Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World series.

The two take it out on some test flights for a bit of R & R in Paris before and during the war. Both trips are near disasters, and the Germans unexpectedly attack the unit during one, and Renard has to come up with an unconvincing story about why he and Dupuy were gone at such a critical time.

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“The Lusitania Waits”

Well, this week’s discussion over at the Deep Ones group on LibraryThing, was a story I nominated.

I almost feel like I should apologize, but the group seemed to like it better than I did it. I nominated it, of course, because it is a piece of fantastical fiction set during World War One.

Review: “The Lusitania Waits”, Alfred Noyes, 1918. 

Alfred Noyes is not a name generally associated with weird fiction, but he did write some ghost stories. However, he was a popular poet, his most famous work being “The Highwayman”.

Our story starts out with three old skippers, all in their seventies and retired for five years, meeting, as usual, at the White Horse Inn. Sure, the war has given them something to talk about, but Captain Kendrick, now a parish councilor, likes to talk about the newest edition of the Gazette, a weekly newspaper run by Macpherson.

Commenting on Macpherson, Kendrick remarks,

‘There’s a rumor that he’s a freethinker. He says that Christianity has been proved a failure by the war.’

This was the story’s high point for me: a contemporary example that World War One weakened European Christianity.

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“The Dissection”

And, with this, I’m finally current with weird fiction discussions over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Dissection”, George Heym, trans. Gio Clairval, 1913. 

This is a very short story, a bit over a page long. 

It is, as the VanderMeers note, more of a prose poem, an evocative and precise description of an autopsy. 

As the hammers start on the protagonist’s skull, we get a vision of a “fragrant summer evening” and of the woman he loved. 

The man speaks to her: “I will see you again every evening in the hour of dawn.  We will never part”. 

And then we get

And the dead man quivered in happiness on his white death table, while the iron chisels in the hands of the doctors broke up the bones of his temple. 

That alludes to the body, in Christianity, being the temple of God.

Is Heym cynically mocking earthly pretensions of eternal love or is the man returning to a dead lover or somehow viewing her post mortem? 

I’m not really sure I would call this a weird story and suspect it’s in the anthology more because Thomas Ligotti speaks highly of it and the editors’ fondness for foreign language material in their anthologies than any weird quality. 

Still, it’s evocative and doesn’t wear out its welcome.

The Secret Glory

The Machen series continues with a book I unexpectedly liked perhaps because, in our tumultuous times, I found it comforting though I am in no way a mystic or religious. One can definitely sympathize with its protagonist’s indifference to the world.

It also, I suspect, served as a partial model for Mark Samuels’ A Pilgrim Stranger.

Review: The Secret Glory, Arthur Machen, 1922, 1998.

Partially written during his years of grief following the death of his first wife and before he remarried, Machen finally finished this novel in 1907. Parts were serialized, but the novel didn’t see publication until 1922 and even then its last two chapters were excised, summed up by, as editor S. T. Joshi notes, a not very good epilogue by Machen. The full novel, which I read, was finally published in 1998.

In a preface, Machen lays out what this novel is, a combination of two things: a satire on English public schools and the Holy Grail.

Machen was not impressed by the fatuous accounts of English headmasters, particularly their enthusiasm for sport over academics. Football, he thought, was not a preparation for life. However, in an essay “About My Books (reprinted in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said he found parodying these kinds of memoirs useless: “These Eton masters on their late Head read like an extravagant parody of my parodies.”

As to the Holy Grail, that was a subject that fascinated Machen. He wrote several essays on the Holy Grail with his friend, occultist A. E. Waite. They were collected in The Secret of the Sangraal and Other Writings.

This book is also, incidentally, considered the first work of literature to bring the Holy Grail into a contemporary setting.

While some claim this book is overly long and dull, it’s only 222 pages at full length, and I did not find it boring. 

Our hero is Ambrose Meyrick, sent off to Lupton. In Machen’s view, British public schools served as factories to produce a predictable type of men to fill in slots in the Empire’s administration. There is a very funny scene where we learn that the sorts of men Lupton produces are those who will not retract their opinions and judgements no matter what facts they are confronted with.

Ambrose comes to hate the school but conforms to it marvelously, even in sports, after a thrashing by his uncle, a schoolmaster there. Part of the novel follows the uncle’s career disappointments.

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“Mr. Justice Harbottle”

There’s not much reading or blogging going on at my house right now, but I did finally read this subject of the Deep Ones group discussion over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872.

Cover by Anyka/Fotolia

The story starts out with a complicated and dry prologue which explains this account, like Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, comes from the papers of Dr. Hesselius with the notation it comes from “Harman’s Report” and Hesselius’ own interest in “The Interior Sense, and the Conditions of the Opening thereof”. This opening is the story’s weakest point, but it does tell us we will get an “intrusion of the spirit-world upon the proper domain of matter”.

From the prologue, I couldn’t exactly tell who is narrating this tale among the names given, but it doesn’t really matter. 

We open the story proper with that narrator telling us how, 30 years ago, a man showed up in his office for an early payment of a quarterly annuity he gets. He wants some money early because he needs to move out of his house “on a dark street in Westminster”. We get a nice description of the gloomy house which constantly has a sign saying it’s for sale or rent.

It seems to be haunted because, one night, the man saw a closet door open and two figures emerge.  One was a “particularly sinister” dark man. The other an older man,

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The Russian Origins of the First World War

As usual on every Armistice Day, I got out  one of my unread World War One books off the shelf.

Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McMeekin, 2011.

The thesis of this book is that Imperial Russia, using the criteria of Fritz Fischer’s famous Griff nach der Weltmacht aka Germany’s Aims in the First World War) bears as much responsibility for starting World War One as Imperial Germany.

McMeekin, using research into Turkish, Russian, French, German, and English archives, shows that Russia was anxious for war to pursue two objectives: the seizure of Constantinople and Persian lands on the other side of the Caucuses.

Russia consistently pursued those aims to the detriment of its allies almost to the end. The only time it abandoned them, during the post-Revolution Kerensky government, was probably the one time it should have continued them to help prevent a Bolshevik take over.

The reason for the long-term Russian goal of seizing Constantinople wasn’t just a symbolic significance as indicated by the names sometimes used for that city: the Second Rome or Tsargrad. Constantinople and the Bosporus Straits were key choke points that could be used to limit Russia’s trade. Roughly half of it passed through the area. The vulnerability it represented was brought home when Russia lost access to them briefly in 1912 during the Italian-Turkish War.

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“An Assignation”

It’s a much belated discussion of a piece of weird fiction we recently discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “An Assignation”, Sean O’Brien, 2012.

An assignation is exactly what this story, told in the second person, is about. 

It’s long on atmosphere and subjectivity and short on plot, but the story captures the exhilaration of leaving it all behind when the protagonist takes the train out of Paris for a romantic assignation in a provincial town.

The woman is beautiful and perfect and, she admits, she also gave a false name for their meeting. 

They have never met before, but, over an evocatively described meal and wine, things go well, and the two head off to her place. 

We hear how the protagonist’s life has been leading up to this moment. 

But, with the lines

This is what you always had in mind. This is what all those others were the preparation for, for such a night as this, the thirsty self ‘s apotheosis. You wish that both of you could live forever.

we begin to think he might have something murderous in mind though, of course, there is an innocent alternative to those words. The story could imply that he is a would-be murderer or has already killed. 

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