The Monk

In 2006, I decided to read the works referenced in H. P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature.

I did make it through most of the Gothic novels he mentioned except for the American gothic novels of Charles Brockden Brown. I didn’t review most of them though you will get a review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho at some point.

I did read the notorious William Beckford’s Vathek. Unfortunately, when I was in Bath, England, I didn’t get a chance to see his architectural folly Lansdown Tower.

And I agree with Lovecraft that Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer is the best of the Gothic novels he covers. (Though, from Lovecraft’s letters,  he doesn’t seem to have actually been able to get his hands on the whole novel, just excerpts.) You won’t be getting a review of it from me though.

As for the rest of the weird fiction Lovecraft mentioned, I’ve read a surprisingly large amount of it under the impetus of the Deep Ones reading group, part of LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition discussion group.

 A retro review from June 5, 2006 . . .

Review: The Monk, Matthew Lewis, 1796.Monk

It’s no coincidence that the opening epigraph of Lewis’ one and only novel is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Both works have pillars of public moral rectitude collapsing after encountering their first major temptation of carnality. Monk Ambrosio figures in for a penny, in for a pound, and starts the slide from mere sex to murder, incest, despair, and damnation.

Lewis’ streamlined prose abandons the detailed descriptions of Gothic architecture and Alpine vistas favored by his model Ann Radcliffe. And, in a plot of not two but four frustrated lovers, he crams many a gruesome incident and image. No Radcliffean rationalism for Lewis. Despite frequent criticms of the superstition of Spain during the Inquistion, this plot revels in the supernatural with curses, ghosts, Bleeding Nuns, Wandering Jews, and the Prince of Demons himself.

Yet, despite the melodrama, there is an air of psychological realism in how Monk Ambrosio rationalizes his escalation of evil. Perhaps more disturbing is the mind of Matilda, his first lover, and her willingness to advise and aid his evil even after he has sexually spurned her. Continue reading

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier

Years ago, I was in the British Museum and saw scraps of the famed Vindolanda writings — actual ink on wood documents from the Roman Empire.

So, of course, I had to buy a book on them at the gift shop and read it shortly before going to England again.

A retro review from May 20, 2006 …

Review: Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier, Alan K. Bowman, 1998. Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier

This book will tell you some interesting things about the social life of Roman army officers and their families, the manufacturing and building activities the men of the Roman auxiliaries did when not fighting, the process of Romanizing conquered provinces, and the networks of trade that sprung up to supply the Roman army in Britian. All this comes from some remarkably preserved bits of wood almost 2,000 years old.

But this isn’t a friendly, popular archaeology book. Its bibliography and notes and organization clearly indicate an intended audience of scholars. The text seems to be organized as if nobody will read the book cover to cover. Specific conclusions and facts are repeated from chapter to chapter. I suspect it was thought that its intended academic audience would simply read whatever chapter was titled in line with their speciality.

Still, those who have seen the Vindolanda writings on tv or at the British Museum may be curious to see full translations of many fragments, and students of Roman military administration or Roman Britain will certainly want to take a look. The book also includes several photos of the actual fragments and explains why the script doesn’t seem to much resemble what we think of as Roman writing. Indeed, one of Bowman’s major emphasis is what the Vindolanda fragments tell us about the evolution of Roman writing from Old Roman Script to New Roman Script.

 

More reviews of books related to Roman history are at the Rome page.

Settling Accounts: Return Engagement

Yes, it’s more Harry Turtledove.

A retro review from May 6, 2006 …

Review: Settling Accounts: Engagement, Harry Turtledove, 2004.Return Engagement

This is the eighth book in Turtledove’s Great War series though it’s sort of being marketed as the first in the Settling Accounts trilogy. [It ended up being a series of four books.] It is not a suitable entry point to this universe. Even long time readers of this series will find this book annoying.

It exhibits all the usual, unfortunate features of Turtledove’s padded novels. The Homeric character epithets are frequently repeated. There’s very little onstage battle action for a series about war, and all the important battles are given a worm’s eye view. There are frequent puns and ironic turns of phrases — here German Nazi phrases find their way in to the conversations of Freedom Party people.

Unlike his Worldwar series which featured many historical characters, the only ones of note here are General Patton leading the Confederate blitzkrieg which takes him to Lake Erie, General McArthur (who seems to be doing this world’s version of Inchon by landing at the mouth of the James River), Louis Armstrong (who, after being forced to entertain frontline troops, makes a break with his band to USA lines), and President Al Smith who dies and is replaced by LaFollette. Continue reading

Time Gate

This is not the first “shared world” Robert Silverberg was involved with. He wrote a story for Harlan Ellison’s Medea. He also wrote stories for the Heroes in Hell world from which his Gilgamesh novel To the Land of the Living came.

This is the first time he got to exert editorial control over such a world.

The results were mixed.

A retro review from April 25, 2006.

Review: Time Gate, ed. Robert Silverberg, 1989.Time Gate

It’s an absurd notion that, by programing in to a computer biographical details about a dead person and their time, you can create a sentient version of that historical personage. It’s probably not even original to this shared world anthology. And, certainly, the idea of sentient programs haunting cyberspace goes back to earlier work by Vernor Vinge and William Gibson.

But Silverberg is a master reclaimer of the old vigor of cliches. And here the effort, under his editorial direction, mostly works.

The usual gimmick in each story is the meeting of two famous people who never met in reality. Between each story is the barest of expository mortar to hold things together, and three fifths of the collection works well. Continue reading

The Gentleman from Angell Street

I’ll put up this retro review from March 3, 2006 even though, as I make clear, it’s of limited interest.

Review: The Gentleman from Angell Street: Memories of H. P. Lovecraft, Muriel E. Eddy and C. M. Eddy, Jr, 2001.Gentleman from Angell Street

How much you’ll get out of this book depends on whether you’ve read S. T. Joshi’s Lovecraft: A Life. If you have read it, then you will find little new in this book since Joshi mined most of it. The memorial poems are nothing distinguished, and the brief recollections of the Eddys’ daughter, Ruth, add little. Like Joshi, I’m suspicious of Muriel’s statements about her early acquaintance with the Lovecraft family before actually meeting HPL.

However, the book is a treat if you haven’t read Joshi’s biography. The Eddys were some of Lovecraft’s few friends in Providence, and C.M. even collaborated with Lovecraft on the necrophilic tale “The Loved Dead” as well as some other, less notable, tales of Eddy’s. The Lovecraft that comes through here is a warm, generous man with a sweet tooth and a love of cats, a gifted reader of his own work, haunter of Providence and its surrounding swamps. Muriel’s romantic notions of a match between the divorced Lovecraft and his ghostwriting client Hazel Heald bring a smile.

As thin as the book is, it suffers from repeated anecdotes and facts because it is a collection of reminisces and not a single essay.

It does include photos of its authors, Lovecraft’s wife and his parents, and a surprisingly pudgy Lovecraft from his doomed sojourn in New York City.

 

The Lovecraft Page.

Reviews of fantastic fiction indexed by title and author/editor.

The Bible Repairman

I read this Tim Powers’ story in a chapbook edition which is now something of an expensive collector’s item.

You can get it cheaply now as part of The Bible Repairman and Other Stories.

I suppose I should add that, absent the annoying Amazon star system, I’m recommending this one.

Review: The Bible Repairman, Tim Powers, 2005.Bible Repairman

In California, a secret magical underground exists. Souls of the dead haunt electronic equipment. Bibles are cleansed of offending verses, and the blood of murderers stills the whispers of the dead.

But, as always in Powers, magic comes at a price. Wizard Torrez, the bible repairman, has a soul tainted by murder, a dead child, a broken marriage, and an intellect leaking away. And a new client wants to take away what little he has left.

While taking place in a world reminiscent of his novel Expiration Date, there is no secret history here, no grand conspiracies — just a subtle tale of loss, sin, and sacrifice.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Star Changes

Clark Ashton Smith was one of those authors it took me a long time to warm to.

I’d certainly heard of him in the late 1970s when I read Robert Holdstock’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and its section on the “Three Musketeers” of Weird Tales: Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.

My first encounter with Smith was “The Return of the Sorcerer” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1, and I wasn’t impressed.

However, at Arcana 34 in 2004, I heard Tim Powers talk about Smith and his admiration for him. (The title of Powers’ Romantic poets and vampires novel, The Stress of Her Regard, is from a Smith poem.) The dealer’s room had a copy of The Last Oblivion: The Best Fantastic Poetry of Clark Ashton Smith. After reading it, I was hooked on Smith, and, eventually, you’ll get some retro reviews of the Night Shade Books reprints of all of Smith’s fiction.

Before that came along, though, Smith was hard to find and you had to shell out money for expensive collector hardbacks like this.

A retro review from February 4, 2006 …

Review: Star Changes: The Science Fiction of Clark Ashton Smith, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2005.Star Changes

Smith is an author I recently discovered, so I make no claims to being an expert on the different editions of his work. This is only the second collection of his I’ve read. The first was A Rendezvous in Averoigne: The Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith, and I would recommend that as introduction rather than this volume. It has a sampling of Smith’s many series, his fantasy and his science fiction, and much stronger examples of the feverish, poetic prose which made him a special fantasy writer. The stories in this collection are not as memorable. Smith reconciled himself to hackwork on occasion in order to support himself and his aged parents. And part of that was science fiction, a genre he had no special knowledge of before writing it. Smith wasn’t particularly interested in science and no lover of technology since he thought the world over mechanized. For Smith, the point of fiction was to create an alien world, so he had little patience for the expository passages of pulp science fiction or depicting individual characters. He regarded a truly alien world as one inherently inimical to the mental health of a human. His strongest science fiction is often of the horrific sort. Continue reading

The Shadow Out of Time: The Annotated Text

In retrospect, this retro review from February 4, 2006 probably should have had some brief description of the story’s plot.

Published first in Astounding Stories, it’s Lovecraft’s most blatantly science fictional story with body switching, time travel, ancient alien races, menacing ruins. And, yes, that’s the original pulp cover for the story.

Review: The Shadow Out of Time: The Annotated Text, by H. P. Lovecraft with annotations by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2001.Shadow Out of Time

While this story wouldn’t be the entry I’d recommend to Lovecraft, it is definitely one of his major works. And this edition is worth reading for the beginning and hardcore fan.

The editors’ introduction details how long Lovecraft had been considering this story, his inspirations, and how he, as before in his great creative year of 1927, undertook a reading program to sharpen his style and improve his writing before starting it, his most science-fictional, tale. They also offer some intriguing observations about the specific dates in protagonist Peaslee’s life and their significance to Lovecraft’s.

As to the annotations, it’s not the largely unnecessary vocabulary lessons that Joshi and Schultz offer that are valuable, but how they point out similarities in motifs and language to other Lovecraft works, specific factual sources Lovecraft used, and the many links between this and other Cthulhu Mythos stories of Lovecraft and his friends. Even fans who have read this story more than once will probably learn something new in these notes.

I can’t say as I noticed any difference between the corrected text and earlier versions of the story, but then I didn’t look at the appendix showing all the textual variations. But it’s there for the really hardcore Lovecraft fan and scholar.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Lovecraft page.

Redworld

Another favorite author I’ve reviewed almost nothing of.

Harness was a patent attorney, and some of his science fiction stories and novels are courtroom dramas.

Besides The Paradox Men, people are quite fond of The Ring of Ritornel. I’m not as fond of his The Rose as some critics are.

A retro review from January 30, 2006 …

Review: Redworld, Charles L. Harness, 1986Redworld

On an alien world where yellow and blue are unheard of colors, where a tentative truce between science and religion has been worked out, a young man is rescued from poverty by an unknown benefactor. But, on his way to his first day of work for the Printers Guild, he is denounced by a condemned witch. His crime? He is to be the Revenant, the man who will return from the dead to overthrow the old order.

For those who have never read Charles Harness, this is not the place to start. Start with his classic The Paradox Men, his tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, Lurid Dreams, or the collection An Ornament to His Profession. The newcomer may just see another alien society trying to develop science and frustrated by reactionary forces. And the plot has some vaguely glossed over points and scientific absurdities.

But, as Harness admits in his opening notes, there is much that he shares with his hero: a beloved older brother who died tragically young, early training for the ministry, chemical studies, and jobs with the police in a red light district of town. And Harness, as usual, works in references to art, here the music of J. S. Bach and Richard Wagner.

And there is the discovery of women. This coming of age novel has a lot of sex passages, most effectively done — especially for Harness, an author not known for his erotic work. And the sex is actually crucial to the plot.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Venona Secrets

Traitors, of course, imply treason and that is exactly the charge Romerstein and Breindel substantiate in this book. Specifically, that the American Communist Party was a knowing tool for Soviet espionage; that the alleged anti-fascism of American Communists was a facade unsupported by their behavior during the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact; that American Communists probably supplied Nazi Germany with military secrets during that period; that the U.S. government of the 1940s was riddled with Soviet agents including Alger Hiss and Harry Hopkins, personal friend and advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that J. Robert Oppenheimer was among the Soviet spies on the Manhattan Project.

The decoding of Soviet messages from 1940-1948, coupled with documents from the Communist governments of the former Warsaw Pact, provides the evidence for these charges.

Romerstein and Breindel write in a clear prose, and this book can be read fairly easily cover to cover in a few sittings. However, its organization seems more that of a reference book for scholars of Soviet espionage and U.S. political history rather than a straightforward narrative. The individual chapters cover the most famous spy rings operating in the U. S. during the years of the Venona messages, espionage directed toward stealing nuclear secrets, anti-Trotskyite activities, and co-opting journalists for propaganda purposes. The index is comprehensive and includes listing for the many code names used by the NKVD and GRU.

There is some interesting material on the struggle to root Communists out of American unions. The question of Jewish involvement in Soviet espionage is briefly and unsatisfyingly touched on. The authors acknowledge that Jews had a heavy and disproportionate involvement in the early Soviet intelligence services. But it is also true that Jews later became a target of those same organizations and Jews were purged out of them. What was the initial attraction to begin with?

However, there is a repetition of details about individual agents from chapter to chapter and no attempt to give a chronology of their activities. I suspect the authors organized the book around the idea that their fellow scholars would simply pick individual chapters to read depending on their interests rather than completely read the book.

This is not a biographical look at spies. For instance, we get almost no idea why Elizabeth Bentley went from NKVD agent to double agent for the FBI. It was perhaps because her NKVD lover/controller Jacob Golos had died, and she was miffed at the NKVD’s lack of confidence in her ability to continue to run agents. Likewise, we are presented with no explanation for Jack Childs remark “What took you so long?” to the FBI when they confronted him about decades of spying for the USSR.

While the book offers a brief explanation on the interception and decoding of the Venona messages, there are certainly better accounts of it elsewhere.

The book does have a nice appendix where we are presented with several photocopies of the decoded Venona messages so you get a feel of the raw data the authors worked with and what the NSA and its predecessor, the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, produced in a job that lasted until 1980.

 

The Espionage page.