An unproductive day new writing-wise, so you get a retro review from June 12, 2009.
The reputations of some of these stories and that of their authors may have waned in the 26 years since this anthology was published. None of the stories are bad though a few aren’t that special. The stories were selected in a manner similar to the Silverberg edited The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention chose stories to honor that were published before the convention begin doing their annual awards.
The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first is Edgar Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). This classic tale of a plague, mysterious colors, and death coming to a cloister of aristocrats is the grandfather of all those far future tales of decadents on a dying Earth. Poe influenced the prose and poems of Clark Ashton Smith, but the influence isn’t very evident in the latter’s “The Weird of Avoosl Withoqquan” (1932). It’s a story of an avaricious man who hears an ominous prophecy from a beggar he snubs. Smith’s Zothique series, very definitely a series of far future decadence, is not represented here directly, but it’s certainly echoed in Jack Vance’s “Mazirian the Magician” (1950), part of Vance’s Dying Earth series. In a story full of Vance’s exuberant palette of colors and exquisitely named magic, a sorcerer determines to possess a woman who has avoided him.
Of course, Poe was not just an inspiration but an idol to Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft. He is represented here by “The Silver Key” (1937). It’s an odd choice, perhaps dictated by its length. There is nothing wrong with the story. Featuring Lovecraft’s alter ego Randolph Carter, it’s Lovecraft’s most autobiographical work. Carter, a man in his thirties, goes on a quest to find his way back to the world of dreams – and its innocence – that he knew as a child. There are many better Lovecraft stories though. Lord Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft’s dream tales, and he’s represented here by “The Sword of Welleran” (1908). A wry tale of a city no longer defended by its legends and full of humor and despair and perverse emotion. Dunsany’s oddly syntaxed voice is probably still unique in fantasy. A lesser influence on Lovecraft was Ambrose Bierce. He shows up here with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), a short, eerie tale of life after death in a far future land.
Representing Robert E. Howard is the fine “Valley of the Worm” (1934). A tale of reincarnation and of the ur-dragon slaying, its style is strong and exciting though delicate modern sensitivities will cringe at the asides on racial evolution. Howard stands near the beginning of the sword and sorcery sub-genre here also represented by Michael Moorcock’s Elric story “Kings in Darkness” (1962). It’s an ok story, but I suspect the voters thought they should have at least one Elric story. However, the fascination with the doomed Elric comes through many novels and stories and Elric seems a pale character (no pun intended) here.
Wonderfully exotic, charged with a dark eroticism, and seemingly composed of equal parts Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith, C. L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss” (1934) may start and end in medieval France, but it goes to some strange places in between. It is the first in her Jirel of Joiry series.
Another series character making an appearance here, in a rather unexceptional story, is Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer. In “Oh Ugly Bird!” (1951), John confronts a backwoods bully and the buzzard like creature he shares a bond with. As with the Elric story, I suspect voters thought they needed to have at least one story with a particular character.
Several stories represent the nuts-and-bolts, logic intense fantasy published by the legendary, if short-lived, Unknown magazine . L. Sprague de Camp’s “Nothing in the Rules” (1939) details the legal wrangling necessary to get a mermaid into a swim meet. It’s an adequate story. Better is the delightfully mean-spirited “A Gnome There Was” (1941) from Henry Kuttner. It turns its patronizing, trust fund, union organizing protagonist into a hard rock mining gnome. Anthony Boucher’s “Snulbug” (1941) shows how it’s really not that useful having tomorrow’s newspaper. It isn’t a great story though, just a passable exercise in logic.
Robert Bloch’s “That Hell-Bound Train”(1958) is a classic deal with the Devil. Here a man barters his soul for a watch which will extend the happiest moment of his life into eternity – if he actually recognizes that moment at the time. It’s a wise look at the power and perils of aspirations.
Casinos are the setting for Harlan Ellison’s “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” (1967) and Fritz Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones” (1967). And they are also about the eternal war between the sexes. In the Ellison story, the desperate needs of a man on his last dollar and a prostitute collide in a Vegas casino when a slot machine goes on a very improbable winning streak. It’s full of Ellison’s combination of studied detail and stylistic pyrotechnics but marred a bit by a vague ending. The Leiber tale has a master dice thrower in a craps game with the Devil. While I’m not as in love with this story as many, the ending, with its sting about marital politics and manipulations, is interesting.
Seemingly about the struggles between certain types of men and women is Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Silken Swift” (1953). It’s really just about this man, these two women, and a unicorn. If that sounds like the setup, despite the fairy tale like language, to a joke that’s because it kind of is – a ribald, not very funny joke.
A. Merritt’s reputation has not survived history very well. He used to have whole magazines devoted to printing his work. “The Women of the Wood” (1926) shows well why he was so popular. Despite its ending, this tale of a man caught up in a war between forest spirits and the men determined to eradicate them had some interesting moral ambiguity that undercut the sympathies of its hero.
Frankly, I’m not really sure what happened in C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Words of Guru” (1941), but it’s disturbing, a bit surreal, and seems to involve a child who just might destroy the world.
Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming” (1946) has a small, normal boy growing up in a clan of monsters, most of them vampires. Not measuring up, being the outsider – not to mention missing out on the family’s usual long lifespans – are the subjects.
Avram Davidson’s “The Golem” (1955) has an elderly Jewish couple confronted by an impertinent, threatening golem escaped from a local mad scientist. It’s just the right length not to wear out the Jewish humor and has a very satisfying resolution.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) is a fable that not only self-consciously plays with what a fictional utopia should be like but the more important issue of how we face the tragedy of life, the circumstances natural law dictates to us. Is it foolish or noble to rebel?