Six-Guns Straight From Hell

For some reason, I’m in a weird western mood, so I thought I’d bring out this retro review from August 12, 2013.

Unfortunately, you’re probably going to pay a lot of money for this book in physical form, and the kindle edition, which I have, is no longer available due to rights issues.

Still, I’ll pass along the recommendation, and you should look up co-editor David B. Riley’s Amazon page if you enjoy weird westerns. I’m pretty fussy about what I regard as a good weird western. My criteria is they should be set in the historical American West and not fall back on standard supernatural creatures or time travel or aliens for their effect. Unsurprisingly, I don’t find many stories that fit that bill. However, Riley published Science Fiction Trails, and its stories often did. I’ve also enjoyed some of his own weird westerns.

Unfortunately, it didn’t get a lot of submissions that fit what Riley was looking for, so it’s no longer published.

And, of course, you can always seek out the work of the listed writers.

Review: Six-Guns Straight to Hell: Tales of Horror and Dark Fantasy from the Weird Weird West, eds. David B. Riley and Laura Givens, 2010.Six-Guns Straight From Hell

Oh, sure there are the usual vampires, werewolves, and ghosts as you would expect. But there are also a few Lovecraftian pieces, a bit of alternate history, and a bit of science fiction. And, of course, you do get plenty of gunslingers. It’s one of those anthologies with few real outstanding stories, some memorable ones, and no bad ones.

For me the best of the lot was Sam Kepfield’s “Ghost Dancers“. It takes perhaps the weirdest historical event in the Old West, the Ghost Dance, as its starting point, in particular the one place the movement broke into violence – Wounded Knee. It’s been a while since I’ve read James Mooney’s The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, but the history seemed dead on, the ending memorable.

I’ve enjoyed Lee Clark Zumpe’s Cthulhu Mythos stories so was pleased to see him in the table of contents. The Lovecraftian elements of his “The Man from Turkey Creek Canyon” are rather slight and, to be truthful, I found the end a bit unsatisfying, like the story could have been fleshed out more or belonged to a series. However, I liked its amnesiac gunslinger of “callous conscience” sent to protect a wagon train from ambush. Continue reading

Cold Warrior

And a final look at espionage histories touching on Kim Philby.

Raw Feed (1995): Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton — CIA’s Master Spy, Tom Mangold, 1991.Cold Warrior 

Fascinating story of one man’s obsession and paranoia and how it greatly crippled the CIA’s intelligence work against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

After reading this book, it’s a wonder we fared as well as we did against the Russians then, and it is an explanation for why human intelligence operations against the U.S.S.R. so miserably failed to see the crumbling of the Soviet Empire and its economic weakness or the crushing of the Czechoslovakian revolt. Angleton, head of CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff for 20 years (1954-1974 and the first to hold the position), crippled the agency by his paranoia and obsessions; yet, as Director of Central Intelligence William Colby said, it’s doubtful he actually caught a single spy. He was a brilliant man at bureaucratic intrigue and Machiavellian intrigue. Many people who worked at CIA never met him; he would direct counterintelligence operations against US citizens and CIA officers and leave no paper trail linking it to him as shown by his clever scheme to sell out Yuriy Loginov (an alleged KGB double agent) to his former masters. He was worshipped as a master of Counter Intelligence by his peers in Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa; a man with intimate contacts with Israeli intelligence.

The tale is simple in its outlines and fascinating in its details. Angleton felt severely betrayed when his colleague and friend Kim Philby turned out to be a KGB double agent. He even went so far as destroying all the voluminous records of his conversations with Philby out of embarrassment over what secrets he spilled. When egomaniacal KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn came over to the CIA with grandiose notions of knowing the KGB’s inner workings (he had only been a relatively low ranking KGB officer who did no operational work in the field) and revelations of a “monster plot” run by Philby, he found a very – disastrously so – ready ear in Angleton. The monster plot had three main elements: the Sino-Soviet split was a fake, the KGB was mounting a massive penetration of Western intelligence services, and – most importantly for later developments – that all defectors after Golitsyn would be fake. (In some ways, I find this notion the most incredulous and wonder how even a suspicious counterspy could presume to predict the motives of any possible future defectors.) Angleton swallowed it all. Suspicions were cast on loyal CIA officers and agents and agents at friendly agencies. Angleton did much to sour relations between French and American intelligence agencies with accusations of Soviet moles. Careers were ruined; people were falsely imprisoned. Particularly shameful was the case of Yuriy Nosenko who was imprisoned for 4 years by the CIA because it was believed, as per Golitsyn, that he was a double agent for the KGB – this despite the fact that he helped uncover major KGB moles with much more specific information than self-proclaimed expert of KGB operations Golitsyn (not to mention the vital information he had on Lee Harvey Oswald’s lack of ties to the KGB). Continue reading

Deadly Illusions

I’m continuing with the Kim Philby theme.

Raw Feed (1995): Deadly Illusions: The KGB Orlov Dossier Reveals Stalin’s Master Spy, John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, 1993.Deadly Illusions

An interesting collaboration between Costello, an English journalist/historian specializing in espionage history, and Tsarev, an officer with the KGB’s (now SVRR) Press Department.

The book details the career (and very little of the personal life since it is drawn almost entirely from KGB, FBI, CIA, and INS records) of Alexander Orlov, the most famous pseudonym of an NKVD officer thought to have defected from the Soviet Union in 1938. What this book reveals is that Orlov (in 1938 the head of Soviet activity aiding the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and on-site director of purges against Marxists Stalin regarded as competitors in Spain) merely fled Stalin’s mad purges of the NKVD and was, as the KGB files put it, a “non-returner” and not a defector. During his time in hiding in America from 1938 to 1973, he never revealed anything of value to the CIA or FBI interrogators though he wrote two books, one on Stalin’s crimes, the other on guerilla warfare and counter intelligence. He exposed only spy rings, operations, and agents already “blown” and nothing of what he did know which was quite a lot.

He helped organized the Rote Kapelle, Red Orchestra, the very successful NKVD spy ring in Nazi Germany till 1942. He founded most of the Oxford-Cambridge spy ring. He did not recruit Philby though he did tell Philby he was working for the Soviet Union and not just anti-fascists. I found the “Oxbridge” part of the book most interesting not only for its revelations as to how agents are recruited, motivated, and supervised and for showing that MI6 never caught all the ring’s members but also how it depicts the zeal with which its members embraced Communism as a religious faith for their alienated, spiritually vacant lives. It also showed how seductive Communism was to the rationalistic mindset, particularly among scientists, of Cambridge. I was also interested to see that not only was Communism fashionable in academic circles but fascism had its devotees in government. The lax security that afforded Donald Maclean such easy access to classified documents shows a typically British blindness regarding class. It was simply assumed that only gentlemen worked for the Foreign Office and, therefore, wouldn’t steal documents.

Orlov also knew of the effort to kill Trotsky and personally helped purge people in Spain. One can’t feel sorry for Orlov’s near death at the hands of Stalin. Like so many revolutionaries since the French Revolution, he thought he could ride the tiger and ignore or even approve of the bloodshed around him – until it became his turn. But Orlov cleverly evaded a trap for him and blackmailed Stalin and the NKVD by stating that, if he died, secret operations – like the Rote Kapelle, purges in Spain, and the “Oxbridge” ring – would be exposed. Stalin took no action against him. The blackmail letter, quoted here, does not explicitly make such a threat but it is heavily implied and certainly NKVD records show that’s how it was taken. Orlov never exposed those operations though pretending to be a defector. (The FBI suspected he was holding out and had ran assassination squads in Spain but couldn’t prove it.)

He died a dedicated communist and was described by one CIA officer as the single most versatile (he ran guerilla operations, counter-intelligence, and intelligence), powerful, and productive agent the Soviets produced.

 

More reviews of espionage related works are at the Espionage page.

Treason in the Blood

Tim Powers’ Declare certainly was not my first exposure to Kim Philby’s story, but I did seek out several of the Philby biographies Powers mentions in his notes.

This one, however, was the only one I made notes on.

Raw Feed (2003): Treason in the Blood: M. St. John Philby, Kim Philby, and the Spy Case of the Century, Anthony Cave Brown, 1994.Treason in the Blood

This is the first book length treatment I’ve read of Kim Philby’s story. Prior to this my exposure to him came in books about other espionage figures who crossed paths with Philby: John Costello and Oleg Tsarev’s Deadly Illusions (about Alexander Orlov, one of Philby’s NKVD controllers) and Tom Mangold’s Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton, The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (Angleton being a figure of key importance in the Philby story).

The inspiration for reading this book was its mention in Tim Powers’ note in the Afterword of his excellent Declare. After reading this book, I can understand the attraction of Philby’s story. This dual biography is more than just a gimmick to distinguish itself from the rest of the horde of Philby biographies. St. John Philby (who has already had biographies done on him) turns out to have been a figure of major importance in Middle Eastern politics, particularly the formation of the House of Saud and how American oil companies got the oil rights in Saudi Arabia. He was a learned man. Brown introduced me to a lot of early 20th century Middle Eastern colonial history I was not aware of: communist conspiracies in India, the British rule in Iraq, and the backpedaling of Britain and France in keeping its political promises to its Arabian allies of World War I. Continue reading

Declare

I’ve saved Powers’ best for last in the Tim Powers series.

The title comes from the Book of Job, Chapter 38:4:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Declare, if thou hast understanding.

God is speaking to Job out of a whirlwind, the Job whose loyalty He’s decided to test by allowing Satan to take all Job’s wealth, all his children, and giving him boils.

Like Job, Declare is a story of faith and loyalty. But Powers’ story shows that faith and loyalty can have their dark side too depending on the cause they serve.

And, again, my Raw Feeds differ from reviews. They have spoilers.

Raw Feed (2002): Declare, Tim Powers, 2000.Declare

A very accomplished novel and now, of the Powers’ I’ve read, my favorite. [I haven’t read his last two.]

Powers combines the most impressive amount of research and diversity of elements of any of his novels: the minutiae of Cold War espionage (mostly the British and Russian intelligence services but some, also, with the American and French services; I would be curious if the various recognition signals people employ are taken from actual histories), his Roman Catholic faith, the lives of John Philby and his notorious son Kim, Arabian myths involving djinn and A Thousand Nights and One Night, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lawrence of Arabia, legends of the Ark on Mount Ararat, biblical allusions to the real story of Solomon threatening to split the disputed child in half with a sword and also to the mysterious Nephiliim of Genesis, other members of the Cambridge spy network, and the literally, in this secret history, ghoulish nature of Communism.

There are some typical Powers techniques and themes. Continue reading

Epitaph in Rust

The Tim Powers series continues with a look at his second novel.

Raw Feed (2004): Epitaph in Rust, Timothy Powers, 1976.Epitaph in Rust

The plot of this novel, Powers’ second, is similar to that of his first novel, The Skies Discrowned. A young man with artistic aspirations (here to be a poet) is suddenly exiled from his comfortable life (here protagonist Brother Thomas aka Rufus Pennick has to flee the monastery after assaulting the abbot), falls in with colorful characters and gets involved in a political revolution (here the colorful characters are actors who are also revolutionaries), is unlucky in love (here his first girlfriend turns out to be an android), and eventually turns his back on a comfortable position in the new political order he has helped found with the story ending with the hero wandering, all in a world of mixed technology (this seems to be some sort of post-apocalypse Los Angeles with firearms ranging from muskets to modern handguns, cloning, androids, and thumbprints).

Again, Powers exhibits his trademark maiming (always physically, sometimes psychically) of his hero. Rufus loses a finger on his left hand. Literature again comes into play with the actors rehearsing a version of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (which features characters in disguise which resonates a bit with the object of desire for the hero and another actor turning out to be an android in disguise). A difference between the general plot of this novel and The Skies Discrowned is that Rufus states he is giving up writing poetry while the hero of the latter work faithfully goes back to his first calling as a painter. However, you could read the opening epigraph, from the unpublished poems of Pennick, as evidence that he does keep composing poetry and that he is despondent about his time in Los Angeles since so many of his friends are killed there, he is maimed, and his first love turns out to be a treacherous android (though he abandons the possibilities of a romance with the female gaffer of the company). Continue reading

The Stress of Her Regard

The Tim Powers series continues.

I have not read the “sequel”Hide Me Among the Graves. It’s a sequel only that it is set in the same universe with the Nephilim.

This is the book that started the processing of putting the expensive and complete editions of Clark Ashton Smith’s fiction and poetry on my shelves.

And I will be ending my Tim Powers series with a look at Declare, my favorite Tim Powers’ novel.

Raw Feed (2005): The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers, 1989.Stress of Her Regard

In terms of the number of elements he put together in his plot, the complexity of historical events he had to fit his plot into the interstices of, this may be Powers most accomplished novel.

Powers fits together the lives of several historical figures — not just one Romantic poet but three: John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron as well as their literary acquaintances including Leigh Hunt and the petulant (and here vampiric and menacing) Dr. Polidori, the Biblical nephilim, several elements of the European vampire legend, Frankenstein and its author Mary Shelley, Italian politics (specifically the importantly named Carbonari), quantum physics (and questions of free will and determinism), Austro-Hungarian politics, the ancient riddle of the Sphinx and speculations on silicon versus carbon life. And, of course, there is his excellent use of epigraphs at the beginning of chapters. Most of them are from the Romantic poets in the novel and fit uncannily with his plot (of course, Powers achieved this effect by building his plot from those quotes).

Not all of them are from the featured poets. The wonderful title phrase comes from a Clark Ashton Smith poem (Powers is a fan). Some of the epigraphs are also quotes from letters. Fittingly, for a novel featuring vampires, this novel has a persistent air of horror about it, particularly from the doom of whole families getting the attentions of the nephilim and the temptation to trade inspiration and artistic talent (and reap immortality — the Romantic poets aren’t the only literary figures to have connections with the nephilim) for one’s soul and family. There is, of course, also the air of doom given the lives of Keats, Shelley, and Byron.

There are several of the familiar Powers elements here. The maiming of characters is taken to the extreme of any Powers’ novel. Protagonist Michael Crawford loses one whole finger, part of another, gets a permanent limp from being shot in the leg, and goes bald after spending some time offering himself as a Christ parody to the blood drinking sexual underground of the nephilim fetishists. Josephine Carmody loses an eye. There are family issues — the whole idea of some humans being adopted by the nephilim family. John Keats’ poem “Lamia” is one of the major influences on the story. The portrayal of the nephilim as beautiful, erotically attractive, and snake-like — as well as linked with Medusa — comes from that poem. There is also a fully believable romance, forged in adversity and self-sacrifice (a noble trait many Powers heroes come to embrace), between Josephine and Crawford. Incest — a plot element of Powers’ Fisher King trilogy — is here with Shelley and his nephilim twin sister. As with Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark, there is magic in high places, here in a thrilling scene (which, in other novels, would have been the climax but is here about a third of the way in the book) set in the Swiss Alps. Of course, Powers’ Declare with its scenes on Mount Ararat also features magic in high places as well as sharing the idea of the nephilim.

Austro-Hungarian politics show up here as they do in The Drawing of the Dark. Josephine’s multiple personalities would show up later in the character of Plumtree in Powers’ Earthquake Weather. Byron, of course, also shows up (as a quite different sort of character — he comes off as a very difficult person here and a bit of a jerk — if a very talented one) in Powers’ The Anubis Gate.

I didn’t quite like this novel as well as Declare even though the Romantic poets were as interesting of characters as Kim Philby and the plotting was even more intricate — if not alternating back and forth in time like that novel. (Stylistically, it seemed to me that Powers reveals a major part of his fantasy element — the existence and characteristics of the nephilim — earlier than his other fantasy novels.) However, I didn’t think he quite integrated the speculations touching on quantum physics and what, exactly, Werner the Austro-Hungarian was up to.

I would certainly consider it one of Powers’ three best novels.

 

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

Dinner at Deviant’s Palace

The Tim Powers series continues.

Raw Feed (2005): Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, Tim Powers, 1985.Dinner at Deviant's Palace

In this post apocalypse tale, Powers reuses elements of earlier stories and some characteristic plot and viewpoint devices to give us a pretty fast moving adventure story which is a reversal on the hardboiled detective plot that probably inspired it.

The setting is a Los Angeles aka Ellay about 100 years after a nuclear war — a post-apocalypse quasi-Renaissance Los Angeles with scraps of leftover technology is also the setting of Powers’ Epitaph in Rust. As in his The Skies Discrowned, the hero is an artist, specifically a musician. Also, as in that novel, he ends up being unable to settle down.

Duffy, the protagonist of Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark was also an artist at one time and hopes to rekindle and an affair with an old love, Epiphany, as Gregorio Rivas wants his beloved Urania back. Epiphany dies but Urania lives. However here, Rivas discovers, in a very credible piece of psychology, that he only obsessed about her because he couldn’t have her. She proves something of a disappointment, and Rivas discovers that his new self likes Sister Windchime much better.

There are a couple of distinctive Powers elements. One is the maiming of the character (a quite self-conscious plot element of Powers which he rightly thinks raises the stakes involved in his hero’s struggles and makes their pain more real). Here Rivas deliberately mutilates his thumb to avoid the full effect of the sacrament. Later on he has to have two infected fingers amputated which may make his career as a musician much harder. The other element is bodyswitching. That isn’t done per se here, but a doppelganger of Rivas exists, the vampiric (and wonderfully named) hemogoblin (a pun created by a typo perhaps?– Powers is quite fond of humor derived from misunderstood words and phrases) created when part of Powers psychic energy is drained by the Jaybush alien. He not only serves as a wonderful way to conclude the climatic struggle with Savatividam at the Deviant’s Palace but also as a clever literalized metaphor. Continue reading

The Skies Discrowned

Honestly, I am working on new material, but the Tim Powers series continues.

Raw Feed (2003): The Skies Discrowned, Timothy Powers, 1976.Skies Discrowned

Given what Tim Powers (aka Timothy Powers in his first two novels) has said about this book, I wasn’t expecting much, especially since it was science fiction and not one of his historical fantasies of secret histories.  (Powers was hired later on to rewrite this novel as Forsake the Sky but later remarked that he was sorry he did it since it wasn’t fair to his earlier, 23 year old self who wrote this novel.)

This is a novel with lots of swordplay, and the bio material on the author even notes the influence of Rafael Sabatini. Powers does a pretty good job of rationalizing a science fiction  novel with a distinctly Renaissance flavor.

Each planet in the human community has specialized in a particular product, and the Transport Company links the worlds together in trade. However, after a time, fuels become more expensive (this might be the influence of the 70s energy crisis on Powers); economic transportation of certain goods becomes untenable; trade schedules become more erratic which causes a further economic downturn which, in turn, hurts trade even more. Planets work to become more self-sufficient and not dependent on the Transport Company.

Eventually, the Transport Company decides it needs to relocate to a particular world and take its government over. They join forces with a foppish prince to kill his father, the Duke of the planet Octavio, and take the planet over. During this coup, our hero Frank Rovzar sees his father, a famous portrait painter, killed and is imprisoned since he is an inconvenient witness. He escapes, works his way up through a criminal organization called the Society of Companions, eventually overthrows the corrupt, Transport-backed government, and has his revenge on the evil Duke Costa. Continue reading

Night Moves and Other Stories

The Tim Powers series continues while I work on other things.

Powers writes few short stories because he finds them almost as much work as a novel with a lot less pay.

However, the ones he does are often high quality.

Raw Feed (2002): Night Moves and Other Stories, ed. Tim Powers, 2001.Night Moves

“Two Men in New Suits”, James P. Blaylock —  Very nice introduction by Blaylock about his long time friend and sometime collaborator Tim Powers. He talks about their initial meeting back in 1972 before either was a published writer and some of their adventures since then. Blaylock talks about Powers’ grace under pressure, his extensive Arkham House collection back in 1972, their mutual fondness for Fellini films and dwarves in their writing, and how they became involved teaching creative writing to high schoolers in Orange County, California.

Night Moves”, Tim Powers — A story whose lyricism reminded me very much of Ray Bradbury, specifically his Something Wicked This Way Comes in that both stories have a variety of characters in a small town responding to the coming, on the wind, of something fantastical — perhaps their hopes will be fulfilled, perhaps something frightening is coming. For that matter, both stories do feature characters having their wishes filled — at a steep price. I liked the description of Roger and his neurotic girlfriend Debbie who, in some way, seems to be healed by the events of the story even though she is only affected by them because she insists on tagging along with Roger. At story’s end, she seems to have weaned herself from returning to her parents’ house whenever life gets tough. Powers keeps things vague here, just vague enough to suggest things without making concrete statements. For instance, it is never explained why Cyclops knows more about what’s going on than any character. (He also seems to lack any of the deep wished and compulsions that the other characters have.) It is Cyclops who suggests that Evelyn (or, perhaps, the combination of the ghostly Evelyn and her brother Roger) amplify the imaginations of others to create a closed off, pocket universe that can trap a person forever. The dry scrap that Cyclops notices and thinks resembles a little desiccated devilfish, the scrap that falls in a fountain at story’s end, seems to be Evelyn, an aborted fetus. It is memories that resemble (the smell of ether, the dragging from a horse’s stirrup) her abortion that she blots out of brother Roger’s mind. It’s never really said, but Roger’s constant contact with Evelyn must have created an unbearable strain on his parents who, after moving frequently to escape Evelyn’s presence, eventually abandon Roger. (I wonder if Powers is implying that getting an abortion and abandoning a child are manifestations of the same personality. How they know Evelyn — unless they, for some reason, named the baby before the abortion — is the child they aborted is not explained.)  It seems that the parents, for reasons not clear, opt to stay in the pocket universe. They claim they “can’t go through it”, “it” seeming to be the way out. It’s not explained if they have meant Evelyn before. Evelyn resting at piece seems to be because Roger now knows who she is and why she died and that he can stop looking for his parents who aren’t what he expected. (They’re not rich, for one thing.  Perhaps Powers is also implying their not worth having around.) It seems a fair guess that Catholic Powers is expressing his abhorrence of abortion in terms that resemble some pocket universe/purgatory C.S. Lewis might have created (or, maybe did — I haven’t read that much Lewis). If Roger’s parents are trapped in a pocket universe, it is like purgatory. I find it surprising, given the disapproval of abortion and the usually liberal views on the subject by fantasy and sf fans, that this story was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Powers’ notes say this story was originally created for — but not sold to — an anthology where each story was to have an accompanying map.

The Better Boy”, James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers — This story may have been inspired by a tomato growing experience of Powers (Better Boy is a breed of tomato) and a remark by Serena Powers, Tim Powers’ wife, that his struggle to preserve a huge tomato from worms resembled Santiago’s struggle in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but its tone and concern with the magic in everyday life is very Blaylockian. (I believe I’ve read an interview with Blaylock that finding the magic and numinous in everyday life is a thematic concern of his.) Powers, in his notes, also says that the air of goodness surrounding protagonist Bernard Wilkins, originally intended to be a parodic figure (the story’s plot was originally to be a parody of Hemingway’s novel) of the sort of customer found at a diner near Powers’ house, is all Blaylock’s invention. Wilkins does come across as a very sympathetic character. I found it interesting that some talk of “luminferous ether” and “ether bunnies” (pieces of crystal shaped like rabbit’s ears and designed to snag the luminferous ether and take tomato worms with them) was simply thrown in to get the story in a sf magazine, and the story was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. It’s also curious that whether the ether bunnies would have worked is left ambiguous at story’s end.  Indeed, it could be argued that there is no fantastical element in this story. Continue reading