The Prussian General Moltke the Elder divided military officers into four categories using two criteria: smart-stupid, ambitious-lazy. There is a place for almost every type. The smart and lazy can be commanding officers. The smart and ambitious can be staff officers. Stupid and lazy officers can serve in the line.
But there’s no place for the stupid and ambitious officer. He must be drummed out of the service. He’s a menace to the military and his troops.
Under that criteria, if British polar exploration of the early 20th century would have been conducted on strictly military lines, Captain Robert Falcon Scott would have been expelled from service.
Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole is, along with the doomed Franklin expedition and the Shackleton expedition’s spectacular survival, the most well-known episode in polar exploration. Huntford’s biography is a thorough and convincing attack on the legend of Scott and was hostilely received in Britain on its publication. Scott doomed himself and his man through incompetence and poor leadership. Continue reading “The Last Place on Earth”→
It started out reading some William Meikle stories set in Scotland. That expanded into reading his Sigils and Totems series which took me to his Carnacki pastiches. That took me to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki tales which led me to reading this one and The Night Land since Meikle seemed to be using some elements of them.
Andrew Fox supplies the parallax on this one by looking, among other things, at how this stands at the beginning of the tradition of horror stories with an “Isolated Individual versus Hordes of Homicidal Creatures”
This week’s piece of weird fiction was first published The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976, a time long before “Cthulhu” and “Lovecraft” got slapped on so many book covers.
Review: “The Feaster From Afar”, Joseph Payne Brennan, 1976.
Our protagonist is Sydney Mellor Madison, a writer of historical novels. He works in two year cycles: six months of research, a year of writing, and then six months of copy editing and promotion.
He’s become successful and decides he’d like to write his next book in someplace isolated away from the duties that distract him when he tries to work in his apartment.
He’s offered a lease on an unused hunting lodge in “northern New England”. So, he goes to check it out before signing.
He gets to the village of Granbury and meets the local storekeeper the lodge is twelve miles up a very bad road. It’s a road through a “bleak, uninhabited, and altogether inhospitable” land.
The first night there, Madison doesn’t sleep well. But he gets up, eats breakfasts, and sits down to write. The hunting lodge decorations and furniture may not be to his taste. But he’s a pro. He doesn’t wait until he’s in the mood to write. Do that, and you’ll end up a book reviewer.
But, after three hours, he stops, decides to check the mail, finds there is no mailbox, so drives back to Granbury. There he talks to Saines, the storekeeper, who tells him he has to pick up his mail at the store. Saines asks Madison if he’s a hunter. When the reply is in the negative, Saines is a bit taken aback as to why he would stay at the lodge then. A local character, sitting in the corner, ominously says, “Mebbe yew don’t hunt, mister, but just be sure yew ain’t the hunted.”
Annoyed at this “cracker-barrel” philosophy, Maidson leaves and decides he’s only going to pick up his mail once a week. Royalty checks can wait.
Back at the lodge, he has a few drinks to wash away his annoyance.
The next morning he’s still not in the best of moods – more bad dreams — so grabs one of the many shotguns in the lodge and takes a walk. The area around the lodge is remarkably silent and free of any sign of animals. It’s “barren and bleak” and feels wrong.
It’s more bad dreams that night. The place is getting on his nerves, so he goes back to Granbury and talks to Saines.
“Did anything – ever happen – up there? I mean, anything real bad?” he asks Saines.
Well, there was that hunter found dead up there awhile back. He had a bunch of holes in his head and no brain.
Madison is incredulous about this. Why wasn’t it in the papers?
Not everythin’ gits in the papers, Mr. Madison. And sometimes investigations that turns — complercated – gits hushed up!
Madison should just leave the lodge. Something bad is up there.
“Anyway, the Whateleys drew suthin’ down out of the sky there – and it ain’t niver left…”, says Saines.
Besides, Madison being a writin’ fellow he’s surprised he’s never heard of the “Cthulhu Mythos”
That does not impress Madison. He’s heard of some “pulp-magazine scribbler” – “Lovelock or Lovecrop – or something like that.”
Back to the lodge, Madison is still on edge and distracts himself by looking through the lodge’s library.
Out of one book falls a note that Hastur, the Feaster from Afar, has put his mark on the area. The reader of the note should just leave.
Madison thinks he’s the victim of a practical joke. The note could be forged – though how would a prankster know which book he would pick up? None of the other books have such notes.
And then the story reaches it’s expected conclusion.
We then hear about that dream Madison has had every night, a dream of pursuit in the country under moonlight pursued by a flying figure with talons. It’s no dream this time, though.
And Hastur, the Feaster from Afar sucks Madison’s brains out.
So, a predictable if enjoyable story with the main points of interest being the disparagement of H. P. Lovecraft and his story “The Dunwich Horror“.
There’s not a whiff of the supernatural or weird about the Captain Gault stories.
Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford suggests the arc of Hodgson’s literary career went from highly original works and then to more commercial products that were popular in the magazines of the time. That included the Captain Gault series.
I’m not sure when they were all written but most were published in London Magazine between 1914 to 1916 and collected into the book Captain Gault, Being the Exceedingly Private Log of a Sea-Captain which was published in 1917 and that is included in The Complete Works of William Hodgson from Delphi Classics. Copyright issues, because of their latter publication, meant two tales in the series were omitted. Lassen’s anthology collects them all.
Gault is a smuggler, and these are crime stories.
Jewel smuggling is Gault’s specialty, and the customs officials of American and the United Kingdom are on to him, and many of the stories feature his evasion of them whether it’s undercover agents trying to entrap him or ferret out his hiding places. But Gault always gets his contraband through, and the stories usually end with the Captain telling the officials, either through a note or a conversation about how a hypothetical “friend” of his would have done it, how he accomplished that. Since he never repeats a scheme, he’s putting himself in no danger. Sometimes, he even sues the government for false accusations or destroying his property during searches.
Jewels aren’t the only contraband. There’s gun smuggling and cigar smuggling and saccharine smuggling too. There’s human smuggling too, once to get a man sought by a Chinese secret society in “The Case of the Chinese Curio Dealer” and once picking a German spy up off the coast of France in “The German Spy”.
The two latest tales, “Trading with the Enemy” and “The Plans of the Reefing Bi-Plane”, are set during World War One. The first has Gault blackmailed into providing fuel for German U-boats. The second involves German agents trying to stop the delivery of plans for a revolutionary plane from being sent from America to England. It has the most action with the Captain blasting away with Colts in his pocket (presumably revolvers and not semi-automatics) against a gang of German agents who have booked passage on his ship.
Gault is a man of honor. He always makes sure the owner of whatever ship he’s commanding doesn’t end up suffering for his schemes. He always delivers the goods at the stated price. He’ll provide a cut for trustworthy crewmen who aide him. He’s also frequently disappointed, but never surprised, at human cupidity and treachery. His notes of explanation are often condemnatory towards officials who won’t stayed bribe and, on two occasions, women he encounters. The latter includes a woman who tried to smuggle jewels on her own after deciding not to pay his fee, a percentage of the tax she’s evading. On another occasion, he falls in love, briefly, with a woman who turns out to be an undercover agent for the U.S. Treasury.
Besides supplementing his pay with smuggling, Gault seems a man of many interests. Besides a knowledge of jewels, he’s a member of some unnamed secret society and seems to have some knowledge of the occult and is an amateur painter of some skill. But we only see these things in passing or only their relevance to the caper at hand, capers accomplished through misdirection, sleight of hand, theatrical cons, or clever technical means. His motto is “Never use two heads to keep a secret.”
Gault seems to be British though he says he’s American in one story. Even while smuggling spies and running fuel to German U-boats, he finds a way to fulfill his commission yet not endanger England.
All in all, the Gault stories are entertaining trifles with Hodgson, by this point in his career, very comfortable and accomplished at creating puzzles and solving them more successfully than in his first tale, “The Goddess of Death” or some of his non-supernatural Carnacki tales. (The Carnacki tale “The Find” exhibits the sort of misdirection that shows up in many of these stories.) And, of course, Hodgson’s days at seas help lend an air of easy verisimilitude to the whole thing even when dealing with stereotypes like Scottish ship’s engineers and rowdy Irish sailors.
Before reading any more of William Meikle’s Carnacki pastiches, I decided I should actually read the original Carnacki tales by William Hope Hodgson since, before this book, the only one I’d read was “The Hog”.
They are not the first occult detective series. Hodgson seems to have created the character to cash in on the potential of a series character. The large number of magazines in 1910, when the first story was published, meant, unlike today, short fiction was usually better paying than writing novels. Carnacki was inspired by the success of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories, another occult detective series.
Carnacki’s tools seem somewhat ludicrous, even for the time. There’s a heavy patina of pseudoscience what with the occult significance of various colors and Carnacki’s famous Electric Pentacle, essentially a string of colored lights for magical defense.
The otherworldy is often signified by strings of repeated vowels: Carnacki’s go-to reference the Sigsand Manuscript and its Saaamaaa Ritual, the Incantation of Raaaeee, and the Aeiirii “forms of materialization”.
Review: “A Twilight”, Michel de Ghelderode, translated by George MacLennan, 1941.
This is the sort of weird fiction with almost no plot and long on an atmosphere built by the narrator describing his emotional states and judicious use of metaphor. No monsters here. To analyze it closely is equivalent to understand a butterfly by slicing the wings up.
It’s a short enough story you can read it at the link.
The action is as follows.
The narrator wakes up on a rainy day. It’s been raining for a long time. His room is damp and musty. He has a premonition that the world will be “destroyed by water” (though no biblical allusions are made to Noah’s Flood).
He walks about a strangely deserted city with not even any lamps lit. The city seems lethargic.
The sun breaks through the clouds at twilight.
The narrator goes to the church of St. Nicholas. His sense of trepidation increases in the deserted church. He stumbles against a figure of Christ that has fallen from a column.
The “dislocated church” fills up with an “amber vapor” and seems to remake itself. A comforting drone starts up.
Night falls, streetlights come on, the streets are now crowded with people. “The world smelled carnally after the deluge”
It’s almost as if the narrator has sensed a coming apocalypse which is avoided or somehow enters into a world where it is impending.
Yet the story ends on a disquieting note.
Those crowds are likened to herds of cattle going to the slaughterhouse, their blood
“flowing in torrents in order to appease, who knows which, the wrath of the gods or the hunger of men . . . “.
So, while the world didn’t end, the narrator ends his story on a note of foreboding, with a new consciousness, a new way of viewing the world, perhaps at last perceiving things as they are and a disaster to come.
Given that it was published in 1941 and de Ghelderode was Belgium one can rightly suspect the anxieties of war and occupation at work.
And here’s a belated look at the weird fiction being discussed this week at LibraryThing.
Regular readers will wonder what happened to the last two weeks’ worth of weird fiction. They were Lovecraft pieces I’ve blogged about before. The blogging madness has to stop sometime, and I’m not going to cover most pieces more than once.
This is the first Chandler I’ve read though I’ve certainly seen imitations of his style, but I hadn’t got around to reading the master himself. The closest I’ve come is many viewings of the movie Double Indemnity which has dialogue by Chandler.
As you would expect in a rare bit of weird fiction from mystery writer Chandler, there is a murder here and a detective here.
Events are set in motion when our protagonist Mr. James Sutton-Cornish goes to his London club and meets a “man from the Calabar” an “empire-builder frayed at the temples”. Sutton-Cornish is delighted at this since no one ever talks to him at his club apart from servants.
But, perhaps, the exchange also aggravates Sutton-Cornish’s discontentment with his life since that empire-builder went to the same school as he did though they never met before. And, when we return home, we find out why James is discontented and drinks too much. (Drinking too much was a subject Chandler personally knew well.) His wife Louella is a shrew who reminds James that he’s a failure and that they live off her money since the only thing he brought into the marriage was a house he inherited.
Since there will probably be several reviews of William Hope Hodgson works here in the near future, I thought I’d link to the reprint of Peter Berresford Ellis’ 1977 biographical article about Hodgson over at Greydog Tales.