Dynasty

Having found Tom Holland’s Rubicon a worthwhile book, I picked up this one.

Review: Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland, 2015.

In the follow up to his Rubicon, Holland takes up the story of the legendary Julio-Claudian emperors. With 419 pages of text, he covers all the stories of treachery, torture, matricide, fratricide, sexual depravity, assassinations, mutinies, and excess you’ve heard. To that, he explains how Roman sexual mores, religious festivals, family relations, and the plebians’ continued fascination with the dynasty that started with Julius Caesar played a part in everything.

And Holland, particularly in the chapter on Tiberius, “The Last Roman”, approaches his emperors in an empathetic if not sympathetic way.

The prose is stylish with Holland sometimes using very modern terms to give us the flavor of the strange and also familiar Roman imperial culture. He deftly shows how Rome’s own myths reveal something of their character. Specifically, Romans held their race started with a rape, and its resulting issue was suckled by wolves.

In the book’s pages, you find an emperor who tearfully and theatrically threw himself on the mercy of the Roman public (Augusta), an emperor who never wanted the job and descended into an old age of watching aristocratic children recruit mythological sex scenes (Tiberius), an emperor always ready for a very malicious and deadly joke on an aristocrat (Caligula), an emperor incestuously besotted with his niece (Claudius), and an emperor under the domineering thumb of his mother (Nero). But Holland doesn’t skimp on covering the other power players at this time, particularly the eventually divine wife of Augusta, Livia. She may have been married to Augustus, but her primary interest was always furthering the glory of her own family, the Claudians.

But Holland isn’t just writing an update of Suetonius’ salacious Twelve Caesars. He shows the change in Roman politics, how the Roman people and Senate were tamed, first by smooth talk, legal legerdemain, flattery and then open terror into accepting what they long despised – a king. It is a story dependent on the magical place the dynasty of Caesar had in the mind of the Roman public and “the exhaustion of cruelty” after decades of civil war.

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“Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel”

This week’s piece of fiction being discussed by the Deep Ones over at LibraryThing isn’t really weird, but we cast our net wide. And the story is definitely worth reading.

Review: “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel”, Michael Moorcock, 2002.

This one is a homage to Leigh Brackett, her hero Eric John Stark, and the lovely, romantic – but no longer fashionable – idea of a dying Mars and its aborigines.

In the introduction to the story in The Space Opera Renaissance, Moorcock talks about his admiration of Brackett and her influence on him and other prominent science fiction authors.

The story’s main strength is not its plot, but the back story of MacShard, Moorcock’s literary allusions, and the descriptions of this Mars.

MacShard is a loner, a survivor, an outlaw. Born of a human man and a Martian woman with the blood of kings in her veins, he was orphaned on Mercury and survived. There his name was Tan-Arz. He – along with Northwest Smith, Dumarest, and Eric John Stark – are the only four men who can wield the legendary Banning Weapon.

On Mars, a merchant prince named Morricone needs MacShard to rescue his daughter, kidnapped by the Thennet, degenerate humans descended from a ship of crashed politicians, who like to torment and then kill their victims. “The longer the torment, the sweater the meat.”

To do that, he will have to cross the Paradise zone of killer plants and venture into the hills of Mars.

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Re-Birth

Raw Feed (2005): Re-Birth, John Wyndham, 1955. 

This isn’t one of Wyndham’s disaster novels. You could see it as sort of an amalgam of the species supplanting children of The Midwich Cuckoos (though here the supplanting is by nuclear war engendered mutations as opposed to alien-human hybridization) and Wyndham’s famous disaster novels. 

Here the nuclear war was centuries in the past, and the plot involves a group of telepathic children dealing with their oppressive society which is dedicated to maintaining genetic purity (or, at least, paying lip service to it — beneficial mutations like giant workhorses are allowed if they only deviate in size) at all costs.

Whereas The Midwich Cuckoos was a horror story of man’s replacement, this novel celebrates the telepathic mutants and the constant change and evolution that is life. It is well narrated by its telepathic hero who briefly glosses over the numerous brutalities inflicted on him and his fellow mutants. At story’s end, a high tech civilization of telepaths is found in New Zealand. 

The narration isn’t as slick or of the same tone as Wyndham’s Out of the Deeps since the narrator engages in a lot of description.

Shoggoth

My look at Byron Craft’s Mythos Project series continues.

Cover by Eric Lofgren

Review: Shoggoth, Byron Craft, 2018. 

This is much more conventional novel in structure and feel than the preceding novel in the series, The Cry of Cthulhu. Specifically, it is structured like a modern thriller with multiple viewpoint characters, budding romance between some, and a climax that flits between several scenes.

The title, of course, tells us what Lovecraftian menace we’re dealing with, and the opening two chapters cover the invention of the shoggoth and the research project of one Isaac Morley in the late 19th century around the town of Darwin in the Mojave Desert. Then we move to our time.

Thomas Ironwood, compiler of the events of The Cry of Cthulhu, is the main character here. His work on a missile defense system, using solar powered lasers, is brought to a sudden end when Admiral Hawkins, Senator Neville Stream, and Stream’s rather too chummy associate, US Navy Captain Eastwater, announce a new project using money taken from Ironwood’s work.

Excavating land on the Naval Weapons Complex in the Mojave Desert will be required. The only hold up to the work, and it’s not much of one, is a figure from Ironwood’s past, the much-diminished ex-literature professor turned archaeologist, Alan Ward. He claims the project must be stopped to avoid sites of archaeological interest.

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Safari and “The Hospital”

It’s another retro review of Blackmore’s zombie series.

Review: “Safari (Mountain Man Book 2)” and “The Hospital”

January 22, 2013 IFP

By Randy Stafford

Blackmore, Keith C. Safari (Mountain Man Book 2). Amazon Digital Services, Inc, 2012. USD $3.99. ASIN: B007YQG33Q.
Blackmore, Keith C. The Hospital. Amazon Digital Services, Inc, 2012. USD $0.99. ASIN: B009L2X8KM.

There are worse things than waking up to a house with busted-in doors, a dead girlfriend, and a bunch of dead bikers.

There is, for instance, do-it-yourself dentistry.

Cover by M. Wayne Miller

That’s the problem Augustus Berry AKA Gus AKA the Mountain Man faces at the beginning of Safari, which picks up right where Mountain Man leaves off. The busted-in doors – and the dead bikers, for that matter – are the result of an assault on Gus’ hilltop home at the end of the preceding novel. The broken teeth are from the girlfriend who led them there – before Gus killed her.

But, when you’re a lone human in a zombie-infested world, there’s no rest. After pulling some teeth with the help of trusty friends Uncle Jack and Captain Morgan, and fending off a zombie horde squirming outside his walls, Gus heads off to town – Annapolis, Nova Scotia – to scrounge some painkillers and lumber and plastic to repair his house. But he also keeps his eye out for clues to an enduring mystery: What happens to the bodies of all those zombies he’s killed in town?

Now, as I said in my review of Mountain Man, I’m no taxonomer of zombies, of their origins, of their behaviors, of their types, of their predation strategies, of their weaknesses, so I have no idea if the answer Gus finds to that puzzle is a unique invention from Blackmore. I can tell you I enjoyed the set piece where the answer is revealed and Gus’ response, which takes up a lot of the final third of the novel. Blackmore is very good at minutely describing action while not slowing down a story.

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“A Double Return”

Review: “A Double Return”, Arthur Machen, 1890.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe.

This is another one of Machen’s society stories, written and published in 1890. It actually does have one of those covert sexual themes that S. T. Joshi says often showed up in these kinds of stories. It also has less dialogue than usual for a Machen “smart tale”.

Our protagonist is Frank Halswell, and he’s taking the train back home to London. He is a popular artist who has been on a “sketching tour in Devon and Cornwall”. 

As his train nears Paddington station, he sees a train going the other way and in it a man who looks remarkably like him. However, he writes it off as his reflection in the window. 

He thinks back to an acquaintance, Kerr, he met at a hotel in Plymouth. Kerr, oddly, would look like Halswell if Kerr was clean-shaven. 

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Cthulhu’s Reign

Retro Review (2012): Cthulhu’s Reign, ed. Darrell Schweitzer, 2010.

This anthology’s theme is grim and simple. As predicted — and prevented in many of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, Cthulhu and the Old Ones once again dominate Earth.

Rape, transformation, and religion are themes that show up in several stories.

On a metaphorical level, a sort of intellectual rape – the forcible introduction of unwelcome, devastating knowledge into the mind – occurs in many a Mythos story. But, in two stories, Cthulhu commits a literal rape. A group of survivors find themselves trapped and experimentally winnowed down in an Italian necropolis after Cthulhu’s return in Ian Watson’s chilling, first person narrated “The Walker in the Cemetery“. In John R. Fultz’s “This Is How the World Ends“, an Iraqi War veteran finds himself holed up in a mine as a horrible transformation is wrecked on the world outside.

Not exactly rape, but a gathering of horrible knowledge anyway, is the theme in Brian Stableford’s “The Holocaust of Ecstasy“. In this story, full of imagery that owes more to Clark Ashton Smith than Lovecraft, a biology professor from Miskatonic University, finds himself reincarnated into an alien ecosystem. Of course, Cthulhu’s return is a time of transformation, and many stories take up that theme. In Jay Lake’s “Such Bright and Risen Madness“, a resistance movement secretly meets on a blighted, chilling Earth to hear of a new weapon which may free them from their masters, the Old Ones. Slowly transforming from “Innsmouth Syndrome”, the narrator feels the almost forgotten stirrings of sexual desire when he meets the plan’s architect. But he also encounters a figure from his past in a brilliant tale of despair and resolve. The hero of Mike Allen’s “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground” inhabits a zone relatively safe from the Cthulhian horrors outside, but cosmic chaos still intrudes in unwelcome changes to his wife’s body.

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Black Wings of Cthulhu

It’s entirely coincidental that it’s H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday today.

Yes, I know I’m jumping all over in series lately. I was on vacation. That’s when I do my impulsive reading.

Low Res Scan: Black Wings of Cthulhu, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2010, 2012. 

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

The inaugural volume for what would become a six-part series is strong but not flawless.

Have I ever read a Nicholas Royle story I liked? No, and I didn’t much care for his “Rotterdam”, either. He’s obviously paying homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Hound” in plot and story setting, but it’s really just a crime story with the Lovecraft connection being Joe, the screenwriter protagonist, in Amsterdam to scout out locations for a possible adaption of Lovecraft’s story. He’s hoping to ingratiate himself with the producer so his own script will be used on the project. What he really wants to do, though, is to get the job to write the screenplay of his own published crime novel, Amsterdam. The world of film production is interesting as are Joe’s less than successful interactions with its more successful members. We get some echoes between Joe and Lovecraft with Amsterdam being sort of autobiographical in the way Lovecraft’s essays are. And, after a bout of drinking, Joe wakes up to a body in his room. No supernatural horror here.

Nor was I impressed by Michael Cisco’s “Violence, Child of Trust”. There’s no cosmic horror here in a story that has a rural cult that captures and sacrifices (after the occasional rape) women to some god. I will grant the ending did surprise me.

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