“Bells of Horror”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Bells of Horror”, Henry Kuttner, 1939.

Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos
Cover by Gahan Wilson

This is a fairly good bit of Lovecraftian fiction from Kuttner.

He uses a typical Lovecraft structure. Our narrator opens by mentioning a weird event then gives the back story of what led up to it and concludes with a not all surprising event. (Sometimes Lovecraft managed to surprise with his last lines, sometimes not.)

Our weird event is the recovery – and then deliberate destruction soon afterwards – of the “lost bells of Mission San Xavier”. They were rung once, after vanishing for more than a 150 years, and “an unpleasant blackness . . . shrouded San Xavier” then. That’s our hook.

The bells were lost until Arthur Todd, a friend of our narrator Ross, finds them hidden in a cave. Todd is head of the California Historical Society; Ross is its secretary. With the bells was a carving warning “Let no man hang the evil bells of the Mutsunes” . . . lest the terror of the night rise again in Nueva California”. The Mutsunes were Indian shamans who helped cast the bells and may have put a curse on them.

Todd asks Ross to come and help him get the bells out of the cave. So, Ross takes a drive. Continue reading ““Bells of Horror””

Letters to James F. Morton

(This first appeared May 4, 2012 in

 

Review: Letters to James F. Morton, H. P. Lovecraft, eds. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, 2011.

To read a Lovecraft letter is to hear Lovecraft’s voice. That is what those who knew him well enough to make the comparison said. He wrote as he spoke. Modern audiences might think of these letters as a Lovecraft blog full of the details of his life, intermittently playful, sometimes earnest and serious, often returning to the legacy of the 18th century he so loved.

These particular letters are all at least 70 years old, yet they sometimes touch on things we still discuss: economic chaos and dislocation, political reform and radicalism, race, culture, and immigration. Contentious issues then and now, but, at least with these two men, the debate was genial and reasonable. In that, they seem less modern.

James F. Morton maintained a correspondence with Lovecraft from sometime around 1920 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Morton was many things Lovecraft wasn’t. He was 20 years older. He was a college graduate – specifically, from Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s and master’s degree at age 22. He was a political radical who had associated with anarchists, including Emma Goldman, and written books on tax policy and religious “freethinking”. He had once made a living as a lecturer and belonged to many national organisations, including ones devoted to natural history, Esperanto and genealogy. For much of the time of their correspondence, Morton was gainfully employed at the Patterson Museum in New Jersey, where, after learning mineralogy in three weeks, he convinced them to hire him as curator and eventually built one of the premier mineralogical museum displays in America.

And yet, the reclusive Lovecraft was, remarked mutual acquaintance Edward H. Cole, the only one in their circle who could talk “on the same plane” as Morton.

Amateur journalism, said Lovecraft, gave him “life itself”, and part of that gift was Morton. Their first contact with each other was not the auspicious start of a lifelong friendship. Lovecraft attacked, in 1915, an essay by Charles D. Isaacson. The latter responded, as did his friend Morton. As Schultz and Joshi put it in the book’s introduction, Lovecraft got “his ears boxed by one of the organization’s grand old men, a liberal, free-thinking anarchist.” In an essay, “’Conservatism’ Gone Mad” – The Conservative was the magazine Lovecraft published – Morton firmly rebutted Lovecraft’s contentions. But, in the final paragraph, after saying,

Lovecraft needs to serve a long and humble apprenticeship before he will become qualified to sit in the master’s seat and to thunder forth ex cathedra judgements,

Morton complimented his “evident sincerity” and “vigor of style” and said that Lovecraft could become “a writer of power”.

But, sometime in the next five years, Morton went from a man who participated in, according to Lovecraft, the  “wanton destruction of the public faith and the publick morals” to one of his dearest friends, a man he would write, and personally meet often, until Lovecraft’s death.

None of Morton’s letters are reproduced here. Lovecraft didn’t usually save all the letters from his many correspondents and, despite their long and deep friendship, Morton’s were no exception. For whatever reason, he only saved about 45 of Morton’s letters, and many of those were recycled when Lovecraft wrote his manuscripts on their back. Most of the 162 letters here are from transcripts done for Arkham House’s Selected Letters series, though most of the time, they were abridged there and this volume reproduces each letter in its entirety. Only three of the letters are based on actual physical copies and not those transcripts. Therefore, this is not the entire record of Lovecraft’s letters to Morton and it also omits the many postcards Lovecraft sent Morton.

The subjects covered in the letters are not what you would always expect.

Both living on tight budgets, and in an age of usually regional-only distribution of particular food items, the two spend some letters discussing the merits of particular brands of canned baked beans and coffee. Lovecraft would even sometimes mail Morton particular food items Morton couldn’t find in New York or New Jersey.

Architecture and, especially, Georgian architecture is probably the subject that comes up most often. Morton’s interest in this, perhaps, was not equal to Lovecraft’s, but he seems to have had knowledge and experience with some of the historical restoration projects then under way along the Atlantic seaboard.

Genealogy was an enthusiasm for both. At one memorable point, in a 1933 letter, this spun off into a facetious genealogy, beginning with Lovecraft’s created god Azathoth and terminating in branches that list the reputed ancestors of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft was not enamoured of geology and especially not with mineralogy, which he regarded as mostly an exercise in classification with no intrinsically interesting drama behind it, but he did aid in Morton’s efforts to gather specimens for the Patterson Museum collection. Besides ghost writing, Lovecraft’s other main source of income was small lease payments from the owner of a quarry around Providence, and he worked as a go-between in getting mineral specimens from there, including, according to their mutual friend W. Paul Cook, one that was only known, as far as the eastern United States was concerned, from that quarry. This same friend claimed that there was a ton or more of rocks in “Lovecraft’s room” (presumably a study) for over a year before they were sent to Morton.

Stamp collecting and puzzles are also frequently discussed. Lovecraft had collected stamps as a boy and sent specimens on to Morton. As for puzzles, Lovecraft could not understand Morton’s inveterate love of them. He not only solved them, but created them and two of the many organisations he belonged to were the National Puzzlers’ League and the American Cryptogram Association. To Lovecraft, puzzles were a pointless expenditure of time and mental energy that he would rather spend actually learning facts about history and the natural world, rather than solving an arbitrary and artificial problem. But he granted that Morton probably had the mental energy to spare. And, indeed, Morton was a whirlwind of activity. Lovecraft asked him if he wouldn’t be happier not trying to cram something into each minute of the day, and spending some time in idle contemplation and emotional reflection.

Why, rather than reading at meals, asked Lovecraft, couldn’t Morton just let his mind wander? Then Lovecraft goes off on an example, a remarkable, multi-page chain of free association inspired by the utensils and foods of a common breakfast. At another time, he does this with architecture, and ends with images and plots reminiscent of his stories. For Lovecraft, association was everything, a source of comfort and identification, an aesthetic basis for happiness in a cosmos with no real human values. I sense that these chains of association account for what some critics deem his adjective-heavy style. (Though I would be curious to see Lovecraft’s fiction put to a mathematical stylistic analysis to see how it actually compares, in adjective frequency and density, to the writers these same critics favour.) Perhaps they were the most concise way he could evoke the associations he intended, an allusive imagery of the sort a poet would use, since that was his first field of literary endeavour.

Another interesting feature of these letters is how many times Lovecraft, the lover and emulator of 18th-century English prose, imitates contemporary slang and dialects of various types. Contemporaries said the slang usage was spot on and, of course, he best put this dialectic skill to use in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

There is, as with many biographies, a sense of drama that comes as you near the subject’s rendezvous with eternity. A letter from July 25, 1936 mentions the recent suicide of his friend Robert Howard. His last letter, started in December 1936 and found unfinished on his desk after his death, is full of the kind of portents a fiction writer would use: references to muted fall colours, increasing bouts of “grippe”, and the Christmas gift of a skull.

Oddly, this is one of the few letters that actually talk about weird fiction. Morton was interested in a variety of literature, old and new. He was, in fact, the one who introduced Lovecraft to Algernon Blackwood and there is a hilarious letter in which Lovecraft, taking up the suggestion of one of Morton’s museum co-workers, spins out the possible plot details of a detective series featuring two mineralogists, where all the crimes have to do with rocks and all the solutions hinge on points of mineralogy. But Lovecraft seldom mentions any fiction projects he is working on, just sends the completed versions to Morton. His ghostwriting assignments are talked about much more and the two streams of his writing come together when he good-naturedly, but with a hint of exasperation, notes how many tales in Weird Tales under other names were worked on by him. But, in that last letter, he comments on the promise and talent of those who would, in part, take up and expand his legacy: Robert Bloch; Fritz Leiber, Jr; and Henry Kuttner, Jr.

But there is another subject in these letters which must be confronted, that modern sensibilities demand be mentioned: Lovecraft’s views on race.

The Lovecraft essay that Isaacson and Morton responded to said, “Race prejudice was a gift of nature.” For his part, Morton, a member of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People and author of The Curse of Race Prejudice, was having none of it:

Race prejudice is not defensible by reason…Like other vices it can be readily overcome by individuals capable of rising to a rational view of existence,

he said in “’Conservatism’ Gone Mad”.

Judging by Lovecraft’s side of the conversation, the two individuals never altered their starting points much. Morton, said to always be a firm-but-polite debater, seemed to have continued to try to convince Lovecraft, given the references to articles Morton sent him for which comment was sought. There are four long letters in this collection, 64 out of 383 pages of letters, where Lovecraft expounds his views on ethics, tradition, race, and immigration. Essentially, Lovecraft believed that there were no moral, no human values in the universe. There was no end that the human race was working towards, no moral purpose or order it was charged with working towards. Random chance was the starting point of everything and all was determined after that from preceding events. Individuals could usually find moments of happiness in the products and traditions of the culture chance had put them in, and those culture streams were the product of particular races. Thus, race created culture and, except for a few individuals, happiness could not be found in cultures created by other racial groups. His frequent expressions of distaste for other races (and his categories of race are not identical to the ones we would use today) was in the context of their presence in America, and the changes they brought to the land and culture he grew up in.

Now, there’s a lot to argue about with this – and there are plenty of other places beside this site to do that. The key point to take away is that Lovecraft didn’t regard most other races as inherently inferior on all points compared to his self-identified Nordic-Teutonic roots. He cheerfully conceded that, in some areas, they were the equals or superiors to his race. His was a position of racial segregation. (A fuller explanation of these views can be found in S.T. Joshi’s discussion of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy in H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West.)

There were, however, two races excluded from this view, for which he had nothing good to say – at least in these letters:

…the Australian blackfellow & (now extinct) Tasmanian is even more emphatic; this race being nearly as far below the negro as the negro is below the full human.

It is, of course, true that writers, by nature, are at hazard for leaving a record of unpleasant sentiments that are shared by hundreds of mute others of their time. It’s also true that words and thoughts are not the same as actions, and Morton himself noted that Lovecraft always acted gentlemanly. And Lovecraft wouldn’t be the only 20th-century writer who expressed some murderous private sentiments. (George Bernard Shaw’s justification of Stalin’s purges comes to mind, for instance.) But even I, a fan of Lovecraft, squirmed when he wrote this, without a trace of hyperbole or irony:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas – giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears…. )

Showing a more nuanced – and, certainly, more gentle – side, Lovecraft, hardly known for a close examination of human relations in his fiction, offers his analysis of the benefits of newly widowed Cook’s troubled marriage and expresses horror on news of the death of Ida C. Haughton, an amateur journalist he had memorably attacked in his poem, “Medusa: A Portrait”.

The shadow of the Great Depression falls across the later letters when Lovecraft mentions his many acquaintances who have lost their jobs. These letters show him moving from an explicit admirer of German and Italian fascism to socialism of the American variety in the New Deal. His complaints about “machine-barbarism” and an American plutocracy may find sympathy with some modern readers. To me, his claims that Mediterranean influences corrupted the Anglo-Saxon world into an undue emphasis on commerce is bad economic history and a place where his intellect failed him.

The book, as usual with Hippocampus Press products, is well organised and thorough in its presentation. The letters are annotated with footnotes – my only complaint is that they are at the end of each letter and not at the bottom of the page. A glossary lists several of the people mentioned in the book and the index is extensive. Not only is there a bibliography for Lovecraft and Morton, but autobiographical writings by Morton, his memorial to Lovecraft, and others’ memorial writings on Morton, including a touching account of the scattering of his ashes by Rheinhart Kleiner, another of Lovecraft’s friends.

Anyone interested in Lovecraft’s letters will want this book. For those curious about the fascination of Lovecraft the correspondent, but who haven’t read any of his letters, I think this could serve as a good introduction to the subject.

Walking the Night Land: The Starcombers

Our next stop in the Night Land.

Essay: The Starcombers, Edmond Hamilton and The Year When Stardust Fell, by Raymond F. Jones, 2012.

Starcombers
Covers by James Heugh and Ed Emshwiller

I would never have known that Edmond Hamilton wrote something possibly influenced by William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land if Andy W. Robertson hadn’t mentioned this novel at his Night Lands website. (Robertson even quotes Hamilton on Hodgson.) I would have guessed, if any pulp writer paid homage to Hodgson’s creation, it would have been, judging by the title alone, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Earth’s Last Citadel – except I’ve read that novel and the only thing Hodgsonian is the title.

Hamilton is in his gritty mode in this 1956 story. His characters are tough and treacherous, his spaceships lived in.

Like his “What’s It Like Out There?”, it initially questions the value of humans being in space.

The titular starcombers are scavengers with four spaceships. They have their families with them. Harry Axe (which is a good name for a raider and scavenger) is on his second wife, Lucy. She comes on to men, including protagonist Sam Fletcher, out of what seems to be vain need to have her physical attractions validated. She manages to seem almost naked even in a spaceman’s coverall. Continue reading “Walking the Night Land: The Starcombers”

Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 5

 

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The detailed examination of James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re still looking at that category of plots of circumstances where the setting is the modern world or the near future and the plot is built around a problem.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Past

Gunn notes this is similar to the “ancient being or primitive being in a modern human environment” plot. This plot, though, is centered around a modern man, and it is that man that provides reader identification.

This is primarily a plot of menace. Some kind of man, animal, plant, seed, or strange alien being comes into our world from the past. (Gunn doesn’t mention disease, but that’s obviously another potential menace.) The menace arrives from suspended animation, some temporal suspension, or time travel.

In threatening human supremacy in the world, this menace allows an examination and reassessment of some human trait, the assets and debits of human nature.

H. P. Lovecraft understandably gets cited as a prime example though Gunn regards his work as “more fantasy than science fiction”; however, he does concede Lovecraft did offer explanations of varying degrees of credibility. That’s a fair assessment of Lovecraft, and Lovecraft didn’t really consider himself a science fiction writer though I’d argue that, whatever the plausibility of the offered explanations, a story that offers a scientific explanation is sf on that ground alone whatever the intended emotional effect the author was going for. Gunn says Lovecraft was one of the few writers to successfully create a new mythology to be in the background of his stories. Richard Shaver’s stories are an example of failing to do that.

Understandably, Gunn cites John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” as a fine example of this plot. However, he makes no reference of its probable influence of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” on it.

All in all, Gunn is in favor of this plot as well-suited to many purposes, including a philosophical examination of humanity, and providing suspense, the all important “reader identification”, and drama.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another Dimension

Lovecraft and his followers in the Cthulhu Mythos aren’t mentioned here. Gunn sees this as a plot type in decline. (He also says Charles Fort frequently gets cited in this type of story.)

The limitation of this plot type is that it isn’t as flexible as the problems-from-the-past-encroaching- into-the-modern-world plot. It doesn’t seem to be well-suited to comment on “the nature of mankind”. (I’m not sure why Gunn thinks that. It isn’t obviously true.) What these stories mainly suggest is that “man is not the apex of creation”.

As a tool for a horror story, it works well even “though that purpose borders closely on fantasy”.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another World or Space

Obviously Gunn is right in stating this is a popular plot. The problems you can export from another place other than Earth are unlimited. The modern world can be contrasted to the strangeness outside it. Reader identification, as in all the plots set in the modern world, is high.

It also has a higher credibility, an easier suspension of disbelief, than using a plot that brings problems into the world from the past, another dimension, or the future.

It can easily provide that old sf standby, “sense of wonder”.

And Gunn makes the interesting point that it expresses science fiction’s

natural hatred of skepticism—that type of skepticism, at least, which refuses to admit the possibility of any happening out of the ordinary.

Gunn cites the popular “aliens judging Earth” variety of this plot.

He concludes with his high opinion of this plot’s literary value and ease of use for writers:

The form itself is one of the best developed in science fiction; interesting, effective, and occasionally significant stories have been written in this form, and it has promise of even greater merit if it develops its thematic possibilities along new and perhaps more productive lines.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Future

Gunn cites two stories here as excellent examples of sf craft: William Tenn’s “Child Play” and Henry Kuttner’s and C. L. Moore’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”.

Both stories are about children’s toys from the future showing up in our world. In the Tenn story, it’s a “Bild-A-Man” kit. In the Kuttner and Moore story, it’s a toy teaching kids how to enter a fourth dimension.

But, in Gunn’s mind, those stories have no “particularly serious or significant nature”. C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” does. Specifically, it’s a commentary on overpopulation and dysgenics, and Gunn thinks, while it shows this plot, usually written and read just for pleasure, could do more.

The next post on Gunn’s thesis will look at a literary judgement Gunn got very wrong.

The Craft of Science Fiction

This is something of an oddity and not the type of book I’ve reviewed before.

It’s mostly a how-to book for would-be science fiction writers but also includes some interesting perspectives on the art by its contributors. Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.

With Jerry Pournelle’s passing, I’m posting it now since he was a contributor, and I’ll be interrupting the Lovecraft series to post some more Pournelle material from the archives.

As usual, I’m still working on getting new reviews out.

Raw Feed (1987): The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1976.Craft of Science Fiction

“Foreword”, Reginald Bretnor — It is billed as advice from experienced writing veterans.

SF:  The Challenge to the Writer”, Reginald Bretnor — Nuts and bolts on some basics needed to practice sf craft including some knowledge of science, more intimate knowledge of sf and mainstream literature. Bretnor urges mastering basic story elements like characterization and dialogue. He recommends books to read and compiling own reference library as well as knowing how to use well a public reference library (and to know its staff).  He advises how to avoid errors by avoiding explicit details when possible and thoroughly check facts.

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come”, Poul Anderson — Like most essays in this book seem to be (at cursory glance), this is interesting as criticism as well as how-to advice. Anderson’s definition of a saga is larger than life story of a non-introspective character who wants to do something. In addition, a saga must have the right feel as far as language goes. Anderson names some of his candidates for sf epics (L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Makers and World of A; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Fury) and why he classifies things as he does is revealing. Anderson also (and I agree) says the saga is only one of many legitimate fictional modes. He also makes the valid point that sf (and maybe fantasy) is the last refuge of the outward turning hero. Other hallmarks of epic sf are (according to Anderson) bold language, a hero bending fate (or refusing to be bent). Anderson also gives interesting details on how study of Olaf Stapledon helped him in writing Tau Zero. Continue reading “The Craft of Science Fiction”

Earth’s Last Citadel

Well, there has been a fair uptick in traffic hear lately from a crowd interested in pulp, so I thought I’d get something out from the archives that might make them to stick around.

Frankly, though, this blog isn’t very tightly focused on any one type of book.

Still, it’s always nice to have more readers so maybe some of the new viewers will stick around.

One of my uncompleted reading projects is to read all 50 titles in “The 5 Parsec Shelf” in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction by Baird Searles, Martin Last, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin from 1979. This title was listed.

Raw Feed (1992): Earth’s Last Citadel, C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, 1943.Earth's Last Citadel

I didn’t care for this novel all that much. I suppose Baird Searles included it on his list of classic sf novels because it’s pulpy and probably one of the earliest far future science-as-magic stories.

While I didn’t find the novel particularly entertaining, it was critically interesting.

First, the menacing Alien from beyond time — first and last of his kind on Earth, feeder on mental energy (a vampire of sorts) is reminiscent of a Lovecraftian horror. He is a Light-Wearer. The good Light-Wearers created, from human stock, the Carcasillans and protected them (and expected worship from them) from the bad Light-Wearers like the Alien. This lends a biblical flavor to the book.

This book is interesting as a midway point in the far-future sub-genre of sf. Continue reading “Earth’s Last Citadel”

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1

Another retro review, from December 9, 2005.

When it appeared on Amazon, weird fiction author Wilum Pugmire rightly chastised me for making a mistake about J. Vernon Shea not being an acquaintance of Lovecraft. He, in fact, corresponded with him. I’ve corrected that mistake here.

Review: Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1, August Derleth, 1971.Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

All the authors in this book were personal friends or correspondents of H. P. Lovecraft. Several are distinguished authors in their own right. One, Clark Ashton Smith, could arguably be said to have made some fine contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos. But, apart from Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos“, none of this collection’s stories are worth reading on their own merits.

It was Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” which gave the Mythos its name. While not Lovecraft’s personal best, it is certainly one of the central Mythos stories. It has held up well after more than 60 years. That can not be said for many of his imitators. As this collection shows, there’s some alchemy at work in Lovecraft’s prose beyond the characteristic plot structures and adjectives, the props of gods/ETs and forbidden books, a power based in a carefully constructed paranoia with a decided scientific air about it — and not reworked mythology.

The worse offender here is the editor, personal friend, and arguable savior of Lovecraft’s reputation: August Derleth. Continue reading “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 1”