Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”

Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse”, Edgar Allan Poe, Southern Literary Messenger, October-November 1848.

ultima thule portrait of poe 1848
The “Ultima Thule” portrait of Poe taken by Edwin H. Manchester on November 9, 1847, four days after he attempted suicide.

This is a long essay, 45 pages long in my Library of America edition. It’s a technical theory of verse, and I won’t attempt a discussion of all its points or pass judgements on Poe’s opinions.

It’s mostly an attack on all existing theories of English “versification” with plenty of detailed analysis. My impression is, after looking at a couple of times, it probably is of value to would-be poets.

I suppose the heart of the essay is the falling paragraph:

So general and so total a failure can be referred only to radical misconception. In fact the English Prosodists have blindly followed the pedants. These latter, like les moutons de Pannurge, have been occupied in incessant tumbling into ditches, for the excellent reason that their leaders have so tumbled before. The Illiad, being taken as a starting point, was made to stand in stead of Nature and common sense. Upon this poem, in place of facts and deduction from fact, or from natural law, were built systems of feet, metres, rhythms, rules, — rules that contradict each other every five minutes and for nearly all of which there may be found twice as many exceptions as examples. If any one has a fancy to be thoroughly confounded – to see how far the infatuation of what is termed “classical scholarship” can lead a book-worm in the manufacture of darkness out of sunshine, let him turn over, for a few moments, any one of the German Greek Prosodies. The only thing clearly made out in them is a very magnificent contempt for Liebnitz’s principle of a ‘sufficient reason’.

The eighteenth century was a time of great English pedantry when it came to the English language. Various English writers, worshipping at the feet of classical civilization, insisted on Latin being the model for English. Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way talks about some of this. All sorts of grammatical rules were proclaimed for English: no ending sentences with a preposition, no starting them with a conjunction, and no splitting infinitives. None of which described English as written or presented a rule whose violation obscured the sense of the language. Continue reading “Obscure Poe: “The Rationale of Verse””

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Science Fiction Trails #12

Lately, I’ve been thinking about narrowing the scope of this blog and, as I put it, reading more like a normal person. In other words, reviewing less of what I read.

I’ll probably continue to do the weird western stuff though. It gets a moderate amount of interest, and it’s an area not a lot of other people cover

Review: Science Fiction Trails #12, ed. David B. Riley, 2017.Science Fiction Trails #12

In 2017, David B. Riley gathered the posse for another ride in Science Fiction Trails.

That magazine’s successors, Steampunk Trails and Story Emporium, didn’t generate a lot of interest, and Riley wanted to still provide an outlet for writers of weird westerns.

Counter to that was Riley’s perennial problem in even getting enough submissions for the magazine.

So, it’s no surprise that all the members of the posse are old reliables from previous issues.

Not only this is a shorter issue than regular, but it’s even got a couple of reprints.

First up is “Belfrey’s in Your Bats!” from Aaron B. Larson. There is nothing wrong with the story. It gives a hat tip to probably one of the most popular weird westerns of all time, the tv show The Wild Wild West (the other being, perhaps, the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter). But it’s not the best of the stories collected in that powerful parcel of weird western fiction: The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones which I’ve reviewed at length elsewhere. Continue reading “Science Fiction Trails #12”

Story Emporium #1

In 2015, Science Fiction Trails publisher David B. Riley experimented again with the annual magazine he put out. The weird western tales of the defunct Science Fiction Trails and the steampunk of Steampunk Trails were combined into Story Emporium.

Review: Story Emporium #1: Purveyors of Steampunk & Weird Western Adventure, ed. J. A. Campbell, 2015.

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Cover by M. Wayne Miller

A lot of the usual contributors to Science Fiction Trails’ publications are here and a lot of those writers continue their long running series in the magazine.

But let’s start with the writers new to me.

Dan Thwaite’s “The Duel” is bit Sergio Leonish in its ever-slowing pace and repetition of details as the climax nears. But it’s not very effective. A gunfighter come to town. His high noon opponent is a clock in a tower. He shoots it but dies. I suppose this is some kind of metaphor about how time and death catch up to us all.

K. G. Anderson’s “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse” is a secret history and a good one at that. Jewish magic and the Kabbala are spliced into the conventional history of Billy the Kid. It’s narrator, a woman named Shulamit, flees her home to escape an arranged marriage to a man she never met. With her, in the trunk on the stagecoach, is a golem made by her grandfather. Others want the golem, and Billy the Kid intervenes to save Shulamit when an attempt is made to steal it. Continue reading “Story Emporium #1”

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.

Saving the World Through Science Fiction

Review: Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar, Michael R. Page, 2017.51jIRlPDtwL

Before I move on to the inevitable quibbles, let me say that anyone who is a James Gunn fan should buy this book. People who are curious about Gunn and his work should buy this.

Actually, since it’s the first and only book about Gunn, there’s not a lot of choice in the matter anyway.

I’ve long thought, even before starting this blog, that Gunn was an author unjustly neglected and that I should write a series on him. However, while I’ve done some posts on Gunn and read all his novels and most of his shorter works, I didn’t make notes on a lot of them. I’d have to do a lot of rereading and make careful notes.

Page has largely saved me the trouble. He says many of the things I noticed about Gunn. He also says many things I didn’t notice. Continue reading “Saving the World Through Science Fiction”

“The Space-Eaters”

Another recent reading for the Deep Ones discussion group at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Space-Eaters”, Frank Belknap Long, 1927.Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos

In his H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T. Joshi says the following:

This story can be said to have two distinctive qualities. It is the first work to involve Lovecraft as a character … and – although this point is somewhat debatable – it is the first “addition” to Lovecraft’s mythos.

And yet, to be perfectly honest, “The Space-Eaters” is a preposterous and ridiculous story.

Well, I’ve certainly read worse stories in and out of the Mythos. But it’s not a good story, and I’ve briefly talked about it before.

I don’t think it is a Cthulhu Mythos story. It references none of the locations, blasphemous tomes, or “deities” of that vast conception carried on for 90 some years now. The brain-eating menace from space isn’t even given a name.

The story is 32 pages long, and, for most of that, Long fails to create any sense of menace or wonder except for a couple brief scenes.

The story has Howard, a writer, and Frank, his narrator and friend. Yes, that’s Howard as in Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Frank as in Frank Belknap Long.

Lovecraft’s only requirement for his fictional portrayal was that he be shown as “LEAN” since he was a bit pudgy during his recent failed marriage and exile in New York City and had lost the weight.

Writer Howard opens the story complaining of his inability to write a horror that “transcends everything” and then goes on a riff imagining a horror that “could eat their way to us through space!”.

Long seems to be having a bit of fun with his friend Lovecraft and making some sly, personal jokes because the very first page of the story sums up Howard’s opinion, not all that favorable, of many of the authors Lovecraft mentions favorably in his Supernatural Horror in Literature: Bram Stoker, Anne Radcliffe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft’s idol Edgar Allan Poe even gets criticized has having “really accomplished very little with his Lady Ushers, and liquescent Valdemars”.

Howard also trembles and gets angry at several points in the story whereas I think of Lovecraft as probably often stoic or good-humored with only occasional outbursts of exasperation or anger.

Howard also laments that he is not a mathematician and cannot glimpse the “strange curves and angles” of the fourth dimension. This may, as well as bringing to mind Long’s far better tale of menacing geometry, “The Hounds of Tindalos”, may be a reference to Lovecraft’s lack of mathematical aptitude keeping him from his intended career as an astronomer.

Anyway, a local man, Henry Wells shows up Frank’s house, with an odd story and an odd injury.

And here is where Long makes his biggest mistake.

A classical opening gambit for a Mythos story is to make some grand philosophical observation based on the events later in the story. Perhaps the best examples from Lovecraft’s work are the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness”.

Long wants us to swallow the coincidence that Howard’s opening speculations are realized in random later events.

Wells has an odd hole in the right side of his. It’s clean and bloodless and may just go into the middle of his brain.

He tells us how he got it. He was driving his horse and cart that foggy night through Mulligan Wood, a rather sinister place whose menacing vegetation may be a reference to Lovecraft’s recently completed “The Colour Out of Space”. He feels something odd drop on his head, something soft and with a jelly-like consistency.

Then he sees what looks like a thin white arm, and just the arm, descend from the tree tops and grope around the ground.

Wells and his horse bolt away, but then he feels a lancing, ice cold pain in his skull, passes out for ten minutes and then goes to Frank’s house.

Howard thinks this is a splendid story, an “accidental tour de force”, and that Wells’ wound is self-inflicted, that Wells is crazy.

Wells is not happy to be thought a liar and is overcome with pain again and runs into the night.

Frank and Howard decide they really should go find him and get a doctor, so they go into Mulligan Wood. After seeing the shapes of “venomous tongues and leering eyes” in the fog, they find the screaming Wells and take him back to the house, tie him up, and call for Dr. Smith.

Smith doesn’t think Wells is going to last long, and one of two effective episodes in the story is his probing of Wells’ head and wound.

Smith is aghast. He believes they are dealing with an alien menace, and Frank’s house is now marked for destruction.

Howard and Frank agree a menace is out in the foggy night and head for Frank’s launch and the sea. Mulligan Wood is alive with ominous dronings and humming.

They make it to the launch and, at sea, they see a “vast, formless shape” above the forest which has, unaccountably, started to burn.

And here Long makes his second mistake. The alien menace is kept at bay with some burning cotton from the boat and the sign of the cross. Banal folk magic defeating cosmic menace is a mistake Lovecraft made in “The Dreams of the Witch House”.

And there concludes the first part of the story.

The second part has Howard trying to turn the whole thing into a story. Frank thinks that’s a blasphemous violation of “the privacies of the mind”, that the story is too convincing, too real. The event should be suppressed. (Which picks up a theme of many of Lovecraft’s stories: the suppression of the truth by individuals and institutions.)

Howard refuses, and, in the concluding third section, Frank gets a strange call from Howard. “They’ve come back! I have become a priest of the Devil.”.

Frank goes to Howard’s house where he sees strange shafts of light penetrating Howard’s head, Howard who is lying on the floor, his hands before his eyes as if blotting out a hellish vision.

And when strange sounds come from Howard’s mouth, Frank makes the sign of the cross, the house starts burning, and Frank leaves his dead friend on the floor.

 

More reviews of Lovecraft related material are indexed on the Lovecraft page.

And more reviews of fantastic fiction in general are indexed on the title and author/editor pages.

“Seaton’s Aunt”; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Review: “Seaton’s Aunt”, Walter de la Mare, 1922.Seaton's Aunt

This week’s Deep Ones’ story strikes some of the same notes as E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower“: old English school chums reunited in a country home with strange things going on.

That’s where the similarity ends.

There’s been a lot of discussion and diagramming and classifying of weird fiction and its relation to cosmic horror, “regular” horror, the ghost story, and stories of the supernatural.

Whatever taxonomy or diagrammatic schema you use, this story belongs solidly in the category where the weird is not obvious or surrealistic, yet the tone is of menace, the story unsettling and mysterious. Continue reading ““Seaton’s Aunt”; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”