The devils of Paris would not shut up. They declaimed as they came, in a hundred languages, they hissed and howled descriptions of their hadal cities, and beat their claws on the sigils they wore, of the houses of the pit, and they shouted rather too often to those they hunted and killed that it was from Hell that they came, and so that everyone should be terrified.
Ubik is easily one of my favorite PKD novels: less lauded but more tightly composed than VALIS, it too makes pervasive but subtle use of Gnostic themes throughout. In his self-exegetical notes, Dick paired Ubik with The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as stories grounded in the mechanism of the Eucharist. (In Three Stigmata the Eucharist is averse or malign–a sort of interplanetary Black Mass.) The initial science-fictional concept in Ubik is that of the “moratorium,” a medico-funerary facility that arrests brain deterioration in fresh corpses, so that the “dead” can be milked for small amounts of further interaction with their survivors; all of which opens up the question of the subjective experience of such “death,” not to mention all death, and perhaps life as well.
The characters are unusually clear, lacking the amorphousness that Dick’s psychological approach often inflicts on his protagonists, and this feature may well have been a function of his onetime development of this story as a prospective film treatment. In my dream universe, David Cronenberg has already directed a production of Ubik!
This third collection of Bone comics is the first that I have read in its original black-and-white format. I read the two previous volumes in the colorized editions from the Scholastic GRAFIX imprint. While I respect author/artist Smith for realizing his vision in the independent black-and-white comics market, and at the hazard of offending purist afficianados, I have to say that the comic is more attractive, readable, and compelling with the high-quality colors of the later reprints.
As far as the story goes, it takes a major turn in this segment: the “serious” fantasy plot about the political history of the valley, and the roles of Rose and Thorn in that history are revealed, along with more detail about their foes. None of these revelations should come as any great surprise to the attentive reader, though, and none of them are in any way contrary to fantasy conventions. All of this plot explication comes at a price, which is that of considerably less comedy. There is still a humorous parallel narrative about the Bone brothers’ return to the Barrel-Haven tavern, and the development of Fone Bone’s poetic talents continues amusingly on page 120. But on the whole, there is more action and intrigue, and less of the wry humor that was so characteristic of the earlier books.
The “Moby Bone” dream episode is supposed to be a highlight of this volume, and it certainly did its job well enough. But I thought it paled next to the more elaborate and involved dream sequences in Sim’s Cerebus.
The final page advises readers that we have reached the “End of Part One.” Even though the plot proper seems still to be barely getting off the ground, this does seem like a reasonable point to pause.
Far and away the most printed and read of John Buchan’s novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps was also made into three different films and a feature-length television adaptation, along with adaptations into other media. First published in 1915 while Buchan was working for the British War Propaganda Bureau, it is set in England and Scotland on the eve of World War I. The protagonist Richard Hannay is informed of an alleged international conspiracy, and then must flee both the conspirators and the police, since he has been framed in the murder of his informant.
Buchan classed the story as a “shocker” and it pioneered the use of tropes that have become staples of the “thriller” and “suspense” categories in entertainment, principally that of the fugitive hero. The telling is very fast-paced, over ten chapters that I think I read in a total of four or five sittings. It keeps its narrative tension right up to the final page, with a mere three sentences of denouement.
The book has hardly any women characters with proper names and none with repeat appearances. Hannay says, “A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower. … But what fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folks that live in villas and suburbs” (97). His capacities are tied into this sort of alternating social adaptability and dysphoria. I don’t doubt that many “comfortable, satisfied middle-class” readers have derived excitement over the last century from reading of Hannay’s mingling with both the elite and the impoverished in this story, and that those readers have largely been men.
Tetrarch is a very interesting novel deserving addition to my Gnostic Catholic “Section 2” reading list (“Other books, principally fiction, of a generally suggestive and helpful kind”). It is a slightly didactic through-the-magic-door fantasy, like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, but definitely for adults. Instead of hokey Christian allegory, it offers reifications of William Blake’s prophecies, Bohmian quantum mechanics, systems theory, transpersonal psychology, imaginary language, and encounters with historical personalities. The whole stew is pretty heady, and some prior familiarity with the prophetic works of Blake will help to avoid getting disoriented: the protagonists are supposed to be versed in them already, and the reader is given many allusions to them without further exposition.
Author Alex Comfort is, of course, best known for his book The Joy of Sex, and there is plenty of sex happening in Tetrarch, where the customary greeting is, “Have you loved well?” Narrator Edward and his partner Rosanna are preposterously enlightened in their sexuality: quite free of jealousy and compassionate about others’ hang-ups. It’s not porn; there’s none of the sort of graphic detail that makes porn work, but the sexual vision–utopian and otherwise–is rather inspiring.
Thelemites may note the names Edward and Rosanna as corresponding closely to those of the scribe and seer of the Cairo Working. There is a lot of magick in this book, and learning among adepts is its principal preoccupation. It’s nothing like Hogwarts, though, with the exception of the university of the Foursquare City described in the second part of the book–an institution in which the protagonists do not enroll. The central adepts of the story are initiated by pareunogenesis, a process of attainment by sexual contagion.
The “Tetrarch” of the title is Edward’s steed in the visionary world, named after the champion Irish thoroughbred who beat all comers in 1913. Here, the Tetrarch is not a horse, however; it is rather a giant chalicotherium, from a family of ungulate mammals that prospered during the Eocene period. The exotic fauna of the Fourfold World are an interesting mix of the paleontological, the legendary, and the speculative. The Klars are a special treat: an idyllic race of Überbonobos.
The endpapers feature an attractive map of the Fourfold World, and appendices provide information on Losian language and religion. The latter is in a tabular form that reminds me of the correspondences chart appended to Gunther’s Initiation in the Aeon of the Child. There is one evident error in the table, though: it needs initiated review before practical application!
I stumbled on this book entirely by accident in a used book store, and my 1980 first-edition copy is pretty worn, but it is attractive: a hardcover with a marbled dustjacket, its cover illustration showing Edward and Rosana on the Tetrarch, in a style that reminds me of paintings by the Scottish surrealist Fergus Hall. Although long out of print, it appears to be easy enough to find used online for reasonable sums.
Incense suffocated him like poison-gas. He fell out of the church. The void surrounding him would not tolerate a God, and no God could tolerate the void. He ran blindly, fleeing the taste which moved with him.
Ramsey Campbell, Demons by Daylight
In this short novel, Miéville alternates between 1941 Marseille and 1950 Paris in an alternate timeline. The earlier date sees American Thelemite Jack Parsons visiting France during the war, and the later one involves a thaumaturgical Surrealist resistance fighting against a goetically-augmented continuing Nazi occupation. The title of the book is taken from a book within the book: The Last Days of New Paris is a book being written (and photographed) within the story, to document the exotic and presumably evanescent 1950 Parisian environment. [ . . . (hover over to read this spoiler) . . . ]
Given its subject matter, I expected to either love or hate this book, and I was surprised to find myself lukewarm. I liked Miéville’s appreciation for Surrealist politics, the way that he brought Surrealist artworks into the story, and the metafictional/documentary twists. I didn’t find the narrative voice as engaging as the one in The City & the City, and Parsons wasn’t presented very believably. It definitely had its virtues, and short as it is, it’s still worth reading by anyone who finds the premise intriguing.
Even when the magic goes away, the world moves relentlessly. It’s Life, the cycle of living and dying.
J Damask, Wolf at the Door
As the jacket copy on the lovely little Donald M. Grant edition of Almuric explains, Robert E. Howard took his only novel-length foray into the sword-and-planet subgenre at the urging of his literary agent Otis Adelbert Kline, who was a chief proponent of the form. Howard’s protagonist is rather different than the paradigm of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, though. Esau Cairn is not a gentleman warrior, just a murderous thug. The documentary foreword in the voice of the fictional Professor Hildebrand provides even less of a rationale for interplanetary travel than is usually present in a school of fiction that often demands heroic levels of suspension of disbelief.
Before Cairn can be built up into the barbarism of his adoptive society on the planet Almuric, he is first reduced to an entirely feral existence. In this condition he waxes philosophical, by the standards of an REH hero: “I tell you, the natural life of mankind is a grim battle for existence against the forces of nature, and any other form of life is artificial and without realistic meaning” (38).
Other than the peculiar savagery of the protagonist, Almuric is highly conventional pulp-era sword-and-planet fare. Cairn ends up uniting two tribes of Guras (the hairy ape-men to whom he assimilates) against the citadel of the sadistic Yagas, devilish winged humanoids. He single-handedly defeats their secret weapon, a giant electrified slug. There is a happy ending of considerable predictability and triteness.
I’ve previously remarked the salience of ideas of gender in sword-and-planet literature. Almuric features extreme sexual dimorphism and rigid gender roles among the Guras. Cairn’s clean-shaven face causes the first Gura he encounters to ask “with unbearable scorn … ‘By Thak, are you a man or a woman?'” (21) This affront is grounds for a combat to the death.
I am an avid reader of both Robert E. Howard and sword and planet, so I was delighted to discover this book and felt compelled to read it. It didn’t take me very long. But it is neither one of Howard’s better efforts, nor an especially rewarding example of its sub-genre.