Tag Archives: American Fantasy fiction

Etidorhpa

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Etodorpha, or The End of the Earth [Amazon, Gutenberg, Abebooks, Local Library] by John Uri Lloyd, illustrated by John Augustus Knapp.

Lloyd Knapp Etidorpha

Etidorhpa is the vishuddha chakra of the long nineteenth century: It is a maddeningly metatextual initiatory fantasy, Masonic-Rosicrucian psychopharmaceutical philosophy to make steampunks cry, a hollow earth odyssey with laboratory experiments you can try at home, a vision of the End from which all arises. And possibly a key to hidden treasure. Supplemented with the awesomeness of J. Augustus Knapp’s illustrations.

“Science thought begins in the brain of man; science provings end all things with the end of the material brain of man. Beware of your own brain.”–I Am the Man (191)

A Rendezvous in Averoigne

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Rendezvous in Averoigne: The Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Clark Ashton Smith, illo Jeffrey K Potter, intro Ray Bradbury.

Smith A Rendezvous in Averoigne

A Rendezvous in Averoigne is a comprehensive, if not exhaustive, collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s short fiction. A Weird Tales contributor and member of the Lovecraft Circle, Smith wrote like a sort of extraterrestrial version of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the title of this book refers to the imaginary medieval setting of Averoinge (compare James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme), its contents span across the various settings and story cycles deployed in Smith’s oeuvre. After “Averoigne” follow “Atlantis,” “Hyperborea,” assorted “Lost Worlds,” and then most fully “Xothique” (the “last continent”).

Each of these stories has a lapidary merit that rewards repeat reading, and I have been able to return to this volume with pleasure many times over the twenty years I’ve owned it. There are no dependable themes throughout; the reliable common denominator is the beauty of Smith’s language, and his ability to communicate a sense of the alien and the abominable. 

Noted weird fiction critic S.T. Joshi has dismissed Smith’s stories as superficial, but to my reading they often have profound contents. As an example, I recently re-read the Zothique tale “Necromancy in Naat,” and realized that its household of three necromancers was the centerpiece of an inverted gospel of the post-Christian far future, in which Yadar and Dalili (twisted from Joseph and Mary) come to the three magi, rather than the magi to them. (And the guiding influence is a black ocean current, rather than starlight.) The inaugurating event of the narrative is death, rather than birth. And Dalili is magically sterile, rather than miraculously fertile. There is to be no redeeming death, since the liches stumble along even after the expiration of the magi. And the curious episode in which a local cannibal is fed to the demon Esrit is a symbolic criticism of the Christian Eucharist that is beyond my powers to gloss! 

This book also includes an introduction by Ray Bradbury and deliciously surreal illustrations by Jeffrey K. Potter. I don’t think there’s any bad place to start reading Smith, but if you had to confine yourself to a single volume of his work, this might well be the one.

Flight from Nevèrÿon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Flight from Nevèrÿon [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany, part of the Return to Nevèrÿon series.

Delany Flight from Neveryon

The third volume of Delany’s Nevèrÿon stories was supposed to be his last, although there is a fourth book in the trilogy. Flight from Nevèrÿon has three numbered sections, the third of which consists of two appendices and makes up half the book.

I read and enjoyed the putative body text of “The Tale of Fog and Granite” and “The Mummer’s Tale,” both of which built on the the characters and settings of Delany’s previous stories, within the established fictional context of the antediluvian realm of Nevèrÿon, while carrying forward a project of postmodern theorizing embedded in the narratives.

The acme of the book, though, and perhaps of the whole series, was longest piece, “Appendix A: The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, or, Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part Five.” This part features a complete Nevèrÿon story centered around an AIDS-like plague and the social responses it provokes. Interleaved with that story are several other registers of writing, including lightly fictionalized anecdotes from Delany’s own life, a running account of his gay junky acquaintance “Joey,” tail-devouring criticism of the book in hand by the imaginary academic S. L. Kermit, and a closing note about the public health facts of AIDS as they were understood at the time of writing in mid-1984.

In addition to the intended reflections of 1980s New York in Nevèrÿon, Appendix A brings up occasional irruptions of Nevèrÿon in 1980s New York. But my favorite passage of “Plagues and Carnivals” was section 9.6, detailing relations between the Mummer and the Master of the academy. In these seven pages (261-7) Delany tacitly supplies an interpretive frame for the canon of Classical Greek philosophy from Heraclitus through Plato. It’s an impressive feat and delightful for the informed reader.

“Clearly the Nevèrÿon series is a model of late twentieth-century (mostly urban) America. The question is, of course: What kind of model is it?” (377) The far shorter Appendix B collapses into the more “factual” and explicatory matter of the author’s reflections on the three volumes, answers to readers about the nature of the “modular calculus,” citation of sources and inspirations, theory of semiotics/semiology grounding Delany’s writing, and a list of Delany’s corrections to the three books then in print–when he thought that the work was “complete.”

The High Place

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by James Branch Cabell.

Cabell The High Place

The High Place is Cabell’s most efficient and effective composition as a fantasy novel. It riffs on both the Sleeping Beauty and Faust legends, through the gallant dream of Florian de Puysange (who is, of course a descendent of Manuel the Redeemer, and thus entitled to be included in Cabell’s hyperwork Biography of Manuel). It uses its two seminal legends to put pagan and Christian religion into hilarious comparisons with each other, as well as a terrific culminating chapter (28. “Highly Ambiguous”) with a conversation between the Archangel Michael and Cabell’s Pan-Devil figure Janicot. Florian is conspicuously free of the ravages of moral conscience, a feature which distinguishes him slightly from the book’s second-most-entertaining character, the pagan-high-priest-cum-Christian-saint Hoprig.

Cabell’s arch sense of humor skewers the conventional mores of twentieth-century Americans quite well even when his stories are set in an imaginary France of the 18th century. This book is actually far more confrontational than the scandalous Jurgen in that respect. It’s an excellent choice for readers just trying Cabell for the first time, and it shouldn’t be missed by those who have already enjoyed his work.

The People of the Black Circle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The People of the Black Circle [Amazon, Local Library] by Robert E Howard, ed Karl Edward Wagner.

Howard Wagner The People of the Black Circle

This particular The People of the Black Circle — several different Conan books bear the name — is a collection of four of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories from his heyday as a Weird Tales author (1934-35). It is part of the late-70s “Authorized” edition under the supervision of Karl Wagner, who conformed the texts to their pulp-era first issuance (with minimal typographical corrections), and sequenced them in publication order. The book jumped to the front of my reading queue as an antidote to the rather weak 2011 Conan movie, and so some of my remarks here will be inflected with mildly irrelevant cinematic concerns.

“The Devil in Iron” is the first of the stories here, and of its six sections, Conan is only present for the final three. (He is mentioned in the second, but does not actually appear in its action.) The character motivation is not too deep: Conan’s enemies correctly surmise that he can be baited with a beautiful girl. The complication and climax are provided by the age-old evil that the reader encounters before any mention of the critical human players. The weird element is in respectable relief here, in the form of the spectrally-rebuilt city on the deserted island of Xapur, as well as the reanimated villain.

It would be simplicity itself to get a good screenplay out of “The People of the Black Circle,” the tale which lends its name to the whole book. It’s got just about the right character distribution and plot complication for a feature film, already being in that middle zone between the short story that needs to be padded out and the novel that needs to be cut down to movie size. It has a nice two-tiered villain system, plenty of sorcery, and a clever resolution of the tension between Conan and the Devi (princess). To be really faithful to Howard’s vision on this one, though, it should be shot in Nepal!

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is one of the most memorable and remembered Conan stories — even for people who haven’t read it, since the crucifixion of Conan in the 1982 Milius movie was derived from this tale. As Wagner notes in his critical afterword, Howard really pulls out the stops here, using a variety of perspectives and literary forms to condense a long narrative into pivotal episodes and embedded synopses. There is a strangely biblical air to the story: not only does Conan get crucified, but the name of the titular witch is Salome, and Howard strongly implies that she is the remote ancestress of her namesake in the court of Herod.

Wagner judges “The Jewels of Gwahlur” to be the least of the four stories in this volume, and I concur. Still, it is a fun and exciting read, with some real mystery and a good deal of tension. And I had to laugh out loud when reading Howard’s explanation: “Conan was basically a direct-actionist.” (177)

Wagner’s apparatus (a foreword and an afterword) is thoughtful and unintrusive. This volume was perfect for the task I had set for it: to tare my scale as a Conan fan after a few too many pastiches and clumsy adaptations.

Tales of Nevèrÿon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tales of Nevèrÿon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany, book 1 of the Return to Nevèrÿon series.

Delany Tales of Nevèrÿon

At first glance, the title and table of contents for this book make it look like a set of disparate fantasy stories in a shared setting, but it is in fact an integrated novel. Each “Tale of” people and doings in Nevèrÿon ends up linked to the others on multiple levels, and all of them take place over roughly a single generation.

This fantasy is imaginative, but far less “fantastic” than most. There are no supernatural elements, no storybook giants or fairies.* If Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a step closer to our world than Dunsany’s Pegāna, Delany’s Nevèrÿon is a considerable stroll in our direction. I was a little puzzled by the characterization of this book in the appended note on the author as “sword and sorcery,” since there is certainly no sorcery in it at all. But on reflection, it does represent a new turn for the sort of fabulous prehistory supplied by Robert E. Howard’s seminal stories of that genre, and I can easily imagine that Delany was responding to them (among other fictions and factualities) when writing Nevèrÿon.

The appendix (“Some Informal Remarks on the Intermodal Calculus, Part Three,” alluding to the appendices of his prior science fiction novel Triton) summarizes some fictional scholarship to place Nevèrÿon in our actual (pre-)history, via the study of the apocryphal Culhar’ Text. The effect of this retroactive framing–in combination with the philosophical motifs of the main text–is positively vertiginous.

The epigrams for the individual tales are drawn from post-structuralist philosophy, while the book as a whole is paradoxically concerned with the imagined origins of cultural systems: language, money, gender roles, slavery, politics, and so on. There are nested stories and digressions that highlight these concerns, but the characters of the general narrative are unusual and vivid, and the setting is carefully developed, so that the book doesn’t degenerate into a string of deconstructivist parables.

Those chiefly seeking escapism from their fantasy reading should avoid this book, while philosophical readers will find much to enjoy in it.

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* I realized on my return to this review that the key characters Gorgik and Small Sarg might be read as a “giant” and a “fairy” respectively. But not in the customary fantasy sense.