Tag Archives: American Fantasy fiction

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.