Tag Archives: American Literature

Conan and the Emerald Lotus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan and the Emerald Lotus [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by John C Hocking.

Hocking Conan and the Emerald Lotus

Conan and the Emerald Lotus is very passable Conan pastiche, not as good as Carpenter’s Conan the Raider, but as good as or better than the Robert Jordan run. The basic plot concerns a second-rate Stygian sorcerer who schemes to achieve supremacy through a highly addictive magic-enhancing drug that he has discovered. 

The prose style is simple and effective, with no efforts to make things seem archaic, although the expression “what the hell” (spoken by Conan several times) seems a little misplaced in the Hyborian Age somehow. The magical incantations tend toward Yog-Sothothery, and the forbidden god of ancient Stygia turns out to be Nyarlathotep. 

The whole story is told in an unremarkable third-person omniscient voice, although it was interesting that readers are repeatedly invited to identify with a supporting character who is an enormous mute Khitan (i.e. Hyborian-Age fantasy Chinese) bodyguard. Action proceeds at a steady pace throughout the story. Conan seems to drink with even more gusto than is customary in this one, and his sexual appetite is entirely confined to a single narratively-designated love interest. 

The book is a fast, amusing read on the whole, and I find no satisfaction in the fact that author Hocking has had no other Conan stories arrive in print.

Ka

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by John Crowley, illo Melody Newcomb.

Crowley Ka

The protagonist of Ka is the corvid Dar Oakley, and the narrator is a nameless man to whom the bird has told his stories, a string of recollected Crow lives over the entirety of human history. The first part is set in prehistoric Europe and the second in the Middle Ages. Part three has two major arcs: one among Native Americans prior to colonization, and another during and after the US Civil War. The final part of the novel returns to the context of the narrator in “the Ruins of Ymr,” a near-future setting of social and ecological decay.

The pace throughout is slow and thoughtful, caught between the divergent perceptions and expressions of Person and Crow. There are multiple visionary episodes. As a whole, the book contemplates the incomprehension of memory and mortality, along with the value of story itself.

Celestis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Celestis [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Paul Park.

Park Celestis

I came to Paul Park’s Celestis after reading his more recent Roumania series. Although Roumania is portal fantasy and Celestis is exoplanetary science fiction, they share a great deal in style and content–and neither sits placidly within its genre.

Park has clearly worked out a terrestrial future for background to this book, but Celestis is the site of the tale, and Earth is far away. Readers get little exposure to it, except via fragmentary memories and remarks of the diplomat Simon, who is part of the most recent (and possibly last) cohort of terrestrial emigrants. There is a subjugated species of indigenous humanoids, and another native race acknowledged to be more intelligent than humans but now largely exterminated after generations of human settlement and conflict

Reviewers are generally quick to remark the political dimensions of this novel, but I think it is far more than a parable of colonialist decline. The religious features are conspicuous, with Christianity figuring notably in the cultivated mentality of the semi-protagonist Katharine, who is an assimilated aboriginal. (I suspect that her name is deliberately spelled to evoke “Cathar” i.e. Albigensian heresy.) The priest Martin Cohen (another allusive moniker) is a key character, if not exactly an admirable one. The differences in the native sensorium create an explicit multiplication of experiential worlds connected by symbols.

Despite its large themes, the book’s action takes place on a very personal level. There is a fair amount of sex and violence, all of it suitably disturbing and difficult. Almost every interaction is fraught with misunderstanding, much of it willful. I was less than twenty pages from the end, and I said to myself, “This can’t end well.” Indeed, while a screen adaptation might superficially present the final tableau as “happy,” any attentive reader should be left with a profound uneasiness. Questions of “fact” about events in the story may prove insoluble, not least because of irreconcilable perspectives, and the ending throws this feature into almost painful relief.

Perhaps the Stars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Perhaps the Stars [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 4 of Terra Ignota.

Palmer Perhaps the Stars

This fourth book of Terra Ignota provides a conclusion worthy of what has come before. It is longer than any of the previous volumes by at least 50%, and it involves more narrative lacunae and changes of style. It does not resolve all of the enigmas raised in previous books, nor even those opened within its own pages, but it does complete the story and give it greater context and significance.

Terra Ignota has an unreliable and culpable narrator addressing himself to a posterity even further removed from the (actual) reader, but represented by a Reader character whose identity is in some measure disclosed at the end. It entertains metaphysics and vaults into the very highest political arenas of its imagined world. For these reasons and others, it has invited comparison to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Ada Palmer has admitted to her admiration for Wolfe’s work. There is an especially Wolfean development in this final volume when . . . . . . . . (hover over to reveal) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Poignantly, Wolfe died in 2019 as Palmer was finishing Perhaps the Stars, which has for a recurring theme the ways in which the death of the writer is neither the death of the author nor the death of the story.

I feel petty to notice it, but there is grammatical tic that recurs through all the volumes of Terra Ignota: the use of nominative pronouns where objective ones are called for in subordinate formulae at the tail end of sentences, like: “Who knew that such things could happen to we who had accomplished so much?” As I saw this oddness repeat, I grew to wonder whether it was Palmer or Canner who was to blame, and if the latter, what it could portend. It certainly seems wrong that the academically-accomplished writer of these books should have included such nonstandard English as mere error.

The scale and complexity of these books are impressive. They are still new, and I think that they will have staying power to gain in popularity and acclaim, like the Book of the New Sun and Herbert’s Dune books. Attempts at scholarly criticism and substantial intellectual response began already after the release of the second book Seven Surrenders. I was not surprised to find out that there is a fan wiki to attempt to trace the sometimes bewildering details of character, place, and plot, but disappointed to discover that it is still sparsely populated.

I would advise prospective readers of Terra Ignota to view the four books as a single work and avoid setting it aside between volumes–perhaps especially between the third and fourth books where there was in fact a delay in publication. Do not skip past the fanciful-seeming publication conditions and dramatis personae front matter in each book. These supply important (p)reviews of the social structures, factions, stakes, and characters. If you’ve never read Homer, or if it’s just been decades, consider reading an encyclopedia article for an overview of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Ditto for Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan, and perhaps Voltaire and Diderot to boot.

Dark Company

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark Company: The Ten Greatest Ghost Stories [Amazon, Abebooks, Author, Local Library] ed and introduction by Lincoln Child, with stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Henry James, M R James, W W Jacobs, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, William Hope Hodgson, and H P Lovecraft.

Child Dark Company

I picked up this collection from the local public library in order to read Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night.” Since I had already read half of the contents under other covers, I decided to go ahead and finish the remaining ones. Dark Company is a sort of “best of the best” anthology. Although the subtitle boasts “Greatest Ghost Stories,” the selection really ranges across supernatural horror, regardless of ghosts

Editor Lincoln Child identifies probably the ten most lauded American and English authors of the genre from the 19th through the early 20th century, and then offers a “best” story from each. Many of these are obvious: Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” Machen’s “Great God Pan,” and Blackwood’s “The Willows,” for example. The stories are arranged in some sort of chronological sequence. In each case, Child gives the birth and death dates of the author, but he omits the (to me) more relevant and interesting date of the first publication of the story in question. A one-paragraph introduction to each story characterizes the author and gestures at situating the story in his oeuvre. 

The Hodgson is a remarkably brief and effective piece, notable for the naturalism of its horror, along with a certain shocking perversity of the outcome. After that, I was most interested to read “The Green Tea” by Sheridan Le Fanu and “The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions, two esteemed authors that I hadn’t yet read. In the case of the former, my cinematically-educated mind couldn’t help but picture the protagonist Dr. Hesselius as Peter Cushing, with Christopher Lee as the Rev. Mr. Jennings. The Onions story starts off in a somewhat Machen-like mode, but the final result is comparable to the blackest work of H. Russell Wakefield (an author who could easily have been the eleventh of this company).

The Lovecraft selection that concludes the book is “The Shadow Out of Time,” a perfectly representative piece to exhibit some of the features that make HPL distinctive, but not often held up as his best. In this case, Child’s introduction to the book and his preamble to the story both exhibit a Derlethian emphasis on the “Cthulhu Mythos” as a carefully-programmed system — a forgivable critical error in 1984, I suppose.

As a library book giving access to the canon of supernatural horror, Dark Company fulfills its task quite economically, in contrast to the short-fiction omnibi that now seem to be the vogue. It is possible to create a satisfying volume out of just ten stories, rather than fifty!

The Will to Battle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Will to Battle [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 3 of the Terra Ingota series.

Palmer The Will to Battle

There was less discontinuity between the second and third volumes of Terra Ignota than I had expected. Narrator Mycroft Canner’s exposition is less polished, more raw (and unreliable) for reasons that become evident near the end of The Will to Battle. The book’s title references a quote from Hobbes’ Leviathan XIII which is supplied as an epigram, observing that war is in effect when that will exists, not merely when it is expressed through actual combat. As the previous volumes established that this one would be, it is concerned with the re-invention of war after multiple human generations of global peace.

There’s a blurb from Cory Doctorow on the cover of The Will to Battle that touts the plausibility of Too Like the Lightning, which I would not really number among Terra Ignota’s virtues. But I would agree with his other adjectives: “intricate” and “significant.” You can tell Palmer is a professional historian, because her 25th-century future doesn’t start today: it starts in antiquity, and the characters think about the 18th century far more often than they do the 20th or 21st.

In this third book, Palmer’s references to literature and history are as manifold as ever, but Leviathan and Homer’s Illiad stand out for the extent to which they are presumed and explicitly referenced by the text. Each contributes an actual character into the mix. Palmer’s Achilles Mojave is (in some still mysterious but actual sense) the ancient Achaean, and a spectral Thomas Hobbes joins “the reader” in the frame conversation with Mycroft that occasionally obtrudes on the narrative.

This chronicle–more “secret” than the one of the prior books–affords some more empirical precision regarding not only the dates of the events chronicled, but the dates at which Canner is supposed to have written about them, along with the composition of the first two books. (Curiously, The Will to Battle begins punctually on the 550th anniversary of the reception of Liber Legis.) Palmer pulls a breathtaking stunt with narrative voice at the beginning of the final chapter that I can’t help but remark yet refuse to spoil.

Because of its complexity and hectic pace, I think too long a hiatus between volumes can pose a problem for readers of Terra Ignota. I was honestly a little worried after just a few weeks when I came back to The Will to Battle. But I was happily impressed by the “Seven-Ten List for Our Changing World” in the front matter as an excellent refresher on characters and plot as they had been left at the end of Seven Surrenders. I will charge on to Perhaps the Stars before the month is over.

An Oath to Mida

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews An Oath to Mida [Amazon, Local Library] by Sharon Green, book 2 in the Jalav/Amazon Warrior series.

Green An Oath to Mida

I read this a couple of months ago, and held off on reviewing it — because, honestly, I’m embarrassed to have read the whole thing. I was looking for something trashy, but this was really awful. The story is told from the perspective of the amazon savage “war leader” Jalav, in a constructed idiom (and rather unconventional English syntax) to emphasize her alienation from the relatively medieval society in which she is sojourning. Her language alienated me too. Although she learned to read in the course of this novel, Jalav still called chairs, tables, and beds “platforms,” and lanterns were “boxes with lights in them.” Men and women were always and only “males” and “females.” The words ‘day’ and ‘night’ were eliminated, to be replaced with “feyd” and “darkness.” 

The plot is terribly slow, and Jalav is a captive for most of the book. She gets raped and beaten many times, and the “oath” of the title is her coerced swearing by her goddess Mida that she will obey a certain man, who subsequently domesticates her and passes her around to his pals. There’s plenty of psychological and cultural justification for the sequence of events. Then, at the end, the pace picks up considerably, culminating in Jalav’s ultimate rape by a demon-god, with the apparent connivance of Mida. 

It seems that this book (the second in a series of five) is intended to establish a set of affections and enmities that will motivate the remainder of a saga. But, ugh.

The Bridge of Lost Desire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Bridge of Lost Desire [Amazon, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany The Bridge of Lost Desire

I have now completed my read of Samuel R. Delany’s Nevèrÿon series in their first mass market paperback editions, which fostered an illusion for a couple of years that they were a “fantasy trilogy” in the publishing straight-jacket of the day. The fourth and actually final book was The Bridge of Lost Desire–later re-titled Return to Nevèrÿon, which is also a name for the whole series. Like the previous volume Flight from Nevèrÿon, it is structured as three stories and a pseudo-scholarly appendix, but without the fictional/factual ambivalence of the third story in Flight.

The first and longest story is “The Game of Time and Pain,” and among other things it sets forth a sort of supplementary origin tale for the series’ axial character Gorgik the Liberator, whose early years were charted in the very first story of the whole series. Once himself a slave, Gorgik is now an accomplished minister of state who has attained his goal of the abolition of slavery, and most of this story is taken up with his reminiscences of his time as a slave in early adulthood, juxtaposed with his disorientation at returning to the scene of that slavery.

The second story “The Game of Rumor and Desire” is also structured around biographical reflection, although not in the voice of its central character. Despite a few references to people and places introduced earlier in the series, the immediate tale is concerned with an inconsequential and unsympathetic ruffian who has appeared nowhere else in the texts. The title is accurate, and the novella-length piece gives attention to the development of sexual fetishes and the navigation of affectional currents.

The final story of the entire decade-long Return to Nevèrÿon authorial project is the first story. It actually reprints in its unaltered entirety “The Tale of Gorgik” from the first volume Tales of Nevèrÿon. This fourth book would have been long enough without these sixty-two pages, so they are not mere “padding.” Reading the first story again at the end supplies an assurance that the concerns and motifs of the larger series were present in it from its start, as passages take on an altered luster in light of the subsequent tales. Gorgik is described with many details that seem cribbed from Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but at the last Delany is careful to point out that Gorgik is “a civilized man.”

The appendix carries the fictional byline of scholar Leslie K. Steiner, and allows Delany to confess his authorial sources and intentions and to play with readings of his own texts in the form of friendly criticism from an imagined third party. A preliminary author’s note in this volume suggests that for those “interested in the series as such” this appendix might be read at the beginning, and also expresses an intention for it to be set as a preface to the entire series. (I suppose it was in the later reissue.)

The period in which these books were written concludes during my own time as a college undergraduate, and their themes, theoretical preoccupations, and even textual allusions are largely ones that I first considered then. The nostalgic sense of “return” involved with heroic fantasy generally (“endlessly repeated pornographies of action and passion that, for all their violences, still manage to pander to an astonishingly untroubled acceptance of the personal and political status quo,” 305) was thus doubly effective for me. As “Steiner” admonishes in the words of Ernst Bloch, “You can never go home, only go home again” (307).

A Coney Island of the Mind

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Coney Island of the Mind [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Ferlinghetti A Coney Island of the Mind

This 1950s poetry collection is the most famous writing by Ferlinghetti, who was also lauded as an activist, publisher, bookseller, and painter. It has three principal sections: the title piece, “Oral Messages,” and poems from “Pictures of the Gone World.”

The title of the book and its first section was taken “out of context” from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life. Ferlinghetti said that it was to describe the carnivalesque aspect of his own subjective experience in composing the poems. But a different and credible reading is to see the US society that the poet engages in his verse as a mental amusement park: corralling minds into circuitous rides that exhilarate, games that impoverish, and technology that dazzles and mystifies. Still, the weight of these poems often rests not in social criticism but in aesthetic contemplation, libidinal impulse, epistemic anxiety, and similar dilemmas.

The second section of the book is “Oral Messages,” seven longer poems composed for recitation with “jazz accompaniment” (48), and to incorporate experimentation and spontaneity. Although this mode is a paragon of Beat Generation performance, and Ferlinghetti did publish prominent Beat authors, he rejected the “Beat” label for his own work. My favorite of these poems is “Junkman’s Obbligato,” which urges downward economic mobility in order to champion life and freedom. But a close second is the diffident brag of “Autobiography” (“I am the man. / I was there. / I suffered / somewhat.”) succumbing irregularly to atypical end rhyme.

The final thirteen poems are selected from a volume “Pictures of the Gone World” that Ferlinghetti had written just three years previously. These are similar to some of those in the first section (briefer, and like them individually numbered rather than titled), and they tend toward a narrower and more intimate sensibility–even though the eleventh has the great wide scope of the world as the place for life and death.

Ferlinghetti offers some unflinching anti-Christian blasphemy in the fifth “Coney Island” poem (15-6), but the “Oral Messages” seem to exhibit sincere apocalyptic anticipation (“I Am Waiting”) and a hope of obscure divine palingenesis (“Christ Climbed Down”).

Despite Ferlinghetti’s use of popular culture and accessible idiom, his texts are still in dialog with the canons of elite art and literature. The first poem of the book orients to the painting of Goya to reflect on “maimed citizens in painted cars” (10), and the second one alludes to Homer’s Odyssey to indict “American demi-Democracy” (12). Later verses cite Hieronymus Bosch, Morris Graves, Franz Kafka, Dante, Chagall, Proust, and others. The poet fulminates against the enclosure of culture by experts and institutions in poem 9 of “Pictures of the Gone World,” but he had an M.A. in English literature and a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and the consequences of this training are everywhere visible in his poems.

Twenty-first century readers may occasionally struggle with a dated allusion or two in these pages (nothing too arcane for a ‘net search to remedy, though). Ironically, it is the “popular” and contemporary references from the 1950s that are more likely to have passed into obscurity. On the whole, the verses have aged well and still have a sense of immediacy sixty-four years later.

City of the Beast or Warriors of Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews City of the Beast or Warriors of Mars [Amazon (1971), Amazon (2007), Publisher, Local Library] by Michael Moorcock, originally published as by Edward P Bradbury, introduction by Kim Mohan.

Moorcock City of the Beast 1971

Moorcock Bradbury Mohan City of the Beast Warriors of Mars

Well, I can’t say I agree with Michael Moorcock’s dad that the Kane of Old Mars stuff is the author’s best work. Although it’s consciously patterned on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, the pacing of City of the Beast actually made it read a little bit more like Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race. (If you haven’t read Bulwer-Lytton, it might help to picture Burroughs as the stylistic midpoint between Bulwer-Lytton and Robert E. Howard.) In contrast with both of those earlier authors, though, there was nothing surprising in this novel at all. It almost seemed as if the plot “twists” were executed ironically, since they were foreshadowed so obviously. 

I mean, I’m always game for a bit of mostly-naked sword-and-planet, and this was efficiently written. It didn’t take a lot of my time to tear through it, and it gave me some pleasant things to imagine. But it certainly pales beside the original Barsoom of Burroughs, or (better yet) the Barsoom-inspired Mars of Leigh Brackett. Formulaic as it might be, it is a formula I enjoy, so I won’t balk at the subsequent volumes. But I don’t expect brilliance there, if the first is any evidence.