Tag Archives: Fantasy fiction

The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Adventures of Jules de Grandin [Amazon, Local Library] by Seabury Quinn, introduction by Lin Carter. (See instead: The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin series.)

Quinn Carter The Adventures of Jules de Grandin

This first volume of the 1970s paperback series reprints seven out of the ninety-three Jules de Grandin stories by Seabury Quinn, including several of the earliest. These began in the 1920s and quickly became a staple of Weird Tales, where they appeared nearly every other month. They were not a serial, however. There is no overarching plot nor development over time of the central characters, who are stock types of an occult investigator and his medical doctor amanuensis. In general, the stories rely on broadly-drawn characters and stereotypes in order to maintain a high tempo and to create a quotidian background for shocking crimes and supernatural menaces.

The sleuth de Grandin himself is an amusingly exaggerated, sword-cane-wielding, mustachioed, gallic scientist of diminutive stature. Most of his adventures take place in the hometown of his host and colleague Doctor Trowbridge, Harrisonville, New Jersey. Being a European in America allows de Grandin to make amusing asides castigating Prohibition, religious bigotry, and other forms of American provincialism. “Today your American courts convict high school-teachers for heresy far less grave than that charged against our Jeanne [d’Arc]. We may yet see the bones of your so estimable Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin exhumed from their graves and publicly burned by your heretic-baiters of this today” (53, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!).

The narrator Trowbridge maintains a naïve skepticism in the face of exotic events that grows less believable with each passing tale. One of the strengths of the stories is their use of menaces drawn from folk traditions and popular culture (vampires and werewolves, for instance) while allowing that the common lore may be inaccurate in its details. Thus the reader can see where de Grandin’s hypotheses are leading him–while Trowbridge refuses even to consider such fanciful notions–but the tension of the unknown is maintained, along with a sense of the “scientific.”

In those points where de Grandin explains or employs occultism as such, the details tend to be fairly flawed. For example, Trowbridge describes a hexagram (and the book even supplies a diagram) but de Grandin calls it a “pentagram” (182). In another adventure, de Grandin calls elemental spirits “Neutrarians,” a term I hadn’t previously encountered, but which appears to have been coined by Elliot O’Donnell in his Twenty Years Experiences as a Ghost Hunter.

These stories are not great works of literature, and it doesn’t seem that anyone has ever mistaken them for such. They are pulp paragons, and one of their attractions is their great variety, from the piracy-and-cannibalism yarn of “The Isle of Missing Ships” to the parapsychological crime mystery of “The Dead Hand.” Quinn’s de Grandin stories frequently served as the basis for the cover illustrations of the numbers of Weird Tales in which they appeared. Even reading them in this mass market paperback reprint, it is easy to spot the moments in the stories that would be chosen for this honor. They usually featured a naked woman in peril. “The Tenants of Broussac” (scene on page 67) and “The Man Who Cast No Shadow” (153-4) are the two stories in this collection that were realized as cover art in their magazine appearances, and it is easy to note Quinn offering similarly “graphic” climaxes in every tale.

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).

The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 9

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus review The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories: 9 [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Arthur W Saha.

Saha The Year's Best Fantasy Stories 9

I bought this collection for the Lafferty story “Square and Above Board,” which happily turns out to have a prominent chess element. In 1983 Arthur Saha was in the process of taking the Year’s Best Fantasy series over from its founding editor Lin Carter, and in his introduction he claims that the selection in this volume is on the whole “upbeat.” I suppose I agree. About half of the stories are from periodicals (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Twilight Zone Magazine), while the others are culled from anthology books. 

The topical diversity of the collection as a whole is shown in my catalog keyword tagging: death, fairy, high fantasy, metafiction, nautical, satan, weird fiction. I had not previously read anything by Tanith Lee, and her story “Mirage and Magia” is very Dunsanian. Michael Shea’s “The Horror on the #33” speculates on the pleasures of drunken vagrancy and reinvents the angel of death. The longest story is “Another Orphan,” a peculiar fantasia on Moby Dick, which turned out to be surprisingly satisfying. The fact that three stories (“Other,” “Lest Levitation Come Upon Us,” and “Djinn, No Chaser”) have housewife protagonists is a little surprising in this sort of genre collection, and none of them measure up to Robert Irwin’s Limits of Vision. Still, they were each worth the read, even if the punnishingly-titled last of them (by Harlan Ellison) is rather cornball.

The dude don’t see himself as a bad man. Way he sees it, he’s an angel for hire. He can gather in lost lambs from the four corners and kiss away their tears, or he can shake a flaming sword. Up to his employers. Saint Michael don’t question why when the Big Dog says git. Ole Mike, he just ties up his war-bag, thumps his golden road, eats his beans out of the tin, and when he sees his mark, he gets to it no fuss. That’s the dude in a nut.

Catherynne M Valente, Six-Gun Snow White [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Valente Six-Gun Snow White dude bad man angel for hire-