Tag Archives: fantasy

The Beyond

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Beyond [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford, book 3 of The Well-Built-City Trilogy.

Ford the Beyond

“The Beyond exists on many planes and in many times,” says the plant-man (“foliate”) Vasthasha, speaking of the wilderness that exists beyond the realm and civilization, and sometimes, it seems, out of reality altogether. So too does The Beyond.

The third volume of Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy sends his protagonist Cley in a final bid for redemption into the Beyond. This vector is complemented by that of the demon Misrix, a native of the Beyond, who discovers and pursues his aspiration to become civilized, human, and humane. I’m floored by the profound wonderfulness of this adult fantasy saga, which doesn’t even seem to notice that it has discarded all of the threadbare conventions of its genre. Ford combines straightforward prose and a storyteller’s pacing with exotically proliferating images and ideas. The result is truly engaging fiction with characters and situations that encode true dilemmas of the human experience.

The Ravening Deep

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ravening Deep [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tim Pratt, cover by John Coulthart, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Pratt Coulthart the Ravening Deep

The Ravening Deep is Tim Pratt’s first contribution to the Arkham Horror novels franchise, but he has written short-form Yog-Sothothery before, among which I have read and enjoyed the 2008 “Dude Who Collected Lovecraft,” co-authored with Nick Mamatas and reprinted in Paula Guran’s New Cthulhu anthology. Pratt is evidently not a New Englander, as he mentions the “coast of Vermont” in passing (229).

The story features a team of protagonists, with the most central of them being Diana Stanley, who has been established in the game milieu as “the redeemed cultist.” This book affords an alternate account of Diana’s time in the Silver Twilight Lodge, previously treated in the Arkham Horror novel Feeders from Within. On a couple of occasions, another character refers to Diana with the name “Stanfield” (e.g. 282), which seems to be just sloppy or nonexistent proofreading.

Regular readers of Cthulhvian fiction might assume from the title and the seafaring character Abel Davenport that this novel has something to do with the Deep Ones, such as those associated with Innsmouth, but these are very peripheral to the story, and actually opposed to the chief menace indicated in the book’s title. The title refers to “the Ravening Deep, The Hungry Star, That Which Divided Multiplies, and the Infinite Maw, among other appellations” (208). The cult around this being has an excellent frisson of inhumanity and paranoia, like that of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers or “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

There is a significant role for the Silver Twilight Lodge of Arkham and its leader Carl Sanford. He has appeared as a villain of greater or lesser remoteness in other Arkham Horror fiction, but in this book he is more ambiguous. Diana certainly sees him as a menace, but he does forgive her insubordination, and he collaborates with her and the other heroes for at least part of the story. I enjoyed the level of detail given to goings-on in the lodge here, along with the appearance of the Lodge Guardian Sarah Van Shaw, a character who featured as one of my favorite cards in Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game.

Another character who becomes part of Diana’s team is the thief Ruby Standish. She appeared in the old Arkham Horror board game (second edition) and Elder Sign, but not yet in more recent Arkham Files games.

The pacing of the book is fast, all twenty-three chapters of which took me only a few days to read. There is plenty of fan gratification for players of the Arkham Files games, along with a well-contained adventure of occult menace in Lovecraft country. It’s not a sophisticated literary work, but it is the sort of perfectly palatable genre fodder that the Arkham Horror imprint should lead readers to expect.

“A gun?” Edward asked with skepticism in his voice. “We have Vincent and Emma watching the camp.” “Eddy,” Michael’s tone turned serious, “we are out here because somebody we know shit about is trying to kill you, and you and the nice magic old lady that just disappeared into the dark woods made me promise not to bring the HPD into this. I think it’s time you took a little more interest in preventing your own fucking death. That sound about right, little buddy?”

J Kelley Anderson, Casting Shadows [Amazon, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Anderson Casting Shadows time you tool a little more interest in preventing your own fucking death

Crown of Shadows

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, & al., introduction by Brian K Vaughan book 3 of the Locke & Key series.

Hill Rodriguez Locke and Key The Crown of Shadows

As I read through the Locke & Key volumes in sequence, this is the best one yet. My only complaint is that it was so seamless and efficient that it read too fast! (In particular, the solid eleven pages of full-page panels in chapter five is likely to have reduced the time needed to read the book, but wow!) Still, it’s so well-done that I’m sure I’ll read it again. This series will obviously need an integral re-read once I’ve reached its end.

The characters who see the most fresh development in this arc are Jamal and Scot. There are a variety of imaginative magicks introduced: the Shadow Key doesn’t dominate this part the way that the Head Key did the previous one. Brian Vaughan’s foreword chides readers like me for only getting to these comics once they’ve been collected in “trade” format, but I don’t regret the approach; these IDW books are gorgeous.

Lair of the Crystal Fang

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lair of the Crystal Fang [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by S A Sidor, cover by Daniel Strange, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Sidor Lair of the Crystal Fang

Within the larger franchise of Arkham Horror fiction, S. A. Sidor’s novels have established their own serial continuity, starting with The Last Ritual and developing in Cult of the Spider Queen. Daniel Strange’s cover art of this third installment Lair of the Crystal Fang shows three characters from the second book: Maude Brion, Jake Williams, and Andy Van Nortwick. These three are reunited in this tale, but they are not its only heroes. Returning the setting to Arkham allows Sidor to bring in a surfeit of other “investigators” from the Arkham Horror games. Urchin Wendy Adams, mayor Charlie Kane, and psychologist Carolyn Fern are also central to the story, and reporter Rex Murphy and researcher Mandy Thompson have important roles. Sidor seems to have realized that each such character appearing is a selling point in a piece of literature like this one.

A more general concept that this novel seems to have carried over from the Arkham Horror card game is the basic emphasis on trauma. Jake’s physical trauma from the South American adventure of the previous book includes what would be a Weakness card in the game: Leg Injury. Maude is definitely suffering from mental trauma.

Stylistically, this volume was a bit inferior to its predecessors. “Unpindownable” (50) would be all right in contemporary 21st-century humor, but it’s a clinker in pulp era horror. I was similarly put off by “torpefy” (131) and several other word choices and phrasings in the course of the book. As before, Sidor managed to strike a mid-point between weird horror and pulp action that is consistent with the mood of the games (as contrasted with Yog-Sothothery more generally).

The Lair of the Crystal Fang plot centers on the Arkham sewers, and it features a serial killer, witches, and gangsters. It moves along at a brisk pace with short chapters and frequent changes of focus. I wasn’t blown away by anything here, but it was an adequate addition to this now-sprawling set of game-based horror books.

The Place of the Lion

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Place of the Lion [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Williams.

Williams The Place of the Lion

This novel is certainly the least accessible of Charles Williams’ novels I’ve read so far. Principal characters discuss matters like Neoplatonism and angelology in ways that I understood, but would likely mystify the general reader. There is also a little plot sloppiness: for example, trains become inoperable, and then a character takes a train on the allegedly impassable line, with no explanation of how it was restored. The conclusion lacks plot closure in some important respects, with the cause of the book’s central crisis never really explained, despite the exposition of how it becomes mystically resolved.

The central concern of The Place of the Lion is a class of theriomorphic “Celestials” that answer to the denotations of Christian archangels, Platonic ideas, Gnostic archons, and so forth. These are somehow unleashed on the countryside by a minor theosophical organizer named Berringer, and they proceed to sow terror and ecstasy among the locals. The first two Celestials to emerge are the Lion and the Serpent, as manifestations of archetypal Strength and Subtlety. 

Although the characters overtly reference Plato and Abelard, the theology central to the book’s plot is very much that of Pseudo-Dionysius, with the protagonist Anthony Durrant prosecuting cataphatic mysticism, while his complementary character Richardson is engaged in a severely apophatic aspiration. Gnostic elements are also conspicuous; the philosophy graduate student Damaris Tighe takes the role of the inferior Sophia in a redemptive process that also makes Anthony Durrant into a possessor of the Holy Gnosis. 

A friend recently pointed out the class-constrained character of Williams’ diction (which he finds off-putting), and I did notice that this novel was not only fully as class-conscious as the other Williams I’ve read, but that the omniscient third-person narrator seems to assume and validate class prejudices more often than overturn them.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book, but I found it to be the weakest of the author’s books I have yet read.

Secrets in Scarlet

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Anthology [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] ed Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, with David Annandale, Davide Mana, Jason Fischer, Carrie Harris, Steven Philip Jones, Lisa Smedman, James Fadeley, M J Newman, and Josh Reynolds, cover by Daniel Strange.

Llewelyn-Wells Secrets in Scarlet

Secrets in Scarlet is the second volume of new short stories edited by Charlotte Llewelleyn-Wells and set in the Arkham Horror game milieu. Just as the previous book was oriented around the “Night of the Zealot” campaign in the core set of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, this one consists of background tales that flesh out the setting and antecedent plots of the recently-released Scarlet Keys Campaign Expansion. The campaign is built upon a cosmopolitan cast of conspirators whose lore goes back to Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game or even earlier. Known collectively as the Congress of the Keys, or the Red Coterie, these include the Red-Gloved Man, the Claret Knight, Amaranth, The Sanguine Watcher, and others. At least one of these characters features in each of the stories. There are also other incidental characters from the game, such as Li Flint and Ece Sahin.

Arkham Horror player-character investigators only appear in a few of the tales. Reporter Rex Murphy has a nautical fright in Lisa Smedman’s “Strange Things Done.” Stephen Philip Jones has written about security consultant Kymani Jones investigating a theft in “A Forty Grain Weight of Nephrite.” “The Red and the Black” by Josh Reynolds concerns the spy Trish Scarborough. The immediate events of the narratives all take place in the 1920s interwar period in which the games are set.

Seven of the nine stories are the elaborated forms of seven of the nine rumors in the bulleted list on page 10 of the Campaign Guide from The Scarlet Keys, with settings of Shanghai, Havana, Buenos Aires, Anchorage, Istanbul, and Marrakesh. There are no stories for the Nairobi and Kathmandu entries on that list, however. Instead, the first tale in the book is set in Manhattan, and the the final one is in Venice. These highlight the campaign’s explicit (though optional) inclusion of separately-distributed scenario packs, alluding to The War of the Outer Gods and Carnevale of Horrors respectively.

The literary quality of the stories is variable. Of special note is the contribution by M. J. Newman, who had a long tenure as the lead designer on the card game. As far as I know, the story “Crossing Stars” is Newman’s first published Arkham Horror fiction that is not embedded in game rules. I wasn’t impressed with the often affected diction here, e.g. “a sorcerer, able to manipulate the very winds of change with but a thought and the implementation of various esoteric componentry” (287). But the story made up for it with an interesting plot well connected to the central theme of the collection. I thought the best writing of the book was in the pieces by Smedman and Reynolds, but they all held my interest.

I am currently playing through The Scarlet Keys campaign in the card game, and I would definitely recommend this book of related stories to anyone in a similar position. Even for those with no involvement in Cthulhvian gaming, the suite of stories set against the background of a global conspiracy of alien sorcery and lost technology is enjoyable. At its best moments, it reminded me a little of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier books.

The Physiognomy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Physiognomy [Amazon, Bookshop, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford, book 1 of the The Well-Built City Trilogy.

Ford The Physiognomy

The Physiognomy is a book about terrible violence: physical, emotional, and social; and yet the whole mood is dreamy and vaporous, with many moments of real cheer. The protagonist Cley is a Physiognomist First Class — a ranking agent of the totalitarian Well-Built City — and the novel is the story of his gradual redemption from his own vicious participation in a society of exploitation and control.

The closest comparison I could make to characterize the setting of this book would be to the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil. It is a fantasy, in a world that differs from ours cosmetically, but includes 19th- and 20th-century levels of gadgetry as well as decidedly modern forms of social organization. Features include clockwork zombies, exotic drugs, and the oppressive canon of stigmatization that is the physiognomy itself. Cley serves as the narrator, and he is often uncertain about the boundaries between his dreams, his drug-addled hallucinations, and the possibly supernatural events that overtake him. And yet for all that, and the anguish involved in the story, the prose style is remarkably limpid.

The NYT review characterized this book as an allegory, and it could easily be read as one. The names are all numinous and provocative: Cley himself is mortal and malleable “clay,” as well as the “key” (clef) to the story. Still, the story holds up as a fantasy adventure in its own right, and it doesn’t stagger under any didactic burden. In this case (contrast Lewis’ Narnia, for example) the allegorical dimension enriches the narrative rather than deflating it.

Although The Physiognomy is the first volume of a trilogy, it definitely stands as a complete work on its own. I would caution readers against the “Introduction to the New Edition” set at the beginning of the Golden Gryphon reissue: it is mostly the author’s retrospective on his writing process, and would be better read after the novel, rather than before.

The Shadow Kingdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Kull, Volume 1: The Shadow Kingdom [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Arvid Nelson, Will Conrad, José Villarrubia, & al, foreword Mark Finn.

Nelson Conrad Villarrubia Howard Kull of Atlantis The Shadow Kingdom

Arvid Nelson returns to the original Robert E. Howard stories to build a 21st-century Kull comic that far outshines its 1970s Marvel predecessor. Certainly, Will Conrad’s art benefits from the improvements in comics production: full-process color and finer printing throughout, with compositions planned for glossy white pages instead of newsprint. But writer Nelson does an altogether better job of adapting the seminal REH piece “The Shadow Kingdom.” A few examples: Nelson adds an artful scene in the Room of Kings in the Tower of Splendor, both to provide background for the later appearance of King Eallal’s ghost, and to serve as a setting to articulate the “Kull … the fool!” mutterings which are here ambiguously attributable to Kull’s animated conscience (as in the REH original) or to lurking serpent priests. Also, where the Marvel writers chose to interpret the REH statement that Kull “had never known … the love of women” by simply avoiding any attention to Kull’s sexual consciousness, Nelson chooses the more sophisticated approach of representing the king in a frosty political marriage. Finally, this newer version returns to Kull’s companion Brule a critical pronouncement during the climactic confrontation with a mass of monsters disguised as the king’s councilors.

The distinctive facial scar that characterized the Marvel Kull is abandoned here, but several panels show Kull’s massively scarred back — no doubt a legacy of his widely-rumored time as a galley slave. The Pict warrior Brule really looks fierce in these comics, while he often looked somewhat silly in the old Marvel numbers. Likewise, Conrad captures the joviality of the Pictish ambassador Ka-nu much better than the Severins ever did. The Serpent Men are altogether more inhuman and menacing, and Valusia itself seems more monumental and ancient than it did in the rather medieval Marvel vision. There is plenty of gore, in keeping with the spirit of the REH original, and an appropriately dark tone pervades the stories. 

The new version of “The Shadow Kingdom” forms the central bulk of this volume, complemented by a warm-up “The Iron Fortress” and the epilogue “The Eye of Terror.” My only complaint about the adaptation was that the very last panel of “The Shadow Kingdom” proper (less than an eighth of the page at the lower right) was a mildly humorous undercutting of the heavy finish of this somber tale. Even so, it did “work” narratively in the larger plot frame that Nelson had constructed in order to expand on Howard’s original.

REH scholar Mark Finn provides a foreword here, as he does for the Dark Horse reprint of the early Marvel Kull stories. But where he focuses on the comics in the Marvel case, this essay is really trained on Howard and the genesis of the Kull character. Likewise, a concluding essay by Nelson reflects on the character and his relationship to the better-known and more “successful” Conan, explaining distinctions between them and his preference for the former.