Tag Archives: review

A Princess of Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter: A Princess of Mars [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library]  by Roger Langridge, Filipe Andrade, &al.

Langridge Andrade John Carter a Princess of Mars

This book collects the Marvel Comics title (issues 1-5) released to capitalize on the Disney John Carter film. It is more an adaptation of the original Burroughs story, although the final issue includes an epilogue that draws on the frame story established in the film. 

The writing is reasonably capable, although I was a little put off by the implicit comparisons of Than Kosis to Saddam Hussein. Carter refers to deposing him as “regime change,” and there is a panel of the Zodangan people pulling down the statue of Than Kosis with his right arm outstretched just like this.

The art by Filipe Andrade was deeply unsatisfying to me. As in the Disney movie, Dejah Thoris wears entirely too much clothing. All of the human and Red Martian physiques are impressionistically ropy, and the faces are distorted in stylized ways that make them look as alien as the Tharks. 

Overall, I found this version inferior to the bulk of the current Barsoom comics from Dynamite.

ETA: The “John Carter (TM)” super-title creates the odd effect of suggesting that Captain Carter is himself “a princess of Mars”!

Mysterious and Horrific Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mysterious and Horrific Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Le Fanu Mysterious and Horrific Stories

This book collects more than a dozen stories by the 19th-century Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. None of the individual stories are published here for the first time, and I suspect that most or even all of them are available for free online. The apparatus of this edition is limited to a table of contents, an appended single-paragraph “Note About the Author” and a similarly short self-promotional “Note from the Publisher.” Just two of the stories have leading editorial notes (227, 255) with a modicum of bibliographic information, but these notes are unsigned and the collection credits no editor. Publisher Mint Editions instead credits a “Project Manager.” The book is a glue-bound hardcover, comfortable in the hand, not ugly, fabricated through a print-on-demand process. I certainly found it more pleasant to read than I would have to scroll through the stories on a screen.

The stories are good. More than half of them are set in Ireland, and nearly all of them involve the supernatural. Although the note to “Stories of Lough Guir” says, “It differs from the other stories in this volume in being apparently a record of stories actually told to Le Fanu and not invented by him” (255), many of the other stories have a very strong aroma of the folkloric, especially the ones about menacing fairies and those ghost stories that lack a moralizing agenda. Even the many vivid Gothic fictional tropes concerning old houses and cursed families are typically hedged about with documentary conceits, including imputed sources and variant tellings.

Le Fanu’s strong influence on writers like Bram Stoker and M. R. James makes many of his techniques seem familiar to readers of older horror fiction, but he was doing this work earlier and every bit as well. This collection does not include the tales for which he is most famous, but they are a solid assortment nonetheless.

The Unholy Bible

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Unholy Bible: Blake, Jung, and the Collective Unconscious [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by June Singer, introduction by M Esther Harding; re-issued as Blake, Jung, and the Collective Unconscious: The Conflict Between Reason and Imagination [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library], part of the Jung on the Hudson Books series. (Amusingly, I have both versions at the Reading Room, each purchased separately, at different times, thinking they were different books. Obviously, the topic sustains its appeal to me!)

June Singer M Esther Harding The Unholy Bible from Sigo Press

June Singer M Esther Harding Blake, Jung and the Collective Unconscious from Nicolas-Hays

Singer’s “Psychological Interpretation of William Blake” is for the most part a Jungian sermon that takes Blake’s prophetic works as its scripture. Sometimes she just rambles off into outright theologizing in that distinctive Jungian fashion. Nor does she avoid the scientism and occasional outright materialistic philosophy to which the Jungian discourse is prone. At times, Singer’s chief concern seems to be whether or not Blake was a good Jungian. But even so, The Unholy Bible is a fairly diligent and perceptive study of Blake’s mature work.

Following a quick but useful biographical preliminary, the largest section of the book is Singer’s analysis of The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, which is quite thorough. Her attention to the symbolic value of the pictorial elements of the plates is especially welcome. She traces some principal themes in the Proverbs of Hell, and offers careful consideration of the Memorable Fancies. 

The book could have used more proofreading. The erroneous transcriptions from Blake’s plates are particularly galling. (See 137, 142, e.g.) And here’s an author’s blunder: She reverses the symbolic attribution of the sheep and the goats relative to Blake’s context! (141)

The later sections of the book treat Blake’s prophecies which are the “unholy Bible.” These are viewed from a wider angle than The Marriage, and with some success. 

The final two chapters seemed relatively disposable to me. “Sources of Creative Activity” hagiographizes Jung and defends Blake against charges of insanity and mysticism — the latter subject to an evidently narrow, yet largely implicit definition. The two pages of “The Symbol” extol “the slender filament which reaches from our world to the Infinite” (247), if you care for that sort of thing. 

For diehard Jungians, there’s probably no better book on Blake. For general readers unfamiliar with Blake’s work, this might not be an optimal introduction, because of its tendency to confuse interpretations of Blake’s writing with assertions of Jungian doctrine. But I did enjoy reading it, and I learned some things along the way.

Head Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Locke & Key: Head Games [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, & al., introduction by Warren Ellis, book 2 of the Locke & Key series.

Hill Rodriguez Locke and Key Head Games

Not as violent, but every bit as creepy as its predecessor, this second collected volume of the Locke & Key comics expands the range of magics in play, concentrating particularly on the powers of the Head Key. It also exposes more of the events among the prior generation in the Massachusetts town of Lovecraft that served to set up the present scenario. Existing characters become more complex, and there are some new characters that I liked a lot, like the drama teacher Mr. Ridgeway.

As before, Rodriguez’s art is gorgeous, with a style that is impressively well adapted to the material.

Warren Ellis was a surprising choice for the introduction, which he keeps short and hilarious. There is substantial end matter, including some reference material on the magic keys, reproductions of the individual issue cover art, and a disenchanting account of the art development process used by Rodriguez.

The Gods of Xuma

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gods of Xuma, or Barsoom Revisited [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by David J Lake.

Lake The Gods of Xuma

The Gods of Xuma is a mildly metafictional take on Burroughs’ Barsoom, framed by a “harder” SF scenario of attempted 24th-century emigration from the solar system. Instead of being the nearest planet in our system, as Barsoom was, Xuma is in the nearest star system that has an Earth-like planet. The explorers have read the old Barsoom stories, and they are intrigued by the arid planet with a canal-based civilization. The protagonist is the crew’s linguist Tom Carson (note the shared meter and assonance with “John Carter”), who is the first to land on the planet and engage the natives.

In an interesting counter, Carson is not given low-gravity superpowers by the below-Earth gravity of Xuma, because he (like all healthy surviving humans) has actually grown up in even lower gravity among the human settlements on the Moon and Mars. What the humans do have is excessive military technology. The Xuman natives, while suspiciously advanced with respect to cultural continuity and general sciences, have no automated transport or weaponry beyond a medieval standard. But the humans barge in with beam weapons, tanks, and orbital barrages. Thus the star-faring humans are mistaken, first by the natives, and later by themselves, for “The Gods of Xuma.”

Communications between the humans and Xumans are established quickly and easily, although without any cross-species telepathy or magical translation. Although superficially quite humanoid, the Xumans have a very different developmental and sexual cycle, which produces real but not insurmountable cultural distances from the explorers. The book does not shirk from an account of the first sexual encounter between humans and Xumans, along with the subsequent developments of this possibility.

The human characters are reasonably fallible, sometimes verging on pathetic, and the Xumans are a little incredibly benevolent. On the whole, the book is a pretty effective anti-imperialist fable. It has a sequel (Warlords of Xuma), but it doesn’t cry out for one.

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 Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Anne Conway, eds Taylor Corse, Allison P Coudert, part of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy series.

Conway Coudert Corse The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy

The historical existence of Anne Conway was a thrilling surprise to me. Here was a 17th-century Englishwoman who had been trained in Cartesian philosophy, Lurianic kabbalah, and Helmontian chymistry. She was an acknowledged influence on Leibniz, and she had an active rapport with the first generation of Quakers. All this excitement and more is available in this volume’s introduction by Allison P. Coudert. 

The primary text being introduced is decidedly less engaging. It is a manageable treatise in nine sections, trained primarily on theoretical natural philosophy, in primary opposition to Descartes, but also at the end taking up against Spinoza and Hobbes. Conway is careful to keep her positions defensibly Christian, and even includes the occasional “proof” from scripture. She also relies on allegedly empirical facts about spontaneous generation of animals from rotting matter (data furnished by von Helmont, evidently). 

On the plus side, her notable positions include: 
a) Staunch opposition to any dualistic divide between matter and spirit. She insists that these are the poles of a graduated continuum.
b) Reincarnation, including the passage of individuals between the forms of humanity and different animal species.
c) Understanding of spiritual and material organisms as manifold, and infinitely divisible into component organisms, in an open hierarchical fashion.

It’s not too onerous a read, but the actual Conway text is somewhat ponderous. Still, it complements my earlier studies in English supernatural alchemy. I also expect it to be helpful background in my ongoing Blake readings this year, since as Coudert notes, the treatise is a sterling example of the sort of esoterically-grounded English Renaissance thought that provided a springboard for both the Enlightenment and reactions against it.

How Not to Play Chess

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews How Not to Play Chess [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Eugene A Znosko-Borovsky, ed Fred Reinfeld, part of the Dover Chess series.

Znosko-Borovsky How Not to Play Chess

How Not to Play Chess is an elegant and engaging little treatise on its topic for experienced yet inexpert players like myself. The bulk of the book is organized into little two-to-four-page discussions of tactical principles. In each case, the idea is summed up with a maxim in the negative, e.g. Do not lose time. The examples are discussed with an eye to how the application of these principles to a given position can produce what Znosko-Borovsky calls “chess ideas,” motive concepts to organize one’s play within a given game. The text includes examples from a number of games, but nearly half of the discussion centers around a single game that serves to illustrate a wide range of the issues treated. 

Editor Fred Reinfeld has also appended a “Test Yourself Quiz” of twenty positions with useful diagnostic questions, so that the reader can reflect and answer before turning to Reinfeld’s discussions of them. The “correct” answers are as much about the reasoning involved as they are about the particular move(s) chosen, so the quiz would not lend itself to quick and definitive scoring. But it does provide a nice chaser to Znosko-Borovsky’s text, offering the reader an opportunity to apply some of what has been presented.

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jason Pargin, “A John, Dave, and Amy Novel”, part 4 of the John Dies at the End series.

Pargin If This Book Exists Youre in the Wrong Universe

This book is the fourth in a series with a label that has been expanding in a failed effort to keep pace with its central cast of characters. The original volume was John Dies at the End. Later books/editions were called “John and Dave” books, adding the name of principal narrator David Wong–an in-story pseudonym and also the pen name later abandoned by author Jason Pargin. If This Book Exists… is tagged a “John, Dave and Amy” book, including a character who has been central for previous volumes, but there is a fourth who earns poster placement rights in this installment.

Anyhow, the series consists of supernatural horror with a little science fiction, a lot of lowbrow humor, and a fair amount of unsubtle but essentially humane social commentary. I felt like this book had the most conventional plot arc of the four, despite overt courting of time travel paradoxes and multiple denouements. It didn’t make me laugh out loud as often as the earlier ones, but I experienced more odd synchronicities while reading it, which was a definite point in its favor.

There’s an evil cult to thwart in the course of the novel, and the very end (before the author’s afterword) supplies the key commandments that Dave and his pals add to the cult’s scriptures to keep them from becoming a pernicious world religion. These few pages really could stand the frank consideration of earnest “seekers,” even out of context.

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.