Tag Archives: review

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 Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec Vol. 2: The Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Jacques Tardi. (In some places the title of the second story is given as Mummies on Parade, so in this intro blurb I’ve opted for the story title on the cover.) (The film adaptation includes material from the second story in this volume.)

Tardi The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec The Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies

This second Fantagraphics reprint volume collects the third and fourth numbers of Jacques Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec stories: “The Mad Scientist” and “Mummies on Parade.” “The Mad Scientist” is very much in line with the earlier numbers with its modest pacing, bewildering plot, and droll character interactions. It focuses on the reanimation of a Pithecanthropus and his surprising behavior, and culminates in some spectacular violence on the streets of 1912 Paris. In “Mummies on Parade” Tardi really pulls out the stops, bringing together plot threads from almost all of the earlier stories, adding a mass revivification of Egyptian mummies, connecting Adele’s troubles with the wreck of the Titanic, and providing a downbeat ending after a somewhat hilarious cascade of mayhem. The art in “Mummies” is especially fine: there were several panels that I would be happy to enlarge and hang on my wall — though my tastes are rather outré!

Tardi The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele  Blanc-Sec The Mad Scientist and A Dusting of Mummies two panels from Mummies on Parade

The Age of Reason

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Age of Reason [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Thomas Paine, ed Moncure Daniel Conway.

Paine Conway The Age of Reason

Thomas Paine was a leading public intellectual of the 18th-century American Revolution, with his pamphlets Common Sense and The American Crisis as chief texts of the “spirit of 1776.” He followed these publications with his Rights of Man to defend the French and American revolutionary efforts against reactionary political sentiment in England. His final major work The Age of Reason was written as an expatriate in France. The first and shorter part he composed under the shadow of imminent arrest and possible execution, without recourse to a copy of the Bible that it criticizes. The second part includes a more detailed evaluation of Christian scripture, on grounds of both its provenance and internal features.

“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself than this thing called Christianity” (189-90). Raised by Quakers, Paine was an exemplary Deist of his period and staunchly anti-Christian. His distaste for Christianity is entirely consistent with and often justified by his Deist piety, refusing to attribute to the godhead sentiments and behaviors offensive to human conscience.

Paine’s dismantling of claims that the Bible should be regarded as the “Word of God” remain effective today, performed entirely around the evident sense of the texts themselves, without recourse to the “higher criticism” already being developed in Paine’s time, which was to prove so damning to the historical pretenses of Bible reception. He does verge on source criticism at a couple of points in discussing the evident “Gentile” origins of certain component texts of the Bible, but simply refers to the judgments of Jewish authorities (Abenezra and Spinoza) and the texts’ inconsistency with ancient Hebrew culture and religious sentiment (124-5), rather than any putative source texts. Paine’s attacks on the moral features of the supposed heroes of the Bible have not lost any of their force or relevance.

While Aleister Crowley was later to take up as a rallying cry Paine’s maxim that “Mystery is the antagonist of truth” (76), I would not say the Beast intended it in just the same unsubtle sense as the venerable Revolutionary, although mystery’s envelopment of truth in Paine’s argument foreshadows Crowley’s incantation. Paine classes mystery with miracle and prophecy as the three invidious organs of revealed or “fabulous religion” (75, 80-2), which he opposes to the “true religion” grounded in scientific admiration for nature and individual conformity to reasoned ethics.

Miracle is faulty for “degrading the Almighty into the character of a show-man, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder” (79). The enlightened man of reason (dare I say “magician”) will stare and wonder at unadorned reality, of course. As regards prophecy, Paine makes an important distinction between the archaic sense that he finds for the word in the Hebrew Bible, where it evidently means musical performance and/or poetry (35-7), and the “modern” sense in which “prophet” takes the place of “seer” indicating a claimant to divinely-guided psychic foreknowledge (81-2, 111 citing 1 Samuel 9:9). “Prophet” thus ultimately descends to a mere synonym for “liar,” particularly in such cases as Isaiah, whose prognostication was contradicted by the subsequent course of events (133-4).

A full chapter of the first part of The Age of Reason is dedicated to “The Effects of Christianism on Education,” sadly relevant to the US of the 21st century. The Christian institutions of education substitute indoctrination for learning, in order to profit by the resulting ignorance and cognitive dissonance. Today, we can see the further turn of the wheel in which Christians accuse sincere secular efforts to foster learning with the psychologically projected charge of “indoctrination,” since that is the only function they can see in schooling. Current attacks on public libraries and new laws to put schoolteachers in ideological straight-jackets manifest such perspectives in policy, although the recurring phenomenon is as old as the US nation-state, a polity distinctive for its historical adoption of anti-literacy laws.

My Dover paperback copy of The Age of Reason reproduces the 1896 Putnam’s edition by Moncure Daniel Conway, which reconciled the first-published French text with the later unauthorized English edition, noting the variances in footnotes. Conway also appended some correspondence by Paine regarding the work: one letter to “a friend” clarifying the book’s thesis, and another in response to his Revolutionary comrade Sam Adams. The latter clearly shows the Deist anti-Christian Paine to have a greater magnanimity of spirit than his Puritan interlocutor Adams.

A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Douglas Rushkoff with Goran Sudzuka and José Marzán Jr.

Rushkoff Sudzuka Marzan ADD Adolescent Demo Division

Rushkoff’s A.D.D. is apparently set in a parallel universe where those initials applied to kids have never meant attention deficit disorder, or in which the entire society suffers from sufficient mental myopia to disregard the fact. Other than that, it’s an all-too-credible story of psychological experimentation on humans that could be read as either a near-future scenario about media manipulation, or as a parable about a larger-scale set of events that have already been going on for decades. 

Blurber Grant Morrison compares this graphic novel to the X-Men, but I thought it was essentially a cyberpunk version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The benevolence of Professor Xavier or even Willy Wonka is in short supply here, though. Sudzuka’s art fits the story of this digital-candy-oubliette quite nicely. There is a lot of violence and sex of the sort that realistically applies to hothoused adolescents. It’s a fast read: two solid sittings should be sufficient.

The Best Ghost Stories of H Russell Wakefield

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield [Amazon, Local Library] by H Russell Wakefield, ed Richard Dalby.

Wakefield The Best Ghost Stories

This collection of Wakefield’s stories is very good. Although there is a slightly larger range of supernatural horror than might be suggested by the title’s category of “ghost stories,” most are in fact about spectral hauntings and the effects of genii locorum — always malign. “The Red Lodge” and “Blind Man’s Buff” are, for example, almost painfully traditional haunted house tales in terms of plot, but told with great skill and effect. Wakefield’s curses and ghosts are never exorcised; at best (and that rarely), the living characters manage to flee and escape their further influence.

A couple of the stories are concerned with sport. “The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster” drew on the author’s own long-term enjoyment of golf, and is in many ways a solid example of his work in the ghost story genre. As usual, the origin and nature of the spirits are much murkier than their effects. “Professor Pownall’s Oversight” is a chessghost story, and not only a good one, but perhaps the best chess ghost story possible.

Another notable feature is in the two stories featuring characters modeled on the magus Aleister Crowley. In “He cometh and he passeth by …” Crowley is made over into the homicidal sorcerer Oscar Clinton, while in “A Black Solitude” Apuleius Charlton is based on an older and more benign Beast: “He was sixty odd at this time and very well preserved in spite of his hard boozing, addiction to drugs and sexual fervour, for it was alleged that joy-maidens or temple-slaves were well represented in his mystic entourage. (If I were a Merlin, they would be in mine!)” (128)

The stories are a rough mix between those in which evildoers meet some justified comeuppance, and others where the supernatural afflicts characters merely mediocre or already cursed with unusual talent. In several cases, there are both, or it is left to the reader to judge which of these categories applies. Wakefield’s work had the admiration of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft alike, and it is easy to see why.

The Sandman: Overture

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sandman: Overture [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, J H Williams III, and Dave Stewart, with Todd Klein and Dave McKean.

Gaiman Williams et al The Sandman Overture

The six-issue Sandman: Overture comics series was the last to be created for the title character. It was published more than fifteen years after the seventy-fifth and last number of the original Sandman title, which had in its day been fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s largest and highest-profile comics work. As “Overture” suggests, this later sequence supplies a story set immediately prior to the main series, anticipating its themes and forms.

Although I was an active comics reader during the heyday of the lauded former serial, and it certainly fit my general tastes, for whatever reason, I haven’t read it–even though it has remained in print in trade paperback collections ever since. It has new currency now with the release of the big-money-small-screen version from Netflix. So when I considered reading some of the comics this summer, I decided to start with Overture. After reading the copious creators’ notes and interviews in this volume, I realize that the intended audience for Overture were really longtime fans and knowledgeable readers of Sandman. Oh, well. I didn’t find it difficult to follow, although I suppose it would have been a richer read if I had been familiar with the other work.

The art in this book is outstanding, with the lines and shades by J.H. Williams III (of Promethea fame) and amazing colors by Dave Stewart. Another key contributor, who doesn’t appear on the cover but still features among the creative personnel interviewed in the end matter, is letterer Todd Klein. Perennial Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean also provided cover art for the series.

Among comics, I was most reminded of the Eternity story arc from 1970s Doctor Strange, although Williams and Gaiman in their remarks refer to Jim Steranko rather than Gene Colan as a visual comics influence. In literature generally, Gaiman’s “Endless” characters reminded me most of Tanith Lee’s “Lords of Darkness” in her Tales from the Flat Earth books. They are not mere personifications of abstract concepts. It might be more accurate to call them hypostases of cosmic principles–but ones that somehow elicit the reader’s human sympathy.

The Gospel of Judas

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Judas [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] eds Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard.

Kasser Meyer Wurst Gaudard The Gospel of Judas

This volume presents a full English translation of the surviving text of the Gospel of Judas from the Codex Tchacos, with evaluative and interpretive essays by several conspicuous modern scholars of Gnosticism, all of whom (except for Ehrman) were party to the edition presented. That word “surviving” is key, because, as Rodolphe Kasser details in his contribution, the Codex Tchacos was subjected to the most pernicious effects of antiquities speculators in the 20th century. Much of the text is now missing or illegible as a result of damage sustained in the last few decades. 

Like the Nag Hammadi Codices, to which it is clearly kin, the Codex Tchacos appears to consist of Coptic translations of Greek texts. The Gospel of Judas is the third of these, and represents an expression of Sethian Gnosticism. Gregor Wurst, in his useful essay making the case for identifying this text with the “Gospel of Judas” mentioned by the ancient heresiologist Iranaeus of Lyon, suggests that it is one of the earliest such texts available to us today. In fact, I think he sets a false limit on how early it could be. He writes that it could not have been written earlier than the canonical Acts of the Apostles (ca. 93 C.E.), because it refers to the event of Judas’ replacement among the twelve apostles. But surely this overlooks the possibility that Judas and Acts could share a narrative source — or even (though I doubt it) both be grounded in prior facts! The earliness of the Gospel of Judas and its likely translation from a Greek original are reasons to hold out hope that a more complete version may someday be recovered. 

Bart Ehrman’s essay is a primer of wide scope regarding the contents of the Gospel of Judas, which presumes a minimum of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. (One conspicuous feature of the text that Ehrman fails to note is its strident rejection of ritual sacramentalism.) The concluding essay by Meyer is more sophisticated, and helpfully draws comparisons with other literature of ancient Gnosticism, as well as Hellenized Judaism and Middle Platonism. All of the essays are very accessible, and the whole book can be read in just a few sittings. 

Even in its degraded present condition, the Gospel of Judas is treasure comparable to the most provocative of the Nag Hammadi texts, or to the Bruce Codex materials, preserving scripture that was valued by the Gnostics who were eventually suppressed by what became Christian orthodoxy. This book serves as a well-constructed introduction for popular audiences to the good news of the man who sacrificed Jesus. May they go and do likewise.

Finding the Mother Tree

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Suzanne Simard.

Simard Finding the Mother Tree

This volume should stand as the magnum opus text of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard. It’s hard to estimate the relative proportions of narrative memoir and silvicultural science here, in part because one of Simard’s themes is to challenge mechanistic-exploitative science divorced from narratives recognizing the agency of trees and forests.

The book’s most obvious theme is cooperation as a paradigm for forest growth and health. Simard communicates this idea very effectively. Despite her decades of efforts to get this perspective to inform policy and industrial practices, she still struggles for it to have traction in forestry management. She has been more successful among academics and the general public. It’s clear that there are actual elements of competition in natural ecology, but the conceptual exclusion of cooperative mechanisms is a debilitating fault that Simard’s work has consistently sought to address. (She doesn’t much bother to explain, but it is hideously obvious, that this feature in her field is derived from industrial capitalism and entrenched in neoliberal outlooks that create analogous damage on many other levels as well.)

On the philosophical level–again, inextricable from the memoirist content–I was reminded of Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, although the emphasis here on unrecognized complexity and interdependence strikes me as more sophisticated than Haraway’s slogan of “Make kin, not babies.” Simard’s trees seem to understand that they need to make kin (in Haraway’s sense) in order for their babies to thrive, and to make babies in order to perpetuate their constructive relationships with their kin.

The key (but far from only) scientific takeaway of the common mycorrhizal network as the material stratum of a forest’s collective intelligence is pretty thrilling. In other venues, she has referred to this collaborative vegetable-fungal matrix as an “underworld.” It is easy for me to imagine cultural evolution of local humans to appreciate this reality without the benefit of the sort of alienating experimental science that Simard has needed to use in validating and justifying her hypotheses. She claims that First Nations lore tallies with her discoveries.

After reading the book, I watched one of Simard’s successful TED Talks on YouTube, where I saw her rehearse some of the powerful anecdotes included in this book. She’s an adequate public speaker, although she confides in writing that she finds it an unpleasant ordeal. What holds the attention is the awareness she has to impart, and for me, the book medium was more effective. Not only did it supply a fuller explanation of the scientific ideas, but it also put her personal stories into the context of a life arc of professional challenges, intimate relationships, personal survival, and family affections.