Tag Archives: Short Stories Anthologies

Swords & Dark Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] eds Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, with Joy Abercrombie, C J Cherryh, Glan Cook, James Enge, Steven Erikson, Greg Keyes, Caitlín R Kiernan, Tim Lebbon, Tanith Lee, Scott Lynch, Michael Moorcock, Garth Nix, K J Parker, Michael Shea, Robert Silverberg, Bill Willingham, and Gene Wolfe.

Strahan Anders Swords Dark Magic

I acquired this massive anthology of 21st-century sword and sorcery fiction primarily because it contained a new Elric story by Michael Moorcock, but also because I hoped to find some new authors whose work I would enjoy. With some disappointment, I realize that the Elric story was in fact the one I liked best in the book. The others that I found especially fine or memorable were almost all by authors with publication histories going well back into the 20th century, and often in settings that had already been composed and established back then. The editors’ introduction, while asserting the significance and innovation of newer authors, is more focused on the genealogy of the form and the work of its 20th-century creators.

I enjoyed the new Silverberg story of Majipoor (although it’s been so long since I read Lord Valentine’s Castle that it hardly had anything to do with my prior acquaintance with that world). Tanith Lee’s “Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe” was quite entertaining. The Gene Wolfe contribution was not one that I would class with his best work, but I liked it. Michael Shea’s “fully authorized” story in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth milieu had the audacity to change that world’s fundamental destiny. 

Among the newer authors, the only story that made a marked impression on me was “The Sea-Troll’s Daughter” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, for the ways in which it twitted reader expectations regarding gender, sex, and conflict in this genre. Some of the newer material seemed sadly influenced by the lowest-common-denominator fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons, or — worse, but happily less often — the gimmicky magic and school fetishism of Harry Potter. None of them were awful, but none of them were really stories I can imagine myself referencing in the future.

Hadon of Ancient Opar

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hadon of Ancient Opar [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Philip Jose Farmer, illo Roy G Krenkel, with essays by Frank Brueckel and John Harwood.

Farmer Hadon of Ancient Opar

Hadon of Ancient Opar is a “prequel” to the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, if the term can be applied when the respective narratives are separated by a chronology of some twelve millennia! The story is set in and around the empire of Khokarsa, a civilization surrounding the interior seas of prehistoric Africa. 

During the events of Hadon, Khokarsa is on the cusp of potential change into a violent partriarchy from a matrifocal culture ruled by priestesses, with the eagle-headed goddess Kho being supplanted by the flaming god Resu. (The story thus bears interesting comparison to Aleister Crowley’s ancient Egyptian fantasy “Across the Gulf.”) Khokarsan religion involves a stunning frequency of blood sacrifice as a matter of routine, and the culture combines a high bronze-age level of technological development with totemistic, quasi-tribal social organization. 

The story begins with the youth Hadon going to compete in the great games of Khokarsa that are supposed to produce a suitor for the High Priestess of the empire. (Thus, the winner could become king.) Hadon encounters many obstacles to his ambitions, but remains a virtuous hero throughout the book. He is loyal to the old regime of Kho, and when a partisan of Resu proffers a paraphrase of Exodus 20:5, he characterizes it as “insanity” (159). There is a frank acceptance of sex in Khokarsan culture, but Hadon’s adventures here involve much more violence than sex.

Appendices to the book provide about twenty-five pages of maps and chronology, but they are largely superfluous, and they appear to have been the product of Farmer’s development of the Khokarsan context from the article “Heritage of the Flaming God, an Essay on the History of Opar and Its Relationship to Other Ancient Cultures” by Frank Brueckel and John Harwood in The Burroughs Bulletin. Roy Krenkel’s dozen or so illustrations for Hadon are ink renderings in a loose style, that were probably dynamic and exciting in the originals, but mostly come across as muddy and incoherent in their reproductions here. 

The most important observation I can offer to potential readers of this book is that it is not a stand-alone novel. It ends with a cliffhanger, and the sequel Flight to Opar takes up at the very instant that Hadon ends. Farmer repeatedly implies that he is kicking off a long series of books with Hadon, but Flight was the only other Khokarsa/Opar book to be published during his lifetime. It appears that Christopher Paul Carey has subsequently brought further materials into print, posthumously developed from Farmer’s MSS.

The White People and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The White People and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, DriveThruRPG, Local Library] by Arthur Machen, ed and introduction by S T Joshi, volume 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen.

Machen Joshi The White People and Other Stories

This second book is far more uneven than The Impostors and Other Stories, editor Joshi’s first volume of collected weird Machen. It begins with “The Red Hand,” a story featuring Machen’s old duo Dyson and Phillips, and consistent with his earlier works. After that, it’s off to very different material. The imagistic “Ornaments in Jade” are described by Joshi as “prose-poems,” and whatever the merits of that description, they are wonderful stuff. None of them is more than a few pages long, and they are nearly plotless, but highly evocative.

The lauded story “The White People” caught me quite by surprise. I had been expecting something more along the lines of Machen’s earlier weird work; in fact I worried that it might be something of a re-tread of “The Shining Pyramid” or “The Novel of the Black Seal.” But it turned out to be more like “Ornaments in Jade”: light on plot, and thick with psychotropic sensory detail. One thing that impressed me was its extreme (yet subtle) nesting of narratives: the interlocutors Cotgrave and Ambrose form the outermost story, but the main tale is in the green MS book full of a girl’s personal reminiscences, which themselves include stories, sometimes containing further stories. E.g. the girl’s nurse recounts having been told certain things by her great-grandmother, which then become a story-within-within-within-within-within… This method of dropping through narrative frames is actually a reliable technique for hypnotic induction, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it literally entrances readers, and possibly has an effect on their dreams! Other trance induction methods prominent in “The White People” include chants and nonsense rhymes, physical spinning and dancing, and solitude. The narrative voice of the girl in the story is surprisingly convincing and effective, considering that Machen seems to have shed none of his earlier misogyny. I was struck by this remark from Ambrose early on:

“We should [feel horror in the presence of true evil] if we were natural: children and women feel this horror you speak of, even animals experience it. But with most of us convention and civilization and education have blinded and obscured the natural reason.” (66)

If “The White People” surprised me, “A Fragment of Life” totally bowled me over. Reading this story on its own seemed to give me all the evidence I could want that Machen had actually attained to some sort of mystical adeptship, in order to be able to relate the experiences he attributes to his protagonist Darnell, who at the story’s outset “lived in the grey phantasmal world, akin to death, that has somehow, with most of us, made good its claim to be called life.” (121)

The wartime fantasies of The Angels of Mons (including “The Bowmen”) had slight literary merit in their own right. But their inclusion was totally necessary because of the odd reflexive impact that the accidental hoax of the “angels” had on Machen’s work as a writer. (People who believed the “urban legend” generated by Machen’s story strongly resisted his attempts to deflate it.) In all of his subsequent fiction, the authorial voice of the fantasist is strangely knotted up with the conscientious journalist. This syndrome is especially apparent in “The Great Return,” but that 1915 story was most interesting to me for its precocious deployment of mescaline effects as a device to explain mystical states (223-224). The brief “Out of the Earth” is in many ways a recreation of Machen’s earlier “The Shining Pyramid,” but in the style of the new, war-era Machen, while “The Coming of the Terror” manages to foster quite an aura of mystery and terror, but lacks the sense of numinous wonder that brings me back to Machen’s work. “The Happy Children” contains elements of “The Great Return” packed into the brief fictional legend format of the stories from The Angels of Mons

So, while the war-era works were worth reading, they didn’t impress me deeply. But “The White People” and “A Fragment of Life” cemented for me Machen’s status as a literary exponent of true esoteric initiation.

Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Georges Perec, trans John Sturrock.

Perec Brief Notes on the Art-and Manner of Arranging One's Books

In the essay “Notes on What I’m Looking For,” Georges Perec proposes that his writings orbit around four preoccupations or targets for inquiry: the quotidian, introspection, games, and fictions. These are certainly illustrated in the slim book of essays Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books, named after the second-longest selection in the volume.

Perec is known for his association with OuLiPo, a group of writers using ludic constraints to produce texts, and an example of that engagement is in the book’s final and longest piece, “Think/Classify,” which has subheadings lettered in conspicuously non-alphabetic sequence. It’s not until the penultimate section W (directly following K) that he discloses the series to be the order of the appearance of the alphabet in a chapter of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller ….

This book reads quickly and offers a lot of variety while keeping to its central themes. The essays are structured unconventionally, and even when they address rather routine topics (e.g. a “bucket list” in “Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die”) they have surprising and entertaining details (e.g. “Get drunk with Malcolm Lowry”).

The Devourer Below

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devourer Below [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, cover by John Coulthart, book 5 of the Arkham Horror series.

Llewelyn-Wells The Devourer Below

The Devourer Below is the fifth volume of Arkham Horror fiction to be issued under the Aconyte imprint. While the previous four have been novels, this one is a collection of short stories by various authors. I was thus expecting a wide assortment of tales, joined only by their early 20th-century Arkham, Massachusetts setting and the involvement of assorted investigator characters from the Fantasy Flight Arkham Files games. I was in fact pleasantly surprised to find that these stories are far more interrelated than that.

Players of Arkham Horror: The Card Game may recognize “The Devourer Below” as the title of the third and final scenario of “The Night of the Zealot,” the campaign included with that game’s core set. All of the stories in this book relate to that starter campaign, featuring the servitors of the Great Old One Umôrdhoth. (Umôrdhoth is based on Mordiggian, from Clark Ashton Smith’s story “The Charnel God.”) Such servitors are largely a mix of ghouls and human cultists.

Specific enemy characters from the card game campaign figure in the stories, as do the important investigator allies Leo De Luca and Lita Chantler. Investigator protagonists include Tony Morgan, Carolyn Fern, Joe Diamond, Daisy Walker, Agnes Baker, Wendy Adams, and Finn Edwards. On the whole, I found the enemy-focused stories more satisfying than the investigator-centric ones, but I liked both and appreciated the variety.

As a suite of connected tales of yog-sothothery, The Devourer Below is just fine. As a supplement to the Arkham Horror games, it is good. As an amplification of the core set adventure cycle in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, it is very good.

This book appends a “tease” reprint of the opening chapter of Ari Marmell’s Arkham Horror novel Litany of Dreams, oddly included in the table of contents as if it were one of the stories written for this volume. It also sports the third Arkham Horror fiction cover art by John Coulthart. I like these highly detailed multi-panel covers a lot.