Mar 052014
Paperback 749: Lancer 73-764 (PBO, 1968)

Title: Satan's Child
Author: Peter Saxon
Cover artist: Jeff Jones (Jeffrey Catherine Jones)

Yours for: $15


Best things about this cover:
  • Can't a girl rub her naked bottom on dandelions in peace around here!
  • No need for pepper spray or a handgun when you've got Smoke-jaguar.
  • Is that behelmeted guy out walking his Smoke-jaguar or shape-shifting into a Smoke-jaguar?
  • It's like Rosemary's Baby. Only with more orange. And a Smoke-jaguar.
  • One of my all-time favorite fantasy paperback covers, despite/because of its looniness. Love the orange, love the enigmatic man/jaguar/smoke hybrid, love the not-all-that-worried sunbather.
  • Only just learned that Jeff Jones was (later in life) Jeffrey Catherine Jones (a trans woman). Fascinating story. She died in 2011. Comics Journal obit here.


Best things about this back cover:
  • That is a pretty great use of empty space—like a womb holding the embryonic "Seedling From Hell." 
  • Ooh, terrible vengeance! That's my favorite kind!
  • You're gonna have a hard time finding a greater name in all of literature than "Pricker Gill.

Page 123~
"All of it!" Finlay cried hoarsely. "I wager it all."

Silently his companions met his wager—and threw down their hands. They were identical—and identical to his own.

Finlay's mouth dried and he gave a little groan of despair. "I … I thought I must win."


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Feb 072014
The introduction to Just an Ordinary Day (1997) written by two of Shirley Jackson's grown children tells how they received a box of manuscripts, carbon copies and typewritten sheets of unpublished stories as well as the original manuscript for The Haunting of Hill House and character notes for that novel. The two siblings began to think about putting together a volume of their mother's unpublished work.  In doing research they uncovered even more published work that had never been reprinted in book form.

Just An Ordinary Day brings together thirty vignettes and stories that were never published in Jackson's lifetime in the first half of the book. A second section reprints an additional twenty-two stories that originally appeared in a variety of magazines between 1943 and 1968. Though mostly women's magazines bought Jackson's stories I was surprised to see among the list of publications Harper's, Vogue, Gentleman's Quarterly, and Playboy. Three stories were purchased by Fantasy and Science Fiction but I have to say the fantasy content is very slight and none of them would I classify as science fiction by the widest leap of imagination. I can't believe they made it to that revered magazine. Clearly, Jackson was able to appeal to a wide audience even if her themes and topics seemed to be very similar as I moved along from story to story.

I'll admit I did not read this volume cover to cover. I randomly selected stories based on the titles or by the magazine in which the story was originally published. Admittedly this was not a very good way to discover what I wanted to read -- Jackson's darker fiction dealing with crime, the supernatural or domestic suspense tales. I hit gold with only three stories. "Nightmare" tells a story of surreal paranoia when a woman feels she is the subject of a bizarre advertising gimmick that seems to have taken over the city. An eerily evocative supernatural tale of people trapped in a painting ("The Story We Used to Tell") is a brief but chilling example of Jackson's gift for making the flesh creep. "The Possibility of Evil" about an anonymous letter writer was my favorite story of the batch I selected.

While perusing the other stories I learned that the bulk of Jackson's fiction was about suburban life, married couples and troublesome children ("Arch Criminal" and "I.O.U."), the problem with gossip in small towns ("The Very Strange House Next Door"), the malaise of housewifery and the desire to escape ("Maybe It Was the Car"), the dependence on neighbors for help and advice ("When Things Get Dark" and "I.O.U." again) and other similar themes. But in all of them Jackson managed to undercut the mundane and the superficial with an uneasiness and a cruelty that was often disturbing.

One of the most interesting things that Laurence Hyman and Sarah Hyman Stewart have done with this material is to point out the way Jackson liked to recycle plot ideas and even characters from story to story. The most fascinating juxtaposition is of two versions of the same story called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" in one version and "The Mystery of the Murdered Bride" in the other. In the former the story is more fleshed out, more direct with little ambiguity except for perhaps the very last line. In the second, and probably the first version, the story is vague and hazy. It seems unpolished. There's too much left to suggestion and the final sequence is just muddled. Jackson is trying to plant the idea that Mrs. Smith is oblivious that her new husband might be a wife killer with a couple of bodies buried in his past. I think the version called "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith" is the more successful of the two. Similarly, the entire plot of "Nightmare" was lifted and inserted as a minor incident in "The Omen", one of her stories published in Fantasy and Science Fiction that to my mind is representative of neither genre.

Her darker fiction is not well represented in this hefty volume. There is an ambiguous ghost story that has traces of crime fiction in "The Missing Girl" and "The Friends" is a nasty story of busybody Ellen who decides to put an end to the adulterous affair of her friend Marjorie by commandeering Marjorie's free time. But it is "The Possibility of Evil" where I found Jackson to be at her shining best. Published in the December 18, 1965 issue of The Saturday Evening Post (mistakenly noted as 1968 in this book) we get to know the inner workings of superficially kindly old woman Miss Strangeworth who in her spare time writes poison pen letters to the neighbors she is smiling to on a daily basis. When she has a mishap mailing a batch of those letters and some children help her by hand delivering a letter she dropped Miss Strangeworth gets a bitter taste of her own "good intentions". Deservedly, in 1966 "The Possibility of Evil" won Jackson the Edgar for "Best Short Story". This is the kind of story I've always felt was Jackson's strength. Though she may show traces of the underbelly of apparently peaceful suburban life in her more lighthearted domestic tales it is this kind of portrait of Adela Strangeworth that is her hallmark in American fiction.
 Posted by at 3:57 pm
Nov 272013

I first encountered orcs in The Lord of the Rings novels, but as author Stan Nicholls points out in his introduction to this book, J.R.R. Tolkein didn't invent them. Instead, orcs, like goblins, trolls, etc., go 'way back in folklore. Nicholls has written a series of fantasy novels using a company of orc mercenaries as the protagonists, covering their adventures as grunt-level infantry in an ongoing war involving two different factions of humans and a number of races of supernatural beings.

FORGED FOR WAR is the first graphic novel set in this universe and serves as a prequel for Nicholls' prose novels. It's pretty good, too. This is grim and gritty fantasy, not the more sedate style of high fantasy I've never been able to get into. Stryke, the commander of the orc company known as the Wolverines, is a Sgt. Rock type, the world-weary soldier who just tries to get the job done and keep as many of his men alive as possible.

In this story, the Wolverines, who work for a cruel half-human, half-dyadd empress named Jennesta, are serving as bodyguard to a group of goblin scientists who are supposed to be testing a new sorcerous weapon of mass destruction. But there are all sorts of plot twists and double-crosses going on, so it's not surprising that eventually the orcs are just trying to survive when things start to go wrong.

As you'd expect, there's plenty of hacking and slashing going on, some touches of humor, and a nice, fast pace to the story. I'm not crazy about the art by Joe Flood, but it gets the job done. One problem is that so many of the orcs look so much alike, it's almost impossible to tell them apart. The only one who really stands out is Coilla, the lone female orc, who's smaller than the other Wolverines.

I enjoyed ORCS: FORGED FOR WAR quite a bit, enough that I'm going to look for the regular novels. If you enjoy graphic novels and dark fantasy, this one is worth reading.
Oct 162013
You think I'm productive? Not all the books that were supposed to come out this Fall didn't work out as planned, but I'm still putting out some seven books. One of these was the Lovecraft novel I mentioned earlier, another one is a sword and sorcery novel that came out roughly the same time Haamu/Ghost came out.

Sword and sorcery novel? Yeah, Viimeinen bjarmialainen/The Last Bjarmian (Bjarmia is a mythical place in the north-east region of Finland) is something I've always wanted to do and now here it is. This story came out first in five installments in the Seikkailukertomuksia/Adventure Stories mag I edited and published some years back. I wrote my serial set in ancient Finland almost from a scratch and later on I realized the story resembles westerns a lot: a lone swordsman comes into a small town, finds the town people corrupt, but still has to fight some bad guys that threaten the town from outside. But these bad guys are weird gigantic white monsters, not your basic Injuns or robbers. And they have a mysterious leader, living in a cave no one has ever seen... It's a bit like Hammett's Red Harvest coupled with Lovecraft.

The serial went through quite many edits before it hit the print, and I still think there remained lots to be done. The main problem was that the battle scenes resemble each other too much, but last week I figured out how it could've been avoided - two weeks after the book had come out. I guess this happens a lot.

There's also my foreword telling how the story got into print. (I posted the foreword here - in Finnish, of course.) The cover illo is another one by Aapo Kukko, who's really good at these things. He said he wanted to draw my hero, a guy called Pesäri, with Alain Delon in his mind. And I think he got it exactly right.

Writing these things - this and my collection of Joe Novak private eye stories and the one novel about Joe Novak - is more like a hobby to me, though it takes a considerable amount of time. Writing this kind of stuff is practicing my craft, practicing how to narrate a story, construct the dialogue, keep the story moving. In the gone days of pulp and paperback publishing you could do this for money, now you have to self-publish or rely on your friends' micropublishing outfits, like in this case. Tuomas Saloranta does a good work with his Kuoriaiskirjat, and I've already agreed on doing another book - a small anthology - for him. Here's hoping someone finds reading Viimeinen bjarmialainen as much fun as I had writing the story!
May 052013

Often known simply as STRANGE TALES because those two words dominated the logo, this was one of the best-known rivals of WEIRD TALES. STRANGE TALES published some classic stories by many of the same authors who appeared in WT. For example, this issue (the third) features stories by Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton, Clark Ashton Smith, Hugh B. Cave, August Derleth, and Henry S. Whitehead, all of whom published major stories in WEIRD TALES as well. And it has a fine cover by H.W. Wesso illustrating Williamson's great novella "Wolves of Darkness". What a gem of an issue.
Apr 172013
In Conversation: Paolo Bacigalupi, Lauren Beukes, and Jesse Bullington:

Join us for a Google hangout with Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls, as she talks about all things crime and fantasy with authors Jesse Bullington and Paolo Bacigalupi.

The chat will be taking place next Monday the 22nd at 2pm EST. Do you have any questions for Lauren?

Mar 292013

My write-up a few weeks ago of Dennis Wheatley's The Man Who Missed the War mentioned in passing that it shares something with books of the "lost race" subgenre of adventure stories, but it happens to be one of the more outrageous examples. This week's book, The Starkenden Quest (1925), is instead an anthropological treatment of the subgenre. There is a chapter entitled "The Mystery of the Ages" in which one of the more mysterious characters reveals his professorial background in a long lecture that manages to epitomize all of the philosophies of the lost race theme. It is a near desperate attempt to link all humans via religion, culture, mythology and race to one origin. The lecture almost convinces me that Collins was the Joseph Campbell of his day.

Down on his luck and down to his last few shillings, our narrator John Crayton finds himself marooned in Yokohama at the Four Winds Hotel. A financial disaster has nearly wiped out his bank account back home in England and he needs a job quickly in order to pay his hotel bill or risk jail in Japan. A fortuitous encounter with the shady and morose Abel Starkenden in a local bar changes his luck.

Starkenden has just single-handedly fought off a group of carousing and offensive sailors. Crayton is impressed by the fighting -- a combination of verbal assault and agile fisticuffs -- and he sidles up to Starkenden for a chat.  The conversation soon turns to Crayton's sorry state of affairs, his pathetic scouring of the want ads, and Starkenden's very strange job offer.  He asks Crayton to join him as a member of his team of explorers and will pay him £300 plus expenses throughout the journey. If Crayton accepts the position, Starkenden will also pay the outstanding hotel bill and release him from that obligation. What choice does he have really? He agrees and later at Starkenden's hilltop home in a British settlement in Yokohama he meets Gregory Hope who was similarly recruited as part of the team. The two listen to a series of legends and anecdotes about the Starkenden family and their ties to ancient mysteries and relics first discovered by his Norse ancestors.  Crayton and Hope find their lives almost immediately transformed from the lackluster to the astonishing.

The three set off in search of Starkenden's brother Felix who was abducted by a savage race known as the "devil men of the hills."  Armed only with an old map from Felix' one time exploring partner Starkenden is determined to find not only his brother, but the source of a hidden treasure trove of odd gems that emanate a powerful blue light that he calls "eyestones."  They are harder than diamonds and extremely rare which he believes make them the most valuable jewel on Earth.  Should they locate the source of the eyestones all three of them will be rich for the rest of their lives.

Initially, Gilbert Collins' third novel appears to be just another in a long line of quest adventures similar to the work of Haggard, Bedford-Jones and all the Indiana Jones movies.  Among the many set pieces Starkenden and his two explorers-for-hire encounter are a run-in with Chinese pirates, crossing a raging river of white rapids in a most unusual fashion, and travelling through an ancient cavern equipped with a lantern made from a human skull. But it is their encounter with Starkenden's arch enemy Coningham that changes the team's intended plans. Coningham is seen in the company of Marah Starkenden, daughter of the explorer, and the trio believe she has been kidnapped. The object of the quest then immediately turns to rescuing Marah from the clutches of a man described as treacherous and evil. When they finally meet face to face in a cavern that is home to the lost race (ah, there it is!) of the Ktawrh, fearsome and dwarfish ape-like creatures, there will be multiple surprises in store for the explorers and the reader.  No one is who they say they are, assumed identities are unmasked, roles are reversed, and the novel becomes both a crime story and a fantasy adventure all at once.

For me what raises this above your standard She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed style of lost race tale (yes, there is a white goddess-like character) is the setting of Southeast Asia and Collins' painstaking detail to the geography, culture, superstitions and religions of that part of the world. Nothing is wholly made up here, much of it is based on facts circa 1925. In many lost race novels we mostly get imaginative fancies, absurd leaps in logic, monsters and weird creatures. While there is still an element of imaginative fantasy much of the story owes its success to Collins' insightful inclusion of anthropological discoveries and Darwinian theory.  I wouldn't recommend the book to a Creationist, that's for sure.

While E.F. Bleiler finds too much similarity to Haggard in The Starkenden Quest and criticizes its verbose length and complex plot (faults I am willing to forgive more easily) he praises Collin's other lost race novel Valley of the Eyes Unseen which he touts as "a convincing story of geographical adventure with adult detail, and an excellently imagined fantastic situation in Hellas."  I think the same can be said of The Starkenden Quest with the mere substitution of Indochina as the last word. Collins is well worth investigating for readers who like intelligent rousing adventures.

The Starkenden Quest was popular enough in its day to merit being reprinted in the pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries in the October 1949 issue. Several illustrations by the phenomenally talented Virgil Finlay are used from that issue for this post. Valley of the Eyes Unseen was also reprinted in a 1952 issue of the same magazine.  I suspect they both underwent extensive abridgement.

In 1930 after publication of three adventure novels Collins turned his writing to crime and detective fiction. He was born in 1900, but I could only trace his bibliography from 1922 to 1937.  I have no idea if he abandoned writing in the 1940s or if he died extremely young, perhaps one of the many casualities of World War 2. Any other info on Collins is greatly appreciated. I plan on reviewing one more lost race book and a few of his detective novels in the coming months.

Gilbert Collins Bibliography
Flower of Asia (1922)
Valley of the Eyes Unseen (1923)
The Starkenden Quest (1925)
Post-Mortem (1930)
Horror Comes to Thripplands (1930)
The Phantom Tourer (1931)
     US title: Murder at Brambles
The Channel Million (1932)
Chinese Red (1932)
      US title: Red Death
The Dead Walk (1933)
Death Meets the King's Messenger (1934)
The Poison Pool (1935)
The Haven of Unrest (1936)
The Mongolian Mystery (1937)
Mystery in St. James Square (1937)
 Posted by at 5:09 am
Feb 032013
Work: The Five Jars by M.R. James
(Edward Arnold & Co., 1922)

Artist: Gilbert James

The Five Jars is subtitled "Being More or Less of a Fairy Tale Contained in a Letter to a Young Person." Its author M.R. James is better known as a writer of ghost stories for adults. Whether or not the story is truly intended for young people is a matter of opinion. The whimsical drawings by Gilbert James seem to imply that it is. A mix of the fanciful, the creepy, and the bizarre the story would appeal to any reader who appreciates the outre and the supernatural in fiction.

Once available only in its original rare 1st edition or the somewhat scarcer 1927 reprint (a copy of which I own and is pictured above) The Five Jars has been extensively reprinted in a variety of hardback and paperback editions. Numerous POD and eBooks make it even easier for anyone interested in reading the light and fanciful tale.

Below a sampling of the seven illustrations by James.  I found little on the artist other than that he illustrated in full color an edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (L. C. Page, 1899).

Click to enlarge any of the pictures below for better viewing.

 Posted by at 8:01 pm

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