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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
Flower of Asia (1922)
Valley of the Eyes Unseen (1923)
The Starkenden Quest (1925)
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)
(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.
Publisher: Ben Abramson, 1945 (a reissue of the 1935 1st)
Artist: Boris Artzybasheff (1899 - 1965)
I first came to know of the work of Boris Artzybasheff through his dust jacket illustrations for Doubleday Doran's Crime Club mystery novel imprint. He did nearly every book of Clyde Clason's as well DJs for books by Stuart Palmer, Todd Downing and Aaron Marc Stein. Those are the few who I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure there are more.
I always thought his trademark was fantastic surrealism. But he is a talented artist of many moods and styles. He illustrated several children's books and even wrote a few of his own. Writing must be in the family genes -- his father was noted novelist Mikhail Artzybasheff.
In my exhausting internet research on Boris (there is a wealth of info out there) I discovered a huge portion of his work was done for Time magazine. Between 1941 and 1965 he did 215 covers, a mix of bizarre mechanical nightmares, humorous surreal illustrations, and surprisingly realistic portraits. Among the more famous are his portraits are Josef Stalin, jazz musician/composer Dave Brubeck, and mystery writer Craig Rice.
For this post I have chosen some of his vividly imagined, other worldly drawings. To me it's very reminiscent of the artwork of Hannes Bok of Weird Tales fame. The illustrations below are taken directly from an illustrated edition I own of The Circus of Dr. Lao, the allegorical fantasy by Charles G Finney. It became a very different story in the 1964 movie retitled The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao with Tony Randall in the title role(s). Click on images for full appreciation.
You can find all sorts of information about this artist all over the internet. But I recommend starting here for the best variety of his artwork.