Jul 212014
 
First of all, I've never been a big fan of role-playing games. I don't have anything at all against them, mind you. I only played once, but I had a good time. However, over the years I've read and enjoyed quite a bit of gaming-related tie-in fiction, and Dan Wells' novella THE BUTCHER OF KHARDOV certainly falls into that category. This is based on a game called Warmachine (I think; I got a
Jul 092014
 
I've been reading good things about Joe Abercrombie's fantasy novels for several years now, and I've finally read one of them, his latest, HALF A KING, which differs from the others in that it's a YA novel. But more about that later. HALF A KING is the story of Prince Yarvi, son of the King of Gettland, who was born with a disfigured left hand and none of the skills that go with being a king.
Jun 302014
 
A while back John Hocking suggested that I read Clark Ashton Smith's story "The Charnel God", which originally appeared in the March 1934 issue of WEIRD TALES. Now I have, and I'm becoming more of a CAS fan after never reading much of his work until recently. "The Charnel God" is one of Smith's Zothique stories, set on a far future, decadent Earth where magic has replaced science. The plot
May 242014
 

Unknown 39-03In the February 1939 Astounding Science-Fiction, John W. Campbell announced, “. . . the second Friday of every month, a new magazine will appear. Unknown will be to fantasy what Astounding has made itself represent to science fiction. It will offer fantasy of a quality so far different from that which has appeared in the past as to change your entire understanding of the term.”

Debuting in February 1939 and publishing a complete novel in each issue, Unknown featured many works now considered classics of the fantasy genre—Anthony Boucher’s “The Compleat Werewolf,” L. Sprague DeCamp’s “Lest Darkness Fall,” L. Ron Hubbard’s “Fear” and “Typewriter in the Sky,” Fritz Leiber’s “Conjure Wife” and the early Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Norvell W. Page’s Prester John stories “Flame Wind” and “Sons of the Bear-God,” ” Theodore Sturgeon’s “It,” Jack Williamson’s “Darker Than You Think,” and many others.

Over its 39-issue run, the magazine went through a variety of permutations including the elimination of cover art beginning with the July 1940 number. “We’ve made the July cover look very dignified. We’re going to ask your news dealer to display it with magazines of general class—not with the newsprints . . . . It is unique and appeals to adult minds . . . . I feel most would enjoy Unknown if given a chance to try it.” The magazine would be enlarged to letter-size and get a new name in  late 1941 as Street & Smith sought better display space. Despite the changes, the renamed Unknown Worlds would be cancelled following the issue dated October 1943. Although a letter-sized magazine reprint anthology entitled From Unknown Worlds was issued in 1948, no additional issues of the publication considered the best fantasy magazine of all time would appear.

From Unknown Worlds

To learn more about the images used in this post, click on the illustrations. Click here for references consulted for this article.

 

May 092014
 

Tam Tam Books ed., English translation
Currently in its 3rd printing
The fantastical world of Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours (1946) -- punnily translated as Foam of the Daze by Mark Harper -- is populated with kitchen mice that act as miniature housekeepers; deadly tools of assassination like the cop-killer and the heart-snatcher; and a mind boggling invention called a pianocktail, a combination robotic bartender and musical instrument that mixes, blends, and delivers potent potables by simply playing a tune on the keyboard. And Vian’s invention is not only limited to bizarre machines and anthropomorphic animals. The writer, also an accomplished musician, composer and friend of 1940s Parisian jazz and literary elite, was a lover of linguistic trickery and wordplay. Translating his many puns and jokes must’ve been a challenge to Harper who does an admirable job trying to capture the playfulness and humor that, as with most foreign language puns, are often untranslatable. For much of its brief but densely filled 220 pages the story is one of Vian’s most exuberant and joyous works.

Foam of the Daze is an unapologetic romance, a surreal fairy tale, and a literary satire all wrapped up in one delightful package. The story, however, is not all hearts and flowers though those two images feature heavily in the story. Vian scales the heights of delirious newfound love and plummets into the depths of despair when a mysterious illness threatens to end the ecstasy of a young couple’s honeymoon.

Wide eyed jazz lover Colin lives a carefree life enjoying cocktails and playing Duke Ellington records with his musician friend Chick who quickly meets and falls in love with the beautiful Alise. Colin is immediately jealous and longs for his own Alise. No sooner does he make his wish then he meets Chloe, as equally wide-eyed and optimistic as he is. It’s no coincidence that she bears the same name as a popular Duke Ellington song. There are no real coincidences at all in Vian’s world. Every action, every word of dialog has a purpose and is interconnected to every object and character in the story.

Boris Vian, circa 1940s
The most remarkable thing about this love story is the way illness is depicted. So often people talk about how their lives fall apart when a loved one is suffering a terminal illness. That is literally what happens to Colin’s world. His house begins to deteriorate, the ceiling crumbles, glass windows and tiles shatter, rooms shrink and doorways become almost inaccessible. All because Chloe has succumbed to an inexplicable malady, a miracle illness. Somehow a water lily has begun to grow around her lungs and heart. It’s not possible to operate and remove the plant without killing her. The only treatment method is to surround her with flowers and plants, tend and care for them so that in their beauty the water lily is shamed into withering and disappearing from Chloe’s body.

Filled with a soundtrack of Ellington’s music, multiple references to New Orleans and Memphis style jazz, and a subplot involving a satirical jibe at Vian’s good friend Jean-Paul Sartre who appears in the book as pop sensation Jean-Sol Partre, author of Vomit and other works of existentialist bestseller-dom, Foam of the Daze is like no other book I have ever read. Practically unclassifiable in the way it absorbs so many genres Vian's novel is bewitching and strange and hysterical and ultimately deeply moving. It’s an assault on the senses and the intellect. Imagine entering a floral shop crammed full of exotic plants and breathing in the mix of heady scents, taking in the wide array of colors and shapes, all while drinking an unnameable, rainbow hued cocktail with an indescribable yet utterly intoxicating flavor. This is what it’s like to read Vian’s novel.

Graphic novel adapted by Benoît Preteseille
His writing can be hilarious as in the sections making fun of collector mania. When Chick is not satisfied with owning Sartre’s books a wily bookseller coerces the musician into buying the writer’s fingerprints and old pants convincing him the items will increase in value as much as the writer’s books. Only a few pages later Vian tugs at our heartstrings in relating Colin’s desperate attempts to become gainfully employed often humiliating himself in the process so that he can earn enough money to keep buying plants and flowers that will help in his wife’s strange treatment plan. Not only do Colin and Chloe and their house suffer as the water lily infiltrates everyone and everything, but Chick and Alise undergo a rift in their relationship that leads to a surprisingly violent climax.

L’Ecume des Jours has been adapted into a movie by French director Michel Gondry and retitled aptly enough Mood Indigo, after the Ellington jazz standard, starring Audrey Tatou and Romain Duris as Chloe and Colin. The movie has already appeared throughout Europe at a variety of film festivals and will be shown at the Music Box Theater here in Chicago Sunday, May 11, 2014 as part of the Chicago Film Critics Film Festival. The movie has been picked up by Drafthouse Films and should appear in a limited release at art house cinemas sometime in the summer and eventually be released on DVD. A paperback tie-in edition is being released in the summer under the movie’s title. Anyone too impatient to wait for that edition can order Foam of the Daze directly from Tam Tam Books or any on-line retailer right now.
 Posted by at 4:00 am
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

Lancer73784

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.

Lancer73784bc

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."

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]
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.