Crawling out of my crypt for a bit. Here are the books that lit my wick last month.
Yes, this is late, but new job and all that.
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott: Super fun Space Opera where FTL is achieved by alchemy, tarot cards, and harmonic engines that tap as close as possible to the literal music of the spheres. Plus group marriages of convenience, conniving relatives, space pirates, and an “evil empire”. Like I said, super fun.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: A fantasy novel without wars or big events or an entire cohort of characters to keep track of. Instead, it’s a story of a thief press-ganged into assisting a king’s “magus” in recovering a fabulous treasure that’s more valuable as a symbol than for any monetary value. The world building’s rich and deftly done, and the handful of characters fully realized. Recommended.
Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss: That 2019 will see all of Molly Gloss’s novels back in print is a great thing, and while I didn’t enjoy this early novel by her as much as her later work, it was still a treat to read – a bit like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Vren is a young boy with strange powers exiled from his home and forced to live in the haunted woods outside the gates. There he finds friends, but also a rising threat he must confront.
The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton: I hadn’t read Andre Norton before now and I absolutely wish I had. Her stuff is absolutely delightful in a pulpy greasy kids stuff sort of way. Murdoc Jern is a galactic gem trader who inherits a magical ring from his murdered father. What secrets does the ring hold and why would people kill for it? Murdoc decides to find out, and ends up on a quest that sees him wandering the space ways with an assorted bunch of companions including Eet, a mutant space cat that bears more than a little resemblance to HR Giger’s Alien.
Plague Ship by Andre Norton: You can read about this one on my Patreon.
Today’s trip to the vault brings us two science fiction stories from 1962 both written by women and both being contemporary snapshots of their era. But that’s about all they share. The first, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant, is pitched as melodrama. The second, “The Glory of Ippling” by Helen M. Urban, is pitched more as satire. I’ll put links to each at the bottom of this post. Both are worth the few minutes they take to read.
First up, “The Sound of Silence” by Barbara Constant. Spoilers abound.
The artwork “by Schelling” hooked me before I even started the story. It’s like a still from a black & white TV show or soap opera or even an episode of Mad Men. The teary-eyed woman, clutching her handkerchief, the indifferent man with his horn-rimmed glasses, the décor in the background, all of it looks less like science fiction and more like a day-time television show. All before the story even starts. Interesting.
The story itself is about one Lucilla “Lucky” Brown, a secretary for a Los Angeles advertising firm. Lucky seems to have everything going for her at least as far as her boss and coworkers think. So why then does she leave the office at 4:30PM three days a week to see a psychiatrist? No one can believe it let alone explain it. Especially not junior executive Paul Chapman who all fall and winter was very interested in Lucky Brown, but by spring and summer wasn’t interested in anything much at all.
Well, turns out Lucky is telepathic and has been all her life. As a child she found great joy in this, but then her parents taught her to be ashamed of her ability. After that she managed to mask her powers from herself by simply believing herself “lucky”. For years that worked. But then she and Paul Chapman had to work together on an advertising campaign and while they seemed so sympathetic in so many ways, the outcome led to collapse for both of them. During the campaign, while doing project research, they read old pulp science fiction magazines, and Lucky found great comfort in their stories of people with fantastic powers, but Paul derided and mocked them. This made that old shame return. Only now it was worse. It brought nightmares of isolation and despair with it. Hence her trips to Dr. Andrews.
This is that sort of science fiction story I believe we are supposed to find uplifting, but which, mainly because I’m a horrible person who likely was hugged the wrong amount as a child, I can’t help but read as both sinister and too treacly sweet. The reason Lucky is going to see Dr. Andrews is because she feels shame that she’s different. Except the different she feels is of that sort that makes her special and there by better than the people around her. I know that’s absolutely not Constant’s intent, but that’s me. It’s absolutely valid to write the stories that reflect the world you wished existed or provide you with those connections you feel you lacked. But those aren’t the stories I like.
On to the “Glory of Ippling”!
Helen M. Urban’s “The Glory of Ippling” is also set in the world of 1962 California, but the vision it shows is one of wrestling events, burlesque parlors, and advertising gone rampant. It’s less Mad Men and more Mad Magazine and quite possible to read as a lampoon of a certain UFO cult that still exists to this day. All of which makes it almost the exact opposite of “The Sound of Silence”.
In “The Glory of Ippling” the Ipplings are a vast space empire of superior elitists who come across as caricatures of 19th century Austro-Hungarians. They’re big into uniforms and the excellence of their way of doing things. One of their number, one Boswellister who received his post less by skill and more by his social connections, has been sent by the Ipplinger Cultural Contact Group to make contact with humanity. Unfortunately Boswellister is finding it hard-going as humanity is a craven superstitious species, beholden to sensation whether in the wrestling ring or on the stripper’s runway.
When he finally does manage to get our attention, we see him not as the superior specimen of an intergalactic empire he absolutely believes himself to be, but as a salesman pitching a new product. The UFO technology, the dazzling lights, it’s all just more spectacle to get people to buy something. When Boswellister fails to produce the requisite “free samples” a riot ensues, forcing Boswellister and the rest of the Cultural Contact Group to abandon their mission and flee Earth.
This is a very silly story, but a quite fun one that delights in skewering pretensions. It’s a story where everyone is not simply ugly, but absurd. Humanity is absurd. The superior Ipplings are absurd. Especially Boswellister, Boswellister is extremely absurd. He is that guy who calls everyone else sheeple, prides himself on his logic, and laments the vulgarity of the modern world while harassing sex workers. If Boswellister had only waited until 2016. The USA would have elected him president.
Here’s the link to “The Sound of Silence”.
The next Yesterweird read will be Plague Ship by Andre Norton. If you like these sort of reads please consider supporting my Patreon.
Back when I read Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and did a chapter by chapter read through marveling at all its marvelous WTFry I thought it would be fun to do more of that. And if you liked that, then you’ll be happy because I’ve decided 2019 will be the year when that happens. Or maybe you won’t be happy, because it’s going to be on Patreon.
For a bit now my wife and I have been talking about using Patreon, she for her comics and me as a tool to keep me motivated and focused on my writing goals. And while I’m not at that brave stage where I’m comfortable sharing drafts of stories I’m working on and all that, I am certainly okay with louding off about old weird books. So that’s going to be the tent pole at first for my foray into Patreon. This blog’s going to remain the place where I post my favorite reads every month and whatever else I feel like.
So without further to do. . . announcing Yesterweird, a book club slash review site where I’ll make regular dips into works available for free online (mostly at Project Gutenberg). To start I’ll be looking at a trio of old science fiction novels, the first one being this radioactive pill of a 1950s YA novel, RIP Foster Rides the Gray Planet. After that my plan’s to write about some of Andre Norton’s space opera stuff and John Joseph Astor IV’s 1894 planetary romance novel A Journey in Other Worlds. Astor was like the Elon Musk of his day and supposedly the richest man to die on the RMS Titanic.
So support to follow along and read sentences like “he liked his war how he liked his equations. Cold.” Or just to find out why I thought that sentence was funny. And if you pledge at the 5-dollar level you can even decide what I’ll read next. If you’ve wanted to know more about some painful old tome, but never wanted to take the time to actually read it now’s your chance to make me do it!
Yes, launching a Patreon where I blog for loose change in January is our era’s version of the going to the gym more often New Years resolution, but so what? That’s what I’m doing. It could be worse. I could be writing this to announce that I’m launching a podcast.
A woman found brutally murdered in a locked room. A chemically preserved corpse discovered in a steamer trunk. An audacious robbery committed by a masked and tuxedoed thief in a grand Paris hotel. Nothing connects these crimes, only the suspicion that the same perpetrator committed them all. Who? Fantômas!
Written between the years 1911 and 1914 by the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the Fantômas serial ran for a total of thirty-two novels. In that time, the title character eluded the forces of justice and committed increasingly daring crimes to satisfy an urge for “beautiful-compulsive” violence. To read a Fantômas novel is to enter a fast-paced, bewildering world loaded with violent imagery. Where ultimate evil is never defeated, but escapes every time.
Fantômas was the prototypical supervillain. He had no goal beyond the desire to wreak havoc, a hybrid of Edmond Dantès (the Count of Monte Cristo) and the Joker; not so much a character as a phantom, an invoked spirit: the Lord of Terror, the Master of Crime, the Genius of Evil.
From the opening exchange of the first novel, there is no doubt as to his powers:
“What did you say?”
“I said: Fantômas.”
“And what does that mean?”
“But what is it?”
“Nobody…. And yet, yes, it is somebody!”
“And what does the somebody do?”
The novels’ popularity cut through social classes. They were read avidly by the public, as well as championed by the surrealists who saw in the series a predecessor to their own work and a key to the imagination. Raymond Queneau, Blaise Cendrars, Magritte, and Pablo Neruda all admitted to being fans. Guillaume Apollinaire called the series “inestimably rich” and suggested that in order to achieve the full poetic effect the novels should be read straight through as quickly as possible (a habit he also recommended for the works of Dumas and Paul Féval, the originator of the “cloak-and-dagger” genre and the author of a series of vampire novels that predate the works of Bram Stoker). James Joyce described the series simply as, “Enfantômastic!”
However, Allain and Souvestre had not set out to create anything of cultural import when they began the series.
The pair had met while working for the automotive magazine Poids Lourdes (“Heavy Trucks”). They were veterans of Paris’s pulp trade: the cheaply produced and poorly printed paperback novels called feuilletons. Souvestre was impressed by the young Allain’s ability, especially after seeing Allain churn out a seventeen-page article in two hours about a truck he had never seen before. They had no artistic pretensions and were in it entirely to earn their living. The characters are flat, the plots beyond hackneyed, and the dialogue overblown and bombastic. Allain and Souvestre ripped off other novels by the cartload and plagiarized their own works. They came up with the plot one week, wrote the prose over the following week, each one writing an alternate chapter, and then spent a week grooming the manuscript into a cohesive whole. Meanwhile, the marketing department arranged the cover artwork. An assignment handled by the Italian artist Gino Starace, whose lurid covers provided the perfect graphic milieu for the narrative. These presage the grisly aspects of EC comics and artists such as Johnny Craig and Bernie Krigstein.
It was three o’clock when Juve arrived at the rue Lévert, and he found the concierge of number 147 just finishing her coffee.
Amazed at the results achieved by the detective, the details of which she had learned from sensational articles in the daily papers, Mme. Doulenques had conceived a most respectable admiration for the detective of the Criminal Investigation Department.
“That man,” she constantly declared to Mme. Aurore, “hasn’t got eyes in his head, but telescopes, magnifying glasses! He sees everything in a second—even when it isn’t there!”
But why did Fantômas capture the imagination so strongly? The novels are not whodunits, nor even whydunits (as is the work of George Simenon), but howdunits. We know who did it: Fantômas. We know why: Lord of Terror, etc. But it’s the how that hooks us.
How did he get into the Marquise de Langrune’s bedroom after the door was locked?
How did he escape the Paris hotel after the Princess Sonia notified the authorities?
How did he trick Inspector Juve even when the detective practically walked him to the steps of the guillotine?
A recapitulation of the plot is irrelevant. A series of unsolvable crimes are committed. The detective Juve believes they are the work of Fantômas. In his pursuit of the villain he is assisted by Jérôme Fandor, a young man wrongfully accused of one of these crimes. The pair adopt various disguises and track Fantômas, who is also disguised, through the Paris underworld. There are set-piece scenes consisting of deathtraps, criminal locales, and a number of courtroom episodes. Severed heads and hands abound, as do bells dripping blood and disasters such as trainwrecks and shipwrecks. Colorful characters appear for a chapter and then disappear into the background. Identities are mutable, and in any given chapter one or more characters might remove their mask and reveal themselves to be Juve, Fantômas, or Fandor (or, after the eighth novel, Hélène, Fantômas’ opium-smoking, pistol-toting, cross-dressing daughter). This gimmick gets played so often that it goes well beyond the plausible, bypassing absurdity, verging on the pathological. The characters have no identity, and it’s only by wearing masks that they become real.
In this fact one can possibly see why the series appealed to the surrealists. Not only was the plot propelled by the actions of a nihilistic antihero at war with society, but the characters were only “real” when they pretended to be someone else. The results when attached to breakneck plotting and violent imagery approached a sort of pulp delirium that directly affected the imagination.
Fandor saw that Juve was staggering and seemed about to faint. He rushed toward him.
“Good God!” he cried in tones of anguish.
“It isn’t Gurn who has just been put to death!” Juve panted brokenly. “This face has not gone white because it is painted! It is made up—like an actor. Oh, curse him! Fantômas has escaped! Fantômas has gotten away! He has had some innocent man executed in his stead! I tell you, Fantômas is alive!”
Pierre Souvestre died of Spanish Influenza in 1914. Allain was sent to the trenches of the First World War, but survived to pen eleven more Fantômas novels (he also wound up marrying Souvestre’s widow). In 1913, Fantômas made the leap to movies in a series of serials directed by the silent-film pioneer Louis Feuillade (best known for his later serials Judex and Les Vampires). A 20-episode American serial followed in 1920; and Fantômas movies, television shows, and radio serials were made well into the 1980s. Later films resembled James Bond-style capers and featured technological gadgets and hidden bases. They also gave Fantômas blue skin.
Around the world Fantômas spawned a variety of supervillains. Throughout the rest of his life, Allain continued to churn out Fantômas-style characters such as Tigris, Fatala, and Miss Teria. The 1960s saw various Italian, French, and Spanish publishers competing with ever-increasing doses of sadism to follow the Fantômas model. The character had sunk so deep into pop culture as to be largely invisible. European comic characters Diabolik, Kriminal, Killing, and Satanik can all trace their heritage back to Fantômas. Other characters, such as Dr. Mabuse and the Joker, owe a fair debt to the Genius of Evil and his love of “beautiful compulsive” violence. In a strange character reversal, Fantômas even went on to become a hero. When the Japanese anime Ogon Bator was syndicated in Brazil the character was renamed Fantômas and protected the earth from alien invaders.
If all this sounds fun, you’re in luck. Tracking down Fantômas novels is fairly easy. The first novel is readily available as a Penguin Classic, and a variety of small presses and print-on-demand publishers produce translated reprints of some of the series in varying quality. There’s also an apocryphal storyline where Fantômas goes to England and fights Sherlock Holmes.
But, what is most intriguing in the Fantômas-myth is the notion that popular fiction can be intoxicating and serve as a catalyst to the imagination. It suggests the possible inspiration residing within soap operas, comic books, and mass-market paperbacks. By their very ubiquity and devotion to the trends of the present these items overcome our judgments and speak to our unconscious.
I believe there’s a charm in the violent popular melodrama of earlier eras. Whether it’s The Monk, Vathek, The Werewolf of Paris, or Flowers in the Attic. This stuff is shocking in wholly unsuspecting ways, and Fantômas is no different. Even all this won’t prepare you for how unstintingly absurd it all is. It needs to be experienced first hand.
* (This essay first appeared in April 2009 on the soon to be shuttered Internet Review of Science Fiction website. It’s been and edited and tidied up some for reprinting here.)
I’m out of the Transfer Towns for better and worse. Better, because after six years dirty ole Pohang has started to feel a bit like home. Worse, because I had a book-reading writing/gaming buddy I could hang out with almost everyday living right up the street. I haven’t had anything like that in years, possibly even decades. It was great!
On to the books…
The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France: Most summers I get this desire to read Arthurian tinged stuff and that led me to reading Jessie Weston and she got me reading Marie de France. Decent editions of both are available at Gutenberg. In France’s lais we’re dipping into the Chivalric tradition centuries before Mallory with stories of knights and their lady loves, magic oaths and spells, even a noble werewolf (BISCLAVRET!!!) Collected together these make for a series of great words and the like a collection of fairy tales you can dip in, read one or two stories, then put the book aside. Although you can certainly read it straight through. One thing that makes France’s handling of the material so enjoyable is how separate it is from the Christian tradition. That tradition is present but it’s not hitting you ever the head like it would by the time Mallory’s recounting the Grail Quest. I might use this for a yesterweird series of posts.
Jhereg by Steven Brust: Suddenly so many of the D&D characters my friends and I rolled up as teens make sense. Wicked Awesome Super Assassin Wizard does wicked awesome super assassin wizard stuff with his wicked awesome super assassin wizard powers and wicked awesome super assassin wizard friends. Yes, I’m mocking this book a bit, but it was a fun romp and I enjoyed its pace and flippant attitude. I know there are a lot more books in the series, but I’m in no real rush to read them. I’d rather save them as treats between other books.
Laura by Vera Caspary: Of all the books I read last month this one had me running around the most and recommending it to friends. Laura is pitched as a Femme Fatale, but really she is a modern professional woman in the world of 1940s advertising, doing her best to be an independent woman. What results because of that is like a Gothic novel set in the hard-boiled worlds of New York cops and savage murderers. Definitely give this a shot if the hard-boiled tradition is at all a thing you enjoy.
A Lady’s Guide to Ruin by Kathleen Kimmel: I haven’t read a lot of romance novels, but I’ve been told that there are two kinds: the first kind has the love-struck characters boning in the first twenty pages, and the second kind where there’s pages and pages of angsty, yearning, and flushed groin business before the boning happens somewhere in the 3rd act. This book is the latter type. It’s about a lovable thief and con-artist masquerading as a noblewoman in order to escape her criminal past. Of course she falls in love with the Earl who believes she is his cousin. To Kimmel’s credit, by the time the boning happened I was more interested in all the plot machinations and wished the groining would finish quick so the character could go back to resolving the plot.
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson: If you had handed this grim fantasy ballad to the Viking era to 13 year old me, I would have gobbled this up and thought it was the greatest book ever: a dark brooding antihero, a quest to forge a demonic sword, monsters, war, sexy weird elves… the whole book is a witch’s brew of moody heroics that even though I’m less in love with such beverages now I can remember how much I loved the taste of them back then. If you’re a pulp fantasy fan and you’ve never read this, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt: The Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie, work for as hired killers for the Commodore and the Commodore wants them to kill a gold miner named Hermann Kermit Warm. So begins a picaresque novel as the two set out from Oregon and make their way to the gold fields of California. Along the way they encounter an assortment of odd characters and circumstances, all of it narrated by Eli Sister the more pensive and over-weight of the two brothers. This was a fun if deceptively easy read and with a level of artful construction that I appreciated. If you like atypical westerns this is worth tracking down.
And special mention goes to…
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand: This is a delight of a book, and if you have an afternoon to spend and want to spend it with a wry smile plastered to your face this is the book to do it with. How can you not love a play that gives stage directions such as: “A MUSKETEER, superbly mustached, enters”?
North Korea claims to have successfully tested an ICBM, and what if I got incinerated without letting people know what I read and liked in June!?!
So here we are – prepare to have at least one calamity rectified.
Sadly, June was kind of shit for reading. Most of what I read made me shrug at best, while some of it actively annoyed. The high-lights on the other hand were few and far between.
Highlight the first:
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan: Yeah, this was as good as the hype claimed. The focus is on 1st century CE Palestine with attention paid to all the various sects and factions at play in the region. If Iron Age politics are your thing, you definitely should check this out. Also, Aslan’s investigation of how Jesus of Nazareth becomes Jesus Christ and the history that not only shapes Jesus’s message but how we approach it (hint: the destruction of Jerusalem in ~70CE is a HUGE deal) makes for fascinating reading.
Highlight the second:
The Blazing World, and Other Writings by Margaret Cavendish: If you at all like science fiction and fantasy and are interested in its roots, you must read this. Cavendish was a 17th century English noblewoman who was a philosopher and an essayist, and The Blazing World reads like her riff on travel narratives mixed with speculative natural philosophy. A princess finds herself transported to another world where the inhabitants make her the queen and she has adventures. It’s loopy. and you might skim some of it, but there’s enough wondrous stuff in it that you’ll occasionally want to slow down and pay attention.
Last month I was hospitalized. This month I became a university professor. What a crazy few weeks it has been. Here are my favorites out of everything I read.
All Systems Red (The Murder Bot Diaries) by Martha Wells: There’s something to be said for having a light touch – or at least knowing how heavy a touch a book requires. Martha Wells knows just how much and what kind of weight to put on this story of an introspective and rogue security robot doing its best to protect its humans from danger. A bit of the fun is how much the robot comes off as an angsty, emotionally over-wrought teenager (with colossal firepower) who doesn’t care and just wants to be left alone to watch TV.
The Fiery Angel by Valery Bryusov: This is an awful cover to a fun novel. Early 20th century Russian Symbolist poet transforms his f’d up love life into a Gothic novel about witchcraft set in 16th century Germany. If you don’t think I’d be all over something like that, umm… welcome to my blog, and that’s the kind of thing I’d be all over like maple syrup on pancakes. I don’t really care that this might not work well as a novel and the protagonist more or less floats from incident to incident; I was on board from the start. If you like the yesterweird, you should definitely check this out. Bryusov wrote some SF that I’ll now be on the look-out for.
Mars Girls by Mary Turzillo: This is a YA adventure novel set on Mars, and I’ll be reviewing it next week as part of the Mars Girls blog tour. I’ll tell you up front though, it’s good. If you want some fun non-dystopian science fiction, check this out.
Polaris by Ben Lehman: OK. Technically this is a role-playing game, but its premise (tragic Arthurian/Dunsanyian apocalypse) is just so rich that I think of it as a novel. The whole ritualization of the game experience and the poetic sensibility the players are expected to bring to the table make this feel to my mind like what I imagine role-playing would be. Not that anyone in my current gaming group would want to run or play it, but yeah… Actually this reminds me of two things: 1) a highly stylized tabletop version of HG Wells’s Floor Games that a psychiatrist might use to get a sullen teen (or murderbot) to work out their issues, 2) the actual tabletop scenes in Mazes & Monsters.
The Wreckage of Agathon by John Gardner: There’s a whole subgenre of lit books about suburban college profs swapping wives and having affairs while they drink themselves to death. Well, The Wreckage of Agathon is that kind of book except set in BCE Sparta during a Helot rebellion. It’s a fun, if at times aggravating trip as it meanders all over the place. Between this and The Fiery Angel I’m starting to think I might have a thing for autobiography dressed up as a historical novel.
Rosewater by Tade Thomson: I thought this book was a mess, but such an enjoyable and fascinating one that I’m going to blather on about it. In a lot of ways Rosewater is exactly the kind of genre book I want from a small press publisher: a strange mess full of ideas.
The setting is 23rd century Nigeria after the Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial spores that have begun reshaping our habitat to better suit themselves. Kaaro is a former thief turned government agent. He’s also one of the few people made “sensitive” by the alien spores and gifted with a sort of telepathy. While most people see the alien spores as a blessing , Kaaro is less enthusiastic, but when something or someone starts killing off other sensitives Kaaro finds himself getting involved.
On one hand there’s a very cool cyberpunk novel in here as we follow Kaaro’s journey from thief to agent and onward, one made more interesting by the theme of colonization that pushes its way forward in moments. But it’s never didactic and beating you over the head with polemic. It still pitches floating cannibal mutants, weird sex, and weirder fungi at you. Where the problem comes in, in my opinion, is that it’s not simply that there’s too much here, but the order feels off and whenever I felt like I understood the setting and what things were about, Thompson piled on another idea that made everything wobble and tumble down. Not only that, but there were times things felt redundant – like we’d read for pages Kaaro’s journey into the fungi xenosphere, which is kind of like a trippy internet, only to have him come out and log into his 23rd century internet – and I’ll say it, we’re so post-Gibson and Stephenson at this point that describing how people use your super-cool super-futuristic internet is basically eating regurgitated pizza slices from 1997.
So on the other hand, I wish some better editing had happened and reins were tightened just to hone the story down to the essential bits, because those bits are good, very, very good. Anyway, if you’re in the market for some bewildering, but enjoyable near-future weirdness give this a look.