Not writing an October post nagged me all November, but I was traveling and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
Here are the books I liked from the last two months.
The Compleat Guth Bandar by Matthew Hughes: Set during Earth’s penultimate age, Guth Bandar is a noonaut who voyages into humanity’s collective unconscious while traveling around the galaxy. Boyish and wry like Jack Vance, which it nods at heavily, but it lacks Vance’s cynicism and cruelty. Also spelling “complete” as “compleat”? That’s hot!
Headlopper Vol. 2 by Andrew Maclean and Jordie Bellaire: I didn’t like this one as much as Volume 1, but I liked it more than Volume 3. Heads get lopped as do limbs.
The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee: The book cover that needs to be airbrushed on the side of a van. I wrote about this one on the Patreon. For 1USD you can read about it and a bunch of other old weird books. This one is a cringy mess of 1970s fantasy tropes, but if you’re susceptible to that Conan itch like I am, and enjoy Tanith Lee, this is a must-read.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole: Another one from the Patreon. And for 1USD yadda yadda… This one lays out the template for the Gothic novel but isn’t nearly as bat-shit loopy as The Monk. Although, that’s not to say it isn’t bat-shit loopy in its own special way.
The Deadly Sky by Doris Piserchia: This one is set on a far future Earth where a young scientist becomes obsessed with the sudden appearance of a hole in the sky. This was Piserchia’s last published book and it falls a bit flat at the end, leading me to think it was rushed to publication. Piserchia can be a ton of fun, but if you’ve never read her I don’t recommend you start here. Instead check out Star Rider.
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown: A very 1960s SF novel about a hip, swinging space detective named Sibyl Sue Blue. She’s a mom, a cigar smoker, and always down for a good time. Not only do we have warp drives by the year 1990, but women regularly rouge their knees to keep up with fashion.
The Delicate Dependency: A Story of the Vampire Life by Michael Talbot: Of all the books here this is the one to read NOW! Even if you don’t like vampire books, this one is a great ride full of twists and turns. When Dr. Gladstone’s carriage strikes down a hauntingly beautiful young man on the streets of London, the event sparks an obsession in the doctor that brings him and his entire family into contact with a shadow world beneath the everyday one he believes he knows.
I am a fan of the English Person Goes For A Walk genre, which seems to have been a thing in the 19th century, but which still crops up today, although, thankfully, the scope’s broadened out quite a bit. And while the English Cream of it all can be more than a bit much at times, plenty of writers I like took a hand at writing essays about walking. So my plan for July and August over at my Patreon is to do something a bit different and take a long leisurely stroll through an early 20th century book called The Footpath Way: An Anthology For Walkers. It contains essays, poems, and bits by such notables as Chuck Dickens, Wally Whitman, Tommy De Q, Bob Stevenson, Bill Hazlitt, and everyone’s favorite cinnamon doughnut eater, High Definition Thoreau. The plan’s to read thirty – forty pages a week over the next eight weeks and make a weekly post.
Feel free to come along!
Morien by Jessie L. Weston: A 14th century Dutch poem about Sir Morien, the Moorish knight of the Round Table. I wrote it up on my Yesterweird patreon. Short version: I recommend it!
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun: This is a very Thomas Ligotti sort of book and I am not a Thomas Ligotti fan, so I didn’t really like it, but maybe you will. A stranger comes to a hellish city to do an unpleasant job and paranoia, misery, and degradation ensues. One thing I couldn’t shake while reading this is that Hye-Young Pyun was imagining what it must feel like to be an expat living in Korea, except she can’t shake a tendency for self-loathing and making misery porn.
Digger’s Game by George Higgins: A quarter of the way into this I realized I’d read it before, which is fine, it’s a quick read. Higgins wrote about Boston’s criminal underworld like an anthropologist and it’s fascinating to dip into that worldview. Although if you’re only going to read one thing by him The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the one.
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.)