If form follows function, as so many designers have attested, then Stockton House, the Gothic manse at the center of Jeremy C. Shipp’s novella The Atrocities, was surely built to be haunted. Let’s consider some of its amenities. On first arriving at the House, the visitor will find herself in a hedge maze; around any corner she may encounter the book’s namesakes Atrocities, the gruesome statues drawn from Biblical stories. They’re a tad unpleasant, but they’re useful signposts for any unlucky visitor who navigating the maze: “Turn left at the screaming woman with the collapsing face” and “turn right at the woman sliced into twelve pieces” are, after all, unusually clear directions. The unusual ornamentation isn’t confined to the grounds: when the new guest arrives, she’ll note that beneath the house’s pyramid spires, “dozens of headless figures populate the yellowing, weatherworn façade.”
No Time to Spare, a collection of nonfiction drawn from Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog, draws its title from a statement she made at the very beginning of her first full post: “I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.” Anyone looking at her career must wonder if she ever had spare time. After all, in addition to her science fiction and fantasy novels and collections, almost any one of her which could cap a lesser writer’s career, she’s published realistic fiction, a dozen volumes of poetry, several essay collections, a writing guide, and translations from both Portuguese and Chinese. I’m probably forgetting several things: the list of Le Guin’s publications that opens No Time to Spare, though it runs two pages, is far from complete.
Le Guin attributes her decision to start a blog to reading a selection of Portuguese Nobel winner José Saramago’s internet writing, though with, she avers, “less political and moral weight.” I do not know the Portuguese for “blog,” but perhaps it’s more euphonious than the English word, which Le Guin hates: “it sounds like a sodden tree trunk in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage.” In any case, the form suits her. Le Guin is, in fact, a better political thinker than the great Saramago, and even the essays she worries are most “trivially personal” are so animated and so entertaining that no reader can skip them.
In my last column on Gene Wolfe, I wrote that the sheer number of his publications can make choosing an entry point difficult, but that his masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, was perhaps the best way for readers to make his acquaintance. Unfortunately, for many readers The Book of the New Sun’s reputation for quality is matched only by its alleged difficulty and inaccessibility.
I think that it’s difficult in only the most enjoyable ways, and far more accessible than commonly admitted, but for those who remain wary, I offer seven brief pieces of advice for reading The Book of the New Sun.
The King of Hearts, not the wisest of monarchs, gives this advice on reading in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning […] and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” That advice has never served Lewis Carroll’s readers, who delight in re-reading the Alice books and solving their puzzles, and it serves just as poorly for Gene Wolfe’s readers, many of whom don’t count a Wolfe book as read until it’s been re-read.
Still, whatever failings the King of Hearts might have had, there’s something to be said for beginning at the beginning, and so here follows my examination of Gene Wolfe’s opening sentences.
Two feelings predominated my first reading of Gene Wolfe: awe and trepidation. The awe was for Wolfe’s mastery of prose, tone, setting, voice, mood, and incident: I had not realized that science fiction could be so fraught with meaning, so numinous and so horrifying, or that any writer could so successfully marry apocalyptic drama, baroque landscapes, and violent action with pensive introspection and rueful reflection. The trepidation? I didn’t know that anyone could sustain this level of accomplishment for four volumes and a thousand pages. Could he really be this good? As it turns out, he really was.
After twenty pages of The Shadow of the Torturer, I wanted nothing more than to set aside my schoolwork and social life and read all four volumes of The Book of the New Sun cover to cover. But, reflecting that this would leave me without any New Sun books to read for the first time, I decided to pace myself: I would not read the books all in a row, but would force myself to read at least one other novel between each New Sun volume.
In 1968, the late Brian Aldiss published Farewell, Fantastic Venus! This anthology, which reprinted writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carl Sagan, C.S. Lewis, and Olaf Stapledon, celebrates the image of Venus that had once dominated science fiction stories—a planet full of jungles, swamps, adventure, and mystery—and would soon be forever eclipsed by the lifeless inferno the first space probes discovered.
I admit that this description of a British science fiction anthology from 1968 may seem an odd way to open an article on a film made seven years earlier behind the Iron Curtain, yet Aldiss’s anthology kept coming to mind as I watched Czech director Karel Zeman’s 1961 Baron Prášil, better known to Western audiences as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Zeman’s film opens with Tony, a stolid astronaut (or cosmonaut—we never do learn his nationality), sensibly clad in a bulky spacesuit, exiting his space capsule to plant his flag and make his giant leap for mankind. He is, of course, perturbed when he sees a whole path of footprints stretching away from his capsule.
There are several clichés at hand to tempt any critic who learns that a book was written in six weeks. If the book is earnest, angry, and topical, we might speak of the “rush of inspiration” that “propelled” the author’s pen or made his keyboard clatter. If it’s a first novel, we may express wonder at the “sudden” and “mysterious” “flowering” of the author’s imagination. If the book is a paperback original published under a pseudonym, we might sneer at “hackwork,” or, in a more generous mood, acclaim the “workmanship” of its “journeyman” author. Alas for the reviewer who comes to Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, or, the Unfulfill’d Queen: Although Moorcock completed the book in just over a month, none of these standard remarks applies.
Gloriana was very far from being Moorcock’s first published book; although his bibliography is notoriously byzantine, full of revisions, retitling, and pseudonyms, a little research shows that he had published over forty individual works by the time Gloriana appeared in bookshops, a year before the end of his thirties. If anything, the book’s composition was remarkable for its relative slowness: he once completed a four-volume series in two weeks. It says a great deal of his talent that many of these books, rushed and uneven as some might be, remain in print.
Some authors have a very distinct brand; their individual works, whether major or minor, are all of a type. If they publish enough, readers tend to make an adjective of their name—so “Ballardian” evokes crashed cars, empty swimming pools, and accelerating entropy, all clinically described, while “Vancean” writers evince a fondness for abstruse vocabulary, ponderous elegance, and gloriously improbable societies. An “Asimovian” story might sacrifice prose and characterization to the rational working out of a Big Idea, while a “Phildickian” tale proceeds by way of shattered realities and paranoid revelations.
Other writers, though, seem almost to begin anew with each new book; so restless are their subjects, styles, and preoccupations that readers never feel entirely settled or comfortable with them. Elizabeth Hand is one such author. She is far too mutable a writer for “Handian” to ever become science fiction shorthand.
After the trailers ended and the lights went down, the first image that greeted the moviegoers who caught Stalker in 1979 was the logo of the USSR’s Mosfilm studio., which shows the famous socialist realist statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Sculptor Vera Mukhina intended the two figures, who reach towards the sky and the future bearing hammer and sickle, to inspire pride in the present and hope for the future, and perhaps they are beautiful when viewed without context, but it’s hard not read them as icons of totalitarian kitsch and state-enforced taste. Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, however, provides none of the comforts of kitsch or the assurances of dogma.
Stalker was the first adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s influential novel Roadside Picnic, one of the very few Soviet science fiction novels to make it over to the West during the Cold War. Both film and novel tell the story of the Zone, the barred and blockaded site of a mysterious alien visitation, a once-inhabited area as inscrutable and dangerous as it is alluring. Barbed wire and machine guns guard the Zone, yet still treasure seekers, true believers, and obsessives continue to seek entry. Nature thrives in the Zone, but nothing human can live there for long. There are no monsters, no ghosts, no eruptions of blood and horror, but the land itself has become hostile. The ruined tanks, collapsing buildings, and desiccated corpses that litter the Zone should be ample warning, but they are not.
At Readercon a few years ago, I attended a panel on favorite science fiction and fantasy books. One author, one of the best working today, talked about the near-impossibility of writing a book so perfect as John Crowley’s Little, Big. There were wistful sighs from writers in the audience and nodded agreements from other panelists. Everyone in the room at that most bookish convention recognized that competing with Crowley was impossible.
Yet in many fan circles Crowley remains unknown. This literary master of the hermetic, hidden, and esoteric has for too long been as hidden as the obscure histories, gnostic theorists, and addled visionaries that populate his work. Despite the many awards; despite the praise of luminaries both inside the genre community, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Thomas Disch, and outside it, like Harold Bloom; despite his inclusion in both Bloom’s Western Canon and Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks, most fantasy readers don’t read him. Perhaps this is the year that changes.
Prosecution for obscenity has historically been one of the best ways to ensure literary posterity. For decades, getting “banned in Boston” was a surefire way to boost sales everywhere else in the States; in the United Kingdom, 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold in a single day when the uncensored version appeared. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice went before a court in 1922 and became a bestseller, but today Cabell has met the fate of many “writers’ writers”: He is best remembered for being forgotten.
Though some writers go into and out of fashion, and into and out of print, every decade or so, Cabell seems to have settled into obscurity. When Lin Carter reissued several Cabell novels in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in the sixties and seventies, his introductory remarks included the observation that some of these novels had gone forty-five years without a new edition. Since the Ballantine books have fallen out of print, most of Cabell’s works have gone without mass-market re-publication, though, since Cabell has entered the public domain, there have been print-on-demand editions. But perhaps that trial did help preserve Cabell: Jurgen has remained in print.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
Russell Hoban said that he was a good speller before he wrote Riddley Walker and a bad speller after finishing it. The first sentence shows why: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” Two thousand or so years after an atomic catastrophe—“the 1 Big 1”—civilization and the English language hobble on, the language marginally healthier than the society.
Riddley Walker, just twelve during the story’s action, is supposed to be his tribe’s “connexion man,” a seer or shaman who interprets the world and its signs. Riddley gives his first connexion the day after his father’s death; its failure—Riddley falls into a trance, goes silent, and disappoints his audience—soon leads him out from the people he has known and into the wilds of “Inland.” He encounters mutants, vicious dogs, scheming politicians; he sneaks through enemy encampments, rifles dead men’s pockets, and witnesses old acquaintances die, but the action is more melancholy than exciting: Riddley senses that his adventures have a shape, but he can’t comprehend it. He knows that he is in a larger story, or perhaps repeating a past story, but he does not know the storyteller or their purpose.
Series: Genre in the Mainstream
“Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.” So speaks a hyena on page six of “The Debutante,” the opener to The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. The hyena, a personal friend of the narrator, has just killed the narrator’s maid so that she can “nibble” off her face and take the narrator’s place at a truly tedious ball: “I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much.”
“The Debutante,” remarkable even if you didn’t know Carrington wrote it in her very early twenties, is not an outlier: Every story in this collection is as surprising, as vicious, and as memorable.
Although she wrote short stories, novellas, a novel, a play, children’s stories, and a memoir, Leonora Carrington remains best known as a Surrealist painter. Her books have not always remained in print, but her paintings, drawings, and prints have hung for decades in the world’s great museums. April 2017 would have marked Carrington’s hundredth birthday; The Complete Stories publishes this month to celebrate her centennial, as does her memoir, Down Below.
I don’t think any reviewer of Amanda Prantera’s third novel, first published in 1987, could resist the chance to marvel at its full title: Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years after His Lordship’s Death. It’s a mouthful, it’s hard to remember, it takes up half the cover real estate and three-quarters of the book’s slim spine, and it’s absolutely perfect.
I’d guess that most readers have encountered neither that incredible title nor the author’s name. Very few science fiction or fantasy fans have heard of Amanda Prantera, and it’s not difficult to see why. Many of her books, most of which are currently unavailable in the United States, have no fantastical elements, and those that do will still end up shelved in general fiction. She’ll follow a mildly satirical conspiracy story with a pseudonymous vampire novel, and then publish a book about a British family in China. Prantera, it seems to me, is like Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, or David Mitchell: a writer equally happy and adept at using domestic realism, hallucinatory fantasy, or technological speculation to share her unique vision.
These days, H.P. Lovecraft seems to appear in just as many works of fiction as Cthulhu. But I can’t imagine that Lovecraft, who held himself in such high regard, would be entirely happy with the new forms his literary immortality has taken. Paul La Farge’s new book The Night Ocean would appall its inspiration, and that’s one of the many reasons you should read it.
As Tobias Carroll wrote recently, it’s become very difficult to talk about the purveyor of the weird and master of the unnamable without bringing up the crank, the racist, and the misogynist who shared his body. Horror readers may remember the pompous “old-purple-prose” of Charles Stross’s novella Equoid; comics fans may have met the prissily vicious racist in Warren Ellis’s Planetary or the more sympathetic figure in Alan Moore’s Providence. Michel Houellebecq, best known in this country for being French and perennially controversial, wrote a biographical essay praising Lovecraft for the courage to be Against the World, Against Life.
Lovecraft’s protagonists have a tendency to disappear, though they tend to leave their manuscripts behind so that we, the readers, can find out what has happened to them. Usually “what has happened” involves some combination of nameless ritual, unutterable horror, degenerate cultists, and inhuman monster. The Night Ocean begins with a disappearance, but never once hints at the supernatural. Charlie Willett, writer, Lovecraft obsessive, and psychiatric patient, has fled a mental hospital, hitched a ride to a forest, and vanished into a lake. His wife, Marina, isn’t sure Charlie’s really dead, but she has no illusions of supernatural intervention. Cthulhu sleeps beneath the Pacific in R’yleh; he wouldn’t deign to rest beneath Agawam Lake in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
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