Saturday 26 December 2009

Having previously read the Clark Ashton Smith volume in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series, Emperor Of Dreams, I've finally started collecting the 5-volume edition of his complete fantasy tales from Night Shade. Volume One, The End Of The Story, arrived the day before Christmas, in a rather rare display of brilliant timing by postal and courier services of various nations.

What a treat this book is. From the gorgeous, wonderfully appropriate cover art, which incorporates a portrait of the author in a weird setting to the story notes, which include pertinent excerpts from Smith's letters, at least one memorable fan letter and Lovecraft's always sympathetic and sometimes downright gushing letters regarding many of these tales to the stories themselves - presented apparently in painstakingly restored texts that undo the various excisions made in earlier publications, this is a remarkable tribute to the man who, word for word, was the finest stylist in his field, matched only by Jack Vance and (at times) Fritz Leiber, in my opinion. Even the introduction by Ramsey Campbell is perceptive and even useful in picking out the high points in the development of Smith's craft, rather than being a mere encomium as sometimes happens in such cases.

It's interesting seeing the progression of his works from pure dream-visions and nightmare-fables to attempts at more conventional fare (such as 'The Phantoms Of The Fire', which reminded me of Bierce) and the gradual maturing of his vision into a mode that could deliver a more sustained narrative while keeping imagery and language at the delirium-inducing fever pitch that defines Smith's prose at its finest. It's also interesting to see certain recurring themes emerge, as happens in any single-author short story collection. In this case, a theme of lost love seems to find its way into more than one story, complementing the subtle but effective dark eroticism that Smith was perhaps unique for among the Weird Tales writers.

I am already more than halfway through this volume and my book-buying priority for the next few months is going to be the acquisition of the remaining volumes in this set.

Friday 11 December 2009

The Beast With Five Fingers is a rather indiscriminate collection for a 'Mystery & Supernatural' imprint, with only a third of the tales qualifying as horror (several of which are psychological rather than supernatural) and only one real mystery tale. The remainder consists of droll little vignettes of human nature, quasi-moralistic slices of life and so forth. These are not without interest, but they are generally very slight.

Of the horror tales (or rather, the tales of unease - horror is generally too equivocal a term to use here) the title tale is something of an anomaly, being both the most famous and the most atypical tale by WF Harvey. It's an unsubtle sort of affair, in its key concept, and subtly chilling concepts are a keynote of Harvey's more effective tales. These include the superb The Dabblers, a tale which contains its own critique in the form of a cynical listener dismissing the narrator's tale, and then overcomes the critique with a chilling little coda. August Heat is another very effective and uncanny tale. These are both frequently anthologised stories, as is the title story. A few stories that barely offer more than the cliched ghost story of the Victorian/Edwardian era have been included, as have several variations on recurring themes, where everyone concerned would have been better served by only including only the very best example of the type.

There are nevertheless several good tales here, and one wishes the editor has seen fit instead to assemble a slimmer but more effective volume of about 12 to 15 short stories.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

stray thoughts while re-reading The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1

A forum I post at is having a sort of Alan Moore Book Club discussion, starting with LOEG. Here are my comments about the first few pages of this fine graphic narrative:

'The British Empire has always had difficulty distinguishing its monsters and its heroes,' says Campion Bond right at the outset of this series (or words very like), and Moore proceeds to explore the heroic ideals of an era (of several eras once you come to the appendices to Volume 2 or the timeframe of Volume 3) and humanise the heroes and monsters of English imaginative literature of the last few centuries.

The opening chapters of Volume 1 are very interesting in the way they introduce different members of the League. The very first member we meet is Mina, whom we do not at once identify as Mina Murray from Dracula. She simply seems like a young woman, a rather slight young woman and an odd choice for this role, despite a certain icy strength to her demeanor. A woman who has no powers of her own (unlike the vampiric femme fatale of the film version), it seems Mina has been chosen for a role of power unusual for a woman in her times because she may be the only somewhat biddable person at hand who has past experience in dealing with monsters - whether they truly be heroes or not. As we shall see, the Empire and in particular Bond and M (names that should be ringing bells by now) have vastly underestimated how biddable this woman can be.

The attention to detail in this series is incredible and seen right from the first page, from Bond's cigarette case with its harlequin motif and the incomplete construction they are standing on with its dedication plaque.

Next, we encounter the archetypal British adventure-story hero but in a deeply untypical context - he is a broken man, an opium addict who forswears all allegiance to the Crown. Yet, he is drawn in by the heat of the moment as Mina is imperilled and he rises to her defense. She claims she could handle herself, but the fact is that no true adventure hero can resist a damsel-in-distress. It is interesting to note that Moore's portrayal of Quatermain is no mere postmodern subversion - the character of this other Alan is given a depth and maturity over the course of the series that both re-affirms many of the English values of valour and fortitude the character stood for, along with the self-sufficient stoicism Haggard gave him while enlarging the character beyond stereotypes that may have attached to him in the eyes of those whose main knowledge of the character was a high-school reading of King Solomon's Mines. Moore treats his original respectfully, I think, enlarging the tradition rather than simply upending it or appropriating it for his own use. This is a key factor in producing successful pastiche that goes beyond mere pastiche to become a vital addition to the narrative it draws from.

The next member recruited runs counter to the typical 'British adventure-story hero' stereotype of the day, being an Asiatic submariner from a French novel. Nemo's role and character in the first two volumes of this series is of a great complexity and significance, allowing Moore to work in some comment on the British Empire from an outside perspective - but I shall stop short on this point for fear of being accused, as elsewhere in these fora, of indulging in anti-Imperialist diatribes.