The Carbuncle of Giamschid

I usually write favorable reviews of most of the books I read, but this will be an exception. My review won’t hurt the author, as he died in 1844, unloved and unlamented. William Beckford’s Vathek was originally written in French by this British writer and translated into English by another.

It is an oriental fantasy, which means it is lush with weird details and productive of much wretched excess. One reads along this piece of overripe Turkish delight and comes across a sentence like this:

In the morning, which was lowering and rainy, the dwarfs mounted high poles like minarets, and called them to prayers. The whole congregation, which consisted of Sutlememe, Shaban, the four eunuchs, and some storks, were already assembled.

What in coruscating blue blazes were those storks doing there? There is no reason for their existence except to add some local color. And what about Sutlememe, Shaban, and the four eunuchs? Details without a reason for their existence is nothing less than a form of literary cancer. Instead of being organic to the story, the whole thing comes across as a massive inorganic blob.

Characters come on the scene and subplots are born without any reason for their existence:

Dread lady, you shall be obeyed; but I will not drown Nouronihar; she is sweeter to me than a Myrabolan comfit, and is enamoured of carbuncles, especially that of Giamschid, which hath also been promised to be conferred upon her; she therefore shall go along with us, for I intend to repose with her beneath the canopies of Soliman; I can sleep no more without her.

In the end, one feels as if one has swallowed whole a Myrabolan comfit and choked on it.

Read it if you dare, but be prepared to shove the Carbuncle of Giamschid where the sun doesn’t shine. God knows, I did!

Mickle Overspeech

I Am Currently Reading the Strangest Book

England has produced a rich crop of fantasy writers who have latched onto the brilliantly coruscating speech of the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan Era. Their styles are at times midway between poetic and overblown. There is a framing story in which a narrator is escorted by a strange bird to the planet Mercury (?!), where there is a war between the Demons and the Witches. BTW, our narrator is dropped in the second chapter and is not heard from again.

Who are the good guys? Well, E. R. Eddison, the author of The Worm Ourobouros (1922) is content to follow both sides. Unlike Tolkien, there is no clear cut good or evil. In fact, good and evil seem to be intermixed. Here is a sample of the language:

Juss, Goldry, and Spitfire, and ye other Demons, I come before you as the Ambassador of Gorice XI., most glorious King of Witchland, Lord and great Duke of Buteny and Estremerine, Commander of Shulan, Thramnë, Mingos, and Permio, and High Warden of the Esamocian Marches, Great Duke of Trace, King Paramount of Beshtria and Nevria and Prince of Ar, Great Lord over the country of Ojedia, Maltraeny, and of Baltary and Toribia, and Lord of many other countries, most glorious and most great, whose power and glory is over all the world and whose name shall endure for all generations. And first I bid you be bound by that reverence for my sacred office of envoy from the King, which is accorded by all people and potentates, save such as be utterly barbarous, to ambassadors and envoys.

I am still in the beginning chapters of The Worm Ourobouros, so I have not made up my mind about the book—yet. Will I be enthralled by the poetic language, or slightly nauseated by the endless archaisms? Time will tell. On the plus side, my copy of the book has introductions by Orville Prescott and James Stephens (who wrote the truly poetic The Crock of Gold). His work is also admired by the likes of James Branch Cabell, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Silverberg, and C. S. Lewis.

There is to be a wrestling match to the death between Gorice XI of Witchland and Lord Goldry Bluszko of Demonland in lieu of an outright war (at least for the time being):

My hippogriff travelleth as well in time as in space. Days and weeks have been left behind by us, in what seemeth to thee but the twinkling of an eye, and thou standest in the Foliot Isles, a land happy under the mild regiment of a peaceful prince, on the day appointed by King Gorice to wrastle with Lord Goldry Bluszco. Terrible must be the wrastling betwixt two such champions, and dark the issue thereof. And my heart is afraid for Goldry Bluszco, big and strong though he be and unconquered in war; for there hath not arisen in all the ages such a wrastler as this Gorice, and strong he is, and hard and unwearying, and skilled in every art of attack and defence, and subtle withal, and cruel and fell like a serpent.

I have had this book on my shelves since the late 1960s, when I bought it from the famed sci-fi/fantasy bookstore called A Change of Hobbit while it was still located in Westwood. The bookstore is no more, but it left behind fond memories by many sci-fi writers, including Harlan Ellison, who once wrote an original story while sitting in the display window of the store with a typewriter.

Ah, those were the days.

Future Pastoral

Poet and Fantasy Writer Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961)

He was a strange sort of writer. One of the triumvirate of writers for which Weird Tales was known, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard, he is best known for his dark tales of fantasy. Of him, L. Sprague de Camp wrote, “nobody since Poe had so loved a well-rotted corpse.” Though his short stories may be a bit murky, they are great fun. If you should find copies of Zothique (1970), Hyperborea (1971), Xiccarph (1972), or Poseidonis (1973) in the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, I recommend you pick up a copy and read it. At his best, Smith is as least as good as Lovecraft at his best.

Smith was also an interesting poet in the same vein. Here is a sample:

Future Pastoral

Dearest, today I found
A lonely spot, such as we two have loved,
Where two might lie upon Favonian ground
Peering to faint horizons far-removed:

A green and gentle fell
That steepens to a rugged canyon’s rim,
Where voices of vague waters fall and swell
And pines far down in sky-blue dimness swim.

Toward the sunset lands,
A leafless tree, from tender slopes of spring,
Holds out its empty boughs like empty hands
That vainly seek some distance-hidden thing.

Strange, that my wandering feet,
In all the years, had never known this place,
Where beauty, with a glamor wild and sweet,
Awaits the final witchcraft of your face.

Upon this secret hill
I gave my dark bereavement to the sun,
My sorrow to the flowing air . . . until
Your tresses and the grass were somehow one,

And in my prescient dream I seemed to find
An unborn joy, a future memory
Of you, and love, and sunlight and the wind
On the same grass, beneath the selfsame tree.

Of his writing style, Smith has said, “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.” I think the above poem certainly qualifies.

The Danger of Denying the Existence of Dragons

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Here is the complete quote: “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January of this year, leaving me bereft of her elfin wisdom. Not entirely, because there are all those books and stories of hers, which I am still plodding my way through. Today, I finished A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), which contained three short stories that are to my mind the best stories ever written about space travel. They include “The Shobies’ Story,” “Dancing to Ganam,” and “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.”

That middle initial in her name, the “K,” comes from her father, Anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. What elevates Ursula from the technoid school of science fiction is her interest in exotic, invented cultures. These are best seen in her Hainish stories, which are my favorites among her works.  There is no end to the writing of fantasy stories, but somehow Ursula’s were special. They might be set in the distant future and on distant planets, but they involve real feelings among real beings. As she once said ,“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”  Well, she wrote those kind of books. In spades.

The Edition of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea That I Read

In the three stories I have mentioned from A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, there are two methods of space travel:

  • NAFAL, short for Nearly As Fast As Light. To the space travelers, the time expended in travel does not seem so long, but for those who have been left behind, years or even centuries pass.
  • Churten Theory, in which the travel is instantaneous. One could travel to Antares and be back for lunch. Travel via a Churten drive can be highly problematical, however, especially if the people traveling don’t get their stories straight or are incompatible in odd ways. “Wrinkles” in Churten travel can lead to strange results.

I look forward to reading (and maybe re-reading) several more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work this year.


There’s an App for That: A Fantasy

It Was the App to End All Apps!

It Was the App to End All Apps!

It all started in 2016 with an app called OmegApp, available simultaneously for the Android and iPhones. It was inevitable that a program like this would eventually make an appearance. Smart phone callers were running out of people to call, or even text. What OmegApp provided was a robotic interface that appeared to deeply care for anyone who communicated with it. The name of the interface was Tag. If you called Tag, Tag would reciprocate and call you back later, with occasional text messages stroking your ego in the meantime. (Tag’s ultimate message? “You’re IT!”)

Soon, the majority of all cell phone calls and texts were handled by the OmegApp system, which operated on five continents in over sixty languages. Before long, people would distractedly wander the streets with that sh*t-eating grin demonstrating that they were, in fact, wanted and needed by somebody (or something).

Of course, it had an immediately catastrophic effect on traffic—pedestrian, bicycle, and motorized.

In Cleveland, the Dotes twins, Mairzy and Doezy, were struck head-on by the 56A bus as it barreled down East 177th Street. Both the driver and the victims were on Tag at the time. In Santa Monica, a distracted little Lambsy Divey walked off the bluff overlooking the Coast Highway and ended up being run over half a dozen cars, all of whose drivers were texting on Tag.

One would think that there would be an outcry. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. The phone companies were making more money than ever, and those Tag users who didn’t end up a casualty felt happier than before. In fact, talking to Tag was more satisfying than sex and raising a family. In all probability, this may be curtains for the human race: Only the deaf and blind seem to be immune to OmegApp’s blandishments.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

In 1960, This Looked Ultra-Cool

In 1960, This Looked Ultra-Cool

It is always a good idea to re-examine from time to time a book or movie that had particularly impressed you. I decided yesterday to re-read A. E. Van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom (1957), which I first read around 1960, and twice subsequently. Its hero, Lord Clane is a mutant as a result of exposure to radioactivity. The time is at some remote point in the future, presumably after a nuclear war. All of Earth is under control of the House of Linn, which rules the planet as if it were the Roman Empire.

So very much, in fact, like the Roman Empire that the first half of the book was cribbed from Robert Graves’s 1934 classic I, Claudius. There is a one-to-one correspondence between Van Vogt’s characters and Graves’s Romans: Clane is Claudius; Creg, Germanicus; the Lord Leader, Augustus; Lydia, Augustus’s wife Livia; and Lord Tews, Livia’s son Tiberius. Only about 60% into the story does Van Vogt escape from his slavish borrowing. At least he doesn’t try to muddy his story by introducing an equivalent to Caligula. It bothers me that I did not notice all this when I re-read the book in 1990, years after I had read the Graves books and seen the BBC I, Claudius TV series.

Still, even with the plagiarism, there are numerous incongruities. The Linns have spaceships with which they conduct wars on Venus and Mars; yet their main weapons are bows and arrows, lances, and swords. They use nuclear energy, but regard it as a “gift from the gods.” Their gods, in fact, are Uranium, Plutonium, Radium, and Ecks (“X”?).

Well, then, what was it that drew me to this book? Pure and simple, I loved the cover (shown above). As a teen, I was a rather sickly individual with frequent headaches—by this time I already was suffering from the pituitary tumor (chromophobe adenoma) that was to reach a climax six years later. Clane was actually a handsome man provided he wore the flowing temple robes that hid his deformities:

After re-reading the message, [Clane] walked slowly to the full-length mirror in the adjoining bathroom, and stared at his image.

He was dressed in the fairly presentable reading gown of a temple scientist. Like all his temple clothing, the cloth folds of this concealed the “differences” from casual view. An observer would have to be very acute to see how carefully the cloak was drawn around his neck, and how tightly the arm ends were tied together at his wrists.

Whoever was responsible for the book’s dust jacket was a genius. Man, I wouldn’t have minded being a mutant if I had a face like that! But, like many teens, especially short, chubby ones, I used fantasy to escape the realities of my situation. Now, half a century and more onward, it doesn’t seem to matter as much any more. I am what I am, and I do not look unkindly on what and who I have become.

The Problem With Fantasy

I Like It As Much As the Next Man, But ...

I Like It As Much As the Next Man, But …

There is one problem with the fantasy genre. Because anything can happen in any which way, it is impossible to remember exactly what happens in a fantasy unless you have just finished it. There is a trivia quiz on Goodreads.Com of which approximately half the questions relate to Harry Potter or the Stephenie Meyer twinkling vampire romances. Now I have not read Meyer, but I have read all of the Potter novels. The trouble is, I can’t remember more than a few basic situations.

All those games of Quidditch, all those supernatural events concerning He Who Must Not Be Named, all those spells and magical devices and such—they have quite vanished from my mind. I ascribe this not to any rotting of my memory, but to the arbitrariness in the arrangement of events depicted in the novels.

The same goes for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, though not quite so much, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

I think you you really like a particular fantasy novel or series, you will eventually have to read it multiple times. During the process, you will probably discover that it is almost like reading it for the first time. That can be good … or bad.