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Books To Look For
I WONDER how many of you reading this are like me when it comes to non-fiction and anthologies/collections. I read the introduction first off, but after that I rarely go to the beginning and read straight through to the end (for which I offer my apologies to the authors who, even in a non-fiction book, have carefully worked out a flow from start to end, and the editors who have agonized over the placement of stories in the anthologies they curate).
I've no idea why I do this. I do know I usually have up to a dozen or so of such books on the go at any one time—not to mention various magazines, newspapers, blogs, etc.—and flit from one to the next like a bee gathering pollen. I can tell you that one of the few autobiographies I've read from start to finish is Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume 1, but that's probably because he wrote it the way I would normally read it, jumping from one part of his life to another, rather than telling his story in a linear fashion.
But the point of all this is that I don't cover as many anthologies and works of non-fiction in this column as I read on a regular basis because it actually takes me so long to finish the books. I'm sure if you add up the word count I read more of them than I do novels.
And let's face it: Most readers prefer novels, so it makes sense to review more of them here. Still, one of my personal mandates for this column has always been to present you with a certain percentage of material that you might not otherwise run across, or see reviewed, so this time out I'm going to focus on a number of non-novel titles that I've been reading these past months.
The Classic Horror Stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Oxford University Press, 2013, $24.95.
If you've been reading in the field as long as I have, you might wonder to yourself as you pick up The Classic Horror Stories, do we really need another Lovecraft collection? Especially considering that the nine stories featured here are relatively easy to track down on their own for much less than the price tag on this new Oxford Press edition.
The answer is, we don't.
It's a beautiful edition, from its understated cover art through to the forty-plus pages of explanatory notes collected in the appendices. These are the classic Cthulhu Mythos stories—the backbone of Lovecraft's posthumous fame in the field. Now, granted the prose can sometimes be a bit overwrought. And the slow pace might put off the urban/vampire/werewolf crowd. But regardless of Lovecraft's apparent shortcomings as a stylist (especially for a contemporary audience), there is still undeniable power to his work. He is, after all, the master of the cosmic horror story, which has trickled down to everything from the work of Stephen King and James Herbert to movies like Alien—not to mention all those wonderful B-horror movies that I remember seeing at all-night marathons when theaters did that sort of thing.
For me, the most appealing element of this collection is Roger Luckhurst's introduction. In just a couple dozen pages he presents what's basically the perfect Introduction to Lovecraft 101, setting Lovecraft and his work into the context of the times in which he lived and the state of fiction at the time, exploring the writers who influenced him (such as Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen) and those he influenced (pretty much anybody working in horror once his work appeared in paperback in the tail end of the sixties).
Over the years I've read a lot of books and essays about Lovecraft and his work. So far as I'm concerned, Luckhurst's succinct overview and analysis is one of the best. If you're at all curious about Lovecraft, it's worth checking out.
As an amusing aside, Luckhurst mentions that as far back as the 1880s there was already a term for fiction that "seems exactly concerned with what defies fixity or boundary." In those days these sorts of slippery-to-define stories were simply called "weird." So no need for us to go looking for new terms such as interstitial.
Spectrum 20: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, edited by Cathy Fenner & Arnie Fenner, Underwood Books, 2013, $35.
Art lovers will no doubt be happy to know that 2013 brought us another volume in the Spectrum series. I have the complete set to date and they're a joy to revisit. They cover every form in the field—book covers, interior art, comics, advertising, statues, toys, you name it—as well as every medium, from the traditional arts to digital.
Unlike many best-of-the-year books, Spectrum has a jury to choose what appears in its pages, with the art taken from submissions made by artists or their representatives. Every year there's a different jury, but every year the quality of art presented remains high. Printed on heavy, slick stock, these are gorgeous books.
This is the twentieth anniversary of the Spectrum series and I was struck by one particular thing as I was reading it: in twenty years, fantasy art hasn't really changed that much. I don't say this as a negative. The artists in the field—and especially those who appear here—are doing fabulous work and I've thoroughly enjoyed this book.
But you'd think it would have changed more.
One only has to compare the art of the fifties to that of the seventies, the sixties to that of the eighties, to see big differences in terms of style and theme. But the past few decades—even given the rise of anime/manga and digital art—fantasy/sf/horror art seems to have settled into something that works, so I suppose artists and art directors would say, why change it?
Spectrum 20 is also the last volume edited by the Fenners and published by Underwood Books. John Fleskes will edit the next volume and it will be interesting to see what changes, if any, it will offer. Maybe it will include cosplay, since costuming has really evolved from the early days of its birth at sf conventions. These days many cosplayers are creating original characters, and I'm anticipating a crossover where instead of the costuming being based on books or films or comics, the costumes/characters will be the origin of the creative endeavor.
For all I know it's already happening.
Past Masters and Other Bookish Natterings, by Bud Webster, The Merry Blacksmith Press, 2013, $19.95.
Want to know more about the history of the sf/fantasy field and the writers working in it, back in the day? Bud Webster is your go-to guy, and this collection of essays will lighten your pocketbook, or start you on the first of many trips to the library, because once you've read Webster's take on these authors, you'll want to read their fiction. I know it got me wanting to reread many of these classics, a project made easier by the handy bibliography of stories and novels included at the end of each essay.
Webster has a conversational tone to his writing, but it's backed by a seriously extensive knowledge of the field. And no matter how well I thought I knew some of these writers, he still found something new to tell me.
C. L. Moore. William Tenn. R. A. Lafferty. Judith Merril.
If these names, and those of the others written about here, don't mean much to you, I highly recommend you check out Webster's chapters on them and find out why you should be reading them.
I love the idea of a younger reader dipping into this book and then going on to try, say, Clifford D. Simak, and falling in love with his work the same way that so many of us did when his books first came out.
And just in case you think this is all nostalgia and living in the past, the collection ends with a handful of recent dialogues Webster had with Jerry Pournelle in the pages of The SFWA Bulletin. Back when I was a member of SFWA, my favorite part of The Bulletin was similar ones that Mike Resnick did with Barry Malzberg.
The dialogues reprinted here are like listening in on a frank conversation between a couple of writers. They cover the importance of research, the differences between sf and fantasy, and the pros and cons of digital vs. paper as a delivery system for story. The latter has a copyright date of 2013, but it's got to be older than that. The points being made are still valid on both sides of the argument, but the tech described will make you smile. At any rate, I did. But at least Pournelle could look ahead and see how smart phones would change everything.
But then he would. He's an old-school sf writer who learned his chops back when sf took current sciences and projected how they would grow and change in the future.
War over Lemuria, by Richard Toronto, McFarland & Company, 2013, $45.
While I had certainly heard of Ray Palmer and Richard Shaver prior to my starting this book, I had no knowledge of the "Shaver Mystery" controversy from the last half of the 1940s.
It involved a secret language that Shaver said he'd discovered, as well as the history of extremely advanced prehistoric races that had built cavern cities inside the Earth before abandoning Earth for another planet due to damaging radiation from our Sun. But they left behind some of their offspring who could speak to certain humans (such as Shaver) and projected tormenting thoughts and voices into their minds.
And—reminiscent of Whitley Streiber, who claims to have been abducted by aliens—Shaver claimed to have been the captive of these beings.
Information about the mysterious beings appeared in Amazing Stories, then under editorship of Ray Palmer, and became so popular it's estimated that between 1945 and 1948, Shaver Mystery content was featured in almost seventy-five percent of the magazine's content.
Readers wrote in, telling of their own experiences with the ancient beings, infuriating other fans who claimed it was all a hoax to drive up sales of the magazine. Shaver Mystery clubs sprang up around the country, and even the mainstream press reported on it as the controversy raged on.
Richard Toronto lays out the whole story here—or at least as much of it as he can, never having lived inside Richard Shaver's head—and it makes for fascinating reading, not only for the mystery itself, but also for the insight it gives us into the times when it all took place.
I gather that Mr. Toronto has self-published a follow-up book called Shaverology, but I haven't seen a copy of it myself, just its listing on www.shavertron.com.
Jeffrey Jones: The Definitive Reference, by Patrick Hill, Chad J. Kolean, Emanuel C. Maris & J. David Spurlock, Vanguard Publishing, 2013, $39.95.
Heroic fantasy was everywhere in the 1970s and Frank Frazetta was the king of the book covers. I can admire the power of his lines, the drama of his design, but my own favorite at the time was Jeffrey Jones. So while I passed on Vanguard's early title Frazetta: The Definitive Reference, I wasn't able to do so when this Jones title was released.
His art was my door into the work of some of the writers I treasure most from that time: Fritz Leiber. Thomas Burnett Swann. The Bran Mak Born and Cormac Mac Art books by Robert E. Howard.
Now unlike most art books, this is more a catalog of everything Jones has done, including book covers, art prints, portfolios, sequential work, convention programs, etc. There are a few full-page pieces but most of the art is the size of large thumbnails, with descriptions as to where it appeared. There are a few short essays sprinkled throughout as well, but for deeper biographical information and larger depictions of the art, you'll have to look elsewhere.
I especially enjoyed the foreword by Bernie Wrightson and the afterword by Michael Wm. Kaluta, in which they each take a turn at describing their first meeting with Jones. The three of them (along with Barry Windsor-Smith) went on to have a studio together for a number of years, and the over-sized art book The Studio, which came out of that association, is well worth tracking down.
The Treasury of the Fantastic, edited by David Sandner & Jacob Weisman, Tachyon, 2013, $19.95.
I always cringe a little when I see an anthology like this. With the fantasy boom still going strong (albeit in slightly different costumes: the barbarians, elves, wizards, and such have, for the most part, given way to vampires, werewolves, and witches), publishers will still grab a bunch of early stories (usually in public domain), slap some kind of "history of" or "the best of" title on it, and send it out into the world, where it will be met with indifference, or what can be worse, by someone eager to discover the real roots of the field, only to be disappointed by the large preponderance of dull material suffocating a few good stories.
Except on a closer look, I realized that The Treasury of the Fantastic truly is a treasury of wonderful stories. Granted there are some of the usual suspects such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," an M. R. James ghost story, Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," an Oscar Wilde fairy tale—all fine stories, without a doubt. But further investigation proved to me that the editors know their material, and know what they're doing.
Lovely, inventive choices abound: "The Golden Key" by George MacDonald. The whole of Rosetti's "Goblin Market." Yeats's gorgeous "The Stolen Child," which has inspired any number of musical collaborations, from The Waterboys to Loreena McKennitt, but needs no music to sing from the page as it's presented here. Robert Louis Stevenson's creepy "The Bottle Imp." Kenneth Grahame's "The Reluctant Dragon." Robert W. Chambers's "Cassilda's Song," in which one can hear the poetic cadence that Lovecraft would come to borrow years later.
And then come the surprises. Fantasy/horror from Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Edith Nesbit. Rudyard Kipling's "They," which I haven't read in forever. "The Mysterious Stranger" by Mark Twain, which I didn't even know existed.
Turns out there's not a dud to be found. I hope this ends up in many libraries—particularly school libraries where, one might wish, that at least a few times a year it will prove to be the catalyst to an appreciation of the fantastic for some young reader who is of just the right age to be swallowed whole by its sense of wonder in the same way so many of us were in our own teenage years. And after that, one can also hope that they'll use the stories and authors found in this treasury as a roadmap to the other marvels to be found in the early history of our field.
A few converts along those lines would make this book's existence all that more essential.
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martin's Griffin, 2013, $22.99.
Every year The Year's Best Science Fiction provides pretty much the best bang for your short story buck. I've been reading these anthologies for years and I'm lucky in that it appears that the editor's taste and my own overlap a great deal since I rarely find a clunker, and invariably discover a handful of stories that become real favorites, such as Megan Lindholm's "Old Paint" or "Close Encounters" by Andy Duncan in this particular volume.
I also enjoy the twenty-plus pages of "Summation: 2012" section, which brings me up to date on the past year's goings-on in the field.
There are other best-of-the-year anthologies, but this is one of the longest running and easily my favorite.
Writers Workshop of Science-Fiction & Fantasy, edited by Michael Knost, Seventh Star Press, 2013, $17.95.
I'm not going to say that I don't have anything more to learn as a writer. I don't care where you are in your career, there's always something more you can learn. But that's a by-product of why I'll read a book such as this. Mostly I read them because I'm interested in the creative process and fascinated in how others go about pulling their own something out of nothing.
It doesn't matter the medium. I'll read interviews with visual artists, musicians, choreographers, whomever. And there are lots of great pieces collected here, some essays, but also many interviews.
But I can also recommend it as an excellent how-to book because, with all the various voices presented, it ends up following my own philosophy in terms of how one writes a story: there is no single correct method. It really does boil down to what works for you. However, it's very useful to have in your mental toolbox a great number of options about how you can go about creating compelling characters and stories.
No matter what kind of story you want to write, there's a good chance you'll find an approach you'll want to try here, especially with the advice coming from such a diverse group. You'll hear from Neil Gaiman to Joe Haldeman. Tim Powers to Urusla K. Le Guin by way of Pamela Sargent, Harry Turtledove and so many others.
Will it make you a better writer?
Not without your putting in a lot of work, because there's no quick and easy method to any creative endeavor.
But it's entertaining as well as informative, and it won't hurt your chances.
And now back to our regularly scheduled column for at least a couple of titles.…
Butterfly Gate, by Benjamin Read & Chris Wildgoose, Improper Books, 2013, $12.99.
Once upon a time readers of both books and comics chose much of what they would read by who published it. Collectors tried to get all the Ace doubles, or every DAW book. They would search out majors like Bantam Spectra or Ballantine; small presses such as Donald M. Grant Books or Arkham House.
And for all the indie comic publishers available now, these days it's still pretty much DC versus Marvel, just as it was back then.
We trusted the editors at our favorite houses. If we fell in love with a fantasy series published by Doubleday or Tor, we'd be more likely to try an author we didn't know published by the same house.
I suppose, in some regards, it's still true today, though not so much for me. I think it's mostly because rather than presenting creators with a similar flair of talent, today's houses publish books and comics that are fairly interchangeable, and that's not what I'm looking for.
But I can feel a draw to Improper Books that reminds me of the old days. Not so much in the style of what they're publishing as in the high quality of the work and the fact that, so far, each project has been entirely different from the one before.
A few columns ago I wrote about Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale by Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose. The pair are back with Butterfly Gate, which is about a pair of truly amoral kids who find a gate into another world. The art's different from Porcelain but just as wonderful, while the writing—well, I'll get to that in a moment.
Knight & Dragon is a delightful all-ages take on an encounter between the titular characters, wonderfully rendered in Musson's cartoony style. Dragon attacks village, maiden in peril, villagers request help from the noble knight. But the conclusion isn't as straightforward as the set-up—mostly because this is like a choose-your-own-adventure book. The reader picks one of six characters and follows their story. You can't begin at the opening pages and read your way through.
It's fun and quite fascinating how your perspective of the story changes depending on which character you're following—even though each storyline borrows pages from the others.
This technique might seem a little gimmicky, just as the fact that Butterfly Gate is told entirely in art: there are no captions, no word balloons. Read and Wildgoose manage all sorts of complexity and subtlety using just the art.
But although both stories use a gimmick, that doesn't change the fact that the actual narratives are good and the art is terrific.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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