The Color Out of Time: Michael Shea Takes a Dip Into Lovecraftian Horror

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

The Color out of TimeI’ll mention this first about Michael Shea’s 1984 novel The Color Out of Time: the protagonists consume copious amounts of Wild Turkey. They fortify their coffee with it; they carry hip flasks full of it. This is a fact the narrator always notes casually in passing. Never are the potentially debilitating effects of alcohol mentioned; it simply occurs to the reader that these people might well be past the point of tipsy into “whiskey-river-take-my-mind” territory through much of the central action of the adventure. Perhaps that’s how they maintain their sanity. And make no mistake: sanity is but one of the possessions at stake for our heroes, because they have waded head-deep into Lovecraft territory. If they do manage to survive with their sanity intact, though, they might want to consider rehab.

The second thing I’ll mention is that because some of my own fictional excursions overlap with Shea’s foray into Lovecraftian horror — we tread similar unhallowed ground, digging up the bones of past masters of weird horror and coating them with fresh slime, if you will — I find myself contemplating the book not just as a critic but as a writer: appreciating moves he makes while noting missteps and potential pitfalls. Ultimately, Shea’s sequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space” is entertaining but slightly off, a tad unsatisfying, and I’ll try to pinpoint why — to isolate the juncture at which it diverges from Lovecraft’s vision and to articulate how this impacts the effectiveness of the tale. (For a different take on the book, check out Douglas Draa’s review for Black Gate last year HERE.)

The premise is straightforward enough. Take the story that is generally regarded as Lovecraft’s first successful amalgam of science fiction and horror, a blend that became his unique trademark (“The Colour Out of Space” is one of Lovecraft’s most highly regarded and was always, according to Wikipedia, the author’s personal favorite. For the sake of full disclosure, it ranks high on my list of best horror stories and is one of my top two or three favorite works by Lovecraft). Start from the central event of that tale, and then project its aftermath some sixty odd — very odd — years later.

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New D&D Monster Manual Unleashed on the World

Monday, September 29th, 2014 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

D&D Monster Manual Fifth EditionA fantasy roleplaying game is defined as much by the caliber of the villains and monsters as it is by the caliber of the players and heroes. Though Dungeons & Dragons has always been driven primarily by the imagination of the Dungeon Master and the players, the fact is that you can usually get only so far with just the Player’s Handbook (Amazon). It has the basic rules mechanics for playing the game, but lacks the array of exotic monsters necessary to populate – and threaten – the fantasy world that the characters are exploring.

With the arrival of the new 5th edition D&D Monster Manual (Amazon), that gap has now been alleviated. This book contains a beautifully-illustrated 350 pages of monsters, adversaries, and maybe even a few allies to introduce flawlessly into 5th edition games. The name really says it all; it is a manual full of monsters. There’s an appendix of “Miscellaneous Creatures” and one of “Nonplayer Characters” which are also useful, but there is one stand-out mechanic introduced that is worth mentioning in its own right, for those who might be wondering if the book is worth picking up.

Legendary Creatures

The manual contains a class of “Legendary Creatures” which “can take special actions outside their turns, and a few can exert power over their environments, causing extraordinary magical effects to occur in their vicinity.” In addition to these “legendary actions,” legendary creatures also sometimes come along with a lair, which gives the legendary creature ability to take extra “lair actions” and may have ambient powers, representing how the legendary creature’s power has physically warped the terrain of the lair.

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“Shardik, Shardik the Power Of God!”

Monday, September 29th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Shardik-smallMidway through Richard Adams’s doorstop of a book, Shardik (1974), I decided I had stumbled into the world’s longest parable.

Biblical parables are typically quite brief, but Adams pulls toward the opposite shore, reasoning that in thoroughness lies salvation. And why shouldn’t he? That tactic worked like gangbusters in his astounding debut, Watership Down (1972).

Shardik could indeed function as a serviceable doorstop, but to dismiss it out of hand would be a disservice to literature in general, and to fantasy novels in particular. Shardik is a brave, uncompromising examination of how “mere” mortals encounter and deify the exceptional, thus giving rise to portents, omens, prophecies, and ultimately continent-conquering religions.

In the case of Shardik, the talismanic inciting event takes the form of a gigantic bear, a bear of monstrous, prehistoric proportions, and this bear first flees a forest fire and then crashes, half-burned and exhausted, into a far-flung outpost of human civilization, Ortelga. Unfortunately – or not, depending on one’s point of view – the Ortelgans entertain a fervid belief that God’s manifestation on Earth will come in the form of a massive bear.

While Watership Down stayed locked within the heads of its rabbit characters, Shardik spends only a few pages at the outset inside the eponymous bear’s mind, just long enough to convince any alert reader that while Shardik may be a divine instrument, he is very much a bear, no more, no less, and will behave accordingly. After that, the story turns to Kelderek-Plays-With-Children, a hunter of simple tastes who first stumbles upon the injured, recovering bear-god.

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New Treasures: Sojourn: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction, edited by Laura K. Anderson and Ryan J. McDaniel

Friday, September 26th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Sojourn-smallWhere have all the excellent small press anthologies gone? Wait, here they are. Right in front of me.

Sojourn: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction looks like a splendid example. It’s edited by Laura K. Anderson (The Chronicles of Baxarlian) and newcomer Ryan J. McDaniel, and is available in both print and digital editions. It includes enticing new fiction from a delightful assortment of new and established names, including Matt Forbeck (Blood Bowl), James Lowder (Prince of Lies, Knight of the Black Rose), Elizabeth Roper, Wayne Cole, Hans Cummings, Dan Repperger, and many others.

The moon’s rings illuminate the desert path before you. Up ahead a ridge rises, obscuring the horizon. You cannot go back. There is nothing to go back to. A hundred worlds lie behind you and a thousand more lie ahead. You smell smoke in the air and hear a hint of music somewhere far away. One foot after another, you head toward the horizon, beckoned by the mystery of what lies beyond.

The fifteen stories in this collection portray remarkable worlds for you to visit. These are worlds unlike our own — worlds where a pastor attends the 68th Periodic Interspecies Theologians’ Conference; worlds where a boy goes on a spiritual journey in the mists of prehistory; worlds where humans are enslaved and one freed woman will do whatever it takes to save her species; worlds where humans, zombies, and vampires rub elbows in the office. We invite you on your own journey in the pages of Sojourn: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction, penned by the talented storytellers of the Fear the Boot podcast community. Some of these worlds will feel familiar, some will feel alien, and a few may entice you to sojourn just a bit longer.

Sojourn: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction was published by Fear the Boot on February 15, 2014. It is 302 pages, priced at $14.99 in trade paperback and $9.99 for the digital edition. Check it out.

Is Size Important? Or, The Short Story Anthology Examined

Friday, September 26th, 2014 | Posted by Violette Malan

Ellison DangerousIt’s well known in the publishing industry that anthologies don’t sell well. It may be a fact , but it’s one I don’t really understand. I’ve been buying and reading anthologies my whole life and I’m at a loss to explain why others don’t enjoy them as much as I do.

Anthologies come in different flavours, of course. There’s your original anthologies versus your reprint anthologies. Then there’s your single-author collections versus your multi-author. Original anthologies can come in either multi-author or single-author, and . . . well, I think you can do the math for yourselves.

Probably the most famous multi-author anthology of original stories is Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967). A glance through the table of contents is like reading a Who’s Who of famous and celebrated SF writers – many of whom were novices at the time of publication. There’s Robert Bloch, Philip Jose Farmer, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, Fritz Leiber, as well as Theodore Sturgeon, RA Lafferty, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny . . . okay, you get the idea.

Dangerous Visions, and its follow-up, Again Dangerous Visions, are examples of a themed anthology. In this case, writers had to create not only a story of the future, but the story had to show a dangerous future. Physically dangerous, like Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” or spiritually dangerous, like Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones” (my husband’s favourite story of all time).  Sometimes, the danger lay in the author’s pushing the envelope of what contemporary mores were, like Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” or Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah.”

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Art of the Genre: How Paizo Continues on Where Others Have Failed, a Review of Skull & Shackles Base Set

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014 | Posted by Scott Taylor

PZO6010_500One of the longest tenured game designers in RPG history has to be Steve Winter, as he started with TSR in the early 1980s and continued on with the company until roughly December 2012, when he was finally ‘let go’ by Wizards of the Coast.  If those 30 years translate to anything, I would think it is an in-depth knowledge of the business of RPGs.

Once Winter was on his own, he posted an incredibly candid blog article concerning how ‘broken’ a business model  any company building around an RPG actually is.  To sum it up, he basically indicated that after the three core books (Player’s Handbook, DMG, and Monster Manual), all other products are A: unnecessary to the system as a whole, and B: that continued supplements ‘break’ any game’s mechanic system eventually and require a ‘reset’ to both correct the system and also increase company profits which will have flagged since the initial release.

That said, it is easy to see why once powerful companies like TSR, FASA, Game Designers Workshop, and White Wolf eventually collapsed under the weight of an impossible business model.  It also helps us understand why self-replenishing profit systems like miniatures and cards actually do work as a business model in the hobby sector.  Look no further than Games Workshop to understand this, and later Wizards of the Coast with their Magic the Gathering bonanza, and finally Privateer Press with Warmachine & Hordes, that directly mimic Warhammer.

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Three Men And A Dog: The Elfin Ship by James P. Blaylock

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_222310129FBVSmfjWhen word comes to the good people of Twombly Town that the traders of Willowwood Village have vanished and the whole town has been abandoned, they are worried there will be no honeycakes from the great dwarf baker, Ackroyd, or elfin toys for Christmas. When the mayor calls for an expedition down the Oriel River to the city of Seaside to procure the cakes and toys from their source, the only man deemed capable of the task is the cheeser, Jonathan Bing. Despite his own misgivings, but to the townspeople’s delight, Bing agrees.

Clearly inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, The Elfin Ship (1982) is James P. Blaylock’s first published novel. Like Grahame’s book, it is a paean to adventure, home comforts, food, and male camaraderie. For those who take note of these things, only one female character makes a brief, wordless appearance and a second is just mentioned. Nonetheless, it’s not set in a world labeled “NO GIRLS!”, but rather one where the men are more interested in a good bottle of ale, good pipe tobacco, and a raft trip down a meandering river than the whereabouts of the absent women.

I’ve loved this book for decades and have read it several times over the years, chuckling each time. I was inspired to pick it up after reading and contemplating M Harold Page’s piece “Why Humorous Fantasy Isn’t Popular” here at Black Gate a few weeks ago. Most of the comedy here is gentle and might even be deemed old-fashioned. If that doesn’t deter you — and I don’t think it should — give The Elfin Ship a read for some good-hearted goofiness.

Jonathan Bing is a stolid man with little experience beyond the warm and comforting confines of his home, but one who has always dreamed of adventure. Among his prized possessions are several well-read volumes by G. Smithers of Brompton Village, with titles like The Tale of the Goblin Wood and The Troll of Ilford Hollow. When Mayor Bastable suggests to Bing he is a “stout enough lad to sail downriver yourself, all the way to Seaside with your cheeses and back again with cakes and elfin gifts,” despite some trepidation, the cheeser decides he is indeed the man best suited for the job.

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Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1966: A Retro Review

Saturday, September 20th, 2014 | Posted by Rich Horton

Fantasy and Science Fiction April 1966-smallI called the last magazine I covered (Fantastic for April 1960) “determinedly minor.” This issue of F&SF seems much more significant to me.

The cover is by Jack Gaughan, illustrating Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever novelet “The Sorcerer Pharesm.” The features include a Gahan Wilson cartoon, a poem by Doris Pitkin Buck, a very short science snippet by Theodore L. Thomas, Judith Merril’s Books column and Isaac Asimov’s Science column.

Asimov’s column is one of his lesser ones: little but a list of the Nobel Prize winners in the Science fields by nationality. That’s a long list, so it takes up most of his page count. He does a tiny amount of analysis of the numbers, but not much.

Merril begins by reviewing two very ’60s-ish popular science books: LSD: The Consciousness Inducing Drug (edited by David Solomon, with contributions from those you’d expect, like Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Timothy Leary), and Games People Play by Eric Berne. She recommends the LSD book, but is quite negative about Games People Play.

In the way of SF, she begins by looking at two John Brunner books, The Day of the Star Cities and The Squares of the City. She identifies the first as “up there with the best of his earlier work” and the second as a step beyond, building on his growth that started with The Whole Man. I think that jibes with the consensus view of Brunner’s career. She ends up saying, “[I]t leaves me very eager to see Brunner’s next.”

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New Treasures: A Discourse in Steel by Paul S Kemp

Monday, September 8th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

A Discourse in Steel-smallThere’s a school of thought in cover design that says that book covers with a heavy design element — as opposed to a reliance on artwork — are taken more seriously.

There’s something to this. A lot of bestsellers eschew artwork altogether in favor of design, and it seems to work just fine. When George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones became a bestseller, Bantam Spectra jettisoned the artwork by Stephen Youll that had been on the cover for nearly ten years, and replaced it with the boring cover you’re familiar with today. No artwork, just a shining sword. Most mainstream readers won’t buy a book that looks too much like a fantasy novel — or at least, that’s the theory.

That was the first thing I thought of when I saw the cover of Paul S. Kemp’s  A Discourse in Steel, the second novel in his Tales of Egil & Nix series. It’s a sharp cover, actually, with a clear adventure fantasy theme. The lack of artwork and focus on design brought A Game of Thrones to mind (maybe it’s supposed to). But I also found it a little generic.

Here’s the book description.

Egil and Nix have retired, as they always said they would. No, really – they have! No more sword and hammer-play for them!

But when two recent acquaintances come calling for help, our hapless heroes find themselves up against the might of the entire Thieves Guild.

And when kidnapping the leader of the most powerful guild in the land seems like the best course of action, you know you’re in over your head…

A hugely-enjoyable stand-alone adventure in classic sword and sorcery mode, from the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Deceived and The Hammer and the Blade.

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Self-Published Book Review: Malarat by Jessica Rydill

Sunday, September 7th, 2014 | Posted by Donald Crankshaw

Malarat - eBook Cover DisplayingIf you have a book you’d like me to review, please see the submission guidelines here. I’ve run short on books that I’ve received in the past year, so anything new has a good chance of being reviewed.

This month’s self-published novel is Malarat by Jessica Rydill. The book is the third book in Ms. Rydill’s shamanworld series, but also a standalone novel. The novel takes place in a world much like our own, with France (called Lefranu), England (Anglond), Jews (Wanderers), and Christians (Doxans). But these analogs are not exact (for example, the Doxans elevate Megalmayar, the Mother of God, to the position of a goddess) and there are also a number of things that are very different, such as the Great Cold, that isolated a portion of Lefranu so that it remained stuck in Medieval times while the rest of the world advanced to what most closely resembles the late 19th and early 20th century, complete with trains, firearms, and electricity.

The novel focuses on Annat Vasilyevich and her father, Yuda, two Wanderers who are also shaman, who have a number of magical (or psychic) abilities, such as communicating by thought, traveling to other worlds, and blasting things with shaman fire. They have been asked by the rulers of Masalyar, a large city-state in Lefranu, to investigate the rise of Clovis, a new claimant for the crown of Lefranu, who has the support of the Duc de Malarat, a powerful duke, and the Canes Dei, Doxan warrior-priests with a reactionary theology and an invention, the Spider, which they can use to overcome shaman. The Canes Dei are led by the beautiful but brutal Valdes de Siccaria. Yuda is a former Railway guard, who has connections among the Railway workers, but he was crippled in a previous adventure. He plans on disguising himself as a pilgrim seeking the blessing of the new king. They are accompanied on their mission by Yuda’s non-shaman son Malchik, Malchik’s lover, Camille, and their newborn daughter, Annat’s current lover Genie and ex-husband Cluny, Yuda’s apprentice Huldis, the railway workers Nico and Lukacs, and the nuns Sister Coty and Mother Kana. This is admittedly a large cast, but they soon split into smaller parties, with Annat and Genie staying in the city of Yonar in order to defend it. There they are joined by Casildis, Huldis’s sister, and her husband, Sergey Govorin, and the shaman Semyon Magus. The others continue on toward their fateful encounter with Clovis’s forces.

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