Earlier this month month, we invited Black Gate readers to send us a one-sentence review of their favorite H.P. Lovecraft tale.
In return, we offered to give out two copies of S.T. Joshi’s major new horror anthology, The Madness of Cthulhu, Volume One, on sale this month from Titan Books. The winners were randomly drawn from a list of all qualified entries.
And what entries they were! This was the most popular contest we’ve run in some time — by a wide margin. Before we announce the winners, let’s have a look at some of the best entries. We can’t reprint them all, but we can share the Top 20 or so with you. (But fret not — all qualifying entries received before October 21 were included in the drawing.)
We left the choice of what story to review up to you, and we weren’t too surprised to find most of Lovecraft’s most famous stories represented — starting with one of the most famous horror stories in the English language. A reader who went simply by “Bob” kicked off the contest with his brilliantly concise entry:
What could possibly be better then rats…..in the walls?
The Rats in the Walls
Rich Miller beautifully sums up the appeal of this classic tale with his entry:
For fans of large rodents, ruined estates, underground caverns, degenerate humanity, and dark family secrets better left undiscovered, you can’t go wrong with this classic Lovecraft tale from 1924.
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Today I’m turning over the Black Gate rostrum to the talented Jonathan Wood. Take it away, Jonathan!
Doc Savage is one of the most influential and poorly known literary characters of all time. Forget Cthulhu, if you’re really looking for a pulp-era monster that’s torn through 20th century popular culture, he’s your man. But you won’t know him, because when you do encounter him, he’s always in disguise.
But make no mistake, he’s there. Because he’s Superman. He’s Indiana Jones. He’s every chisel-jawed action hero you can name.
Doc Savage first tore his way onto the bookshelves in the 1930s. The Man of Bronze. Golden-haired, golden-skinned, golden-eyed. A veritable Midas of two-fisted action. There wasn’t a problem he couldn’t punch out. There wasn’t a deus-ex-machina he couldn’t invent.
Seriously, what the A-Team needed a barn full of industrial machinery to invent, the Doc could probably do with a paperclip and some wax paper. He was the original infallible hero. Victory was assured.
And his true super-powers? Calisthenics and mathletics. This was pulp action madness at its deranged best.
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I recently bought a small collection of The Original Science Fiction Stories, a 1950s digest magazine that lasted for only 36 issues. I paid $18 for a dozen issues (including shipping), which was more than I usually pay for SF digests — but still a bargain, especially considering the great shape they were in. I was willing to pay a little more because I’ve had a hard time finding copies. Analog, Galaxy, F&SF — they’re all pretty easy to obtain in the same vintage. But Original Science Fiction Stories has done a good job of eluding me.
When they finally arrived, I was immediately struck by the cover art. It was vibrantly colorful and frequently gorgeous. But more than that, it was downright playful. Most SF magazines of the era took themselves very, very seriously, with intrepid, square-jawed explorers and sleek spaceships on their covers. But The Original Science Fiction Stories featured much more prosaic images, frequently showcasing less-than-heroic characters. They featured very ordinary-looking space pioneers reacting to an alien earthquake, a man on a remote planet hiding from a door-to-door salesmen, and a space-suited explorer dealing with an unexpected alien threat — a bird pecking at his air hose (all images above by Emsh).
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My colleague Bob Byrne has already introduced many new readers to August Derleth’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek exploits of the unlikely-named Sherlock Holmes-inspired consulting detective, Solar Pons of Praed Street.
Derleth loved tossing in nods to mystery works outside of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional universe. These included three memorable encounters with Sax Rohmer’s insidious Dr. Fu Manchu.
“The Adventure of the Camberwell Beauty” was the first of the appearances to see publication in 1958. The story presents an unnamed Dr. Fu Manchu hiring the celebrated consulting detective to recover Karah, his beautiful young ward, who has been abducted by his archenemy, Baron Corvus. The tale is set in the early 1930s and although the first chronicled, it is not our heroes’ first encounter with the Devil Doctor.
Structured as a tribute to Rohmer’s 1933 novel, The Bride of Fu Manchu, the story reveals Karah (named for Rohmer’s Karamaneh) as the granddaughter of the Devil Doctor. Showing a nice bit of fidelity to Rohmer’s early tales, the unnamed Doctor resides in an underground Thames-side lair in Limehouse.
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With my Vintage Treasures posts, I like to showcase the best overlooked fantasy of the past half century or so. American fantasy is an enormously rich genre, but it also has a notoriously short memory, and there are countless buried treasures to rescue from undeserved obscurity.
Of course, sometimes I like to forget all that and just showcase the weird.
Joseph Millard was an American pulp science fiction writer who published nearly a dozen short stories between 1941 and 1943, and then apparently gave up writing for good. Most of his stories appeared in magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, and other pulps. He died in 1989.
In November 1941, he published his only novel, The Gods Hate Kansas, in Startling Stories magazine. It was reprinted a decade later in the November 1952 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine, and then appeared in paperback in February 1964 from Monarch Books, with a brilliantly gonzo cover by Jack Thurston, featuring a raygun-wielding hero riding bareback on a little red number and giving the business to an earnest-looking bug-eye monster. I love this cover with a fierce passion, and I thank Joseph Millard for making it all possible. (Click the image at left for a mondo-sized version.)
The cover isn’t the only brilliant thing about this novel. There’s also the title. Why do the gods hate Kansas? What the hell did Kansas do, anyway? It’s one of those questions that brings you back to the paperback rack next to the checkout lane for a second look. Just 40 cents and the answer could be yours.
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The centennial of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character is a topic I have covered both for the anniversary of the Devil Doctor’s first appearance in the story, “The Zayat Kiss,” in 1912 and the publication of the first novel (really a fix-up of stories), The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, in 1913.
While Rohmer and the character are largely forgotten outside of pulp circles today, the legacy of the criminal mastermind is alive and well in film and comics. The concept of the Yellow Peril from an era when the broad term Oriental grouped together people from parts of Eastern Europe with all of Asia and the Middle East may sound anachronistic, but given the continued delicate relations between the Middle East and the West, those same fears personified are still the stuff of fiction and paranoia well over a century on.
Sax Rohmer did not invent the criminal mastermind, nor was he the first to capitalize on the Yellow Peril for works of fiction. What he did do was create an archetype that managed to embody and transcend the fears of a “foreign other” to instead personify the fear of Western society falling to a superior intellect operating under a completely different set of values. Rohmer did this better than anyone before and while Fu Manchu as a name may seem ridiculous, the concept of the character is still with us from James Bond films to the media’s portrayal of terrorist leaders in the 21st Century.
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The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who happens to be a pastor, and I took the opportunity to ask him a deep theological question: “If you had to choose one player to take one shot, with eight tenths of a second on the clock and the game on the line — to save your life – who would you choose?” (My friend, in addition to being an ordained minister, is also, like me, a devoted acolyte in the Church of the NBA.)
This is of course the sort of dangerous question that led to the Reformation and the Thirty Year’s War. Happily in this case no violence ensued, though his pick was Larry Bird and mine was Michael Jordan. Hey, if he wants to die while I live, that’s his business. (It helps a little that the first choice of each was the second choice of the other.)
What does this have to do with “Adventures in Fantasy Literature,” the avowed purview of Black Gate, you ask? Just this — it got me thinking about one of my favorite fantasists, one whom not enough lovers of the fantastic are acquainted with: Clark Ashton Smith. There are one hundred and fourteen stories in the five volumes of The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith. If I had a reader, willing but uninitiated, and had to pick one of those stories to introduce Smith with, (to save my life!) which one would it be?
Smith is a writer who can benefit from such an introduction; though he was one of the “Three Musketeers” of Weird Tales in its 1930′s heyday, he remains much less known than the other two-thirds of the trio. You could fill a phone book with the names of imitators of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, but, as Ray Bradbury said, Smith is “a special writer for special tastes; his fame was lonely.”
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We’re big fans of Lin Carter here at Black Gate. He was one of the most influential figures in 20th Century fantasy, chiefly as the editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy (BAF) line of paperback reprints, the six volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories, and the groundbreaking Flashing Swords! sword & sorcery anthologies. He was also one of the hardest working professionals in the genre. Carter edited a BAF volume every single month between May 1969 and April 1974 (65 total), and in the same time period produced over a dozen novels and numerous short stories.
Although his own fiction output was prodigious, Carter is remembered today chiefly as an editor rather than a writer. In his fond review of Carter’s 1984 novel Kellory the Warlock back in March, Fletcher Vredenburgh gave us a blunt assessment of his skill as a writer:
Poor Lin Carter: perhaps the greatest champion heroic fantasy ever had, an editor with few equals, one of the the most knowledgeable fan boys in the world, but a poor writer. I think he would have liked his stories and novels to be remembered more fondly than they are. I believe Kellory the Warlock proves he had the potential to have been a better writer…
Most of his fiction, rarely more than pastiches of his favorite authors (Howard, Burroughs, Lovecraft, and Dent), never garnered enough attention to be republished… Carter was no master stylist and it can get a little irritating. Most of the time, he was trying to create fun, quick reads that were recreations of his favorite writers. In a way, he was writing fan fiction; it’s just that he got his published.
Personally, I’ve always been curious about Carter’s Mars novels, since they seem to be more fondly remembered today than much of his other fiction. I’ve always assumed they were Burroughs pastiches, but the Author’s Note to the final volume, Down to a Sunless Sea, makes it clear that they were actually inspired by the Queen of sword-and-planet fiction, the great Leigh Brackett herself.
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Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I think he’s a taste you acquire young or not at all, and I missed the window by not reading any ERB before I turned 25. Talk about a wasted youth.
Of course, it’s entirely possible I simply haven’t read the right book yet. If I were going to be shipwrecked on a desert island tomorrow, and I just happened to get tipped off in advance, I would probably grab a copy of The Outlaw of Torn to bring with me. I’ve wanted to read it ever since I laid eyes on it many years ago, and I’ve had it recommended to me many times by ERB fans since.
At seventeen he was the greatest swordsman in England. At eighteen his reputation as a fearless outlaw had spread throughout the land and there was a tremendous price upon his head. At nineteen he was the leader of a fierce band of more than a thousand men, from nobleman to serf, the only requirements being willingness and ability to fight and an oath to obey the Outlaw of Torn.
Who was this Norman of Torn, the fame of whose daring exploits was ringing throughout the land? Where did he come from? Was he of noble blood or was he of commoner origin?
Through savage combats the Outlaw fights his way in his love for the beautiful daughter of the most powerful baron in England to find the secret of his birth.
On the other hand, our resident ERB expert Ryan Harvey didn’t think too much of The Outlaw of Torn, calling it “stodgy and drearily artificial; it lacks the zest of the best of Burroughs’s work” in his feature review. And Ryan has rarely steered me wrong. I suspect he’d suggest a different book for my ill-fated voyage. (Of course, a true friend might also suggest a different travel agent…)
The Outlaw of Torn was originally serialized in New Story Magazine starting in January 1914, and published in hardcover by McClurg in 1927. The Ace paperback edition above was published in 1965; it is 255 pages, priced at $0.75. The cover is by the great Roy Krenkel, Jr. (Click for bigger version.)
It’s almost too easy to get the complete works of H.P Lovecraft. Barnes and Noble, just for example, sells a handsome single-volume complete edition of his work (all 1112 pages!) for just $18. So why on earth would you ever want to spend your time and money collecting vintage paperbacks containing only a fraction of his complete works?
I made a half-hearted attempt to answer that question in the first article of this series, Collecting Lovecraft. Collecting is an emotional hobby, not a rational one, so trying to fathom the collecting urge purely on a rational basis is only going to get you so far. In truth, it usually boils down to something as simple as fondness for cover art, or nostalgia for the particular edition that first introduced you to an author.
Above you can see a colorful assortment of Lancer and Ballantine paperback editions of H.P. Lovecraft originally published between 1967 and 1973: The Colour Out of Space (1967), Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 2, edited by August Derleth (1969), The Shuttered Room and Other Tales of Horror, by Lovecraft and Derleth (1973), The Survivor and Others by Lovecraft and Derleth (1971), and The Spawn of Cthulhu, edited by Lin Carter (1971). Truthfully, I’m not too fond of these covers, and they don’t hold any particular nostalgia for me — they were all out of print long before I discovered Lovecraft. So why was I so determined to buy them?
Back in August the New York Times published a fascinating article about Zero Freitas, the Brazilian millionaire collecting every vinyl record ever made. I don’t mean one copy of every record, I mean every single piece of vinyl with music on it in the world. He’s amassed millions so far. I distinctly remember the first time I read the piece, I nodded along and thought, “Yeah, I get it.”
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