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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A Rogue’s Early Days: Yendi by Steven Brust

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_28150EMzOHUFYSteven Brust has written that Yendi (1984), second in his ongoing series about gangster Vlad Taltosis his least favorite book. As it’s only the second of his novels I’ve read, I can’t tell you where it falls on a greater continuum of his work, but I can tell you it’s a pretty good book. Sure, the book is flawed but the good bits far outweigh the bad. If this is the low point in the series then I’m REALLY looking forward to the later volumes.

The first book in the series, Jhereg (read my review here), introduces Vlad Taltos, a human assassin in a magic-heavy world ruled by the Dragaerans (who are pretty much elves). In that book Vlad finds himself forced into carrying out a complex assassination. Aided by his mini-dragon familiar, Loiosh, and several powerful and clever friends, he succeeds beyond his own expectations. It’s a blast and I’m grateful to Bill Ward for getting me to check it out.

Instead of taking the story forward, Brust goes back in time with Yendi. Here we learn how Vlad rose in the ranks of the mafia-like House Jhereg. By a combination of smarts, daring, and just enough violence he secures a position in the gangland ecology of the Dragaeran Empire’s capital city, Adrilankha. By book’s end he’s well on his way to becoming the successful racketeer we meet in the first book. Unfortunately for him things happen between the beginning and end of Yendi that make for a lousy time for Vlad, but a fast-paced story for us.

The book begins with Vlad learning that another low-level boss, a Dragaeran named Laris, has opened a gaming parlor in his territory. When confronted Laris is apologetic, and presents a series of nearly believable excuses. After the meeting Vlad informs his lieutenant, Kragar, that they have probably no more than two days to get ready for an all-out war. His intuition proves correct.

The war between Vlad and Laris is so violent that one of the five rulers of House Jhereg summons Vlad and tells him to handle his war with more subtlety, or else. Unfortunately, it’s too late to avoid the or else. Incensed by the steady string of fires and killings, the Dragaeran empress dispatches members of her Phoenix Guard to clamp down. There are curfews, restrictions on the size of gatherings, and all criminal operations are shut down.

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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’ 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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The Series Series: Diviners by Libba Bray

Friday, September 26th, 2014 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Diviners Libba Bray-smallWhat does YA urban fantasy need to breathe fresh life into its tropes? Prohibition! Not your first guess, either, was it? Yet it works beautifully.

Libba Bray set The Diviners and the series it opens in 1926, in a New York where all the superstitions have just become true, and all the forms of charlatanry have just started working. Most people don’t know it yet and the ones who find that they have powers they never believed in are still isolated and afraid.

The novel opens with two party tricks gone wrong. In Manhattan, a debutante desperate to liven up her birthday bash breaks out a Ouija board and releases something nasty. In Ohio, a girl with a world-class attitude shows off her talent for psychometry and the touch of the town golden boy’s class ring reveals his secrets to her.

She flaunts what she knows. The boy’s family is rich and powerful. Pretty soon, Evie O’Neill’s parents have to send her out of town to the farthest available relative on the soonest available train. A train to New York City, perhaps the only place on Earth big enough for Evie’s personality.

These two unquiet spirits, one living and one dead, circle around one another, both growing in power and community, through six hundred pages of suspense punctuated with bursts of laughter.

One of the things that impressed me most about The Diviners is that it’s a book about the Roaring Twenties written for a generation of readers who have, for the most part, never seen a black-and-white movie.

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Meet The Mad Mummy

Friday, September 26th, 2014 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

Mad Mummy 1I was first introduced to Mike Vosburg’s work through my love of Sax Rohmer. His wonderful artwork graced Master of Villainy, the 1972 biography of Rohmer by the author’s widow and Cay Van Ash. Later, I would discover Mike’s artwork also appeared in The Rohmer Review fanzine.

Many more years later, I was fortunate enough to have Mike provide the back cover illustration to my second Fu Manchu book. He also gave my daughter a gift of autographed copies of some of his professional work, which made her feel like the luckiest nine year old girl on the planet. I don’t claim to know the man well, but I adore his work and know him as a genuinely kind and generous artist.

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Vintage Treasures: Orlando Furioso, the First Big Fat Fantasy Ever?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014 | Posted by M Harold Page


Includes …a Hippogriff — winged horse born of a mare and griffin!

I’m reading Jack Campbell’s Lost Stars series – good rip-roaring Military Space Opera with a brain – and suddenly a Marfisa is talking to a Bradamante about a love interest called Ruggerio, and I almost fall out of my armchair laughing.

It’s an Easter Egg and it feels like it’s just for me, the thirteen year-old me to be precise, in the Penguin Classics section of Edinburgh’s now-defunct James Thin bookshop.

I’d made the amazing discovery that I could actually buy translations of the medieval books I’d read about.

I’d already wandered in a fervour through Malory’s Le Morte D Arthur — untranslated, actually, and I think it had an odd effect on my speech patterns at the time — and a verse translation of Beowulf. I’d discovered the French Arthurian writers, some actually pretty awful — just ‘cos it’s old doesn’t make it good! — and now I was looking for another breath of medieval air.

And there’s a black-bound book with knights on the cover. Orlando Furioso, the adventures of Charlemagne’s paladins… oh it’s Renaissance. Yuk.

But despite the late period cooties, I find myself looking at the “Characters and Devices” at the front…

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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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The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series: Land of Unreason by Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp

Monday, September 22nd, 2014 | Posted by westkeith

Land of UnreasonLand of Unreason
Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp
Ballantine Books (240 pages, January 1970, $0.95)
Cover art by Donna Violetti

Lin Carter ended the inaugural year of the BAF series with a reprint of a novel from the pulp Unknown, Hannes Bok’s The Sorcerer’s Ship. His first selection for the series’ first full calendar year was another tale from Unknown (the October 1941 issue), a collaboration between Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp.

Land of Unreason followed the first two Harold Shea stories among their collaborations. In this story, they introduce a new character, a young diplomat named Fred Barber, who is taking a medical rest in the Irish country-side.

One night, he notices his hostess leaving some milk out for the fairies, so that her infant son won’t be taken and a changeling left in his place. Fred is contemplating his bottle of single malt to help him get to sleep and decides he’s rather have the milk since that has been his proven cure for insomnia all his life. Also, milk is strictly rationed, and he doesn’t want to see it wasted. He drinks most of it, leaving just a little, into which he pours a generous amount of his whiskey.

Fred then goes to bed and quickly drops off to sleep. The fairy who finds the whiskey drinks it and gets plastered. Since he didn’t get any milk, he goes into the house to take the baby and leave a changeling. Only in his inebriated state, he takes Fred rather than the infant sleeping in the next room.

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