Teaching and Fantasy Literature: The Once and Probably Not Future Mythology Class

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 | Posted by Sarah Avery

For a week, I experienced the delightful illusion that I held the whole tradition of myth and mythic literature in my head at once. Gilgamesh to Gaiman, it floated in a perfect structure of interconnectedness. I could see through time. Then I wrote the final exam, and the illusion dissolved instantly.

I’ve had a weird week of synchronicity in which several people, none of whom could possibly know each other, have asked me what I miss about classroom teaching. The question has conjured up the best classroom teaching experience I ever had, in all its problematic glory. It began with a situation that reads like the set-up for an Amanda Cross murder mystery.

Back in the mid-1990’s, before some of my current students were born, I taught this Intro to Myth course that had its origins in a semi-scandalous departmental power grab–the oldest codgers in the English Department were trying to maneuver the university into abolishing the Comparative Literature Department. One of their moves was to offer a knock-off version of the one undergraduate class Comp Lit could always get full enrollment for–the course that made it possible for my Comp Lit grad student friends to pay their rent and eat. That’s not hyperbole. I had classmates who lived in their cars during the summer because without their school-year teaching paychecks they had to choose between food and shelter.

The codgers offered me a break from teaching endless sections of Freshman Composition. Come teach Intro to Mythology, they crooned, invent the whole syllabus to your own liking, set a precedent for how your fellow grad students will teach it here in English. All you have to do is take food from the mouths of your friends and help us destroy their department before it can confer their degrees.

If I had turned the codgers down, they’d have found some other grad student hungry enough to do it for them. So I made it my mission to give them a magnificent, kickass course of a kind they would never want to run again. They would look upon the precedent of my syllabus and shudder.

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Jolly Blackburn’s Knights of the Dinner Table #191 Shipping Next Week

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

kodt-191Time to remind all you people that you should be reading Knights of the Dinner Table.

Why? Because it’s one of the best comics on the market. And for gamers it’s a lot more than that — it’s one of the finest magazines out there, packed with articles, reviews, and ads for the best new games.

Knights of the Dinner Table follows the misadventures of a group of misfits from Muncie, Indiana, whose love of gaming routinely trumps normal social conventions, and occasionally even their sense of self preservation. If you’re a Black Gate reader you’re already familiar with the Knights: the Java Joint strip in the back of every issue draws from the same cast of characters. Knights of the Dinner Table: The Java Joint, collecting the complete Black Gate strips, is now available in print and PDF.

You can try KODT for free online with the weekly Knights of the Dinner Table web comic. The current “Celebrity Hack” strip, featuring Seinfeld characters playing Hackmaster, is more than worth the trip.

In addition to a great cover by artist George Vrbanic, spoofing the original Unearthed Arcana art by Jeff Easley, issue 191 features 8 complete comic strips, plus feature articles including “Siftings of a Hoarder’s Lair: An inventory of things found in a Kobold’s Lair,” by Barbara Blackburn. This issue’s GameMaster’s Workshop looks at Bait and Tackle: Adventure Hooks on the Fly, Denizens of Tellene: Shazahn Ghanim, and Gaming the Movies covers the film Outpost.

All that plus regular columns Tales from the Table, Web Scryer: the Best of the RPG Web, and reviews of Masque of the Red Death, The Drifter’s Escape, The Tempus novels, Ugg-Tect, Flapjacks & Sasquatches, and Decktet. See this complete list of contents here

Knights of the Dinner Table is published monthly by Kenzer & Company. Issues are 64 pages, black & white, and priced at $5.99. It gets my highest recommendation.

Pet Shop of Horrors

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 | Posted by MichaelPenkas

pet-shop-of-horrorsOriginally a series of short stories appearing in manga (Japanese comic book) anthologies, Pet Shop of Horrors premiered on the Tokyo Broadcasting System as a series of short animated clips in 1999. Viewers would see a two-minute piece (usually between music videos or short films) every few days until an entire episode was completed. Four whole episodes were broadcast before the animated series was discontinued. The collected episodes were released in North America in 2000 by Urban Vision.

The set up of each episode begins in Chinatown (we’re never told what city, but an educated guess would be Los Angeles). A secluded pet shop, run by the mysterious Count D, purports to sell “love, hope, and dreams” to its varied clientele in the form of exotic pets. Each customer must sign a contract promising, among other things, to not show the pet to anyone else. The consequences of breaking any of the terms of the contract are dire. Among the pets sold in these four episodes are an evil rabbit (don’t laugh … it’s Watership Down-style evil), a gorgon, a mermaid, and a kirin (an ancient creature that grants wishes at a terrible cost). It’s clear that the Count also sells plain old dogs and cats; but he seems to reserve the exotic beasts for those clients in need of a blood-soaked moral lesson.

The series is like a cross between The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt, with Count D acting as both narrator and instigator of these bizarre little tales. A subplot running through all four episodes concerns police detective Leon Orcot, who knows that something unseemly is happening at the pet shop, but of course doesn’t guess at the supernatural. He provides the perfect foil/audience for these stories and, as the series moves on, begins to go to the count more as an informant than a suspect. It’s easy to imagine an awkward friendship emerging between the two characters, had the series been allowed to continue.

While I’m normally a bit of a purist (maybe snob) about dubbing, the English voice cast for this series was simply amazing. John DeMita plays Count D as an androgynous male without ever slipping into any sort of effeminate parody.  He’s a thin ghost in a kimono whispering hideous secrets. Alex Fernandez plays Leon Orcot as a tough cop who is neither stubborn nor dull-witted, an intelligent detective who can adapt to the fantastic dramas of the series. The commentary track has a wonderful and funny conversation between DeMita, Fernandez and Jack Fletcher (voice director for the English adaptation of the series) and is one of the best I’ve ever heard.

The series only ran four episodes and came out more than a decade ago, so it was never terribly popular in the United States; but if you can find a copy, pick it up. Just creepy fun.

Josh Wimmer Reviews Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 | Posted by Bill Ward

everythingineed-toknowilearnedfromdungeonsdragonsEverything I Need to Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons
Shelly Mazzanoble
Wizards of the Coast (192 pp, $12.95, September 2011)
Reviewed by Josh Wimmer

I have my first-edition AD&D Monster Manual open on my desk, and I’m looking at the entry for “mimic.” As many of you will likely recall, a mimic is a creature that disguises itself as something else — a chest, maybe, or a door — to fool unwary adventurers.

That is where my head went after reading Shelly Mazzanoble’s second book; she is a bit of a mimic. I don’t mean that she cannot stand sunlight or that she resembles stone or wood — hey, this is not a perfect analogy — or even that her armor class is only 7. I bet it is at least 5. She strikes me as dexterous (not to mention closer to chaotic good than true neutral).

No, what I mean is that Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons, while delightful, struck me as only tangentially “One Woman’s Quest to Turn Self-Help Into Elf-Help,” as the subtitle puts it.

Mazzanoble is fun to spend time with. Most of the book is concerned with her relationships with her mom, Judy (this is the mom ur-name, I think), and boyfriend, Bart. Judy has a lot of advice to offer, much of it on the subject of Mazzanoble and Bart’s love life. Mazzanoble clearly adores her mother — they talk daily, which I can accept intellectually is a beautiful thing, for someone else who is not me — but she gets justifiably fed up when Judy starts sending her an unending stream of books like The Secret.

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New Treasures: Dreadfleet

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

dreadfleetThere are games that are perfect for an impulse buy, and there are games you need to budget for. And then there are games that you lust after for months, scrimping and saving, until you’ve collected enough pennies to seal the deal.

Such a game is Dreadfleet, a prize I’ve been eyeing for many months. It finally arrived on Friday, and I’ve been cooing over it ever since. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but I’m sure if I leave it out where Drew can find it, he’ll ask to play it with me.

Dreadfleet is a tabletop miniatures board game from Games Workshop, which means it comes packed with dozens of great toys and a fabulous back story. The back story this time deals with the dread pirate Captain Roth, sailing the high seas to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the Vampire Count Noctilus. Dreadfleet is set in Games Workshop’s popular Warhammer universe, and was designed by Phil Kelly with art by John Blanche and Alex Boyd.

Captain Roth’s hunt for the legendary Dreadfleet has led him deep into the fabled Galleon’s Graveyard. With the aid of the world’s most dangerous pirate lords, the Captain intends to send the Vampire Count Noctilus to a watery grave. Yet the count has allies too, each at the helm of a gigantic and unnatural warship. Can the pirate lords battle through legions of skeletal sailors, zombie sea monsters, and hurricanes of raw magic to slay the master of the Galleon’s Graveyard once and for all?

Dreadfleet is a game for two players that allows you to enact an intrepid vampire hunt in a nautical otherworld. One player commands the pirate lords of Sartosa whilst the other controls a coalition of dark and dangerous Undead captains. Dreadfleet is quick to learn but hard to master, and provides countless hours of swashbuckling fun, thunderous broadsides, and heroic derring-do as you navigate twelve exciting scenarios. Will the Captain get his vengeance upon his deathless nemesis, or will the Galleon’s graveyard claim their lives too?

Vampire lords, zombie sea monsters, undead pirates, strange magics… what more could you ask for? The action takes places on a gorgeous seascape mat measuring 5 feet by 3.5 feet, involving 10 miniature warships averaging around three to four inches. The miniatures come unpainted and require assembly, so bear that in mind if you expect to pick it up and be playing in minutes.

The game is designed for two players, but includes scenarios playable by up to ten. Although Games Workshop has a reputation for producing countless supplemental miniatures (just look at their Warhammer 40,000 line), as far as I can tell, Dreadfleet is a stand-alone product with no plans for auxiliary units.

Dreadfleet was published by Games Workshop in October 2011; it retails for $114.99. It is recommended for ages 12 and up.

Meeting Your Heroes: David Kyle

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

a-pictorial-history-of-science-fictionThere are a handful of people whom I credit with introducing me to science fiction.

The first was my classmate John MacMaster, who brought me two science fiction novels when I was bedridden for a few days in the seventh grade. The second was Jacques Sadoul, whose 2000 A.D.: Illustrations From the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps turned my early curiosity into a full-fledged obsession with early SF and fantasy magazines. The third was Isaac Asimov, whose pulp anthology Before the Golden Age and Foundation Trilogy thoroughly captured my young imagination.

The man who cemented that early interest, and who brought all my young obsessions together — monster movies, pulps, magazines, comics, Star Wars, and even Isaac Asimov — and showed me that they were all aspects of the rich branch of art and literature known as Science Fiction, was David Kyle.

He did this through two magnificent books that I read over and over again as I lay in bed much too late on school nights: A Pictorial History of Science Fiction (Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1977) and The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (Hamlyn, 1977).

Both books were very popular in the 70s, especially following the release of Star Wars and the surge of interest in all things science fiction. Deluxe oversize hardcovers copiously illustrated with pictures of early SF writers, pulp art, and numerous books cover and movie stills, they were immaculately designed and gorgeous to look at. But it was Kyle’s text that really drew me in. Here was a man who had been a part of science fiction since its earliest days — a Futurian who attended the first Worldcon in 1939 and a founder of Gnome Press in 1948 with Martin Greenberg — and who still spoke of it with wonder and deep appreciation.

It’s through Gnome Press that David made perhaps his most significant contribution to science fiction, publishing nearly a hundred of the most important books in the genre — including first editions of Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column and Methuselah’s Children, The Coming of Conan and Conan the Conqueror by Robert E. Howard, I, Robot and Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak’s City, C.L. Moore’s Judgment Night and Shambleau and Others, Two Sought Adventure by Fritz Leiber, plus Arthur C. Clarke, Edward E. Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Leigh Brackett, Murray Leinster, A. E. van Vogt, and many others. He kept the most important writers in the field in print at a time when they appeared only in magazines, and is directly responsible for introducing them to a whole new generation.

I first met David Kyle at the World Fantasy convention in 1984, in my home town of Ottawa, where I was able to shake his hand and say a few words of appreciation. But it was at Worldcon three weeks ago that I had a chance to talk with him at length, and really get to know one of the most important early writers and publishers in the industry. It was one of the highlights of the con for me.

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A Circle of Cats by Charles de Lint and Charles Vess

Monday, September 24th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

a-circle-of-catsIt’s always a pleasure when two creators I admire collaborate. Case in point: A Circle of Cats, a Charles de Lint short story gorgeously illustrated by Charles Vess.

Although it’s very short (48 pages, at least half of which is full-color artwork), A Circle of Cats is a complete and satisfying tale. It tells the story of Lillian, a 12-year-old orphan who lives on the edge of a vast and very old wood with her aunt. One day, after all her chores are done, Lillian chases a deer into a part of the woods she’s never explored before. Falling asleep at the foot of a great gnarled tree, she disturbs a snake that strikes her three times.

As she lays dying, a circle of cats forms around her, for Lillian has found their ancient gathering place. The cats decide to intervene, and when Lillian awakens, she finds herself in the body of a kitten.

What Lillian finds as she explores the woods as a cat, and the strange creatures she meets, form the bulk of the tale. But as night arrives and her elderly aunt begins a desperate search deeper and deeper into the woods for her, Lillian’s efforts to find a way to return to human form become more determined. Ultimately, she learns that getting what she wants will require help from friends she didn’t know she had, and an unusual sacrifice.

Fans of de Lint and Vess’s earlier collaboration, the massive illustrated fantasy Seven Wild Sisters (Subterranean Press, May 2002), will find both the setting and some of the characters familiar, including Aunt Lillian, The Apple Tree Man, and The Father of Cats. De Lint and Vess also collaborated on Medicine Road (Tachyon Publications, June 2009), featuring the further adventures of the red-haired Dillard twins, Laurel and Bess, from Seven Wild Sisters.

While it is primarily intended for young readers, A Circle of Cats is still a fine introduction to Charles de Lint’s fiction, as it has all the hallmarks of his work, including fascinating characters, magical settings, and a story richly suffused in myth. Vess, the artist behind The Book of Ballads and three books with Neil Gaiman (Instructions, Blueberry Girl, and the illustrated version of Stardust), delivers his usual excellent artwork.

A Circle of Cats was published in hardcover by Viking Juvenile in June, 2003. It is 48 pages in full color, with a cover price of $16.99.

SF Signal Roundtable with Enge, Jones, and O’Neill

Monday, September 24th, 2012 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

sf-signal-iconWhile SF Signal’s Patrick Hester was at Worldcon a few weeks back, he went on a whirlwind series of adventures. Seriously, starting from his long drive from the western United States until his long return, I’m not sure he got in more than a few hours of sleep every night.

Along the way, he corralled John O’Neill, James Enge, and me, which was a little like herding cats, except that I was so tired I was pretty easy to get moving. James and I talked about our new and upcoming releases (so, plenty of info on Morlock and the writing thereof, as well as Dabir and Asim and the writing thereof). And John O’Neill talked about the past and future of Black Gate and what lies in store for writers and readers of my favorite magazine.

Patrick kept the interview moving along with thoughtful questions and insightful follow-up, and I think the result is pretty interesting — if you’re into Black Gate, sword-and-sorcery, or historical adventure, that is. I hope you’ll drop by and give it a listen!

The interview can be found by following this link.

Vintage Treasures: Into the Aether, by Richard A. Lupoff

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

into-the-aetherWhew. What a week. About two hours ago I returned from Canada, where my family celebrated my mother’s 75th birthday on the shores of Lake Huron. It was great to see everyone again, even if it did mean sixteen hours of driving — and writing my last few blog articles in advance, so I could schedule them for publication while I was on the road.

Now that I’m back, I’m pretty tuckered. All I want to do is curl up next to a window, watch the wind and the rain, and read a good book. I’m not up to any of the imposing fat fantasies that pass for novels these days, and as I made a pass through my library, my hand alighted on a slender paperback from 1974 with an enticing Frazetta cover: Richard A. Lupoff’s Into the Aether.

Subtitled “Being the Adventures of Professor Thintwhistle and His Incredible Aether Flyer on the Moon,” it looks like just the kind of fantasy romp I need tonight. Here’s the enticing text on the back cover:

When the ‘Chester A. Arthur’, the world’s first and only coal/steam/paddlewheel-propelled spaceship rose into the skies over Buffalo Falls, Pa., who would have expected what followed?

Will Professor Thintwhistle and his crew be able to return to earth? Will Miss Taphammer ever find them? Will Jefferson Jackson Clay’s foul plot succeed? And what of the King of the Cats?

Find the answers to these and more thrilling questions in Into the Aether.

Richard A. Lupoff was fairly respected among my circle of discerning science fiction readers when I first purchased it, lo those many decades ago. His most popular novel was probably Sandworld, featuring as it did a desert planet and alien vampires, but his sword & sorcery epic Sword of the Demon was also highly regarded. I’ve never had a chance to read Into the Aether though, and it sounds like a lot of fun.

One of the definite rewards of having a library is that no purchase is ever truly wasted. I’m not sure precisely how long this book has been patiently waiting on my shelves, but for the next few hours I expect to be happily transported back to 1974. And from there, on to the moon.

Into the Aether was published in January 1974 by Dell. It is 220 pages in paperback, with an original cover price of 95 cents.

John Myers Myers, Silverlock, and the Commonwealth of Letters

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

SilverlockIt’s been said that this is the age of the mash-up: of art formed from the fusion of other works of art. A film like The Avengers blends together characters from five other movies. Fan-fiction interrogates texts we thought we knew, crossing characters from one tale over into another. At an extreme, a work like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen imagines a world where every character derives from some other source, comes from some other story; imagines a world where all stories overlap and so make a strange collective setting. In fact, though, this is really nothing new. Crossovers, it has been said, date back to Homer writing of heroes coming together to fight the Trojan War. And League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style mash-ups have precedents as well; I have not read Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld books, nor have I read John Kendrick Bangs’ Associated Shades novels, which date back to the 1890s, but I have read John Myers Myers’ 1949 novel Silverlock, and came away from it with a few thoughts.

Silverlock imagines a Commonwealth of Letters inhabited by the world’s great fictional characters. Into this Commonwealth comes one A. Clarence Shandon, gifted with a white streak in his hair from which he’s nicknamed ‘Silverlock.’ A former business student, Shandon’s completely ignorant of books and literature, so does not fully realise into what sort of land he has fallen: a land where every character, every name, comes from fiction or mythology. The book follows Shandon through the Commonwealth, as he is forced to learn and grow in the course of a three-part journey.

The book is greatly beloved by some. My copy has essays by Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle praising it to the skies. For myself, I enjoyed it, with reservations. It’s a fun book, but I couldn’t help but feel that Myers bit off more than he could chew — or, perhaps, that the idea was setting up greater expectations (as it were) than he or anybody could fulfill. Still, the book did seem to me to be worth writing about, because whether or not it’s wholly successful in itself, it raises a host of interesting questions about the nature of fictional characters, and how they work, and how we read them, and how these things may change in time.

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