It’s a time for looking back, as the old year ends. Now so it happens that on a Boxing Day sale I picked up a book I loved as a child; and therefore it seems fitting to write a little about it, now, glancing back down the vanished days of this and other years, and to try to again see the pleasure I once had. Will it come again, as I work through the text? If I work on the text, then no. Because this text, more than most, is not made for working. It is a thing to be played.
This is not a story I once loved, except in a way it is. There’s no strong central protagonist, except that in a way there is that as well. It’s a book-length riddle. It’s a maze through which you must find your way, filled with wrong turnings and frustrating locks. It is a story you can shape with a pencil and two dice: you are a hero with a sword, who must explore a wizard’s underground lair, before finally defeating the great mage in battle and taking his treasure. You choose your own adventure, flipping from one numbered section to another depending on the decisions you take faced with a given situation. More than most novels, the reader must shape the story; for the reader is the hero. This is The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. First published in 1982, it was the first of what became a line of several dozen gamebooks, as well as a full-fledged role-playing game. Warlock inspired direct sequels, a computer game, and even several non-interactive novels. You can learn more about the books at their web site.
Not long ago, Black Gate’s redoubtable Nick Ozment looked at The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and several other of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Nick remembered playing other Fighting Fantasy books, but not this one specifically. My experience roughly mirrored his: it was relatively easy to get to the end of the book, but incredibly difficult to actually win a complete victory. Nick liked the art — Firetop’s profusely illustrated by Russ Nicholson (you can see some of these pictures below) — but found the conception of the book’s dungeon improbable. I agree with both points. But I found myself wondering if there wasn’t something else to say about the book. I remembered playing through it in the early 80s, drawing out maps, trying again and again to make it through to the end. Why was I held so deeply in the book’s spell? Does it hold up?
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An American judge has ruled that Sherlock Holmes is in the Public Domain.
Say what? If you’re like me, you’ve had some trouble wrapping your head around the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective wasn’t already in the public domain. His first appearance, in the short novel A Study in Scarlet, was in 1887, and he appeared in a total of four novels and 56 short stories between then and 1927. To my mind that’s the pre-pulp era, roughly contemporary with the Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Let’s review. If most of Robert E. Howard Conan tales, published between 1932 -1936, are in the public domain — and in fact, virtually all literary works published before January 1, 1923 are no longer covered by United States copyright law — what’s the deal with Sherlock Holmes?
Well. Near as I understand it, the Conan Doyle Estate bases their claim on the fact that the last Holmes story was published in 1927, and the characters of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Irene Adler, etc. were not truly completed until then. The Estate has challenged any production that tried to make use of the characters — and indeed, popular TV series like the BBC’s Sherlock, and CBS’s Elementary, have paid a license.
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Even among the gods, Athena is an extraordinary figure. She is born fully formed and fully armed out of her father’s head. As one of the virgin goddesses she is almost completely independent of masculine control, which is always astonishing in the Greek world.
She reflects a fascinating series of attitudes. As the goddess of wisdom, she and Aphrodite are completely foreign to each other, so much so that in one poem, when Athena is Aphrodite’s house she is literally unable to speak. (Wisdom and desire are completely incompatible with each other, you see.)
As the goddess of war, she is contrasted with Ares. Where Ares is the god of the warrior, the rage and chaos of war, Athena is the goddess of strategy and tactics.
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For some years now I’ve been wanting to reread Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I first read the book about twenty years ago, and though I enjoyed it I came away confused. I felt as though on some level I really hadn’t understood the book. As though I hadn’t grasped how to read it. So, time having passed and me having (maybe) come to understand a bit more about books and reading, I sat down with Orlando again. And, as I’d hoped, I enjoyed it more thoroughly this time around, and felt as though I’d understood it a little better than I had. What surprised me was the reason for that understanding. I felt as though I’d worked out how to approach the book not because of any greater knowledge of modernism, or even because I’d read other books by Woolf, but because I now had a greater experience of early fantasy. More than I’d remembered or understood when I first read the book, Orlando is of a piece with the fantastic fiction of its time.
Orlando was first published in 1928. I have the impression that it’s read and spoken of primarily as an artifact of literary modernism, which is fair enough — Woolf was certainly one of the great modernists. But it’s worth remembering that Hope Mirrlees, who wrote the great fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist in 1926, was also a consciously modernist writer. And, to me, having read only To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway among Woolf’s other work, the approach of Orlando is much more like something out of Lord Dunsany than it is similar to Woolf’s technique in those other novels. Orlando avoids inner monologue, presenting itself as written by an obtrusive biographer, playfully claiming to base its text on carefully-scrutinised sources, staying silent where these sources are silent; reading it I think of Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet (which boasts an array of odd biographers, as well as at least one pivotal sex-change), but am also reminded of Dunsany’s mock-scripture of The Gods of Pegāna. I will even go so far as to say that in its playful fantasia on the theme of English history, Orlando distantly reminds me of G.K. Chesterton — a writer who Woolf would otherwise appear to be as unlike as it is possible to be.
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Many years ago, when I was unemployed and trying to get a new website off the ground, I made a lot of calls to publishers large and small. I’d introduce myself, talk fast about how many readers there were on the web, and try and sound a lot bigger than I was.
Didn’t usually work. This was the mid-90s, and there were lots of publishers who didn’t even have a website. But occasionally one would take a chance, and agree to send me some sweet review copies.
One such publisher was FASA, one of the leading RPG game makers of the day. I’ll always remember opening the first box they sent me, and gaping in surprise at the contents: every single Battletech supplement in print — nearly 1,000 bucks worth of premiere product. A treasure trove far beyond my expectations.
And a textbook bittersweet moment, because what I was really hoping for was material for Earthdawn.
Earthdawn was a fantasy role-playing game designed by Greg Gorden and first released by FASA in 1993. Over the next few years they produced 20+ supplements, all with gorgeous cover art by folks like Janet Aulisio, Brom, Les Edwards, and many others. Set on the same world as Shadowrun, but thousands of years earlier, the key theaters were where the nations of Russia and Ukraine exist today, in the gorgeously detailed land of Barsaive.
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Back in 2011, I penned the first in this occasional series with an attempt at rating and relating the fantasy titles I’ve read aloud to my boys, then aged seven and eleven. They’re now two years older and two years larger, if not wiser (though they are sometimes that as well).
Sadly, older child Corey no longer cottons to a bedtime story.
Evan, however, is not only game, he’s adamant that he receive his daily dose of out-loud fiction. The question as always is what to read? What’s appropriate? And what does “appropriate” even mean?
Right now, Evan’s big wish is to see Catching Fire in the theaters. He was too young for The Hunger Games, but he’s now read all the books (on his own, like most of his fourth grade classmates), and seems quite keen to revel in the filmic gore of Panem bloodletting. We’ll see.
While that debate simmers, the fare of late has included L. Frank Baum’s The Magic Of Oz, Colin Meloy’s Wildwood, Mollie Hunter’s The Walking Stones, and Avi’s Crispin: The Cross Of Lead. Plus a short, Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon.” Evan chose the Oz title, and I chose the other four.
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“It… is… later… than… you… think.” — Arch Oboler, Lights Out radio program
There’s that classic Twilight Zone episode about the bookwormish little gentleman who has a list long as his arm of books he’s always wanted to read, but who is constantly thwarted by the day-to-day demands of society and pressures of life. He happens to be down in the basement library stacks when a nuclear war breaks out. He emerges to find every other human being gone. After this revelation sinks in, he heads back to the library. Cut to hours or days later: he has amassed piles of books in the order he plans to — finally — read them all.
And then…the unexpected happens. The ol’ TZ twist. In this case, his glasses fall off, and he accidentally steps on them. In the closing shot, he stands there, blind as a bat without his reading glasses, with a look of utter despair on his face that dwarfs any emotions he may have felt on realizing that the rest of his fellow creatures were gone. With the books, even authors long dead were still with him. Now even they have been wrested away, leaving him truly alone.
Rod Serling provides his usual wry commentary in the coda of the closing narration, but everyone who’s seen that episode (“Time Enough at Last”, 1959, starring Burgess Meredith) remembers that final scene — within the context of the story’s simple little narrative, that pair of broken glasses is somehow, improbably, more devastating than the destruction of the human race.
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I don’t tend to report much on horror in my New Treasures column. Not that I haven’t anything against horror, but I have enough trouble just keeping up with all the intriguing new fantasy crossing my desk.
But there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in modern horror, and you deserve to know about it. So I try to sneak one in from time to time. Like Tony Richards’s intriguing Night of Demons, his latest novel set in a Massachusetts town that can’t be located on any map… and which people forget as soon as they leave.
Centuries ago, the Salem witches founded the village of Raine’s Landing, then cloaked it in magic to hide it from sight. Many of their descendants still practice the supernatural arts — and no one who lives here can ever leave. Now evil has breached its boundaries once again…
A serial killer with a corrupt and twisted soul, Cornelius Hanlon has freely entered Raine’s Landing, undeterred by the ancient magical safeguards. And when he chooses the town’s oldest adept as his first victim, the maniac inadvertently gains possession of a powerful “gift” more terrible than anything he could have sadistically dreamed.
Ex-town cop Ross Devries and his Harley-riding sometime-partner, Cassandra Mallory, have no supernatural abilities. But they are the last line of defense in this village of secrets and shadows — facing a psychopath who now wields the power to bend the living and the dead to his will.
Night of Demons is the sequel to Dark Rain, published in 2008. A third Raine’s Landing novel, Speak of the Devil, was just released this month. Richards is also the author of Our Lady of The Shadows (2011) and the collection Shadows And Other Tales (2010).
Night of Demons was published by Avon EOS in October, 2009. It is 390 pages, priced at $7.99 for both the print and digital editions. I bought my paperback on Amazon, on sale for just $3.20 — copies are still available at the discount price.
See all of our recent New Treasures articles here.
I’m still enjoying the Appendix N surveys by Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode at Tor.com, as they read through every author Gary Gygax cited as an influence on Dungeons and Dragons, even though I’ve found lots to disagree with in their recent columns.
So I’m happy to continue with these re-caps here. Especially since I don’t have a lot emotionally invested in their next two subjects: Lord Dunsany and Philip José Farmer.
I have a lot of respect for Lord Dunsany, but that chiefly stems from the many fine writers who have cited him as an influence. I’ve read only a handful of his shorter works and, while I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, he’s mostly an untapped natural resource for me.
It’s much the opposite with Philip José Farmer. I was a huge fan of his Riverworld books when I first read them decades ago. But they didn’t really hold up on re-reading 15 years later, for me.
So Farmer is a writer I largely lost interest in years ago, although I have to admit I haven’t really given fair attention to his many fantasy novels. I know his work is highly regarded, and in fact both Cynthia Ward and Christopher Paul Carey made excellent cases here for why I should pay a lot more attention to his Gods of Opar and Tales of the Wold Newton Universe series, for example.
So let’s say I have more of an open mind with both Lord Dunsany and Philip José Farmer, and I’m willing to be influenced.
With that out of the way, let’s see what Tim and Mordicai have to say.
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The top article on the Black Gate blog last month was the 13th installment in our ongoing examination of Lester Del Rey’s Classics of Science Fiction line, a look at the 1977 paperback The Best of Fredric Brown. (Brown also showed up a little further down the list, in our take on the Brown and Weinbaum chapters of the Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D series over at Tor.com).
Second on the list was Alex Bledsoe’s appreciation of one of my favorite films of the summer, Pacific Rim, and his thoughts on where it fit on the sliding scale between rip-off and homage.
Third was our review of a surprisingly effective, 81-year-old pulp tale by Clark Ashton Smith, “The Vaults of Yoh Vombis.” Fourth was M Harold Page’s report on his trip to the Gemmell Award ceremonies at the World Fantasy Convention. Rounding out the Top Five was Keith West’s opening chapter in his ambitious attempt to review the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series.
The complete Top 50 Black Gate posts in November were:
- Vintage Treasures: The Best of Fredric Brown
- Pacific Rim and the Culture of Rip-off vs Homage
- Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh Vombis”
- The Sword Folk are Coming
- Lin Carter and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series
- Goodbye, Blockbuster
- Revisiting the Scene of the Crash: John Carpenters Ghosts of Mars
- Magic: Let’s Ditch Clarke’s 3rd law
- Thank Politically Correct Parents for Sword and Sorcery
- Nobody Gets Out Alive: Writing Advice from the Cheap Seats
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