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Author: Fletcher Vredenburgh

A Tale of ‘Possums and Pigs:The Last Coin by James P. Blaylock

A Tale of ‘Possums and Pigs:The Last Coin by James P. Blaylock

                                 “…One pig to rule them all,

                                    One pig to bind them, 

                                    One pig to bring them all

                                    and on the pier-end find them

                                   In Seal Beach, on the Coast.”

                                                                      William Ashbless

                                                                                                                                                     Myths of the Pacific Coast

How does one describe one of one’s favorite books? How does one describe a book that he and nearly everyone he knew who read it experienced tremendous joy and satisfaction from reading it? How does one describe a book he enjoyed so much he feared any future works by its author might detract something from that book’s perfection? Well, first, he needs to stop writing about himself in the third person, because that’s rarely good. Then he needs simply to write, “Read The Last Coin and you will have read one of the most charming and joyful books I’ve ever read.”

My friend Carl started me down the path of becoming a James P. Blaylock reader when he tossed me an already worn copy of The Digging Leviathan (1984 — his third book. His first two, The Elfin Ship and The Disappearing Dwarf I’ve reviewed here on Black Gate.) With its cabals of conspiracists, hollow Earth theorizing, and besuited axolotls, I was completely enchanted with the book’s story of two boys in California in the middle of the last century in search of a connection with their absent or missing fathers. It’s rougher than his later novels, but here Blaylock was already introducing many of the tropes, and even characters he would revisit throughout his career.

When his next book, Homunculus (1986) came out, I ordered a copy from the long-gone local book store, The Book Nook, something I rarely did. It’s one of the books K.W. Jeter was thinking of — the others being his own Morlock Night and Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates — when he coined the portmanteau steampunk in a letter to Locus magazine. I enjoyed the book, which turned out to be the beginning of the ongoing adventures of Victorian inventor-cum-explorer Langdon St. Ives and the villainous hunchback, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo.

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Invasion! The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Invasion! The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

One hundred and twenty-five years after its first publication, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (serialized 1897, published 1898) remains a brutally effective tale of alien invasion and a critique of imperialism. I can’t remember how young I was when I read it for the first time, but I totally missed the anti-imperialism angle, even though it’s spelled out quite explicitly. Instead, like most readers I’ll bet, what got me were the Martians landing meteor-like in Surrey, the heat ray, and, above all else, the Martian war machines; the great metal tripods. In fact, when I first saw George Pal’s 1953 movie version, I was outraged (and I still am) that he cheaped out and turned Wells’ tripods into legless, floating discs.

Along with Jules Verne, H.G. Wells is responsible for turning science fiction into a popular genre. While Verne seemed more concerned with cool technology, Wells’s literary imagination turned to the big ideas of his age: evolution, class, imperialism, among others. His early run of novels — The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds — are some of the most iconic and influential novels, let alone science fiction novels, of all time. They’ve been filmed numerous times and inspired hundreds of other books. Each one of them is absolutely worth your time (and, hey, they’re all free on Project Gutenberg).

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Take Me Home! A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Take Me Home! A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I.

So reacts John Carter, ex-cavalryman of the Army of Northern Virginia, when he transmigrates to the red planet in A Princess of Mars (1917). Chased by torture-minded Apaches, Carter secrets himself in a cave. By unknown means, he finds his spirit severed from his body and transported to Mars.

On Mars, a dying, barren world littered with the ruins of millennia-gone civilizations, he finds his great love and becomes the greatest hero that Barsoom, as its inhabitants call Mars, has ever known. Along that path to glory, thousands of miles are traveled and thousands of foes slain. A Princess of Mars is pure escapist fantasy, where the protagonist, standing in for the increasingly civilized American man Burroughs was writing for, fights and defeats all foes, outwits every enemy, and wins the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. To some, that might sound juvenile, but they are wrong. A Princess of Mars is absolutely deserving of the mind-blowingly pulpy cover illustrations of Frank Frazetta.

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A Cosmic Beginning: Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis

A Cosmic Beginning: Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis

CS Lewis’ 1938 novel, Out of the Silent Planet, tells the story of man shanghaied and taken aboard a spaceship to Mars and the deep things he discovers there. In a letter from 1965, JRR Tolkien described how he and Lewis had set themselves the task of writing parallel stories  — Tolkien’s a time-journey and Lewis’ a space-journey — where each tale’s protagonist would discover Myth. By that, Tolkien meant that while each story was to be a solid “thriller,” the stories would also contain “a great number of philosophical and mythical implications that enormously enhanced without detracting from the ‘surface adventure’.”

Elwin Ransom, a philologist (one of several points of similarity with Tolkien), is vacationing by taking a solitary walking tour when he is drugged and kidnapped by Dick Devine and Edward Weston, one, an old and disliked schoolmate, the other, a brilliant scientist.

“You don’t know Weston, perhaps? Devine indicated his massive and loud-voiced companion. “The Weston,” he added. “You know. The great physicist. Has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrodinger’s blood for breakfast.”

Weston has built a spaceship that has already traveled to another planet and back. On that world, Weston and Devine have discovered great lodes of gold and other precious metals. Now, with Ransom along, they are speeding back through space for more loot. During the month-long trip, Ransom learns that the planet is inhabited and its natives call it Malacandra. At first excited about the voyage despite his forced embarkation, Ransom’s anticipation turns to horror when he learns that he is to serve as sacrifice to monstrous native creatures called sorns.

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A Philosophical Policeman: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

A Philosophical Policeman: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

Gabriel Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion. He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.

Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left—sanity.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908), by G.K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton, is a wondrous amalgam of thriller, mystery, boys’ adventure, and Christian allegory wrapped in a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a cabal of anarchists plotting to blow things up. Gabriel Syme is a poet who fears the world is destined for destruction under a wave of moral relativism and nihilism. He is recruited to a special anti-anarchist unit of the British police by a mysterious figure who remains hidden in the shadows.

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Deep in Wildest Britain: Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Deep in Wildest Britain: Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

I had the sense of recognition…here was something which I had known all my life, only I didn’t know it…

English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams on discovering English folklore and folk music

The late Robert Holdstock prefaced his 1984 novel, Mythago Wood with that quote, and that’s sort of how I feel about the book myself. Holdstock dug deeply into the idea of myth, how it might arise from a culture, and how, in turn, it might affect individuals.

I have no memory of when I first learned of Mythago Wood. I must have seen it on the Forbidden Planet’s shelves when it was released; I didn’t read it, though, until 2001. I read it again while traveling in England eight years later, and just now. At times it seems like I must have read it so much longer ago and more times than that. Much of it reads like a dream of some true past, equally joyful and nightmarish, and elements of it have rattled about my brain ever since. Rereading it now, I realize that over the years, my memories of the novel, like the mythic figures born of the forest around which the story revolves, have faded and changed with each passing season, but the underlying haunting design remains; a mesmerizing tale of father-and-son and brother-and-brother struggles, Freudian and Jungian elements, woven together with a wholly original mythopoeic retelling of the history of Britain from Paleolithic times to the present (or at least 1948, the present of the book). I will more than likely read it again before I’m through.

The central conceit of Mythago Wood is that archetypes and legends spring from the collective unconscious when needed.

The mythagos grow from the power of hate, and fear, and form in the natural woodlands from which they can either emerge — such as the Arthur, or Artorius form, the bearlike man with his charismatic leadership — or remain in the natural landscape, establishing a hidden focus of hope — the Robin Hood form….

Ryhope Wood, a three-mile square ancient woodland in Herefordshire, is capable of interacting with the minds of people near it and giving physical reality to these figures. Characters like Cernunnos, King Arthur, and Jack-in-the-Green can be summoned up from the deepest recesses of people’s minds. More importantly, it can also conjure up the legends that lie behind the legends. Perhaps the story of Robin Hood arose from even older stories of green-clad forest bandits, and behind those, yet older and darker ones. The more intimately a person becomes involved with Ryhope Wood the deeper and deeper ancient memories it can draw upon and summon forth. Ryhope Wood also exists beyond normal time and space, expanding, almost without limit, the further one ventures into it, and time speeds by much faster within the forest than without. Deep inside, whole settlements and tribes called out in long past days carry on telling and retelling their stories through their daily lives and routines.

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Always Then and Never Now: The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Always Then and Never Now: The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

ONCE upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike had mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

Wickedly scheming, he would limp and cackle through the cold corridors of the castle, planning new impossible feats for the suitors of Saralinda to perform. He did not wish to give her hand in marriage, since her hand was the only warm hand in the castle. Even the hands of his watch and the hands of all the thirteen clocks were frozen. They had all frozen at the same time, on a snowy night, seven years before, and after that it was always ten minutes to five in the castle. Travelers and mariners would look up at the gloomy castle on the lonely hill and say, “Time lies frozen there. It’s always Then. It’s never Now.”

So begins James Thurber’s wonderful fairytale The 13 Clocks. Best known as a cartoonist, humorist, and one of the stalwarts of the New Yorker during the Harold Ross and William Shawn years, he also wrote several fairytales for children. I haven’t read the others — Many Moon and The White Deer — but I have come back to this one several times. An effervescent read, it never fails to delight.

As described in that magnificently menacing opening, the evil Duke spends his days setting his niece’s suitors impossible tasks such as cutting a slice of the moon or turning the ocean to wine. Sometimes, for no better reason than failing to describe his different-length legs properly (they differed in length because he spent his youth “place-kicking puppies and punting kittens”) or not praising his wine, staring at his niece too long, or having a name that started with X, he would just kill them.

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When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.

I shall use my arms to shield the weak.

I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.

I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.

Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.

When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and my sisters, for I am eternal.

Pledge of the Altenerai

 

And with When the Goddess Wakes, Howard Andrew Jones’s Ring-Sworn Trilogy comes to a rousing conclusion. Perhaps the series’ greatest asset is its completion. In one two-and-a-half-year span — complete with a plague — all three books have appeared and that’s it, there ain’t no more. I waited six years between installments of Glen Cook’s Black Company, and millions of people have been waiting ten years for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (good luck with that). Jones got in and got out, producing three tightly-plotted and -paced novels. For that alone, as a reader I say, “Thank you!” But there’s more to it than that.

The first book, For the Killing of Kings (2019) introduces the Altenerai, a corps of superior warriors complete with magical talents. They are dedicated to protecting the five realms of the Dendressi from forces magical and mundane. Just as it is discovered that a kingdom-destabilizing conspiracy leads right to the Queen, the five realms are invaded by the Naor, a brutal barbarian horde. Less than a decade earlier the Naor were almost victorious. This time around, most of the greatest Altenerai are missing or dead, and it seems as though only a pair of young Altenerai and a few veterans are ready to stand against the Dendressi’s enemies. That book ends grimly, with death and destruction and what seems certain victory of both the Naor and the Queen.

Upon the Flight of the Queen (2019) {That’s two books in one year, folks! It can be done.} begins right where the previous book left off, with death and destruction continuing apace. The Naor march on the capital, Darassus, and the Queen’s plot to resurrect a long lost goddess in order to create a utopia is revealed. Each promises destruction for the Dendressi. Both are thwarted, but the Queen escapes with every intention of carrying out her plan.

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Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

When I was young I watched numerous live-action animal movies on The Wonderful World of Disney (Sunday nights on NBC, right after Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom). There was Run, Cougar, Run (1972), Nikki, Dog of the North (1961), and my favorite, The Incredible Journey (1963). I had, of course, also seen Bambi (1942), an animated movie that gave voice to its animal characters, unlike the live-action ones. The point being, when my friend Karl told me about an exciting book he’d just read about the adventures of rabbits, it sounded like something I’d like. Watership Down (1972) turned out to be nothing like the movies I’d seen and much more than just a book about rabbits.

Richard Adams, a British civil servant in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, created stories to tell his daughters on car rides. He began with the words “Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver”. The stories were set in and around the real Watership Down, a grass-covered hill in Hampshire, England. It wasn’t long before his daughters insisted he write them down, and in 1966 he started to do just that. After a years-long search for a publisher, Watership Down was released and achieved commercial and critical success, garnering several awards for children’s literature as well.

The bare bones of the novel’s plot are that a band of male rabbits flee their home warren to find a safe place to establish a new one. Along the way, they face adversity in the forms of scarcity, topography, weather, animal predators, and, of course, man. Unlike all those Disney movies, though, Adams wasn’t content to tell a naturalistic story of rabbits in the wild like a lagomorphic version of Tarka the Otter (1927). In the most basic sense, then, Watership Down is not allegorical; Adams repeatedly made that clear. Nonetheless, he dug deep into the sorts of mythic tropes Joseph Campbell explored in works like The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)* and the novel is brimming with archetypal elements, e.g. the young man maturing into a hero, self-sacrifice, existential struggles against evil and death. Though devised as a non-allegorical children’s work, Watership Down, informed by Adams’s conservatism and Christianity, addresses some of the deepest issues of humanity and society without ever stooping to didacticism or condescension. Even socialists have discovered great political meaning in the book.

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Deep in the Northern Thing: The Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse L. Byock

Deep in the Northern Thing: The Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse L. Byock

Murder begets murder, everybody dies, usually badly, and the gods are bastards. Those are the lessons taught in The Saga of the Volsungs, the history of the doomed Volsung family. The historical events reflected in the saga took place between the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th centuries AD, a period of great tribal migrations and unrest among the Germanic people of Central and Eastern Europe.

Starting around 1000 BC, tribes from the region now called Scandinavia began migrating south and west into present-day Germany, pushing out the Celtic tribes, before running up against the Roman Empire along a frontier that extended from the mouth of the Rhine River and all along it and the Danube River to the Black Sea. To the east, German kingdoms stretched as far as the Pontic Steppe in modern Ukraine and Russia. At the end of the 4th Century AD, the Huns came roaring out of the distant East and began conquering or driving out the German tribes in Eastern and Central Europe. The historic destruction of the Kingdom of Burgundy by the Huns in 436 AD is a major part of the saga, though scaled down from war to a family feud. It is in this age of chaos and death that the stories of the Volsungs were born. The oldest artistic representations of the Volsunga Saga are found in stone carvings in Ramslund, Sweden, but it wasn’t written down until the late 13th century, in Iceland. The more well-known German telling of the story, The Nibelungenlied, was written earlier, about 1200 AD. Wagner drew on both as sources for his epic four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.

If the courtly tales of King Arthur and Roland point toward high fantasy, this German legend and its ilk point straight to sword & sorcery. There are no great heroes moved by devotion to home and family to pursue noble deeds, only murderers driven by greed or vengeance to commit deeds of great violence. Good and evil are abstractions that have no place in a blood-drowned age. The violence is direct and driven by personal motives far more often than by ideals or the needs of any kingdom.

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