Shattered Walls, Book 4 of Ulff Lehmann’s Light in the Dark Book series, released this November, 2022. This post reviews Book 1, Shattered Dreams, to lure dark fantasy readers into the Dark. Do you like Tolkien-esque worlds with a unique perspective, perhaps sprinkled with Grimdark battle and horror? Shattered Dreams will whet your appetite. It’s a fresh, dark spin on traditional fiction. You’ll be thrown into a mire of fractured perspectives and nightmares, and Lehmann controls the process of refining it all with a host of characters (the cursed Drangar Ralgon stealing the limelight). You’ll enjoy this if you enjoy mysteries, brutal melee, and Elvin worlds.
Shattered Dreams Cover Blurb
Epic Fantasy filled to the brim with Grimdark Reality.
If one looks too long into the abyss, the abyss looks back. Drangar Ralgon has been avoiding the abyss’s gaze for far too long and now he turns to face it. For a hundred years the young kingdom of Danastaer has thrived in peace. Now their northern neighbor, mighty Chanastardh, has begun a cunning invasion. Thrust into events far beyond his control, the mercenary Drangar Ralgon flees his solitary life as a shepherd to evade the coming war and take responsibility for his crimes.
In Dunthiochagh, Danastaer’s oldest city, the holy warrior Kildanor uncovers the enemy’s plans for invasion. As ancient forces reach forth to shape the world once more, the sorceress Ealisaid wakes from a century of hibernation only to realize the Dunthiochagh she knew is no more. Magic, believed long gone, returns, and with it comes an elven wizard sent to recover a dangerous secret.
Because I’ve been asked about the process by which I’ve been selecting stories for the Random Review series, I thought I’d take a moment to explain how the stories are selected.
I have a database of approximately 42,000 short stories that I own sorted by story title. When it comes time for me to select a story to review as part of this series, I role several dice (mostly ten sided) to determine which story should be read. I cross reference the numbers that come up on the die with the database to see what story I’ll be reviewing. This week I rolled 40,278, which turned out to be Susan Casper’s short story “Why Do You Think They Call It Middle Earth?”
One of the things I hoped to get out of this series, from a personal point of view, was to discover authors and short stories that I’ve owned and have never read. Of course, I also hoped to share those discoveries, good or bad, with the readers of Black Gate.
Casper’s story is told from Emily Prentiss’s point of view, a thoroughly unlikable, self-absorbed woman who prides herself on her no-holds-barred attitude in the boardroom. While berating a homeless man one day, she falls through a crack in the earth and finds herself in a fantastic realm, intent on finding someone who will pay for her misfortune.
Diane Duane’s short story “In the Company of Heroes” appeared in Past Perfect, one of the numerous anthologies Martin H. Greenberg co-edited for DAW Books, this time with Larry Segriff. Originally published in 2001, Duane’s story is one of a dozen time travel stories in the book, and she reprinted it a decade later as the lead story in her collection Uptown Local and Other Interventions.
Robert Willingden is an incredibly wealthy and powerful man who has a hole in his life. Much like Charles Foster Kane, he lost the one thing he cared about as a child. Unlike Kane, he knew exactly what happened to it. His parents had always denigrated his love of comics and he hid them in the attic, carefully retrieving them one at a time to read and then smuggle back to their safe spot until the night there was a fire in the attic. Although the comics made it through the fire, they were lost to a thief who used the hole in the attic caused by the flames to steal his treasure.
He hatched his plan when a priceless clock he owned was damaged. Taking it to a renowned clockmaker in Lucerne, Switzerland, the clockmaker, Uli, indicated the he did more than simply repair clocks and might be able to help Willingden stop the thief from ever having the chance to steal the long missing comics.
In 2002, Greg Ketter, the owner of Minneapolis’ DreamHaven Books, published the original anthology Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores. The anthology includes one of my favorite stories, P.D. Cacek’s “A Book, By Its Cover.” It also included sixteen other stories, and, while I have re-read Cacek’s story over the years, I haven’t necessarily re-read many of the other stories since the book was originally published. While the book includes work by major names such as Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Harlan Ellison, it also contains stories by less well-known names, including Marianne de Pierres, who had only published a handful of stories when Shelf Life came out, although she has proven to be more prolific in the years since.
Her contribution of Shelf Life is the story “In the Bookshadow,” which explores some of the more marginal customers at a bookstore. Anyone who has worked in retail knows that there are a variety of customer types. Most come and, make their purchases, and leave, the presence only noted by the brief exchange at the cash register. Others are star customers. The staff knows them and looks forward to their visits. They are personable, spend a lot of money, and make the employees feel as if they are doing a real service. De Pierres’ protagonist is the employee who takes care of the marginal customers who give everyone else the willies.
When she begins to start seeing things out of the corner of her eye in the bookstore, she points them out to the customers, who don’t confirm her visions, but also appear to be doing something to protect her from the strange entities that seem to appear when nobody else is around.
I do not have a precise memory of when I first read one of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales. Perhaps it was a bowdlerized version of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” perhaps “Some Words With a Mummy” in one of my grandmother’s Reader’s Digest omnibuses. It might have been the Classic Comics version of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I definitely saw most of the Roger Corman movie adaptations with Vincent Price on the 4:30 Movie on ABC. I know I picked up a copy of Scholastic Book’s collection, Eight Tales of Terror, at a used book sale at Our Lady of Good Counsel. The important thing is, Edgar Allan Poe‘s creations have been with me as a reader of the weird and the fantastic from my earliest days.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve actually read any of Poe’s stories, so, as the Halloween season is upon us, it seems the proper time to return to them. I had no doubt I would still enjoy them, but I really had no idea just how good and groundbreaking they really are. Lovecraft, in his seminal essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” stated that by focusing on the psychological and not the Gothic, “Poe’s spectres thus acquired a convincing malignity possessed by none of their predecessors, and established a new standard of realism in the annals of literary horror.” I don’t think it’s an overstatement. There are few boogeymen or vampires here; instead, it’s mostly warped and broken minds, the sadism of the vengeful, and the nightmares of the delirious.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is credited with creating the detective story (he didn’t), the modern short story (he was one of the earliest American practitioners of the form), and contemporary horror fiction (he helped). His life was plagued by misfortune and missteps and to this day, his death at the unfortunate young age of forty remains a mystery, though it has been attributed to alcoholism, drug addiction, syphilis, and even murder. Whatever the circumstances of his life, his work remains one of the pinnacles of American writing, of Romanticism, and of weird fiction.
An unappealing cover by Wayne Barlowe, more on that in a second
After the somewhat uninspiring November 1989 Analog, I turned next to Asimov’s, and found it to be pretty good.
Editorial — “Half Done” by Isaac Asimov
Starting with the quote ‘Half done is hardly begun,’ Isaac Asimov (That’s Dr. Asimov, if you’re nasty) jumps into looking at how we conceptualize and compare time. Starting with the fact the Earth is 15 billion years old, half of that is 7.5 billion years, before our solar system existed by easily 3 billion years. Earth itself comes into play 4.6 billion years ago., and half of that, 2.3 billion Earth life is just prokaryotes. At 1.4 eukaryotic cells start showing up. Half of that, 700 million years ago, the highest life is just worms, nothing that even has shells.
The exercise is to show how rapidly things start to change. Leading to the question of how long can it go on? How do we get off on setting stories in the future. On thinking we can even realistically do it?
While reading this essay I could not shake the knowledge that Asimov had four years of life left.
Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles. It was a fever of the gods, a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place again what once had been an awesome and momentous place.
HP Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a man who seems to have never been fully comfortable in the world. His racism, most unpleasantly, but also, his old-fashioned affectations and his adamant refusal to bend his artistic desires to the least sort of commercial demands, all these, I believe, indicate a severe unease with the way the world was (he even turned down the editorship of Weird Tales because he refused to move to Chicago “on aesthetic grounds.”) The old America, peopled by the heirs of the original colonial families, had been washed away on a tide of industrialization and immigration. It was decadent and in decline and he would not be a part of it.
From his earliest days, Lovecraft was plagued by strange dreams and nightmares. Many of these would serve as the basis of stories later in life. A tragic family life — his father died in an asylum of late-stage syphilis and his family slowly slipped into poverty — and an innate nervous disposition probably had much to do with his attitudes. At the heart of the horror stories for which he’s most famous is the belief that mankind is insignificant and powerless in the face of a vast and uncaring Universe. While I don’t think he was mentally ill or anything, I do believe he longed for some intangible, more fantastic and better world.
Not finding one at hand, he created one in a series of related tales that culminated with The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in 1927 (though it wouldn’t be published until 1943). Typically referred to as his Dream Cycle, Lovecraft was greatly influenced in writing these tales by Lord Dunsany‘s lush stories. The stories are filled with dense descriptive passages, surreal imagery, and the illogical logic of dreams.
The great city of Tova is shattered. The sun is held within the smothering grip of the Crow God’s eclipse, but a comet that marks the death of a ruler and heralds the rise of a new order is imminent.
The Meridian: a land where magic has been codified and the worship of gods suppressed. How do you live when legends come to life, and the faith you had is rewarded?
As sea captain Xiala is swept up in the chaos and currents of change, she finds an unexpected ally in the former Priest of Knives. For the Clan Matriarchs of Tova, tense alliances form as far-flung enemies gather and the war in the heavens is reflected upon the earth.
And for Serapio and Naranpa, both now living avatars, the struggle for free will and personhood in the face of destiny rages. How will Serapio stay human when he is steeped in prophecy and surrounded by those who desire only his power? Is there a future for Naranpa in a transformed Tova without her total destruction?
In late 2020, a year of darkness, catastrophe and ill-omen, Rebecca Roanhorse published Black Sun, the first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, a novel of darkness, catastrophe and ill-omen. While decidedly a coincidence, perhaps this was just the right book at the right time for me to curl up and read. Inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas, particularly, those of Mesoamerica, the Southwestern ‘Ancient Puebloans’ and the great, wooden city of Cahokia in central Illinois, this was a fast-paced, fresh story that turned the ideas and tropes of epic fantasy to a new set of myths and civilizations. I devoured it rather quickly, and you can see my thoughts in my review here at BG.
Experience Skallagrim – In the Vales of Pagarna by Stephen R. Babb in all its forms. This post covers everything to get you hooked, from a summary, review, excerpts, and links to the complementing albums from Glass Hammer. Reading Skallagrim feels like you are a witness to the live version of Frazetta’s “Against the Gods” painting! You actually witness a hero grab a sword from the sky.
The opening scene poses a set of mysteries as the titular protagonist is brutally attacked in the streets of Archon, the Dreaming City. He loses his memory during the struggle, by wounds or sorcery, so the hero and the reader want to know: Why Skallagrim in a melee? Who is he, really? Why does he feel protective over a maiden kidnapped during the conflict? Why are multiple sorcerers after him? Why the hell can he grab a sentient, screaming sword that materializes from a sudden storm?
The rest of the book unravels these questions, as Skallagrim races against time to save the mystery maiden. He’ll wrestle with eldritch, chthonic creatures, a herd of ghouls, a few necromancers, and an assassin. As Skallagrim unearths the weird history of Andorath’s Southern Region, we get to learn about it as he battles. The book stands alone, but did you know that Stephen R. Babb has been a progressive rocker and theatrical-album-leader for thirty years (more on Glass Hammer below!). Poems and lyrics infuse the prose. For the full effect, readers should listen to the complementary Skallagrim albums. These are not Audio Books. These are thematic rock sets chronicling Skallagrim’s heroic journey. Embedded below are the opening songs to (1) and (2). Listen to these! Babb is creating a rich world here.
The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series X (DAW, August 1982). Cover by Michael Whelan
The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series X was the tenth volume in DAW’s Year’s Best Horror Stories, copyrighted and printed in 1982. A whole decade for this anthology thus far! This was the third volume edited by horror author and editor Karl Edward Wagner (1945–1994). Michael Whelan’s (1950–) artwork appears for an eighth time in a row on the cover. This is one of his eeriest and best yet. The same cover would later appear on the 1989 omnibus Horrorstory: Volume Five, a collection of volumes XIII-XV of this series from Underwood Miller.
Of the eighteen different authors in The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series X, all but two were male, with one story cowritten by a male/female team. (G. W. Perriwils is the pen name for Georgette Perry & William J. Wilson.) Eleven were American, the other seven were British. Of the fifteen stories included seven were from professional magazines, four from books, three from fanzines or booklets, and one was original to this anthology, though was to appear shortly afterward in another periodical.
I enjoyed the first volumes in DAW’s Year’s Best Horror Stories edited by Richard Davis (Series I–III) and Gerald Page (Series IV–VII). I would not say that these editors were “stale,” but Wagner does seem to bring a fresher vitality. I think this is due primarily to his introductions, which operate more as “state of horror field” yearly addresses, and his short bios before each story. I’m sure all good editors put forth their best efforts, but Wagner’s passion, I think, really shows itself in these volumes.