A. Merritt is something of a cautionary tale for authors today.
He was the bestselling American fantasy writer for a generation. His career spanned three decades, from 1917 to the mid-1940s, and his novels — including The Moon Pool (1919), The Ship of Ishtar (1924), The Face in the Abyss (1931), and Creep, Shadow! (1934) — remained in print for more than seven decades after his death. Yet he is virtually forgotten today.
This isn’t a case of an uncaring public ignoring a forgotten genius. Merritt certainly still has his fans, but his day is past. Personally, I find his novels largely unreadable. His short stories, however, are another matter.
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In the early 1950s, after the end of World War II and the beginning of the Space Race, science fiction experienced an almost unprecedented boom. Some 31 new SF magazines began publishing in that decade alone. Hungry to meet the demands of a new audience, publishers mined the pulps of the 1930s and 1940s for titles they could inexpensively reprint in paperback. Countless SF and fantasy writers enjoyed their very first mass market editions as a result — including Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, John W. Campbell, Lester del Rey, Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt, and many others. Avon, Ace, Berkely and others built their fledgling enterprises into mighty publishing houses repackaging classic SF and fantasy for a new generation.
By the early 1960s, the boom in SF was essentially over. Nearly 80% of the magazines on the market folded. Publishers drastically cut back on SF titles, and the entire industry re-trenched. By the early 1970s, a new generation of young SF readers was starting to show up in bookstores, clutching their dollar bills and looking for great adventure tales, and Frederick Pohl convinced his publishers at Ace that the time was ripe to repackage the great SF of the early 20th Century one more time.
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To tell you the truth, I wasn’t initially interested in P.N. Elrod’s The Vampire Files. A few things happened to change that.
First, I started to hear about Jack Fleming, the investigative journalist in Prohibition-era Chicago who becomes a vampire and private investigator, and whose first case was to solve his own murder. Folks used adjectives like “surprising” and “old fashioned fun” to describe his adventures. That sounded pretty good. By then, the series had gotten pretty far along, and I wondered idly if I should pick one up. But it seemed a little late to jump on board, and I was never really sure what volume to start with. Plus some of the earlier books became harder to find, and it all seemed like just a bit too much effort.
Then Ace Books released the first omnibus volume in 2003, containing the first three Vampire Files novels. And, well, you know what a sucker I am for omnibus collections. All those hard-to-find paperbacks, in one handsome and economical package? It’s too much to resist.
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I’ve really been enjoying this gradual survey I’ve been doing of Theodore Sturgeon’s paperbacks. It hasn’t been a particularly deliberate undertaking… the truth is that, as I come across his books, I’ve been talking about them. This week I stumbled on a copy of the 1965 Berkley edition of A Touch of Strange (above middle), and here we are.
Part of the reason I enjoy them is that I find it fascinating that a writer could have made a decent living in this business selling almost exclusively short stories. Sturgeon did write five novels (six, if you want to count his 1961 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea novelization), but he’s far more well known for more than two dozen short fiction collections. And it was upon them that he largely built his considerable reputation.
Another reason is that I genuinely find it delightful to catalog the different editions, and note all the variations. A Touch of Strange was reprinted five times, by three different publishers, between 1958 and 1978, before it vanished from bookstores forever. Each of those editions is unique, not just in cover art and design, but also in how it was packaged and presented — and, in some cases, in content as well.
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I don’t have time to read many other blogs. I barely have time to read this one, what with all the time I spend reading, and writing, and telling my wife how awesome Mad Max: Fury Road is. Seriously honey, sooo awesome. I wish I got to ride in the desert, and take a giant chain elevator to work every day. Is there a word for when you envy the baddass folks who live in an apocalyptic dystopia? There should be such a word. And I bet that word would be awesome.
Anyway, I appreciate those moments when I get to read blogs written by other folks. Especially when they’re folks like Fletcher Vredenburgh, and especially especially when they look at one of my favorite writers, as Fletcher did this week with his Simakpalooza! (Is there a word for when you envy a writer who makes up a word? There should be such a word.) Here’s a sample:
I’m not sure what the first story I read by Clifford Simak was, but the first I remember is “Desertion.” It’s part of the book he’s probably most famous for, City. The novel is a mournful farewell to humanity and Earth and stars robot butlers and talking dogs… There’s a tremendous sense of wonder in the tale as the nature of what’s going on is revealed. I think of it as the story that showed me the true potential of sci-fi…
Sadly, Clifford Simak seems to have slipped into the ranks of the unjustly forgotten sci-fi writers of the past. Growing up, he was just part of the general fabric of sci-fi [for me], and most fellow sci-fi fans I knew had read at least something by him…
It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Simak. John O’Neill’s post about The Goblin Reservation and the comments reminded me how much I loved his work. There’s a warmth and comfortableness to his stories that I love.
Fletcher created an impressive tapestry of images from 17 Simak paperbacks to accompany his article (a tiny snippet is at right). Read the whole thing here.
The first novel in Jack Vance’s Demon Princes saga, The Star King, was published as a two-part serial in Galaxy Magazine, in December 1963 and February 1964.
It took Vance eighteen years to complete the series — the fifth and final novel, The Book of Dreams, appeared in 1981 — and during that time he wrote all four novels in of Planet of Adventure, the Durdane trilogy, one novel in The Dying Earth, three books in his Alastor Cluster series, and at least four standalone novels. This is not a man who liked to focus on one thing at a time.
The Demon Princes is essentially a revenge fantasy. The central character is Kirth Gersen, whose entire village was enslaved while he was a child by five notorious criminals, collectively known as the Demon Princes. Each novel deals with an elaborate revenge scheme masterminded by Gersen on one of the five Princes, each of whom has achieved significant power — and embodies at least one major vice.
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We’re back to our survey of Ace Doubles, this time with a surprising pair of adventure books by Ron Goulart.
I’m a fan of Ron Goulart, although I only discovered him recently, when I sampled some stories from his excellent collection What’s Become of Screwloose? and Other Inquiries in 2012. So I was pleased to spot his 1971 Ace Double, Clockwork’s Pirates and Ghost Breaker, in a collection of 23 old paperback I found on eBay. Twenty-two bucks later, the collection was all mine.
Goulart has a well-deserved reputation for satire and comedy, but with Screwloose I was happy to discover he has a talent for mystery and adventure as well. Mystery and adventure are very much what’s advertised in Clockwork’s Pirates and Ghost Breaker. The former is a novel of robot pirates, the scourge of the spaceways, who steal the planetary governor’s daughter and sell her on the slave markets, and the latter is a collection of short stories featuring a modern supernatural detective, in the mold of John Silence and Carnacki the Ghost Finder.
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Clifford Simak is often described as a pastoralist, his sci-fi stories set in rural Wisconsin or some reasonable facsimile thereof. Kindly robots as well as smart and faithful dogs feature in many of his books. Scholars are more likely than soldiers to figure as his heroes. There’s more kindness and sense of wonder than violence in most of his stories.
If you haven’t read him (which wouldn’t be surprising since most of his twenty-six novels and multitude of story collections are out of print in the US), snag a battered old copy of City or Way Station to start. City holds a place in my heart as one of my favorite books. Simak brought a gentle humanity to his writing. Love of an unhurried life and respect for common decency run through many of his stories.
Inspired by John O’Neill’s post about The Goblin Reservation, I dug out the first of Simak’s three fantasy novels, Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975). In it, a disparate party of travelers leave the safety of humanity’s lands to explore the dangerous, magical Wasteland. He would revisit this theme twice more before his death in 1986, in the structurally similar The Fellowship of the Talisman (1978) and Where the Evil Dwells (1982).
I remember liking the book thirty years ago and thirty years later, I still like it. It’s fully fantasy and science fiction, both. While there are goblins, gnomes, witches, and trolls, there are also UFOs, a robot, and a traveler from an alternate Earth.
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Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Vampire Assassin Trilogy (The Fallen Blade, The Outcast Blade, and The Exiled Blade) has earned him an enviable rep as a fantasy author. But I first became acquainted with him over a decade ago with The Arabesk Trilogy, a trio of acclaimed novels that had the unusual distinction of being nominated for both the British Science Fiction and British Fantasy Awards.
The Arabesk Trilogy isn’t easy to describe. It’s sort of an alternate history fantasy cyberpunk hard-boiled detective series, if that makes sense. The point of divergence with our reality is 1915, with Woodrow Wilson brokering a peace accord that prevents World War I from expanding outside the Balkans. All three books are set in Alexandria, in Islamic Ottoman North Africa (called El Iskandriyah in the novels), in the 21st century. The main characters are Raf, a genetically enhanced ex-street criminal now posing as a rich Ottoman aristocrat, and the hallucinatory fox Tiriganiaq, who frequently accompanies him.
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Matthew Stover’s sequel to Heroes Die (which we discussed last week) begins not in media res but in deep prologue, establishing a new perspective character who meets and becomes friend to a 19-year old Hari Michaelson. Hari, sponsored by the “gangster” businessman Marc Vilo into the Studio Conservatory, the institution that trains actors to “risk their lives in interesting ways” on Overworld, nearly flunks out of battlemage school.
Vilo won’t have that; the Conservatory administrator forces a top student to mentor Hari, and after some kilometers of narrative the top student and Hari both get what they want. Several stock school bully characters end up in the hospital — but that’s an occupational hazard of getting in Hari Michaelson’s way.
Hari has it all, but of course he’s miserable, some seven years after victory over his foes in Heroes Die. Former Studio boss Kollberg works as a temp laborer; Ma’elkoth (“Limitless”) is now Tan’elkoth (“I was Limitless”) and works for the Studio. He calls Hari “Caine” and Hari himself runs the San Francisco Studio — badly, as one might expect of a man with limited executive experience.
Two significant sections in to Blade of Tyshalle and as Kollberg once complained after sending Caine to Overworld, nobody has even been killed yet.
Better, perhaps, to skip to the arresting scene in which a frazzled, semi-disabled Studio boss Hari Michaelson views a feed from one of his actors, Rossi. Rossi, part of a soap-opera like entertainment project, works as a sort of private investigator on Overworld. He’s been captured and knocked out.
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