randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Voyager in Night.jpgIt's been a couple of weeks since I read this, so I'm not sure how good my memory of it is. Anyway, I found it the most difficult of the Cherryh books I've read to understand in the first place, and it's also the weirdest and creepiest of the three "magic mushroom" novels collected in the Alternate Realities ominbus. The other two, which I've previously reviewed, are Wave without a Shore and Port Eternity.

The scenario, to the extent that I understood it, is that three humans -- a brother, sister, and childhood friend who has married the sister -- have scraped together enough money to buy a cargo ship, and they are working in a star system when a large alien ship of some kind swoops in and grabs them. All three of them are scanned, and two of them are painfully killed. The two who were scanned are then re-embodied and begin to interact with the survivor. Further scans are made of, I believe, all three, and then some of those scans are re-embodied, so that there are multiple versions of the characters with different memories depending on when they were scanned and re-embodied. That's part of what makes the book so confusing, and then on top of that all the aliens are referred to with names that consist of non-letter characters, often nested in ways that are slightly different but look very similar.

It's also a horror story, which is not my favorite genre by far. Terrible things happen to all the human characters, and it appears that the aliens are experimenting on them for obscure purposes. By the time I got to the end, I was pretty much completely lost. I had literally lost the plot and didn't understand the resolution. Still, it scores extremely high on the wild-ass weirdness scale, and once again I give Cherryh a lot of credit for writing something so strange and different from her other work, and to DAW for publishing a book that wasn't even remotely commercial in nature. Those were the days, by grab! 1984, to be exact. That seems appropriately dystopian, in fact.
randy_byers: (brundage)
Claimed is a fantasy novel with elements of horror. It opens with a ship discovering a volcanic island recently thrust up from the ocean and bearing what appears to be ruins of an ancient city. One of the crew finds a green oblong box and takes it with him. We next see him sell the object to a dealer in ancient artifacts in San Francisco. We switch once more in this fitful beginning to an old millionaire who has acquired the object and has some kind of seizure in the middle of the night. A young doctor is called in to tend to him, and an element of romance is introduced into the mystery when he immediately falls for the old man's beautiful silver-haired niece. The old man hires the doctor as a kind of guard, and bizarre events begin to unfold as the doctor gradually becomes aware that there's something unnatural about that oblong box.

argosy_19200306.jpgThis novel isn't quite as compelling as Stevens' Citadel of Fear or The Heads of Cerberus, but it still has a number of things to recommend it. Chief amongst these is the eerie, foreboding atmosphere she's able to conjure at times and the full bore explosion of fantastic imagery in the finale, which many people have pointed out bears some resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," published six years later. The other strength is the character of the old man, who is a successful capitalist who is notable for his fierce possessiveness -- which is depicted as a source of both strength and weakness and really gives the story its shape, leaving the protagonist doctor seeming a bit secondary despite his acts of heroism.

If Stevens has a failing as a writer, it's a lack of so-called narrative drive. All of her longer works suffer from too many scenes in which the characters sit around interpreting what has just happened, rather than doing something. Claimed suffers from this narrative passivity more than her best stories, and the insipid romance that she often manages to keep in the background is too much in the forefront in this one. Or maybe it's just that the doctor is such an uninteresting characters compared to the brash Irishmen of Citadel and Cerberus. The niece is practically a non-entity, so she also pales in comparison to the female protagonists of those two books.

This is not the kind of lost world adventure that was something of a specialty of Stevens', but more of a metaphysical fantasy along the lines of her novel Possessed: A Tale of the Demon Serapion, which was also serialized in 1920. On that front the novel succeeds in creating an otherworldly feeling, particularly in the climax, but also in a fine scene involving the doctor's aunt, who arrives on the scene as a blithe spiritualist whom he shamefacedly (as a man of science) asks for help. Indeed, it's really only the doctor and niece who are weak characters, since many of the secondary characters come off better. Stevens' descriptive powers as just as strong as always, and here she does a good job of characterizing the sea, which has a central role in the story. She also does a good job of evoking the foggy atmosphere of San Francisco, which makes me a little curious whether she had visited before she moved there after she stopped writing. Well, she could just as easily have picked it up from reading other adventure stories.

I believe I've now read everything that Stevens published except her first short story, which came out when she was 17, and the novel Avalon, which has never been reprinted perhaps because it has no elements of fantasy and is thus of little interest to the readers who have kept her name alive. She only wrote for a short period, so her body of work is not large. I'm still not sure what to make of the claims that she was influential on the developing genres of dark fantasy and science fiction, because I simply haven't read widely enough in that era to have much sense of what was common and what was new, but she is certainly a writer worth paying attention to. She's not doing too badly for a forgotten writer, since she's had a pretty good history of being reprinted. I highly recommend her to anyone interested in the pulp era of the fantastic.

[Magazine cover scan from isfdb.org.]
randy_byers: (brundage)
After reading The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, I was left with the impression that Francis Stevens (pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett) was a kind of outsider artist who used genre tropes in eccentric ways, perhaps due to her inexperience as a writer, and wasn't always in complete control of her material. Now having read the two novels she is perhaps most famous for, I've revised my impression. Theses are both supremely accomplished pulp novels in which she exhibits full control of the tropes and material. If they are somewhat eccentric, it's in the way that she blends genres, although it's important to bear in mind that she was writing at a time (her stories were published between 1917 and 1923) when the pulp magazines were only on the verge of specializing into specific genres of the fantastic such as horror and science fiction. But in terms of the skills of the writer, these novels seem superior to me than anything written by Homer Eon Flint, for example. Her imagination is similarly outrageous, too, although it runs more toward the occult and the weird than Flint's did.

Stevens Citadel of Fear Argosy.jpgCitadel of Fear was serialized in The Argosy magazine in September and October 1917. (I read the 1984 paperback from Caroll & Graf.) It's a remarkable novel that starts out as a lost world story set in Mexico. Two American gold miners -- one a big bull of an Irishman, who is the protagonist, and the other a clever sneak, who is the antagonist -- are lost in the Mexican desert when they stumble upon a mysterious hacienda. Soon they are taken to an underground city inhabited by pre-Toltec giants. A conflict amongst this strange race results in our hero being expelled from the hidden city. The action then moves forward fifteen years, when our hero visits his sister in the suburbs of a large city in the Eastern US. Soon the household is under attack from bizarre and mysterious creatures, and the main suspect is a sinister man who lives in a walled compound and claims to be breeding livestock. What he's really up to is much more outlandish than that, of course, and the novel climaxes in a supernatural conflict.

Citadel of Fear is very conventional in many ways, with a manly man as the hero and an early form of the manic pixie dream girl as his love interest. The lost world section of the story is fascinating for the way it creates its exotic pre-Columbian fantasy world, in which ancient Mexican gods vie for power. The action bogs down a bit in the middle part of book, as perhaps too much futile coming-and-going and vague bumpings in the night and comical-skeptical detectives prolong the slow reveal of what then becomes a wonderfully grotesque premise leading to the finale. As others have commented, if the early parts bear the imprint of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, there's more than a little bit of H.G. Wells' Island of Dr Moreau in the latter part of the book, although this is more science fantasy than science fiction when push comes to shove. It's here that Stevens' grotesque imagination is set free, and there is a nightmare quality to the climax that still carries quite a charge. It's also fascinating how Stevens retains a conflicted, mixed perspective of skepticism, Christianity, and paganism in the denouement, with a slight emphasis on the latter that seems a hallmark of the fantasy genre.

The Heads of Cerberus was serialized in The Thrill Book magazine in August through October 1919. (I read the 1952 hardback collectors edition from Polaris Press.) The Thrill Book was a short-lived attempt to publish a magazine specializing in the fantastic, and Stevens apparently sold them other stories that were lost when the magazine quickly folded. This novel begins in contemporary Philadelphia when another big bull of an Irish-American finds his friend blacked out from a blow to the head in an upstairs bedroom. Soon we learn about an ancient crystal vial with a Cerberus-headed stopper and supposedly containing dust of magical properties. When the dust is poured out, the two men and the Irishman's sister (where have we seen that before?) are transported first to a weird twilight fantasyland and then to a dystopian Philadelphia of two centuries in the future. Satirical and yet cracking adventures ensue, with a wonderfully unsettled resolution in which the transformative dust disappears with a gentleman of uncertain intentions.

Stevens Head of Cerberus Thrill Book.jpgThe Heads of Cerberus is touted as possibly the first alternate world story. What's interesting to me about that aspect of the story is that the alternate Philadelphia ends up being specifically a kind of imaginary world even within the story itself. It isn't so much a parallel world as one that is conjured up by the imaginations of the protagonists, and thus it becomes a kind of metaphor for science fiction itself: a work of the imagination. I also found it interesting that the rationalization for how this other world was created/reached was very reminiscent of the rationalization for the parallel world in The Blind Spot by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint, which was serialized in Argosy All-Story in 1921. Hall is usually credited for the occult aspects of that hybrid novel, and it must be said that Stevens handles the occult aspects of her novel much more competently than Hall does. Still, both novels have occult and science fictional aspects, and I'm not enough of a scholar of the era to surmise whether it's a matter of influence or of common practice in the pulps in those days.

A lot of claims are made for Stevens' influence on the developing genres of the fantastic. It appears that the admiring quote about Citadel of Fear that's still widely attributed to H.P. Lovecraft was not in fact written by him. It was written by someone named August T. Swift, which was long wrongly thought to be a pseudonym of Lovecraft's. I haven't seen any indication that Lovecraft commented on Stevens at all, although people see signs of influence, and I can see why. As for the claim that A. Merritt admired her work, there is no direct evidence that I've seen. Apparently for many years people thought Stevens was a pseudonym of Merritt's, and this was only debunked in the '50s. Again, you can see the similarities in the works of Stevens and Merrit, but is that a sign of influence? Whatever the case, Stevens remained a name to be conjured with amongst the cognoscenti of the fantasy pulps, and the fact that her work has been reprinted over the years attests to a continuing admiration, even if this has never led to fame.

One of the best articles I've found about her is Andrew Liptak's Kirkus Review piece, "The Influential Pulp Career of Frances Stevens". Here I learned that Gertrude Barrows published her first story in 1904 at the age of 17, thus establishing that she was interested in writing at an early age. (Other pieces I've read indicated that she was more interested in drawing early on.) Another interesting tidbit is that when she picked up the pen again in 1917, the pen name she wanted to use was Jean Veil, but Munsey magazine editor Bob Davis stuck her with Francis Stevens for some reason. Maybe he thought "Veil" was too obvious, but I like its artificiality.

Both of these novels are available in etexts, but I've read that a lot of the e-versions of Citadel of Fear don't include the whole novel, so be sure to dig a bit before you download one. Last time I checked, neither novel was available at the Gutenberg Project, and I think I only found one work by Stevens there. Another sign, perhaps, that she is arill undervalued. Whether she was influential or not, her stories and novels strike me as more than worthy to be included in the roster of forgotten writers mentioned in the jacket copy of Polaris Press: "Some of these old masters of fantasy -- and there are many others -- were A. Merritt, Murray Leinster, Homer Eon Flint, Ray Cummings, Garrett P. Serviss, J.U. Giesy and Francis Stevens." For me she joins Serviss and Flint as previously unknown writers of early science fiction who are worth exploring in depth.

[NOTE: The scans of the magazine covers were taken from isfdb.org.]
randy_byers: (brundage)
stevens nightmare.jpgI previously wrote about the first story in this collection, "The Nightmare," in February 2010, and it has taken me this long to get back to the rest of the stories. As I noted then, Francis Stevens was the pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote a variety of fantasy stories for mostly the Munsey magazines from 1917 to 1923. Her work was admired by A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft, and several of her novels have been reprinted over the years. The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2004, and it appears to contain all of her short fiction, although "The Labyrinth" has apparently been published as a stand-alone novel in its own right.

Gary Hoppenstand, in his introduction to this edition, argues that Stevens was not only an influence on Merritt and Lovecraft but one of the inventors of the dark fantasy subgenre, which might be described as a merger of fantasy and horror. That may be the case, but these stories aren't all dark fantasies. Even the ones that are seem to come at it from an odd angle. For example, "The Labyrinth" starts out as a mystery about the disappearance of a young woman, who is the cousin of the narrator and the love interest of two other men. As in "The Nightmare," the protagonist is not a very heroic figure and basically bumbles his way into the titular labyrinth in the company of his cousin and her suitors. The labyrinth is full of strange devices and inexplicable designs which menace the lives of this variably intrepid crew, but ultimately it becomes merely a backdrop to the real matter of the story, which is the choice the young woman has to make between the two suitors. So instead of a metaphor for the mysteries of life and death, the labyrinth becomes a metaphor for the mystery of love. The story is most effective as an exploration of the challenges and convolutions of choosing a good partner, and it keeps you guessing until the end on that score.

"The Elf Trap" is likewise a romantic story with supernatural elements. "Friend Island" is the real oddball in the collection, set in a feminist future in which women are the dominant gender and one aviator-adventuress nearly finds paradise on a strange tropical island before a man spoils all the fun. It's really a remarkable story. "Sunfire" is more like "The Nightmare": a lost world adventure story set in a South American milieu, but while there's a monster in this one what's unusual about the approach is how much it plays like a comedy of errors, with once again a band of "heroes" who basically come across as a bunch of bumbling, egotistical, selfish idiots.

That said, a number of these stories do play the horror aspects fairly straight. "Behind the Curtain" is a revenge story that is very upfront about its debt to Poe, specifically "The Cask of Amontillado". "Unseen-Unfeared" is a macabre story about grotesque monsters invisible to the human eye. "Serapion" is another long story that is perhaps the most effective dark fantasy of the lot. The protagonist gets involved in a paranormal experiment that seems to summon a spirit of the dead that desires to possess him. I wondered in my review of Brackett and Bradbury's "Lorelei of the Red Mist" whether Brackett had borrowed the trope of the protagonist with a divided/conflicted consciousness from Merritt, and here we find it in Stevens, as the haunting spirit attempts to merge itself with the protagonist. This leads to a remarkable duel of wills that reaches a very strange and conflicted conclusion.

When I read "The Nightmare" five years ago I wasn't sure whether Stevens was in control of her material. Now I would say that her writing reflected a lack of experience and was almost a kind of outsider art. She had a vivid imagination, and there's something eccentric about the way she expresses it. I found the eccentricity compelling even when the stories were a bit clumsy or unfocused. Her approach comes across as unique, even in a standard form like the lost world adventure. If nothing else, her approach feels fresh because it doesn't use the standard heroic, alpha male tropes so beloved of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators. That said, the casual racism in her work seems all too standard and familiar, even though it does seem casual rather than ideological. Less loathsome than that in, for example, George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn trilogy. And indeed, while I didn't find the stories in this collection quite up to the level of Merritt's The Moon Pool, I did find them superior to England for all that he's a more polished writer. I was inspired enough by Stevens' oddball imagination that I ordered a copy of her novel, Citadel of Fear. Sounds like one of Kuttner and Moore's science fantasies, doesn't it?
randy_byers: (cesare)
Zombies and Indians
Instructor: [redacted]

While zombies have existed at some level of reality for centuries, it was not until the 20th Century that zombies overran the global popular imagination. Because of their origins at the many points of collision between colonizer and colonized, zombies have always walked the uncertain spaces between binary "certainties" such as us and them, rich and poor, slave and master, and, of course, alive and dead. As those spaces of uncertainty have spread through globalization, zombies became increasingly flexible and strategic syntheses across these binaries. Thus, zombies occupy a variety of liminal spaces wherein contemporary social tensions are reflected and refracted. These tensions, however, have historical and ongoing parallels with images and representations of "Indians."

This course is intended to guide students towards thinking critically through the vehicle of zombies. Zombies reveal societal ambivalence about race, class, gender, ethnicity, political power, agency, and other aspects of social reproduction—in other words, zombies touch upon all of the anxieties commonly associated with colonialism.

We will read a LOT, watch some movies, and hopefully grow to appreciate that in order to make sense of our already infested world, it’s not enough to shoot zombies in the head; we have to be able to get inside their heads as well.

Warning: this course will contain content that students may (or even should) find offensive or disturbing, including graphic language, sexual situations, religious intolerance, gore, colonialism, violence, depictions of death and dying, cannibalism, nudity, racism, sexism, classism, weightism, homophobia, and sexualized violence.
randy_byers: (Default)
The Most Dangerous Game
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

(Via DVDBeaver.)


Oct. 28th, 2010 02:20 pm
randy_byers: (brundage)
'Can it be possible that this planet has actually spawned such things; that human eyes have truly seen, as objective flesh, what man has hitherto known only in febrile phantasy and tenuous legend?'

--H.P. Lovecraft, "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (1931)


Oct. 27th, 2010 12:32 pm
randy_byers: (brundage)
'A certain greasiness about the fellow increased my dislike. He was evidently given to working or lounging around the fish docks, and carried with him much of their characteristic smell. Just what foreign blood was in him I could not even guess. His oddities certainly did not look Asiatic, Polynesian, Levantine, or negroid, yet I could see why the people found him alien. I myself would have thought of biological degeneration rather than alienage.'

-- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (1931)


Oct. 19th, 2010 10:51 am
randy_byers: (brundage)
'The face beside me was twisted almost unrecognisably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion -- as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves, and glands were readjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality.

'Just where the supreme horror lay, I could not for my life tell; yet there swept over me such a swamping wave of sickness and repulsion -- such a freezing, petrifying sense of utter alienage and abnormality -- that my grasp of the wheel grew feeble and uncertain. The figure beside me seemed less like a lifelong friend than like some monstrous intrusion from outer space -- some damnable, utterly accursed focus of unknown and malign cosmic forces.'

-- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Thing on the Doorstep"
randy_byers: (thesiger)
Those of you who enjoyed the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's wonderful silent film adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" might be interested to know that they are nearing completion of their next film, an adaptation of "The Whisperer in Darkness". They have a blog with the latest news and developments. I assume it will be premiered at the upcoming H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon.


Sep. 22nd, 2010 09:50 am
randy_byers: (brundage)
'The wild, lonely region, the black, mysteriously forested slope towering so close behind the house, the footprints in the road, the sick, motionless whisperer in the dark, the hellish cylinders and machines, and above all the invitations to strange surgery and stranger voyaging — these things, all so new and in such sudden succession, rushed in on me with a cumulative force which sapped my will and almost undermined my physical strength.'

-- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1930)
randy_byers: (brundage)
After I read "The Shadow out of Time", I decided I'd also read Lovecraft's "The Colour out of Space", just to cover the space-time continuum. Or no, I guess it was because "The Colour out of Space" is frequently cited as his best science fiction short story. But when I looked at the table of contents of the Best Of collection from Ballantine that I have, I decided I might as well take the plunge and read a bunch of Lovecraft's better known stories. I read a few Lovecraft stories when I was younger, but not many. Time to bone up.

So far I've read "The Outsider" (1921) and "The Dunwich Horror" (1928), and I've started "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1930). "The Outsider" gave its name to the first Lovecraft collection from Arkham House in 1939. It's mostly a mood piece, with a zinger ending that is obvious now if it wasn't obvious at the time. One of the things I've gotten from reading a bit of Lovecraft criticism (including an excellent overview by S.T. Joshi) is that his prose got less purple over time. "The Outsider" is still in high purple mode, and I guess I don't mind it much. The one thing of Lovecraft's I've loved since I was a teenager is The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which is very purple indeed.

"The Dunwich Horror" is one of his most famous stories, and I was a little surprised I had never read it before. It's a very effective piece of business set in Lovecraft's gothic New England about the unholy spawn of godlike alien entities out to scourge the Earth of all life. It has been criticized for some structural clumsiness, but it actually has nice bit of misdirection that leaves a first time reader somewhat befuddled by developments about three-quarters of the way through and then delivers a nice punch in the end. Lovecraft has a weakness for punchy endings, but this one was better, I thought, than the one at the end of "The Shadow out of Time" and certainly better than the punchline ending of "The Outsider". In any event, I begin to think that like Tolkien, Lovecraft is writing about landscape as much as anything else. The creepy New England countryside is in many ways the most interesting character in the story. Well, that and the creepy folklore and depraved, inbred country folk. Reminds me of my trip to the Berkshires a few years ago!

Ho ho ho. Well, it's only finally sinking in how much Lovecraft was a regional writer along the lines of Faulkner.

Update: 'Later in his life, Lovecraft’s opinion of one of his most beloved stories, “The Outsider,” was not a positive one. He wrote that it was “too glibly mechanical in its climactic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language... It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.” Later, he went even further, calling it a “rotten piece of rhetorical hash with Poesque imitativeness plastered all over it.”' -- Louise Norlie, Existential Sadness in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Well, that certainly was a slog -- in more ways than one! It took me over two months to read this book, and that's about how long it takes the heroic protagonist of the story to rescue his beloved.

This book is famously flawed. First of all, it is very badly written in a faux-18th-Century style that had me gritting my teeth throughout. It made me appreciate once again how good E.R. Eddison is in his own attempts at writing in an archaic (in his case, Elizabethan) style. The second widely-observed flaw in The Night Land is the sentimentality of the love story. The love story is certainly treacly, but I would say that the bigger problem -- which is a problem with the adventure parts of the novel as well -- is the repetition involved. Hodgson uses the same descriptions and situations over and over again. With the love story it's words like "naughty" and "impudent" and descriptions of rubbing in ointment and binding wounds; with the adventure it is descriptions of eating the food pills and powdered water and finding a safe place to sleep and repetitions of the phrase "as you will know if you've been following what I've said." Well, yes, we have been following what you said, so why are you telling us again? Over and over again. Which is one reason why you feel as though you've been through a trip of many, many dull and unchanging days by the end of the book.

Still, despite the flaws this book is widely acclaimed as a classic by figures as diverse as C.S. Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft. (In this review I'm only going to cite writers who go by two leading initials. Let's see, does H.L. Menken have anything to say on the matter?) The reason for this is that it is a tremendous work of imagination. As with so much science fiction, the world-building compensates for the bad writing and characterization. However, I'd have to say that it barely compensates in this particular case. The House on the Borderland is a far better book in almost every way, except for in scope of weird imagination.

The Night Land is a Dying Earth story, which I hadn't really realized before. (Are there any earlier examples of this sub-genre?) As far as we can tell, in this far future the sun has died. The Earth has been riven by cataclysms, and humans have descended into the rifts to stay close to the warmth of the still-molten core and remaining atmosphere. Our protagonist resides in an enormous high tech pyramid called the Last Redoubt, which is the home of millions of people, with different cities on different levels and a huge excavation miles below the ground where crops are grown and people are buried. Outside this enclave, the dark world is swarming with a nightmarish array of monsters and evil forces. The Bantam Adult Fantasy editions of this book used Hieronymous Bosch for the covers, and that's a very good approximation of what the world of the book feels like. The bulk of the story is about the protagonist's journey out into this nightmare world to save his beloved from a smaller, dying enclave of humans a long distance away and further down in the rift.

This is definitely a romance in the old sense, with a literal knight in shining armor (except with a power weapon) striking off to rescue a damsel in distress. However, the fantastic landscape he crosses is shaped by the scientific imagination. The dying earth setting is only the most obvious sign of this, but throughout he speculates on how this and that aspect of the world came to be. (One of the repetitions is that he always comes around to the reminder that he doesn't know if his speculations are true.) For example, he speculates that changes in the density of the atmosphere has caused lungs and chests of this far future to grow larger than they were in the past. At another point he encounters brutish sub-human men and wonders if they will ever evolve to become civilized again, like their distant cousins in the Last Redoubt. As with so much British scientific romance, entropy and evolution seem to be the big concepts being wrestled with. Both have left humanity in an imperiled state.

There's a mystical side of the story as well. It's implied that scientific experiments unleashed forces of evil from alternate dimensions -- or rather, this is one of the protagonist's speculations that may or may not be true. These forces are intangible, at least compared to the monsters and mutants prowling the ground. They are said to actually be able to take over the human spirit or soul and torment them for eternity, and thus all humans who venture out of their safe redoubt are prepared to kill themselves rather than let this happen. They have special implants of poison for that very purpose. As in The House on the Borderland, however, except even more explicitly, there are also forces for good at work in the world, and they act unexpectedly to shield people from the threat of the forces of evil. This all feels very Christian, like a struggle between inscrutable angels and demons.

In the end, it is the landscape and the non-human inhabitants that are most memorable about this book. The eternal darkness is only illuminated here and there by human lights or smoldering volcanos. One memorable passage has the protagonist traveling through utter darkness using a rock tied to a rope, which he throws ahead to test for barriers or chasms. He finds sulphurous hot pools to bathe in. Despite his armor and power weapon, the feeling of existential threat is constant. The sense of dread and horror is almost overpowering. The repetition of his little rituals along the way adds to both the sense of the terrible passage of time and of the pathos of these little gestures in the face of the hungry, devouring darkness.

Yet the subtitle of the book is "A Love Tale", and there is also an aspect of the story that is about love conquering all. Needless to say, it is less memorable than the dark journey itself, as much as it dominates the second half of the book. However, there's something about this love story that I haven't seen commented on elsewhere, and that is its brief resemblance to a John Norman Gor story. There is a short (but still repetitive!) section after Our Hero has found the Maid (as he constantly refers to her) when she starts acting all "naughty" and "impudent" and independent. She puts herself (and him) in danger by pulling away from him and resisting his directions. Eventually he puts her over a knee and gives her a few hard whacks with a switch. (This is after an earlier beating in which he was too easy on her and only made her more resistant.) She becomes submissive at this point, and he pontificates about how women need a man to show them who's boss -- although it's also men who cause women to get all excited and act up, and women who cause men to get all excited and dominant. All of this written in a very treacly style that is hard to get across, and I don't have my notes with me to give you a representative quote. It's very odd and strangely narcissistic, as our hero broods on his own hunky, muscular manliness. Hodgson was apparently a small man who went to sea and got into body-building as a way of protecting himself from the abuse of the other sailors. I thought I saw evidence of this personal history in the text, as cheap as that kind of psychoanalysis is.

Anyway, an ordeal of a book, but one with enough going on to keep me slogging through to the end. It's a fascinating piece in the puzzle of British scientific romance, but one that I'm happy to have behind me rather than ahead of me.
randy_byers: (brundage)
Slowly, slowly, as the aeons slipped into eternity, the earth sank into a heavier and redder gloom. -- Hodgson

This book has been on my Big List of Maybe Someday since I was a teenager, and finally my exploration of early science fiction has put it on the Done Been Read list. I have to say that the descriptions of it I've read over the years failed to get across the fact that it is in large part an expansion of HG Wells' vision of the dying earth in The Time Machine. It's also a forerunner of the cosmological horror that so fascinated HP Lovecraft.

It starts out as a stefnal sort of gothic. First, two hale fellows on a fishing vacation in remotest Ireland discover some ruins hanging over a chasm. In the ruins, they find a manuscript, which is The House on the Borderland. It is the narrative of a man who lives in a remote estate with his sister. (Echoes of Poe here?) He discovers a chasm that swallows a river, and the discovery seems to draw the attention of creepy humanoid swine creatures coming up from the bowels of the earth. He retreats to his house, and they follow. They attack the house, and he defends it with guns and barriers.

One of the complaints about this book from genre fans is that nothing much happens. It's true that this first, gothic part of the story is very much a mood piece, and much of the action, such as it is, consists of the narrator exploring either the gloomy, cavernous house or the barren landscape around it. There is a creeping sense of dread. Things are almost seen, seen out of the corner of the eye, but what was it really? Sounds are heard in the night. It's a mood piece, and the mood is dread.

The second half of the book -- and I'm still not sure how exactly it relates to the first, although it does -- is a vision of the end of the solar system and the heat death of the universe. One of the fascinating aspects of this part is that, especially at first, it feels like a description of time lapse photography. Time speeds up, and the way he describes clouds rushing across the sky sounds almost precisely like it looks on sped up film. It's possible that by 1908 (or a few years earlier, when he apparently wrote the book) Hodgson had seen time lapse photography of clouds, although I'm unaware of such films from that era. Either that, or he had such a keen imagination that he was able to "run the film" in his mind, as it were.

This section of the book is truly remarkable -- a mood piece in an entirely different mode. The sense of enormity of both space and time is exhilirating. Whereas Wells seemed to be grappling more with evolution in The Time Machine, Hodgson is grappling with entropy and just the sheer size of the universe. He seems to have mixed feelings about it too: both a sense of horror and a sense of almost liberation. The narrator loses his body over time in this vision -- turned to dust -- and yet he is thereby freed to see things on an even grander scale.

It's a pretty amazing book, even if it does have way too many commas. A ridiculous number of commas. I don't understand why the copy-editors let some of them stand, because many of them are completely meaningless. They don't even add to a sense of rhythm. I'm really not sure what Hodgson intended with them. Anyway, a minor annoyance. The mixture of gothic dread and cosmic grandeur, as HP Lovecraft commented, "constitute something almost unique in standard literature."

After a time, I looked to right and left, and saw the intolerable blackness of night, pierced by remote gleams of fire. Onwards, outwards, I drove. Once, I glanced behind, and saw the earth, a small crescent of blue light, receding away to my left. Further off, the sun, a splash of white flame, burned vividly against the dark.

An indefinite period passed. Then, for the last time, I saw the earth -- an enduring globule of radiant blue, swimming in an eternity of ether. And there I, a fragile flake of soul-dust, flickered silently across the void, from the distant blue, into the expanse of the unknown.


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