Review: Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies

Weird Tales, edited by Leo Margulies (Pyramid, 1964, pb, 155pp.) R-1029

“Introduction”
“The Man Who Returned” by Edmond Hamilton
“Spider Mansion” by Fritz Leiber, Jr.
“A Question of Etiquette” by Robert Bloch
“The Sea Witch” by Nictzin Dyalhis
“The Strange High House in the Mist” by H. P. Lovecraft
“The Drifting Snow” by August W. Derleth
“The Body-Masters” by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.
“Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard

‘Tis the season to be crawly, so I thought I’d review something in keeping with those spirits the day before Halloween. Weird Tales is a selection of stories published between 1931 and 1942 in the magazine of that name. The selection is credited to Leo Margulies, a publisher and editor involved with several SF magazines, but was (appropriately enough) ghost-edited by Sam Moskowitz. Presumably, Moskowitz also wrote the uncredited three-page introduction, which describes some of the history and character of the magazine, as well as the short introductions to the author of each story.

Being Weird Tales, the magazine included SF and fantasy as well as horror and two of the less successful tales in an otherwise very successful anthology represent those categories. Long’s 1935 story, “The Body-Masters,” is set in Cosmopolis in the year 5678 with a protagonist named V67 who is a Gland Surgeon. Seems almost everyone in this (dys|u)topia is a doctor, some of whom essentially vivisect maladjusted people with the aid of a strange pseudo-anaesthetic. This milieu and its robot mistresses are used to explore the atavistic emotion of jealousy and the notion of ideals. In one sense, this is a bad story but it is strangely imaginative and tackles a theme in a way that brought to mind Robert Silverberg’s “The Throwbacks” which, oddly, I just posted here though I reviewed it long ago. Almost half of Dyalhis’ long fantasy, “The Sea Witch,” is given over to repetitive descriptions of the nude woman an old man finds coming out of the sea on a dark and stormy night. Much is made of her archaic knowledge and speech but the narrative style is at least as archaic. Finally, the tale of magic revenge in a literally Byzantine plot unfolds in the second half after mixing New England, Norse myths, and reincarnation. I can see how some might enjoy this tale, but I didn’t.

While you could stretch “The Sea Witch” to fit some notion of horror, it’s essentially a fantasy as told. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist” also requires some stretching, though less so. Even leaving aside the magazine it was published in, it’s a very weird tale in which nothing much happens and it’s all told in a very mannered way but that achieves a sort of mesmeric effect conveying an awe-fulness symbolized by the unforgettable “strange high house in the mist” which the protagonist strives to reach. Moving more definitely into horror, Bloch’s “A Question of Etiquette” also deploys its style to good effect. Through the eyes of a census taker who has been drugged by the witch he had the misfortune to interview, we witness the wild night of her Sabbat and his strange fate. The narrator’s tone, which moves effectively from black comedy to phantasmagorical fear without varying the same basic pitch, is remarkable.

Several stories, such as “Sea Witch” and “High House” are New England tales and/or snowy. Derleth’s “The Drifting Snow” is another of them. In it, through an aunt who doesn’t like the curtains on one side of the house to be opened and a niece-in-law who feels a compulsion to open them, we learn a family secret from the past which led to a very strange sort of revenant who entices more to join her number. Aside from that, this is an oddly pleasant tale of a family get-together. Strange, but fairly effective. Another snowy story is Hamilton’s piece about “The Man Who Returned.” John Woodford wakes to find he’s been buried alive. The opening horror gives way to a strange inversion of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the irony keeps on ironing. It’s odd that a man so sick he’s been taken for dead is so vigorous in this tale which is also overly reliant on coincidence but it’s otherwise pretty effective and, despite being reminiscent of Poe, is also unusual. Leiber’s “Spider Mansion” is another tale that has some echoes of Poe (and is the sort of thing which, dammit, Janet, had its influence on The Rocky Horror Picture Show). With its “Negro” servants and psychologically twisted midgets, its obviously not a contemporary story but when a couple arrives at the creepy house of a person they think they know one dark and stormy night, the host, a midget-turned-giant via the superscience of his brother, hosts a morbid dinner and regales them with his own diabolical “genius.” Meanwhile, another horror lurks about the house and grounds and things must culminate in damsels in distress, swordplay, and fire. While an element of the ending can be made plausible, it takes some work and the title gives away what is held as a reveal in the story but this is otherwise fine, freaky stuff.

While the anthology is good as a whole, Howard’s tremendous “Pigeons from Hell” wrecks the grade curve. The second-longest tale of the book opens with two New Englanders on a jaunt to the South ending up spending the night at a deserted mansion. One wakes up from what he tries to convince himself was a nightmare only for things to go from bad to worse, resulting in a mad dash from the house. I don’t want to spoil even the opening section but perhaps some flavor of what happened can be given by quoting a piece from when the surviving traveler, Griswell, returns to the house with Buckner, the local sheriff.

He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.

“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner.

In the second section, the two men meet with a voodoo man and fill in some details of what Buckner knew of the sordid family history of the mansion’s last inhabitants before moving to the final section and the nightmarish showdown with a “zuvembie” monster. My only complaint with this story is that the first section is so powerful that the remainder, while also powerful and maintaining suspense and interest, can’t quite match that opening. The Leiber, for instance, is very good, but is quite fantastic from the start, which may not allow some readers to get into it and the superscience may be effective for some and a distraction for others. This tale’s prosaic opening and initially very basic horror works much more certainly. Lovecraft’s style, for instance, works very well for his tale but Dyalhis’ (at least for me) was fatally damaging. This story skips any possible problem with that and just tells its tale. Again, with the Dyalhis, the disparate mythological pieces don’t mesh that well for me whereas this tale’s antebellum relics and imported voodoo fit superbly. Highly recommended.

Review: Doyle After Death by John Shirley

This originally appeared on my old site on 2014-08-05. Other than changes related to reformatting and correcting typos, it’s unchanged. I said I wouldn’t exclude this century and this is an example (of fantasy, even). There’s a retrospective near-coincidence in that I was calling for a TV series based on this and the very different but also redemption/afterlife-oriented The Good Place premiered 2016-09-19. Further in the Near-Coincidence Dept., it’s opening its final season in a few days.

[Cover of Doyle After Death]
Date: 2013
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-30500-8
Pages: 341
Price: $6.99
Publisher: Witness Impulse

Nick Fogg is a private detective in more or less present-day Las Vegas when he dies from misadventure. He comes to find himself on a beach in an afterworld and, after being greeted by the lovely Fiona, makes his way into the town of Garden Rest where he meets a guy who soon becomes a friend, along with a couple of guys who don’t, a bartender who wants to make sure he’s good people, a boardinghouse owner, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yes, that Doyle. And, while a variety of people have died and come to Garden Rest (one of the many places in this plane, which is one of many planes of existence) over the eons and many have departed once more to other planes, there is a 19th/turn-of-20th Century English tone to much of Garden Rest, though it is mixed with traces of other things.

Naturally, it turns out that one of the dead people, Morgan Harris, has been murdered (yes, people can be “deformulated” in the afterlife) and Doyle and Fogg team up as a post-mortem Holmes and Watson to solve the case.

John Shirley is primarily a science fiction and horror writer but here turns his hand to fantasy (and mystery) and the SF flavors it by making it a more concrete and rational afterworld than many might be and the horror flavors it by occasionally producing good frissons of creepiness but it is a remarkably sedate and gentlemanly book from the often vigorous and violent Shirley. Though mostly rational, it’s often a whimsical rationality. One of the most enjoyable aspects is exemplified in the early part of the book when Fogg is still getting his bearings, though already investigating the case. He’s asking the mayor, Chauncey, about Harris.

“Was he living with anyone here? Housemates, spouse, anyone like that?”

“No, he was a friendly chap but he had solitary habits. Obsessed with his work. Tramping around, trying to talk to the trees – claims to have had some manner of conversation with the trees. Might have been his imagination, however. Never heard of Garden Rest’s plants talking. The birds, of course – and the occasional dog. Heard a horse make a remark once. But trees? No. Just as well – wouldn’t care for it, I don’t think. Unsettling.” (70-71)

The sort of horror comes out in places such as the depiction of a “psychic storm” which straddles chapters “Seventh” and “Eighth” when Doyle announces:

“…Ah, here is the storm right on schedule.”

He nodded towards the window – which began rattling in its frame.

Something outside was rattling the window. Not the wind, though the wind was in fact rising. It was the thing’s grip on the frame that rattled it.

Something with a hollow-eyed face was shaking the window…

[Chapter break to enhance the antici… pation.]

The elongated visage, eyeless and suffering, disintegrated under pressure from another, quite distinct face, the way a form in flowing paint is pushed out of shape when another color is poured into the mix. The rounder face with owlish eyes, replacing the first, was quickly pressed aside by several others: human shapes with streaming hair, men and women and mixed gender, some faces well defined and some only sketches. Some looked directly at us; others didn’t seem to see us, and shattered themselves against the windowpane.

They sang, with some occasional harmony but mostly discord – they were the dissonant choir. Some of them looked fairly happy, or at least pleasantly distracted; a good many others seemed to be grieving, endlessly grieving… (178-179)

The weakness of this book is primarily three-fold, with possibly some secondary minor problems. Some or all of the following should strongly apply to the mystery: it should have someone we care about be the victim; we should be drenched in a paranoid air where it could be anyone; we either hate or love many of the suspects; we feel invested in whodunnit; the crime should be very cleverly done and/or solved. It’s not that any of this is utterly absent but it’s only present in trace amounts. (Also, I can’t get into it in detail but one of the keys would probably not escape many conversant with the Holmes canon.) That might not matter as much since the real focus is actually two-fold. On the one hand, it’s on Doyle’s relationship with his wives (sequential on earth but both present in the afterlife), the first being the one living with him but the second, elsewhere in that plane, perhaps holding a greater claim on his heart. On the other, it’s on Fogg’s relationship with his life Before and his self-opinion, especially as it is colored by a particular act in that life. The problems with each of these is that there’s nothing as surprising or revelatory or transcendent as one might hope for. Again, not that it’s not good and reasonable but it’s only in trace amounts. Secondary to these three are the possibility that Shirley (being very American) doesn’t “do” the English thing right or that his treatment of the historical Doyle might not be entirely “spot on” but, being very American, myself, and not conversant with the historical Doyle, I noticed nothing wrong.

There’s another element that is not a weakness but is an irony related to the book’s strength: I loved the tone or mood, and enjoyed the setting and so many of the characters so much that I actually wanted much more of them. I think this would make a great TV series. Not a movie, because that would be relatively short and not a book series because there are too many of those and much of this book is particularly visual anyway. I’d like to see it drawn out and gotten into in more depth and detail. I can see a Joss Whedonesque “found family” and “dramedy” to this that would be great fun. And, of course, it’s not all “fun” in the sense that it brings to mind that we may not get the same chance these fictional fantasy characters do – and few would believe we would in the same way – so it might be wise to try to get it right the first time.

In sum, I don’t know that this is a great and deathless book (so to speak), but it’s a good and very enjoyable one and I recommend it.

Review of The Best of Lester del Rey for Black Gate

My first article for Black Gate was just published.

Lester del Rey was born in Minnesota in 1915 and died in 1993. One of his boldest fictions was claiming that his full name was Ramón Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez-del Rey y de los Verdes, when it was actually Leonard Knapp. However, it was his other fictions, beginning in 1938 for Astounding, and his work as an editor, a reviewer, and in a literary agency, which resulted in his being made a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1991.

Full review at Black Gate: “Gods, Robots, and Man: The Best of Lester del Rey.”

Book Haul!

Awhile ago, I went to the library book sale. This year’s selection of speculative fiction was not as good as last year’s and, again, I ended up getting proportionally more fantasy and horror than I’d ideally aim for (though it is hard to find science fiction I do want and don’t have—in several cases, in both SF/F/H and other categories, I got replacement copies rather than outright new books). The lack of SF did allow me to devote a little more time to looking through some other subjects. On a general note, there was a good crowd which put a few drops into the county’s bucket.

As I did last year, I’m posting some pics. Click to embiggen (and if your browser auto-resizes and you want to see it full-size you may need to click again or do something else). Continue reading

BookPorn!

As they say. I think. I hope…

My public library had its somewhat annual booksale recently. Since it puts all its literature (including poetry!) in General Fiction, its philosophy in General Non-Fiction, and considers books about raising dogs, cats, birds, etc., to be “Science,” I came away a bit deficient in those categories – even more so than usual, for some reason. But I did manage some science. The “Biography & History” is no more granular than its description implies but I did manage some of that and some Reference, too. And there is, at least, an SF/F/H section which is actually SF/F/H. Almost everything I got came from there and, perhaps due to the selection, much more of that was fantasy and horror than usual. I also got some replacements for books I had in poor condition or even gave some books I used to have a second chance, so it wasn’t as cost-effective as it might have been if they’d all been new to me but it was still pretty good.

It was also nice, on a library/social level, to see that the sale was quite busy and that the SF section was among the busiest, even if, on a personal level, it might have resulted in stuff I’d have liked to get disappearing faster.

So: pics, or it didn’t happen! Here are a couple of spine pics followed by five of full frontal bookity. Continue reading