BLOOD’S A ROVER by Harlan Ellison

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Before I get to my review, I want to say a few words about Harlan Ellison, who died two weeks ago on June 28, 2018. Ellison was a volatile, complicated man. Some of his actions were praiseworthy: he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma and fought for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Some other actions, such as his sexual assault of Connie Willis at the 2006 Hugo Awards, mar his legacy. As the world grapples with Ellison’s life and death, it is important that we do not ignore or excuse these actions, and that is why I acknowledge them here. However, I will not be commenting on them further. This blog is about writing, and that is what I want to focus on. Thank you for your attention.

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Earlier this year I reviewed Harlan Ellison’s novella “A Boy & His Dog.” Following the adventures of a boy named Vic and his dog Blood as they wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland, its bracing wit and grim vision of nuclear fallout remain compelling fifty years after its publication. As he continued to write new stories featuring his heroes, Ellison realized that nothing less than a full novel would be enough to do them justice. The finished book was to be called Blood’s A Rover, after a poem by A. E. Housman. Ellison teased its publication for decades, claiming the story was finished as far back as 1989: “The final, longest section is in screenplay form…and one of these days before I go through that final door, I’ll translate it into elegant prose, and the full novel will appear.”

Ultimately, the full novel did not appear – and never will. Ellison resumed the project in 2014 at the behest of his editor, Jason Davis, but a stroke forced him to retire from writing soon after. With his death on June 28, 2018, any hope that he might recover was lost. However, he was not content to go into that good night without leaving his patient readers a parting gift. With Davis, Ellison compiled and revised all previously published material featuring Vic and Blood, as well as the aforementioned screenplay (previously unpublished). Released by Subterranean Press, this fix-up version of Blood’s A Rover is as close as we’re ever going to get to Ellison’s completed vision.

And it is wonderful.

Blood's A Rover

The surprise here is not how strong each story is on its own – Ellison published over 1,700 short stories and was a master of the form – but in how well it holds together. It really shouldn’t, when you think about it. The stories in this book were written over decades and regularly switch points of view. As you might expect from such a history, the resulting narrative structure is more episodic than serial. In between each story is a quote from “The Wit & Wisdom of Blood,” humorous epigrams that Ellison wrote for the Corben graphic novel adaptation. Then, after a hundred pages of first-person prose, we switch to a third-person teleplay. The book looks and reads like a fix-up.

Somehow, despite this shaggy dog quality, it all fits. The stories have been revised for continuity, of course, but there is also a consistency of tone, a wry gallows humor, that carries from story to story. More importantly, there is a consistency of theme. No matter who is narrating or what is transpiring, these stories are about the need for kindness, and for hope, when circumstances seem bleak and inescapable. It is a message that seems timely in the chaotic world climate of 2018. (Also timely: in this updated version, Donald Trump is our final president before nuclear holocaust. I find this frighteningly plausible.)

The book begins with a poignant dedication to Michael Moorcock, who first accepted “A Boy & His Dog” for publication back in 1969. Ellison also throws in “a hug for L. Q. Jones, for the movie.” We then get a thorough introduction by Jason Davis, the single best summation of the history and legacy of the Vic and Blood stories that I have read.

The novel proper kicks off with “Eggsucker.” Narrated by Blood and set a year before the rest of the book, the story recalls a barter for ammo gone awry. It doesn’t have the satirical bite of “A Boy & His Dog,” but it is very entertaining and provides us with much information about the history and politics of its setting. Ellison’s writing is vivid and memorable throughout; his description of a mutant that Vic and Blood encounter during their travels is the stuff of nightmares:

“And there, right on schedule, coming up like something from an old Japanese horror flick…there was the king awful ugliest screamer I’ve ever seen, oozing green slime and his parts falling off like some medieval drawing of a rotting flagellant or a leper, nothing but bitten fingernails all the way back to the knuckles, and eyelashes as long as spider legs, and big whirling eyes without eyelids, his mouth open and yelling with the pain of his burns, groping and clutching trying to climb out of the pit.”

“Eggsucker” is followed by “A Boy & His Dog.” Narrated by Vic, it’s the centerpiece of the book and still the best Vic and Blood story. I will not write about its content, as I have done so before at length. I’ll just say that it was as strange, funny, sad, and scary as I remembered, and was interesting to reread within the context of a larger narrative.

We’re back to Blood’s point of view for the next story, “Run, Spot, Run,” first published in Mediascene Prevue in 1980 and reprinted in Amazing Stories in 1981. The tale finds Vic sinking into a vortex of guilt and depression following the fateful events that conclude “A Boy & His Dog.” It’s an important story for the character’s development, and I found it interesting that we don’t see it from his perspective. Until the release of this book, “Run, Spot, Run,” was the final published Vic and Blood story, and the cliffhanger on which it ends must have maddened many a fan for decades.

As Ellen Weil notes in her 2002 book Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever, “The tantalizing suggestion [of the ending to ‘Run, Spot, Run’], of course, is that the central figure and principal narrator in the novel Blood’s A Rover was to have been Blood, with Vic a more transient figure.” Weil was right. While Vic never disappears from the action completely, it is clear that Blood was indeed meant as the primary character in the book, and what a character he is. Sly, sarcastic, smart, and cultured, he is a beacon of rationality in a profoundly irrational world. He’s a compelling creation, and keeps you reading.

The final section of the book is the fabled teleplay, titled “Blood’s A Rover.” It must be said that the transition is awkward after so many pages of prose, especially if you have never read a script before. Thankfully, Ellison’s dialogue remains sharp and his detailed stage directions paint a clear picture of what is happening. As this was written for television, it is more optimistic and less violent than the prose stories, but considering that the overall theme of the novel is the wresting of humanity from barbarism and hope from despair, this seems fitting. It also introduces a late-game female main character who is tougher and smarter than Vic by a mile (and maybe even Blood, by a hair). Named Spike, she is a fascinating character. I would have enjoyed reading a story from her point of view.

All in all, it’s hard not to feel a bit sad that we’re never going to get the fully realized novel of Blood’s A Rover that Ellison promised us for decades, but what we have been given here holds together extremely well and it’s certainly better than nothing. I wish the book had a table of contents, but that is the definition of a minor quibble. Wildly entertaining and thematically compelling, Blood’s A Rover is a fine sendoff for one of the great writers of our time and one of my new favorite works of science-fiction.

NEXT TIME: “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft!

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“The Point of Thirty Miles” by T. H. White

These days, T. H. White (1906-1964) is best remembered for his novels based on the legends of King Arthur. Though White wrote five in all, the most famous is still the first, 1938’s The Sword In The Stone. The first four were later compiled into a volume called The Once & Future King, described by author and critic Lin White as “the single finest fantasy novel written in our time.” Award-winning anthologist Gardner Dozois counted it as one of the three greatest works of fantasy in the 20th century, the others being J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

Despite this impressive achievement, we should not forget White’s other work. He also wrote science-fiction, one example being Gone to Ground, or The Sporting Decameron (1935). The book chronicles a hunting party who find themselves embroiled in the “final war” and take refuge in a subterranean cave. Once entombed, the group pass the time by telling hunting stories to each other. One of these stories is called “The Point of Thirty Miles,” and is the focus of this essay. It was republished as a standalone tale in a 1981 collection called The Maharajah & Other Stories, which is where I read it.

Gone to Ground

The story is told almost entirely through dialogue. The narrator is relating a strange hunt from his youth. While out hunting foxes with some of his friends, a “grey creature that looked like a cross between the Benicia Boy and a bear” interrupts the hunt (the Benicia Boy was a popular moniker for John C. Heenan, a highly regarded bare-knuckle boxer). Thinking wolves long extinct in Britain, the party gives chase. The creature has the look of a wolf, but runs with the clarity of purpose of a man. It can even run on two legs. “But, my dear fellow,” a member of his incredulous audience interrupts. “Either yours was a wolf or it wasn’t… It makes a great difference, you know.” While I have tried to cultivate a style of reviewing that does not spoil major plot twists, it will be immediately obvious to a modern reader where this is going: the party is hunting a werewolf.

Even knowing the twist ahead of time, I still think the story is worth reading. Its power is derived not from its plot, but from how it is told. For being a werewolf story, I was struck by how much of it is devoted to the mundane. There is a conversational familiarity to the narration; we are given multiple offhand references to characters we’ve never met and places we’ve never been (“His lordship’s grandfather married a Jawleyford, and his great aunt Amelia Jawleyford married a Puffington, so there was hunting in the family. The original Puffington used to hunt the Mangysterne country in the ‘fifties…”). It is initially a little disorienting to be presented with so much information, but we ultimately come to realize that we don’t need to understand these references. They serve to conjure a sense of place and community. White wants his narrator, and the world he inhabits, to feel real.

In addition, the narrator believes he is hunting a mere wolf until the end of the story, so most of his tale is filled with minor details of the hunt – how his horse reacted to jumping a particular ditch, for example. At one point the narrator even notes how bored he is by the longwinded chase with his unseen prey. It is only the thrill of potentially setting a new record for longest hunt that keeps him from calling off his hounds and going home.

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All of this contributes to the ending’s undeniable potency. After pages and pages of rather banal description, the reader has been lulled into complacency. Then we take a sudden turn into the fantastic with the confirmation that our hunter’s prey is a werewolf, a revelation that comes in a scene of unexpectedly graphic violence. It’s an extraordinary bit of writing, one I am highly tempted to quote, but having already spoiled the twist, I will preserve the manner of its execution for any curious readers.

I was also struck by how White paints the werewolf as a figure of pity. This is the only werewolf story I can name wherein the werewolf is prey, not predator. We are given a brief glimpse of its power when it interrupts the hunt, but from then until the end of the story it is on the run, just another animal to be tracked down and killed for sport. We learn nothing of the man underneath the wolf. The narrator doesn’t care.

hainingwerewolf

White’s story has only been reprinted a small handful of times. In addition to The Maharajah, it appeared in a 1987 volume edited by Peter Haining called Werewolf: Horror Stories of the Man-Beast. More recently it was selected by Philip Henscher for The Penguin Book of the British Short Story II, released in 2015.

All in all, this isn’t one of White’s major works, but it’s an effective little chiller that should appeal to fans of classic horror.

NEXT TIME: BLOOD’S A ROVER by Harlan Ellison!

OFFSPRING by Jack Ketchum

“I generally don’t like sequels even in the movies. Onward and upward always seems a better idea. But I’ve been trying to go for a slightly higher profile these days.” That’s Jack Ketchum in his Afterword to Overlook Connection Press’ 2005 reprint of Offspring, the sequel to his unforgettable debut novel Off Season (read my review here). As slyly self-deprecating as that statement is, he wasn’t entirely joking. When Offspring was written in 1991, Ketchum was still best known for Off Season, and that had long been out of print. Ketchum wanted to write something that would get his debut back on the shelves. In the end, he was successful. Off Season found its way back to print, and it’s still his most famous novel, with the possible exception of The Girl Next Door (1989).

But what of its sequel? Most sequels follow a general rule: “the same, but bigger.” These are instantly forgettable. Better ones – and certainly the best ones – preserve what was wonderful about the original, but explore fresh themes or take the plot in unexpected directions. Ketchum has not delivered the sequel to end all sequels here, but he is a smart enough writer that Offspring ultimately falls under the latter category.

Offspring 1

I say “ultimately” because this isn’t obvious right away. Offspring is nearly identical to Off Season in terms of plotting: over the course of one night, a group of friends are terrorized by a pack of feral cannibals living in the Maine wilderness. Some are killed in the initial attack, others are taken to the cannibals’ lair, and one of the group escapes, working to free their captive friends. Two steps behind them is Dead River’s law enforcement. At first it is hard not to be a little disappointed in how familiar this all seems, but as you read, the book slowly reveals itself to be a much different – and much richer – piece of work.

Off Season was a white-knuckled descent into the blood-soaked pits of Hell. It wanted to devastate you with its bleak philosophy and unrelenting violence. Make no mistake, there is still plenty of blood and suffering to be found in Offspring, but Ketchum’s intent here is different. Off Season is about chance, the idea that no matter how much control you think you have over your life, you can be thrown off a cliff at any moment by the whims of fate. Offspring is about relationships, and how bonds between people grow and endure in the face of hardship.

It’s an interesting premise for a horror novel, because it is one that is most effective with a limited body count. If everyone dies, how can you explore their relationships? Ketchum seems to have realized this, and Offspring claims significantly fewer casualties than its predecessor. Within its pages, we see Ketchum explore the dynamics between friends, brother and sister, mother and child, husband and wife. For such a slim volume, Ketchum packs in a lot, and the overall message is clear: we are stronger together than apart. The author himself has noted in interviews that the characters in Off Season are not as tightly-knit as they are in Offspring, to their detriment.

Offspring 2

This focus on character and relationships extends beyond the main characters to the cannibals as well. In an interview for Dark Scribe, Ketchum elaborates: “They could be a pack of wolves in Off Season, that’s not true in Offspring. Characters like Second Stolen, The Cow, and particularly The Woman, I tried to make them more of a family in the sense that […] you get to really know that family as individuals, and even though they’re ‘other,’ they’re still individuals.”

I would say that Ketchum succeeded. The cannibals are far more interesting here than they were in Off Season. In that novel, we were given a deft sketching of their origins, but that was it. Here, Ketchum not only fleshes out their individual personalities, but gives us glimpses of a genuine belief system, a dark religion that helps explain their savagery. What is most interesting to me about this development is that it actually softens our view of the cannibals. We realize, when all is said and done, that they are only acting according to their natures.

Offspring 3

At first glance, the title seems like a clever riff on Off Season, but it’s actually the thematic heart of the book: Ketchum is most concerned with the relationships between mothers and children. The two central characters of the novel are mothers – Claire, a woman in her thirties with a young son and an abusive ex-husband, and The Woman, matriarch of the cannibal family.

Claire begins the novel more or less as you would expect. When the cannibals first strike, her protective instincts kick in. Her only concern is for the safety of her son, and for that of the infant daughter of her friend Amy. Like many adults, she fails to realize that children have agency. She sees them as fragile, in need of protection. However, when cornered by a man who would kill them all, Claire has an epiphany. She realizes that her son’s presence is a strength, not a crutch:

“She wanted to run and attack him at the same time. She knew that neither was right, that neither would get her anywhere, that whichever one she chose would see her dead on the ground in front of him, she saw her body twitching at his feet on that very spot, and knew in an instant that there was only one way she could survive this and that was to do both these things at once, to split herself in two, to run from him and attack at the same time – and that was possible. Because she was not one. She had not been one for many years now.

She was two.”

The Woman, meanwhile, is a whole other sort of mother. Like Claire, her main drive is the survival of her family. Unlike Claire, the survival of the family as a whole is more important to her than the survival of specific individuals within it. In the harsh conditions in which the cannibals live, life is cheap. The Woman does not care when one of her children is killed, as long as the family can survive without them. She recognizes and depends on the agency of her children from the beginning, as they all must pull their weight to stay alive.

Offspring 4

There’s another theme at work here as well: redemption, embodied by the character of George Peters. In Off Season, Peters was Dead River’s aging sheriff, struggling to keep up with the carnage. Now he is long retired and haunted by the events of eleven years earlier, particularly his accidental killing of an innocent. When he is summoned to a gruesome crime scene in the middle of the night, he knows the demons from his past have returned, but with them comes a chance for atonement.

Peters also serves as a contrast to the true villain of the book, Claire’s ex-husband Steven. The cannibals are dangerous, but they follow the twisted morality of their beliefs. Steven, meanwhile, is an opportunistic murderer who betrays his own family when it benefits him. Even The Woman sees danger in him. This is a far cry from Peters, who all but worships his wife even though she has been dead for years, and who often invokes her memory to give him strength.

Thematically, this is all significantly cheerier than the nihilism of Off Season, and the book as a whole comes off as much more hopeful. If it lacks the relentless intensity of its predecessor, it makes up for it with rich characterizations and thematic depth. I just wish the plot had been more adventurous. Even so, there is much to admire here. I have found the Dead River novels to be quite compelling, and I wholeheartedly recommend them.

NEXT TIME: “The Point of Thirty Miles” by T. H. White!

“The Blue Lenses” by Daphne du Maurier

What is it about the work of Daphne du Maurier that continues to hold to our collective consciousness? On some level, we must recognize that her Gothic novels – tales of hysterical women and gaslighting men tinged with the vague possibility of the supernatural – can be a little ridiculous at times. Nor was her writing always particularly original; her most famous novel, Rebecca, contains so many elements of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre that some might call it a rip-off (although I would consider such an assessment unfair). And yet, her work casts an undeniable spell. In the eighty years since its publication, Rebecca has never been out of print.

Simply put, we still read du Maurier because she tapped into primal obsessions and embodied those obsessions in arresting, complicated characters. She was also an unsung master of atmosphere and suspense. Here’s Parul Sehgal, writing for the New York Times:

“Like Wilkie Collins before her and Sarah Waters today, du Maurier had a preternatural understanding of how to engineer suspense; she knew how to make you wait and want and when to deliver the final blow. ‘The Birds,’ her short story that was the basis of the Hitchcock film, is such a perfect piece of narrative tension, it feels less written than administered; it acts upon you with unerring, hypodermic efficiency.”

“The Blue Lenses” is not one of du Maurier’s most famous stories, but it is certainly one of the best. It was first published in the Ladies Home Journal in May of 1959, and was included in the short story collection The Breaking Point later that year. I read it in the NY Review Books collection Don’t Look Now, edited by Patrick McGrath.

Breaking Point

The story concerns Marda West, a woman recuperating from eye surgery. While she has not always been blind, she has been struck by an unnamed condition and is awaiting lenses that will restore her sight. She has been in the hospital for several weeks and has developed close relationships with the nurses there; she has even asked her favorite, Nurse Ansel, to come home with her to be her private nurse while she adjusts to the lenses. She looks forward to finally seeing what all her new friends look like.

This opening section is very smartly written by du Maurier. She omits all visual descriptions. We learn how characters sound, how they smell, how they move, but not how they look. Like Marda West, we are trapped in darkness, piecing together information from what our other senses offer us. Also like Marda West, we come to conclusions about the characters based on this limited information.

Then the day comes that the lenses are fitted. Marda West can see again. But what she sees is entirely unexpected: her surgeon has a dog’s head. Her day nurse has the head of a cow. Nurse Ansel has the head of a snake and her husband Jim, that of a vulture with a “blood-soaked beak.” At first she thinks the nurses are playing a cruel trick on her, but eventually comes to realize that there is no grand conspiracy – she has been granted the extraordinary ability to see those around her as they really are. The lenses have removed blindness both literal and metaphorical.

Echoes from the Macabre

The metaphor may not be subtle, but it is effective. Their true natures revealed, Marda realizes that the people she thought she knew best – people she intimately trusted – are in actuality dangerous and deceitful. With that revelation comes paranoia. She suddenly remembers it was not she who suggested that Nurse Ansel come home with her, but Ansel herself. Why did Jim go along with it? Why does he spend so much time talking with Ansel in the hallway when he should be spending time with his wife? Does this have anything to do with his insistence that she allow him to become co-director of her trust fund? Things that were once benign take on a queasy undertow of terror.

Marda’s newfound vision puts the reader on edge as well. Like Marda, we have never seen what these characters actually look like. Our first view of them is with their unsettling animal visages. Characters who seemed polite and kind reemerge as predators and we realize that, like Marda, we have misjudged them. One starts to think, who might I have misjudged in my own life? Which of my closest friends, or family members, might be a monster in disguise? In that uneasy suspicion, I was reminded of the work of Shirley Jackson, another writer who saw danger in the ordinary (read my review of Jackson’s “The Summer People” here).

Still hoping that her condition is a deceit on the part of the hospital, Marda sneaks out. Her experiences outside are wild and hallucinatory:

“[The] couple passing her now, a toad’s head on a short black body clutching a panther’s arm, could give her no protection, and the policeman standing at the corner was a baboon, the woman talking to him a little prinked-up pig. No one was human, no one was safe, the man a pace or two behind her was like Jim, another vulture. There were vultures on the pavement opposite. Coming towards her, laughing, was a jackal.”

On the brink of madness, she blacks out and awakens in the hospital. New lenses are affixed. The problem, it seems, was all in her head – the old lenses were pressing against a nerve. All seems right with the world. Marda immediately begins to dismiss what she has seen. Then du Maurier unleashes a final twist that Patrick McGrath describes in an article for The Guardian as “brilliantly grim…an instance of perfect narrative ingenuity.” (In the same article, McGrath perceptively links the story’s themes of blindness and clairvoyance to one of du Maurier’s more famous tales, “Don’t Look Now.”) It is indeed a terrific ending, reinforcing all the paranoia and fear that came before.

Don't Look now

The stories in The Breaking Point were written when du Maurier was herself on the edge. Following her husband’s mental breakdown in 1957, du Maurier fought off madness until she reached, in her words, “the limit of endurance.” Like many of the other stories in the book, “The Blue Lenses” reflects du Maurier’s struggle to maintain sanity in spite of a world crumbling around her. While du Maurier is not typically thought of as an author of weird fiction, I would argue that “The Blue Lenses,” in its depiction of a character who battles for sanity after discovering a frightening new reality, fits comfortably within the weird tradition.

(On an unrelated note, I wonder if Jack Vance ever read “The Blue Lenses.” His novel The Eyes of the Overworld, released seven years later and reviewed here, also features contact lenses that alter the perception of the wearer.)

While du Maurier was regarded as little more than an author of popular melodramas in her time, critics have since reassessed their views. She is now regarded as one the 20th century’s finest authors of suspense. The Canadian-Argentine novelist Alberto Manguel wrote, “Her novel Rebecca, her short stories ‘The Birds,’ ‘Don’t Look Now,’ ‘The Blue Lenses,’ and dozens more have an effectiveness that make them seem almost traditional, belonging not to any one author but to the imagination of the world.”

Agreed. “The Blue Lenses” is a wonderful piece of work, perceptive and disconcerting. I look forward to reviewing more of du Maurier’s writing in the future. Perhaps tonight I will dream of Manderlay again.

NEXT TIME: OFFSPRING by Jack Ketchum!

“Prey” by Richard Matheson

Neil Gaiman once said of Richard Matheson, “He was a giant, and YOU KNOW HIS STORIES, even if you think you don’t.” There really isn’t a better one-sentence introduction. You may have never read a word of Matheson’s prose, but chances are you’ve seen a movie or TV show based on his work.

Remember that episode of The Twilight Zone with the gremlin on the wing of the plane? That’s Matheson. Maybe you saw Will Smith battling hordes of vampire zombies in I Am Legend. That’s Matheson. The episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk gets split into good and evil halves is Matheson. Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Duel, about a motorist chased through the desert by a psychotic truck driver, is Matheson. There’s even an episode of Family Guy based on a Matheson story. And that’s only the beginning. The Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, A Stir of Echoes…the list of films and television episodes based on his work is very long indeed.

Shock Waves

“Prey” was first published in the April 1969 issue of Playboy, but I will refrain from including an image of the cover here. It was included in Matheson’s short story collection Shock Waves the following year and has been reprinted in numerous horror anthologies since. Peter Straub (Ghost StoryFloating Dragon, etc.) included it in American Fantastic Tales: Terror & The Uncanny From Poe to Now, a two-volume anthology published by the Library of America. I read it in Penguin Classics’ 2017 volume The Best of Richard Matheson. Read it here.

The plot centers on Amelia, a sad, vaguely pathetic creature. She has a boyfriend named Arthur, but she is constantly sacrificing her time with him to appease her domineering mother. When the story begins, it is Arthur’s birthday. Amelia has bought him a Zuni fetish doll, called “He Who Kills,” for a present. Unbeknownst to her, the doll is alive. The doll traps and terrorizes Amelia in her apartment, forcing her to summon strength she didn’t know she had.

Although she spends much of the story running and screaming, Matheson takes time at the beginning of his tale to let us get to know Amelia, and she is rather sympathetically drawn. We learn that she has bought the doll for Arthur because he is an anthropologist – she is thoughtful. In agonizing phone conversations, first with her mother and then with Arthur, we see how she struggles to balance her independence with her obligations to her family. She is sweet, but she is shy and allows herself to be walked on. Her problems are painful but mundane. Relatable.

Nightmare At 20,000 Feet

As for the villain, “living doll” stories are fun, but they have the potential to become very silly, very fast. After all, even armed with a knife, is a tiny doll really a match for a full-sized human? Matheson has several strategies he uses to circumvent potential ridiculousness. Firstly, he has Amelia recognize the absurdity of her situation, using it as a device to build suspense. Early in the story, Amelia finds the doll is not where she last left it. She begins to hear noises around her apartment.

“Across the room, the lamp went out.

Amelia jumped so startledly, she rammed her right elbow against the doorjamb. Crying out, she clutched the elbow with her left hand, eyes closed momentarily, her face a mask of pain.

She opened her eyes and looked into the darkened living room. ‘Come on,’ she told herself in aggravation. Three sounds plus a burned-out bulb did not add up to anything as idiotic as –

She willed away the thought.”

Later, the doll in pursuit, Amelia locks herself in the bathroom. Matheson writes, “She tried to visualize the doll. Was it hanging from the knob by one arm, using the other to probe inside the knob lock with the knife? The vision was insane.” In highlighting the ridiculousness of her plight, Matheson somehow only makes it more frightening.

Secondly, Matheson maintains focus on Amelia at all times. He never shows us the doll unless he must; when it attacks, Matheson uses language that highlights Amelia’s experience: “More movement, dark on dark. Pain in her left calf, then her right again. Amelia cried out. Something brushed along her thigh.” In minimizing the doll’s appearance, he maximizes its effectiveness. His sharp focus on Amelia also maximizes the impact of the story’s bone-chilling ending.

Best of Richard Matheson

Ultimately, I was very impressed by “Prey.” It is a marvel of economy, fitting a great deal of characterization and nightmarish horror into a mere ten pages. Like so many other Matheson stories, “Prey” was adapted for television. It was the basis for the final segment of a TV movie called Trilogy of Terror, made in 1975, starring Karen Black. All three segments of the film were based on Matheson stories, but only “Prey,” called “Amelia” in the film, was scripted by Matheson.

In an article for Conceptual Fiction, Ted Gioia describes getting nightmares as a child from watching the protagonist of The Incredible Shrinking Man fight off a house spider with a sewing needle. Gioia’s analysis of the scene could apply equally well to “Prey,” or any number of Matheson stories: “The scene is classic Matheson, ostensibly ludicrous in conception, but gut-wrenchingly scary in execution. Just like that goofy gremlin jumping on the wing of the plane. You laugh, but only until the lights go out.”

NEXT TIME: “The Blue Lenses” by Daphne du Maurier!

“Ill Met In Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) was one of those authors who dabbled in many genres and was a master of all of them. He wrote horror, science fiction, and fantasy in equal measure, but a lot of his work blended them together. He was one of the first to write horror in urban settings, presaging such authors as Richard Matheson. He was a poet and playwright, as well as a chess expert. He also made an appearance as an actor in the 1970 cult film Equinox.

Leiber is most famous for a series of sword and sorcery stories focusing on a pair of adventurers called Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (for a brief definition of sword and sorcery, read my previous entry here). The characters were created in a series of letters between Leiber and his friend Harry Otto Fischer in the 1930s; Fafhrd was based on Leiber and the Mouser on Fischer. The first story to feature the characters, “Two Sought Adventure,” was published in the August 1939 issue of Unknown. Over the next fifty years Leiber continued to write and publish stories following their exploits.

Unknown

One of Leiber’s aims with the characters was to create pulp heroes that were more realistic than a figure like Robert E. Howard’s Conan. As such, the characters are marked by complex personalities. Fafhrd is a barbarian from the north, close to seven feet tall, and a gifted swordsman and singer. He has a tendency to boast, but is also clear-headed and pragmatic, rarely blundering in anywhere half-cocked. The Mouser is a thief and former wizard’s apprentice, tall but shorter than Fafhrd, who is skilled with daggers and has some ability to use magic. For all his practiced cynicism, the Mouser is prone to displays of warmth and humor. They recognize something “inexplicably familiar” in each other, a desire for adventure that is the heart of their friendship.

In keeping with Leiber’s desire for greater realism, the F&TGM stories do not take place in a vacuum but over a prolonged period of time. As the series progresses, Fafhrd and the Mouser age, mature, take on new responsibilities, and get married. The series ends with the two having settled down on an Iceland-like island. Leiber died before he could continue their adventures further. The focus of this entry, “Ill Met In Lankhmar,” is not about the end, however, but the beginning. When the story was written, Leiber had been chronicling his heroes’ adventures for thirty years. Here, he reveals how they met.

Ill Met

Things start off strongly: “Silent as specters, the tall and the fat thief edged past the dead, noose-strangled watch-leopard, out the thick, lock-picked door of Jengao the Gem Merchant, and strolled east on Cash Street through the thin black night-smog of Lankhmar, City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes.” What an opening! The sibilant hiss of “silent as specters” suggests snakes moving in darkness, while “thin black night-smog” evokes the grime of a large city in only three words. You get a sense of the setting and its dangers immediately. It draws you in.

The thieves have just completed a job for the city’s notorious Thieves’ Guild. On their way back to their hideout, they are ambushed by two assailants. These assailants are revealed to be Fafhrd and the Mouser, working separately despite their simultaneous attacks. Recognizing that they are kindred spirits, Fafhrd and the Mouser agree to split their earnings.

The actual meeting is a very funny exchange:

Fafhrd said, “Our motives for being here seem identical.”

“Seem? Surely must be!” the Mouser answered curtly, fiercely eyeing this potential new foe, who was taller by a head than the tall thief.

“You said?”

“I said, ‘Seem? Surely must be!'”

“How civilized of you!” Fafhrd commented in pleased tones.

“Civilized?” the Mouser demanded suspiciously, gripping his dirk tighter.

“To care, in the eye of action, exactly what’s said,” Fafhrd explained. Without letting the Mouser out of his vision, he glanced down. His gaze traveled from the belt and pouch of one fallen thief to those of the other. Then he looked up at the Mouser with a broad, ingenuous smile.

“Sixty-sixty?” he suggested.

I am tempted to go through the rest of the story plot point by plot point just so I can quote more of Leiber’s delightful prose, but for the sake of brevity I won’t. I’ll just say that the remainder of the story concerns Fafhrd and the Mouser deciding to infiltrate the Thieves’ Guild and the fallout of that terrible choice.

SWRDSNDDVL1970

If it is not yet obvious, I loved “Ill Met In Lankhmar.” Leiber’s writing has a humor that’s lacking in the more self-serious work of authors like Howard. The settings, particularly the interior of the Thieves’ Guild and the Mouser’s attic hideout, are expertly realized. He’s also a master of pacing and the novella flies by despite its length. He has a firm grip on the personalities of his characters and charts the progression from uneasy alliance to deep friendship in a way that feels true; his assured characterizations lend the climax a pathos that borders on tragedy.

If I had one criticism of “Ill Met In Lankhmar,” it is how its female characters are depicted. Leiber is not the worst writer of women – unlike the damsels in distress of lesser pulp fiction, his women have agency – but more often than not they seem like plot devices rather than flesh-and-blood humans. That is the case here. The characters of Vlana and Ivrien are given a few scenes to flesh out their personalities, but mostly they are defined by how they serve the story: first they are romantic interests for the main characters, and then they are the impetus that drives the climax. Never do we truly get a look at what makes their hearts beat as people.

Epees et Demons

“Ill Met In Lankhmar” was first published in the April 1970 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. By that time, the F&TGM stories had attained some respectability, but this story represented a pinnacle for the series in that regard: it won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella in 1970 and ’71, respectively. Afterwards Leiber included it in the anthology Swords & Deviltry, the first of seven Swords books that collect the entirety of the F&TGM stories.

Gary Gygax included the F&TGM stories in Appendix N, the list of literary sources that inspired Dungeons & Dragons. When I read “Ill Met In Lankhmar,” I could see why. The novella reads like a play session of D&D in prose form: adventurers “inexplicably familiar” to one another join together and go on a dangerous adventure punctuated by friendly bickering. Mordicai Knode, writing for Tor, commented, “I might go so far as to say [Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser] are the most Dungeons & Dragons of anything on the Appendix N list.” Lankhmar, with its exotic perfumes, swordsmen for hire, and sinister Thieves’ Guild, is the prototype for any number of fantasy cities, not just in D&D but in other roleplaying games and future literature as well.

Swords and

Expect to see more of Leiber’s work reviewed here. There are a number of wonderful F&TGM stories I want to cover (most notably “Stardock,” in which our intrepid heroes scale a perilous mountain), but I would also like to review his science-fiction and horror work. His novel Conjure Wife is a spiritual predecessor to Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby.

To wrap up, this was a wonderful story that I greatly enjoyed. If you are a fan of fantasy literature, you should consider this essential.

NEXT TIME: “Prey” by Richard Matheson!

“The Phoenix On The Sword” by Robert E. Howard

In 1961, the great British fantasist Michael Moorcock published a letter in the fanzine Amra. He wanted to know why there was no formal term for a type of fantasy-adventure story popularized decades earlier by the American author Robert E. Howard, in which sword-wielding heroes would go on exciting and often violent adventures. Moorcock proposed “epic fantasy.” Fritz Leiber, a prominent author of such stories, replied in the journal Ancalagon that a better label would be “sword and sorcery.” The term stuck.

Unlike works of high fantasy, which feature epic storylines and world-endangering evils (think J. R. R. Tolkien and his endless imitators), sword and sorcery stories focus on individuals, often anti-heroes, engaging in personal battles. Fast-paced and set in exotic locales, these stories descend from the swashbuckling fiction of writers such as Alexandre Dumas (The Three MusketeersThe Count of Monte Cristo, etc.). Sword and sorcery found its genesis in the magazine Weird Tales with the stories of the aforementioned Robert E. Howard, particularly those of his greatest creation: Conan the Cimmerian.

Weird Tales - Dec. 1932

It’s hard to think of a hero from the pulp era more iconic than Conan. Even people who have never heard of Robert E. Howard know his creation. Howard wrote twenty-one Conan stories, seventeen of which were published during his lifetime. Since his death, more than fifty novels and dozens of short stories featuring the character have been written by other authors. Conan has appeared in comics, films, television shows (cartoon and live-action), video games, role-playing games, and all forms of other media. It seems as long as human beings have a taste for adventure there will be a place for Conan.

The Conan stories are set during the Hyborian Age (not to be confused with Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea), a period described by Howard as taking place between the sinking of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history. Most later editors place it at around 10,000 BC. Howard was a passionate student of history; however, he recognized that the research materials available to him in the tiny Texas towns where he lived were insufficient to write accurate historical fiction. He therefore devised a fictional equivalent to ancient Europe, with geography that closely resembled reality.

The first Conan story was “The Phoenix On The Sword,” published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. It was originally a feature for another of Howard’s heroes, Kull of Atlantis, and was called “By This Axe I Rule!” After being rejected by multiple magazines, Howard rewrote the story, adding elements of supernatural horror and substituting his old hero for a new one. He submitted it to Weird Tales, and after completing the requested polishing it was accepted for publication. Read it here.

Skull-Face

Howard was terrified of aging and most of his heroes are vibrant youths. Surprisingly, that is not the case here: the world’s introduction to Conan is as a grizzled older man, a seasoned warrior who has recently seized the throne of the kingdom of Aquilonia (Howard’s equivalent to France and southern Britain). Having attained the crown, Conan now finds himself unsatisfied. He is bored attending to the day-to-day affairs of his kingdom and misses the adventure of his earlier days. Meanwhile, a scheming nobleman plans to overthrow Conan and take the throne for himself, unaware that the dark wizard in his employ has his own designs.

Reading the Conan stories today, one is struck by the unexpected complexities of Conan’s character. Following Howard’s death, the copyright for Conan passed through several hands, and many stories were reworked or rewritten by numerous editors for various reprints. As a result, the stories as Howard wrote them were out of print for nearly forty years. During that time, as he made his way to comics and other media, a perception of Conan coalesced in popular culture: that of a brutish muscle man in a loincloth who barely speaks and cuts down everyone in his way. John Milius’ 1982 film Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, cemented this image for the modern era. The 2011 reboot, starring Jason Momoa, did little to change it.

This is not how Howard writes the character. His Conan is peerless with a sword, as you would expect, but also fiercely intelligent. He has an ear for languages, is a natural leader and strategist, and in later stories can even decipher code. He is possessed of a lively sense of humor, an element rarely preserved in adaptations, and will rescue those in danger at great personal cost. In short, despite his capacity for violence, Howard’s Conan is a fundamentally decent man. Even in such an early work as “The Phoenix On The Sword,” Conan betrays expectations, expressing a reverence for poetry and demonstrating skill at cartography.

Conan Usurper

The quality of Howard’s writing is a step above what you would expect from an author of pulp fiction, though he still indulges in florid dialogue and purple descriptions. At its most bombastic the reader rolls their eyes at the excess. Still, there is something appealing about his ornate style, and when he doesn’t overdo it his richly sensory descriptions are quite evocative. He is most gifted at writing action scenes. The majority of “The Phoenix On The Sword” is devoted to political intrigue, but it truly comes alive during the climactic fight between Conan and his would-be usurpers:

“As he sprang from the wall his ax dropped an outlaw with a severed shoulder, and the terrible back-hand return crushed the skull of another. Swords whined venomously about him, but death passed him by breathless margins. The Cimmerian moved in, a blur of blinding speed. He was like a tiger among baboons as he leaped, side-stepped and spun, offering an ever-moving target, while his ax wove a shining wheel of death about him.”

Howard was born in 1906 and spent his entire life in Texas. Ugly racial prejudices occasionally surface in his work, the Conan stories included; however, he was Irish in a time when the Irish were considered “undesirable,” and his status as a member of a minority group helped soften his views. He was also an unlikely feminist. Due to his fear of aging, he often spoke of a desire to die young. He got his wish. In 1936, upon learning his mother had fallen into a coma from which she would likely never wake, Howard went out to his car and shot himself in the head. He died eight hours later at the age of thirty.

Howard wrote in many other genres besides fantasy; he wrote boxing stories, detective fiction, and Westerns. In his treatise on fantastic literature, Danse Macabre, Stephen King is unimpressed with Howard’s overall body of work, but he has kind things to say about the Conan stories:

“Howard overcame the limitations of his puerile material by the force and fury of his writing and by his imagination, which was powerful beyond his hero Conan’s wildest dreams of power. In his best work, Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks. […] At his best, Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy, and most of his Conan tales seem to almost fall over themselves in their need to get out.”

“The Phoenix On The Sword” is not my favorite Conan story. It was written before Howard had worked out the details of the Hyborian Age and so the setting feels sketchier than in later stories. In addition, Howard leaves the fate of the wizard Thoth-Amon unsaid. While this doesn’t necessarily constitute a plot hole, it is nonetheless unsatisfying. I personally prefer the stories set in Conan’s youth, when he is a pirate and adventurer unmoored to any one place. That being said, “The Phoenix On The Sword” is a very entertaining introduction to the character and does feature some appropriately violent barbarianism.

Coming Conan

The story has been reprinted many times over the decades, though Howard did not live to see his stories collected. Its first appearance outside of Weird Tales was in a volume of Howard’s fiction published by Arkham House in 1946 called Skull-Face & Others. From 1967 to 1994, it was available in an oft-reprinted collection called Conan the Usurper. For my money, the best Conan books available today are three volumes published by Del Rey which collect all of Howard’s stories as originally published. The first of these is called The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian and collects thirteen of Howard’s stories, as well as a horde of extras – including the first draft of “The Phoenix On The Sword” that Howard submitted to Weird Tales.

Expect to see other Conan stories reviewed here in the future. “The Tower of the Elephant,” in particular, is a tremendously exciting tale that in its unexpected science-fiction elements approaches the cosmic weirdness of H. P. Lovecraft. In the meantime, I look forward to digging into another classic of sword and sorcery for my next entry, Fritz Leiber’s “Ill Met In Lankhmar.” I hope you’ll join me!

NEXT TIME: “Ill Met In Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber!