Sewer Charons, Scarab Beetles, and Salieri-ism

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Dickens was meant by Heaven to be the great melodramatist; so that even his literary end was melodramatic. Something more seems hinted at in the cutting short of Edwin Drood by Dickens than the mere cutting short of a good novel by a great man. It seems rather like the last taunt of some elf, leaving the world, that it should be this story which is not ended, this story which is only a story. The only one of Dickens’ novels which he did not finish was the only one that really needed finishing…
Dickens dies in the act of telling, not his tenth novel, but his first news of murder. He drops down dead as he is in the act of denouncing the assassin. It is permitted to Dickens, in short, to come to a literary end as strange as his literary beginning.

G. K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens

Darting come-hither glances at potential posthumous collaborators since Charles Dickens’ death in 1870, The Mystery of Edwin Drood has been completed more often than Form 1040-EZ. Dan Simmons‘ new novel isn’t just another attempt at closure and conclusiveness. Instead, Drood — the heftiness of which, as with The Terror (2007) before it, would better suit a tome intended for the bookstores of Brobdingnag than a burden to be borne by puny, hernia-prone hominids like us — plays with Chesterton’s already playful suggestions of a “melodramatic” or “strange” literary end for Dickens, of an interrupted assassin-denunciation, of the “something more” seemingly “hinted at in the cutting short of a good novel.”

Sometimes I think Harlan Ellison’s last major contribution to the fantastique, the purple-and-gold or black-and-red genres, was his part in the “discovery” of Dan Simmons. The Song of Kali (1985) so lastingly traumatized some of us that while watching Slumdog Millionaire we had to calm ourselves with reminders that Mumbai is a reassuring 1,677 kilometers away from Calcutta. Ever since that first novel, Simmons has succeeded at almost everything he has sought to do – and he has sought to do things undreamed of by even the most imaginative horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy specialists.

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“I’ll Kill the Mama-Mfuka”: The Trail of Bohu in 2009

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He saw Naama, its dark battlements thrusting against the sky of Land’s End. He saw the Erriten bathing in the emerald of mchawi. He saw the cities of the East Coast crumbling in blood-smeared ruin. He saw a cloud of darkness crawling inexorably northward…thousands upon thousands of armed men, and others who were not human at all, a cloud thicker than a thousand swarms of locusts and a thousand times more destructive. He saw the turrets of Gondur torn apart, stone by stone, and the stelae flung down to shatter in the streets. He saw his people dragged screaming to altars to be sacrificed to the Demon Gods. He saw the Erriten towering gigantic and triumphant, dominating all of Nyumbani. He saw the seed the Mashataan intended to sow to replace the children of the Cloud Striders…

Charles R. Saunders never left Imaro, nor did Imaro leave him; instead, the possibility of further publication left both of them for two decades after The Trail of Bohu (1985). The last of the three Saunders heroic fantasies from DAW Books in the Eighties, Bohu is its creator’s favorite because, as he informs us in an Author’s Note at the end of the revised-and-self-published 2009 edition, “it was the first Imaro novel that I wrote from scratch…Completing a novel that did not include previously published material was a major milestone in my development as a writer.” Those of us who pounced upon the 1985 version (insofar as its non-sea-to-shining-sea distribution allowed) have also always cherished Bohu for boasting the biggest budget, the most ambitious special effects, and the most on-location filming. Nyumbani grows by leaps and bounds, and the effect is as exhilarating as the opening of “Black Colossus,” wherein Shevatas orients himself in the ruins of Kuthchemes with a tour d’horizon encompassing fabled realms to the southwest, the east, and the north, all of which he knows “as a man knows the streets of his town,” or the scene near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring during which Frodo, his perspective newly panoptic thanks to the Seat of Seeing, in effect watches as the slavering jaws of the world war launched by Sauron close around Middle-earth.

We carry within the wonders we seek without us, Sir Thomas Browne wrote, There is all Africa and her prodigies in us: The Trail of Bohu in particular carries within it a prodigious number of African prodigies, both civilized (the glory that was Kush and the grandeur that was Great Zimbabwe) and barbaric — the trail in question leads past the most notorious killing fields in the history of southern Africa. The novel begins with inclement weather, with weather, in fact, that does not know the meaning of the word clemency. A storm is brewing at the southern end of Nyumbani, and the phrase “end of Nyumbani” applies in more ways than one. As we witness the enormities occurring in the High Chamber of the Erriten of Naama, which herald enormities greater still, the theme of both “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Kingdom” swells again, the theme of man as an eviction-inviting squatter in a condemned edifice. In the words of Abadu, a character in David C. Smith’s novel Oron, “Humankind holds its life and its lands but precariously — and perhaps not at all.”

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Heating Up Best Served Cold

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Last Argument of Kings (2008) turned out to be the best Sword-and-Sorcery novel I’ve read since David Gemmell’s The Swords of Night and Day back in 2004, the culmination of Joe Abercrombie’s tough love redemption of the oh-so-discredited concept of the fantasy trilogy. An interview displaying the relaxed humor that’s only found in a creator deeply serious about his creations is now up at YouTube; don’t be alarmed by the fact that it’s in five parts, as each is of little more than blink-and-you’ll-miss-it duration.

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Wheel of Pain, Tree of Woe, Throne of Tinfoil, Or, The Daze of Highly Insulting Adventure

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Here at TC Central a schism wider than the Hyrkanian steppes has long separated me from site-founder Leo Grin and Silver-Keywielder Brian Murphy. Is John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian Li’ Abner versus the Moonies, as Karl Edward Wagner discerned so many years ago, or the most stirring sword-and-sorcery epic ever filmed? Well now [redacted], who posts as “Taranaich” at the Conan.com REH Forum, has graciously given us permission to run El Ingenioso B├árbaro Rey Konahn de Simaria, an attempt at reconciling the Howard and Milius Conans that far surpasses the L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp CtB novelization. Mr. [redacted] is clearly the greatest Scotsman since Sean Connery, and Gordon Brown should knight him forthwith:

The film starts in the northern mountains of Brythunia. There, a tiny backwards village lies, far away from the rest of the world. The Simarians are a comfy folk living on the northern border, originally founded by a small community of luddites shunning the civilized wonders of Brythunia for a more “honest” rural life. Using distorted and piecemeal information gathered from drunk adventurers and senile folklorists, they model themselves after the Cimmerians, though their society leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy. They worship Krumm, a mashup of Cimmerian and Nordic mythology whitewashed into a benevolent deity to suit their drippy ideals. Not actually knowing how to make proper swords, they use simple casting techniques to create attractive but impractical replicas: since they rarely meet other people, they never actually test their weapons in combat. This is the tribe of Konahn. Young Konahn has a happy childhood with his nice dad and hot mother, with no bandits or dangerous beasts to contend with, and no feudal lords to oppress them.

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Green Hell, Golden Civilization?

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Were someone to press a Kampfpistole against my head and demand to know which de Camp and Carter Conan novel I deemed the least feloniously FUBAR, I’d have to go with Conan of the Isles, mostly because of two paragraphs on the second-to-last page:

Even farther west, at the very rim of the world, the old thief had confided, lay a vast new continent, Mayapan, the Atlanteans and their Antillian descendants had called it. They raided its coasts for gold, emeralds, and virgin copper, for red-skinned slaves and curious birds with gorgeous plumage; for tiger-like cats whose pelts were marked with black rosettes on tawny gold. Here, too, were barbarian states founded by renegades from Atlantis and Antillia, where the cults of the Great Serpent and of the Saber-toothed Tiger carried on their ferocious rivalry in a welter of human sacrifice and abominable worship.

A new world, he thought; a world of trackless jungles and spacious plains, of towering mountains and hidden lakes, where immense rivers writhed like serpents of molten silver through depths of emerald jungle, where unknown peoples worshiped strange and fearsome gods…

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Derleth Be Not Proud, Part Three: Autochthonic Masses Howling and Wet-Mouthed

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Part One: Hypersensitive, Not Hyperborean

Part Two: Cry ‘Havoc!’ and Let Slip the Hounds of Tindalos

In certain surroundings our entire being is made of eyes, every atom dilates to witness the haunting of the universe.

Thomas Ligotti, “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror”

A good critical overview or survey is courteously coercive in that we feel obligated to impose some sort of order and consistency on our own opinions. Having spent the better part of two weeks thinking about S. T. Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos — better because the alternative was redrafting various cover letters yet again to try and suppress their ghostly, single-song soundtrack of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” — I’d like to follow up Part One, which mostly engaged with Joshi’s comments on Robert E. Howard’s Mythos work, and Part Two, a wide-ranging look at Rise and Fall‘s treatment of “everyone else,” with subjective and selective suggestions about Mythos-mining. Those who can, do, and those who can’t blog; I’m about as qualified to offer such suggestions as were the walking loyalty oaths and newly-hatched ideologues who found themselves brattily supervising entire Iraqi ministries or provinces during the heady summer of 2003. But if nothing else, this Part Three has been a pretext for some enjoyable re-reading and re-watching.

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Derleth Be Not Proud, Part Two: Cry ‘Havoc!’ and Let Slip the Hounds of Tindalos

Part One: Hypersensitive, Not Hyperborean

Part Three: Autochthonic Masses Howling and Wet-Mouthed

If you decide to write a Conan pastiche, chances are you are going to wind up having the mighty Cimmerian swear “By Crom!” a few more times than Howard did per story. You will probably increase the quotient of “skull-cleaving” blows, etc. Since the smaller details of the warp and woof of Howard’s style work so well hypnotizing you as you read, you cannot quite identify or explain them, and thus you cannot quite take aim at them to imitate them in your pastiche. To compensate, you lean more heavily on the most obvious stylistic trademarks and hope the reader will think it sounds like the real thing. This is of course the reason, also, for the way many fan Mythos pastiches turn out. As immature writers, their authors cannot account for what it is in Lovecraft’s stories that grabs them so. So they go overboard, with the most blatantly obvious feature, the Mythos names and monsters. The pitiful result only makes it all the more obvious that this was never really the secret at all.
— Robert M. Price, “Xothic Romance” (introduction to The Xothic Legend: The Complete Mythos Fiction of Lin Carter)

Think back to the fall of 1944, weeks before the Third Reich’s last great offensive got rolling in the Ardennes. That’s when Fritz Leiber, writing in the pages of The Acolyte, called for “a detailed study of the growth of [Lovecraft’s] Mythology and the background, and also an appraisal of the extent to which it helped or hampered Lovecraft’s writing.” From that perspective The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos has been a long time coming, but earns the admiration of weird fiction enthusiasts by succeeding as an introduction to, and also an interrogation of, both the original Lovecraft Mythos (to adopt the Joshi-endorsed term) and what he memorably terms “that heroic task of literary misconstrual,” the Derleth Mythos.

Way back in The Weird Tale, Joshi complained that “the bulk of recent critical work (not merely in this field but in most others) seems so cheerless, mechanical, and obfuscatory that the reader is likely to be repelled rather than attracted to the subjects of study.” Not so the readers of this book, lucky recipients of a text that is elegantly written (although a reference to the “United States’ secession from England” is a brow-furrower), eloquently argued, and commendably inclusive. In a February 17, 2009 review of Kenneth Hite’s lively Tour De Lovecraft at his blog, John D. Rateliff identifies that book’s drawback as an assumption that readers are “thoroughly conversant with every tale Lovecraft ever wrote; if you can’t instantly recall, say, ‘The Tree’ or ‘He’ in great detail, then you’ll be a bit lost.” That’s not true of Rise and Fall (Rateliff, incidentally, provides a link to his own persuasive case for The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but also steps in albino penguin droppings by deeming At the Mountains of Madness “a tedious bore that would have been better at a quarter of its bloated length.” The preference for Dream-Quest is to be expected from a fantasy-esteemer, but “tedious bore”? Is it possible that Farnsworth Wright has pulled a Joseph Curwen on Rateliff?

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R’lyeh’s Finest Hour?

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Great Cthulhu just keeps coming up around here; the stars must be right or something. As in a 2007 post, I’m uncomfortably aware that for a JRRT/REH/KEW adherent like myself to delve into Lovecraftian lore is rather like de-planing at JFK after an international flight, clearing Customs, and then making a scene in the main concourse by announcing my discovery of America. Such a claim would be more likely to irritate than impress bystanders, because of how well and truly discovered the New World already is. Similarly, all those decades of Esoteric Order of Dagon-zines and Necro Press journals weigh on the upstart like “something frightfully suggestive of old and unhallowed cycles of life in which our world and our conceptions have no part.” Here I go, though.

Let’s turn to the deathless first paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu,” about which S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon have this to say in their More Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (1999): “Arguably the most famous passage in Lovecraft’s fiction, setting forth his view of man’s precarious and insignificant place in the cosmos. The opening sentence has been enshrined in the fifteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1980).”

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Derleth Be Not Proud: S. T. Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos,

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Part One: Hypersensitive, Not Hyperborean

Part Two: Cry ‘Havoc!’ and Let Slip the Hounds of Tindalos

Part Three: Autochthonic Masses Howling and Wet-Mouthed

He tried to struggle through Lovecraft pastiches, but at the first painfully serious reference to the Elder Gods, he felt some important part of him going numb inside, the way a foot or hand will go to sleep when the circulation is cut off. He feared the part of him being numbed was his soul.

Joe Hill, “Best New Horror”

The Disciples of Cthulhu. The Quest for Cthulhu. New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu 2000. In His House at the Federalist Society, Dead Chthulhu Waits Dreaming. The Children of Cthulhu. Cthulhu’s Heirs. Fall of Cthulhu Volume I: The Fugue. Acolytes of Cthulhu. High Seas Cthulhu. Frontier Cthulhu. Cthulhu’s Dark Cults. Age of Cthulhu: Death in Luxur. Hardboiled Cthulhu. The Strange Sound of Cthulhu. Cthulhu Has Two Mommies. Eldritch Blue: Love and Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos. Song of Cthulhu. The Spiraling Worm: Man Versus the Cthulhu Mythos. Gumshoe Trail of Cthulhu. Cthulhu on a Hot Tin Roof. Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! And Other Cosmic Insolence. The Conquering Sword of Cthulhu. Our Mutual Cthulhu. The Cthulhu Also Rises. Bright Lights, Big Cthulhu. And that list is limited to books that give the most Cosmic of Cephalopods star billing, a titular mention! The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all the contents of today’s Mythos.

Thirty years after August Derleth was driven to conclude, while introducing Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, that “Certainly the Mythos as an inspiration for new fiction is hardly likely to afford readers with enough that is new and sufficiently different in concept and execution to create a continuing and growing demand,” M. le comte’s “new and sufficiently different” desiderata have been more honor’d in the breach than the observance, yet we’re clearly dealing with a recession-proof industry. No doubt a bit of cooling-off has occurred since the irrational exuberance of the Nineties, when the fellahin flocked to Robert M. Price and wild beasts licked his hands, but if we recall Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” and a disclosure by Henry Akeley to Albert Wilmarth — “They could easily conquer the earth, but have not tried so far because they have not needed to. They would rather leave things as they are to save bother” — some of us might be tempted to interject “Save bother, hell! They’re sitting on their pseudopods because there’s money to be made!”

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Mystic Chords of Memory and the Melancholy Tune Thereof

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Mary Emmaline Reed is sharing her childhood memories of Alabama around 1865 with her granddaughter’s new swain, specifically the depredations of the locust-outdoing “riff-raff” that showed up soon after the Union Army:

Bob lunged forward in his chair. He’d hung on every word, and now he reacted physically. It is one thing to read history, but it’s altogether different to talk with someone who remembered. “And there was nothing you could do about it?” His voice was venomous against the injustice.

“Well,” Mammy mused, “yes and no. There was a little bit of help.”

“Help?” Bob picked up the word quickly. And though I’d heard the story many times, tonight, it was new again. Bob’s interest, his emotion, his deepest attention to Mammy while she talked, made me participate in the story.

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