Tuesday, September 27, 2016

In the Year 1977

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Tolkien fans, that is.

1977 saw the publication of The Silmarillion, which critics apparently hated, I guess because they wanted some happy novel about hobbits. But 1977 also saw the appearance of the two titans among Tolkien clones: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, and Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. Each might be described as The-Lord-of-the-Rings-with-a-twist: the first replaces the prehistoric past with a post-apocalyptic future, while the second replaces the merry band of doughty halflings with a cynical, s**t-head leper.

I read a stack of Terry Brooks novels back in the nineties, when I was a teenager, both his Shannara series (the first seven, I think) and his Magic Kingdom of Landover series (the first four?), checking them out one by one from the town library and devouring them. The Landover novels in particular I remember with fondness. But I recall going into Waldenbooks one day (this is when malls had bookstores) and seeing the next Landover installment on the shelf (Witch's Brew, I think), and suddenly realizing that the series was, in fact, an open-ended commercial venture. Shocked to the marrow, I turned my back on popular fantasy then and there, and began my Gollum-like transformation into the lurking curmudgeon I am today.

Anyway, it was the Shannara books I read first. Their shortcomings, which were obvious even to my tenth-grade-level literary acumen, have been pointed out many times, and I needn't dwell on them matter here. I genuinely enjoyed them. I don't know how I would feel upon rereading now. But there's no denying that the publication of The Sword of Shannara was a seminal event in the evolution of fantasy into the commercial genre we know today.

Now, I never encountered Stephen Donaldson back while I was still a happy Smeagol splashing by the banks of the Great River. But he's come to my attention a few times in recent years, and his darker take on Tolkienism interested the writer in me. So I picked up Lord Foul's Bane about five years ago...and promptly put it down when I encountered That One Part.

Let's get that out of the way before we move on.

The protagonist, toward the beginning of the novel, rapes a teenage girl, the daughter of his hosts. He's a leper. A moral leper, that is. Now, I defend the right of an author to write whatever accords with his or her artistic vision, and I'm not one of those people who think that everything a novelist writes about is some statement of their personal beliefs. Nevertheless, I put the book down at that point. It disturbed me. I didn't feel like reading a book where such things happen. Or rather, I didn't feel like reading such a book written by an author lacking the psychological profundity needed to write about such things without trivializing them. And I wasn't convinced that Donaldson had that profundity.

The strength of my disturbance, I think, owes to the identification I felt with Thomas Covenant, which was quite visceral due to the graphic depiction of his leprosy. (And this depiction is one of the novel's strengths, in my opinion.) I felt as though I were leering with him, first at a girl in the telephone company office, then at the sixteen-year-old Lena. The rape scene itself sent me down a well of vicarious guilt and horror.

[Aside: The cover of The Sword of Shannara sports a picture by the Brothers Hildebrandt. I like a lot of their work, despite the fact that it's dated and a bit goofy. The cover of Lord Foul's Bane features a lovely painting by one S. C. Wyeth, about whom I can't find any information. Is he related to N. C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth? The style recalls the elder.]

Maybe it's that I feel genre fiction to be too frivolous, written too much for pure entertainment, to justify the inclusion of such elements. Or maybe it's more a matter of style than anything else. I mean, if you're going to have your protagonist commit an unspeakable crime, then the plot sort of needs to be about that. It can't be one element among others. It's almost inconceivable that a mother would travel for weeks in the sole company of her daughter's rapist, however cogent the reasons, and the fictional depiction of such a journey should be a descent into an emotional hell. What we get, though, are descriptions of scenery.

I suspect, however, that we aren't meant to view Thomas Covenant in quite that light. The rape scene is presented as though we're supposed to imagine that he commits the act because he thinks he's in some kind of fever-dream or coma, and also because he's overwhelmed by the unexpected return of his lost virility. But if he's really the Unbeliever he always claims to be, why does he go through his VSE (visual surveillance of extremities) on every page? Why is he always reminding everyone that he's a leper? I mean, maybe I could accept the fever-dream excuse on a literary level if the presentation of the plot were consistent, if (say) he went on a febrile, Maskull-like odyssey of crime and depravity through the Land, but it's not. Covenant's supposed conviction that it's all a dream comes off more as an occasional pose. Which, I repeat, is a matter of style, not of morality.

And then there's the scene later on in the book when he lusts after another underage girl, and suddenly feels remorse for what he did to Lena, and basically decides to send her an annual present. Dude. That just makes you twice as creepy and despicable in my eyes. Which is fine if that's what the author intends, but here I don't think it is. Because it's presented as a climactic moment beginning Covenant's reconciliation with the Land and his opening up to friendship with his companions. So, ramifications continue to be felt, etc., but, to me, it all comes off as slightly phony.

Well, anyway, that's enough of that. It's a point reasonable people can disagree on. My own (purely stylistic) assessment is that the rape scene is presented so as to shock the reader's sensibilities, but that its inclusion isn't supported by the novel's subsequent meandering quest-plot. Still, there's something to be said for Covenant's moral numbness, the numbness of his leprosy, and his identification with Lord Foul, and I'll admit that there may be more to it all than I've seen at my first glance. On the moral side, I can see why it bothers people, but I'm going to suspend my judgment until I finish the trilogy.

As for the rest, well, I don't feel that it's worthwhile to comment much on the story until I've read the next installments. (Or maybe I'm afraid to throw rocks, having just published my own novel.) Instead, I'll talk about what struck me on every page of Lord Foul's Bane: the extent to which it draws from The Lord of the Rings. Just to name a few items, we have:
  • Tolkienesque place-names like Mithil Stonedown, Kiril Threndor, Trothgard, and Glimmermere.
  • People with sturdy, earthy, Anglo-Saxon names like Treeroot Branchtwig (okay, I made that one up). 
  • A long journey to a big info-dump of a Council, which takes place midway through the book.
  • Mysterious liqueurs that magically refresh you.
  • Woodsy retreats and way stations.
  • Slow, friendly giants who practically hoom-hom while they complain about the hastiness of their companions.
  • Elvish-sounding exclamations like Melenkurion!
  • A super-important gold ring that someone tries to bite off at the end.
  • A city carved in a mountainside with a layout almost impossible to comprehend.
  • Dark forests with angsty, anti-biped trees. 
  • Geologically fanciful mountains.
  • Horse People.
  • A Dark Lord who returns after a long vacation but remains offstage.
  • A volcanic climax. 
I could go on and on. It's got the potential of being a commentary on or deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, what with its s**t-head leper of a protagonist and its opening in the Real World, which might be kind of cool in a way. And I say that as a Tolkien fan. But, in the thick of things, Lord Foul's Bane just becomes a somewhat shallow retread of something that had already been done, with a twist to make it seem original. For me, the Land remains mere artificial "scenery" (to quote a word from an ironic conversation in the novel); it doesn't come to life and make me long to enter it, like Middle-Earth.

It's no coincidence that books like The Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul's Bane were published the same year as The Silmarillion. For whatever reason, people were starving for more Tolkien, and there was simply no more to be had. So they had to settle with uneven compilations of his unpublished backstory material and new novels that mixed and matched his stylistic tics. It's taken a long time for the commercial genre to outgrow that. And maybe it never quite has. Certainly the fracking of Tolkien's unpublished works "goes ever on and on."

But I'm still struck by the narrowness of the adherence to Tolkien's vision. What, in fact, do we want when we want to read Tolkien? What is the real hunger that The Lord of the Rings whets without satisfying? I ask this as a writer who consciously (and probably unconsciously) adopts elements from Tolkien. What's really essential about his work? Is it something material, or something deeper, something hidden under the surface? When are you producing something truly new, and when are you just making a direct-to-DVD mockbuster?

There's not a simple answer to this, I suppose. While reserving my final judgment on Lord Foul's Bane until I finish at least the first trilogy, I'll just end with William Blake's pithy paradox:
The difference between a bad Artist & a Good One Is: the Bad Artist Seems to copy a Great deal. The Good one Really does Copy a Great deal.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nightspore Goes Digital

Rev up your Light Cycles! Climb aboard the Solar Sailer! It's time for an odyssey through the Grid! That's right: Keftu has been digitized!

The King of Nightspore's Crown, the second volume in the Enoch series, is now available as a Kindle e-book. Get it here.


That's the link for US customers, incidentally, though both of my books are available internationally. It's only gradually dawned on me that, while many of the copies I sell go to either the UK or the EU, the links I provide are only for my country's Amazon store. If you're in a country other than the US, this third-party redirect link should get you there, or you can just do a quick search.

Anyway, like Dragonfly, The King of Nightspore's Crown is enrolled in the Kindle MatchBook program, so, if you've purchased the print edition, you can get the e-book for free.

Thank you for your patronage!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The King of Nightspore's Crown at Black Gate

The King of Nightspore's Crown received an awesome review by Fletcher Vredenburgh over at Black Gate today. It's worth reading in its entirety, so, if you're one of the subset of persons who read my blog but do not regularly read Black Gate, I hope you'll go check it out.

He mentions the need of a glossary, which, come to think of it, I probably should have provided. Hm. I guess I'll have to post one here in the not-so-distant future, and include one in the next volume. In the meantime, have fun figuring out which words are invented and which are merely rare or obscure.

I'll also mention that I'm working on an e-book version of KoNC for Kindle. It's been my plan from the outset to offer it through that channel, but, unfortunately, various contingencies have gotten in the way. Be looking for it in the next week or so if interested.

In other news, I had an art show in town recently, and managed to sell a few pieces, including my Samuel Palmer-inspired Entombment painting. Here's the announcement:


The exhibit will be up through the end of the month, if you happen to be in the area. (But, ha ha, you won't be.) The turnout was good for our town, but limited mostly to my personal contacts, plus a few of their contacts. There's just not a lot of interest in the arts here. It was the night of the homecoming game, but somehow I don't think there's much intersection between the art crowd and the football crowd.

The gallery owner, who also teaches art at the local college, was especially enthusiastic about my Nightspore painting. He noted a similarity to Brueghel and Bosch without any prompting from me, which probably pleased me more than anything. So I'm currently at work on a wrap-around painting for The Worm Ouroboros, which never got that treatment in the Ballantine series. It's taking inspiration from Persian and Indian miniatures. I may do some illustrations and a map, and try to sell it under Hythloday House like my own novels.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fantasy Cathedrals and McMansions

My post about "serial epic fantasy" a few weeks ago has gotten more (non-robot) hits than most of my recent posts, so I thought I would revisit the topic, which is, after all, a perennial one on this blog. In fact, it goes back to my second post ever, when I threw down my gauntlet before the literary world.

At the time I wrote that, I had just despaired of ever finding an agent or publisher for my gargantuan first novel, which was 150K words after trimming it down by half and seriously boring. It was about autism, autogyros, quantum mechanics, and various characters that eventually found a home in my Enoch stories. At the back of my mind, I knew that it was too inwardly focused to be readable. I ultimately relegated my autistic recluse to the void in favor of a sanguine pugilist who leaps before he looks and basically does everything I would never do.

So that post was (and is) a kind of manifesto. Manifestos are fun, especially when they're full of hyperbole and self-importance. So let's do another! I'll begin with an unapologetic catalog of my twenty favorite fantasy novels, listed in chronological order:
  • Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858)
  • She by H. Rider Haggard (1887)
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (1895)
  • The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson (1908)
  • The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson (1912)
  • A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
  • Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1916)
  • A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920)
  • The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison (1922)
  • The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1924) 
  • The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H. P. Lovecraft (1927)
  • At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1931)
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis (1938)
  • Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (1943)
  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946)
  • Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1950)
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1955)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
  • Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
  • The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (1983)
  • Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (1984)
Well, okay, that was twenty-one. To get on that list, you have to have made a permanent impression my imagination, and I have to have reread you as a guilty pleasure at least once. A list of my favorite short fiction would include pieces by George MacDonald, Robert W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and C. L. Moore. I tend to gravitate toward the weird and ornate, like "The Repairer of Reputations" or "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" or "The Tower of the Elephant" or "The Demon in the Flower."


So I think it's fair to say that I'm biased toward the what came before the Tolkien watershed. When I read what other people have to say about pre-Tolkien novels, I often get the feeling that they're viewed as ungainly precursors, as the dinosaur skeletons at the museum entrance. They're the work of primitives who didn't quite know what they were about, Giottos and Fra Angelicos to our modern Raphaels and Caravaggios. They're tolerated or even admired, but as a kind of academic curiosity that one delves into occasionally as an act of literary penance.


My preferences are quite the opposite. I do read modern fantasy. I discover hidden gems that way. They're out there, to be sure. But my first and only real love is the pre-Tolkien canon. How many times have I read A Voyage to Arcturus or Phantastes or The Worm Ouroboros? Too many to count. If I read modern fantasy, it's because I'm looking for something to satisfy the hunger whetted by these works.

But, more often than not, genre fiction cheats this desire. It's got no bite, no danger, no weirdness. It's tame. To put it in galline terms, it's caponized and clipped. It lacks the grotesque stylistic bosses, the glowing digressions, the awkward framing devices and dumb shows of the classics.


I could point to myriad ways in which the works of the pre-Tolkien canon influenced one another. But each draws far more from philosophy and science and mythology. They were part of a real literary movement rather than a genre. A literary movement is a living thing that grows according to its own inner logic and is necessarily bound in time; a genre is a dead thing, a pigeonhole in a commercial classification system depending on the presence or absence of various material elements. The difference between fantastic literature and a lot of genre fiction is the difference between a Gothic cathedral and a McMansion.

And in case I seem entirely dismissive of more recent efforts, let me emphasize that I'm not talking about everything that's out there right now. I've read things that I've liked very much. But just look at the sheer quantity of it all. The kinds of works I like can't be mass produced or made to order. They're like lightning strikes. And one thing I note about the majority of the authors I listed above is that their primary career was not fiction writing. If it had been, they would have starved.


Let me also emphasize that I'm not into nostalgia. I have no desire to try to "get back" to anything. If a true fantasy novel is to be written in our time, it must take root right here in the twenty-first century, drawing its nourishment from the world around us even if in reaction against it. There are no "good old days" to hearken back to. The world in which fantasy first flourished was a dirty and brutal place, and the master fantasists were people of their time. Even the one author most responsible for creating the modern fantasy novel, the aggressively backward-looking William Morris, was a social activist whose efforts in manufacture reform were echoed in the ultra-modern Bauhaus half a century later.


As Tolkien points out, the Escape for which fantasy is often blamed has "Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt" as its companions. True fantasy is not safe. It's revolutionary. But genre fiction can't be revolutionary. It mixes and matches the established tropes, making novel arrangements rather than creating new worlds. It might, if quite certain of its audience, cautiously advance a few progressive or conservative talking points, but it will never ever do anything that makes it unclear which tribe it's supposed to appeal to, because that is the one unforgivable sin.


It's easy enough to talk about all this on my blog, and I do often enough. The quality of my novels is debatable, but at any rate they're out there. Sometimes you just have to get up on a rooftop and shout about what you're doing and why you're doing it.

Plus, the robots were getting kind of rambunctious in my absence. Go away, robots. Dance somewhere else.

Related: A Festival of Wrap-Around Cover Art

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Animated Princesses

My family is not what you'd call up-to-date. We don't watch television. We do watch movies together, but it tends to be older stuff. We're not entirely out of pop culture, but at best we're usually a couple of years behind.

A big giant movie like Frozen comes and goes, and it's not even a blip on our radar. I see news stories about "viral videos" of people dressed like these two big-eyed girls singing some song called "Let it Go," and kind of scratch my head, and move on to another Mental Floss video, or maybe watch Mothra vs. Godzilla with my daughter.

But well-meaning adults tend to assume that Disney movies are some kind of universal touchstone that you can use to gain instant rapport with any child. Alas, that doesn't work with mine. They'll change the subject to the giant black leeches on The African Queen.

A friend recently gave my daughter, who's six, a shirt with the two princesses from Frozen. She wore it somewhat tentatively, but stated every time she did so that she felt awkward wearing a shirt for a movie she hadn't seen. Eventually she requested to watch it, telling us that she wanted to decide whether she liked it. So my wife rented it for the kids on a rainy day when I was away at something.

For several days afterward my daughter refused to say what she thought of it. She evaded the question when asked. It was plain that she was deep in assessment. At last, however, she dispassionately declared that she didn't like it, that she wouldn't be wearing the shirt in the future, and that in fact she wanted to place the shirt in our next yard sale. But she still wouldn't explain why she disliked it. After several weeks, however, I asked her again while we were alone, and she told me, somewhat exasperatedly: "Of course I didn't like it because it has too much love."

Now, I can't say whether my daughter's assessment is fair or accurate, because I haven't seen the movie. But my kids tend not to like any Disney/Pixar fare, and I can't say I blame them. They're all so bland, so repetitive, so perfectly smooth and rounded. My attention just slips right off them.

In the past several weeks, however, two animated movies have come to the rescue to prove to my kids that not all cartoons are meh: The Last Unicorn and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. They're both so well known in certain circles that anyone reading this has probably seen them, but I'm going to talk about them anyway.

Visually, both are products of Japanese animation. The Last Unicorn (1982) was produced by Rankin/Bass, of whose stop-motion Rudolph fantasies I'm rather fond. The screenplay is by Peter S. Beagle, the author of the novel, and it has excellent voice acting. I would describe it enchanting, sad, and whimsical in equal parts. My children were struck with its beauty from the first few frames. They told my wife afterward that it was "a cartoon but not really a cartoon because most of it is painted." I'm not sure exactly what they meant by this, but I think they were just struck by the freshness of its hand-drawn, hand-painted animation as opposed to the slick computer-generated stuff they've seen in more recent movies.

Flaming demon bulls and vicious harpy attacks don't faze my kids, incidentally, but there's one scene I don't quite understand, and wish hadn't been handled as it was in the film: the one involving the, er, tree. If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean. What were they thinking?

On the other hand, Nausicaä (1984), directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki and based on the manga by the same, is just about the most terrific animated film I've ever seen. I've watched it twice now in a single week, and I think I'm in love with it. How could I not have seen it sooner? High-speed battles between giant airships. Ruined cities. Monstrous biomechanical warriors. Ancient disasters. Jungles of poisonous fungi. Ceramic blades. Gigantic, intelligent insects. Swords and tanks together.

Most of all, a brave, kind, intelligent, resourceful, independent female protagonist. I mean, she's a princess who actually acts like one, as opposed to, say, an entitled tween with indulgent parents. She single-handedly brightened my daughter's dim view of the breed. The main themes – peace, harmony with nature, self-sacrifice – are straightforward enough for a child to grasp, but movingly and profoundly presented.

And it's all done in the loveliest animation I may have ever seen, accompanied by a delightful score that's sometimes enchanting, sometimes almost religious, and sometimes pop, Plus, the English-dubbed version features the voice talents of actors like Patrick Stewart, Edward James Olmos, and Uma Thurman.

Oh, yeah, and my kids liked it, too. Tonight, after watching it for the first time, my eight-year-old son said, "That's the best cartoon movie I've ever seen."

 I'm definitely going to be reading the manga sometime soon.