Saturday, August 29, 2015

Mad Max in Lego!

"On the road it was a white-line nightmare. Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive."
As I have mentioned before, one of the unexpected joys of parenting is the fact that you get to play with your kids' cool toys – nay, you are lauded as a good parent for playing with your kids' toys – at a time when you can do way awesomer things than you could ever have done when you were a kid yourself.

So, with summer vacation winding down to a close, my son was wanting me to build some Lego cars with him. Naturally I was not content with building mere Legotown jalopies. Naturally my mind ran immediately to Mad Max.

Here we have Max Rockatansky himself in his V8 Interceptor pursued by the vermin of the wasteland across the post-apocalyptic hellscape that is my dining room buffet, with lace curtains billowing desolately in the background. (Pretend that that scalloped cloth made by my great-grandmother is actually a salt pan.)

It isn't perfect, but you have to work with what you're given, being in this case my son's Lego bucket. Still, look at all those cool pieces. I made a fairly crude blower out of this and that, and was proud of my work, only to discover that my son actually has several Lego blowers. It was a bit of a let-down, in fact. But it's hard to argue with something that ups the coolness factor by an order of magnitude at least.

My creation doesn't come from any one Mad Max movie in particular, mostly because I was constrained by the limitations of my son's collection. But it's easy to imagine making, say, the Gyro Captain's autogyro, or the Mack truck used to haul "that fat tank of gas," or Pappagallo's rocket-car, or the hedgehog attack shovel, or the dump/drum truck with its bungee-jumping flame-throwing guitarist, etc., etc.

If only there were Lego mohawks!

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Local Styles of Clark Ashton Smith

Unless you've been living under a rock, or are perhaps a well-adjusted adult belonging to 99.7% of the general population, you are no doubt aware of the recent Hugo award controversy. After careful deliberation, I've decided to signal my views on this embarrassing public display extremely important, historic debate by blogging about something completely different.

While working on various projects over the spring and summer, I had the opportunity to listen to all five volumes of Clark Ashton Smith's collected stories published by Night Shade Press. I was already familiar with Smith's various settings and stories, and indeed had read certain of his stories many times over. But hearing them all at once, from beginning to end, in the order in which they were written (and not grouped according to setting and internal chronology, as Lin Carter attempted to do), I was struck very much by the extreme variability of his work.

Anyone who knows anything about Smith has heard of Hyperborea, Zothique, and Averoigne. Less well-known are his planetary fantasies, his science fiction stories, and his supernatural tales. Here's rough account of the milieus that appear in more than one story:
  • Xiccarph*: a planet described without any reference to earth or human exploration; ancient, weird, sublime, alien, terrifying, and perverse. Cf. "The Maze of Maal Dweb," "The Flower Women." The one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," is pretty similar.
  • Hyperborea*: a prehistoric Arctic realm of steaming jungles and wicked cities that slowly succumbs to the advance of the glaciers. Cf. "The Seven Geases," "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," "The Door to Saturn," "The Coming of the White Worm."
  • Poseidonis*: the last remnant of foundered Atlantis. Cf. "The Death of Malygris," "A Voyage to Sfanomoë."
  • Averoigne: a fictional province of medieval France filled with mysterious forests and ancient ruins and isolated abbeys and quiet hamlets, and inhabited by monks, bishops, witches, and lycanthropes.
  • California: a state on the western coast of the United States, where stories are typically narrated by one Philip Hastane, writer of fantastic fiction. Cf. "The City of the Singing Flame."
  • Colonial Mars (Aihai): man's colonies on the Red Planet, which are shared with enigmatic aborigines. Cf. "Vulthoom," "The Dweller in the Gulf," "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis."
  • The Alcyone: an "ether-ship" on a voyage to circumnavigate the universe. Cf. "Marooned in Andromeda," "A Captivity in Serpens."
  • Zothique*: the "last continent on earth," a far-future amalgam of the Orient of Victorian romance, mysterious and cruel. These works are classics in the Dying Earth canon. Cf. "The Isle of the Torturers," "The Charnel God."
Most of these stories can be found at Eldritch Dark. Milieus with a star (*) were featured as Ballantine Adult Fantasy editions. There are many miscellaneous stories as well, but most fall under one of these headings.

What I've noticed is that Smith's style varies considerably from story to story, but that the mood and voice of a story seem dictated by its setting. Let me give some examples.

The Xiccarph stories are planetary fantasies with a setting quite different from anything I can think of. They are ornate – bejeweled – but altogether joyless. Their telling is luxuriously sedate and cruel and pointless. There is little climax. They are, in fact, expressions of the ennui bred by indolence and splendor. Which is fitting, given that this is what moves the inexorable protagonist (the sorcerer Maal Dweb) to action. Smith's one Lophai story, "The Demon in the Flower," a planetary fantasy that is dark and ornate but not languorous, seems closely related.

The Hyperborea fantasies are typically told in a tone of lofty irony. Most are dryly humorous. Much of the humor derives from the elevated speech of the characters (reminding one of Jack Vance) and the detached commentary on their actions. The protagonists generally come to some high and unpleasant doom.

The Poseidonis stories are similar in some respects, but typically lack the ironic tone. In "A Voyage to Sfanomoë," for instance, the principals escape the final disaster by voyaging via space ship to Venus only to be devoured by teeming flora, but their fate is presented as weirdly joyous and horrific rather than amusingly nasty. Really the effect is rather hard to describe.

The telling of the Averoigne stories is quite different from any of the above. They're elegant without being ornate or florid. They sound like tales from an old book of romances, and have a certain charming naivety. The supernatural elements are rather ordinary, consisting mostly of sorceresses, werewolves, and vampires. Religion, a matter of dark irony in the Hyperborea cycle, is treated diffidently here. Morality is a matter of concern.

(Averoigne, I have to say, is my least favorite of Smith's invented milieus. I don't know what this says about me, but I prefer votaries of Tsathoggua to Benedictine monks.)

The Philip Hastane stories are written in unadorned prose. The tone is earnest and straightforward, the descriptions vivid, the dialogue commonplace. The descriptions of California are well-grounded in reality. The stories generally concern the irruption of cosmic weirdness into the mundane world. Here I see the influence of British supernatural horror writers like Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, and William Hope Hodgson.

The voyages of the Alcyone are recounted with stolid prose and reserved, half-humorous dialogue. I could almost imagine Mr. Peabody doing a voiceover. I've never heard them much commented upon, but find their descriptions of alien life uniquely enjoyable. The unfathomability of alien psychology is particularly well handled. Their plots are pretty similar, each involving a sequence of adventures on some mysterious planet, followed by a narrow escape into space. But it's refreshing to read such quaint (by modern standards) science fiction from the thirties.

To me, the Zothique tales recall Victorian imaginings of the Orient as encountered in works like Burton's One Thousand and One Nights or Beckford's Vathek. Their tone is dark and frequently ironic, but never humorous. It has the slow and somber richness of a grand mausoleum, but here the mausoleum is the world itself. Smith wrote more stories set in Zothique than in any other place. It's a pity that the Ballantine edition is so hard to find.

What intrigues me about all this is the fact that Smith, who invented more settings than any other author I can think of, apparently felt that these trappings were inextricably linked to style. I think he was onto something. I've written in the past about style in fantasy, and in particular the opposing viewpoints of C. S. Lewis and Ursula K. LeGuin. I incline more toward the latter, but in my opinion neither quite gets it right. It's a point I'll have to return to sometime soon.

At any rate, compare this to someone like H. P. Lovecraft, who grew out of his early Dunsanian phase (which owed a large debt to its model) only to settle into the stylistically monolithic Chthulu-mythos phase for which he is most famous. The latter stories are all told in precisely the same voice, even when supposedly narrated by a character. The Lovecraft style is easy to parody precisely because it is so uniform. Taken individually, Lovecraft's stories are much more substantial that most of Smith's, but as a stylist I think Smith can skate circles around him.

It's a shame that Smith is not better known (as noted at Black Gate today), because, for sheer versatility and inventiveness, he has no peer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Battle-Off at Grimdark

In other news, I've entered an excerpt from Dragonfly in the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off. I don't exactly consider myself a specialist in grim, martial literature, but I do enjoy terse yet vivid action scenes. Perhaps it's a bit impertinent of me to submit my piece alongside those of people who focus on such things, but, as they say, no publicity is bad publicity! I'll enjoy taking a look at the other entries, at any rate.

Really good out-and-out battle scenes are very hard to write. If I were to write a full account of the clash of two (human) armies, I think I'd feel safest hewing close battles I've studied, e.g., those of ancient Greece. I remember my dad, who went through the U. S. Army War College, spending hours upon hours and days upon days reading books and writing papers on the art of waging war. It gave me a lively appreciation for the intricacies of the subject. Of course, the goal is to convince the average reader, not an expert on maneuvers.

As an avid reader of classic fantasy, I find Tolkien's battles thrilling and uniquely satisfying, Robert E. Howard's battles sometimes quite good and sometimes very dull and unreal, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' battles a bit silly but delightful nonetheless. E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, otherwise so meticulous in its description of martial feats (and accoutrements), is curiously reticent when it comes to battles, resorting to a number of subterfuges to avoid them. I wonder if he tried his hand at them but found the results wanting?

So anyway, I see that my battle (involving cyclopes) has garnered nine votes as of now. Alas, the links at Grimdark aren't being generated quite right at this point, and the URL refers to my novel as Firefly, a very different kind of insect, but have no fear, my Dragonfly excerpt is near, a mere two clicks away. You just might have to hunt around a bit.

Albrect Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus, 1529.

A Black Gate Review of "The Scale-Tree"

Fletcher Vredenburgh offers a nice review of "The Scale-Tree" in his July short-story roundup over at Black Gate:
Raphael Ordoñez dives into the blacker depths of storytelling in the “The Scale-Tree.” Zeuxis, a “flying artist and geometer”  and his family live in a tower in Enoch, the great world-city that features in several of Ordoñez’s other stories as well as his novel, Dragonfly. Zeuxis tries to provide for his family by selling his paintings but it’s a constant struggle. 
When he dies in a flying accident his wife and two children wind up in the middle of a tale inspired by the Grimm’s “The Juniper Tree” (think creepy step-parent, a child at severe risk, and a meal you should definitely not eat). This is one of the more unsettling stories I’ve read in months and one of the best. Ordoñez’s writing is rooted in the less genre-bound styles of early fantasy and fairy tales, coupled with a contemporary concern for creating more complex and fully human characters. If you haven’t read any of his work till now, this is the perfect place to start.
I keep up with Black Gate because a shocking number of people who like to read the same slightly obscure things I do hang out there (thank you, Internet), so as always it's a pleasure to have my name appear in its cyber-pages.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bosque-Larios II

Bosque-Larios II, 5" x 7", watercolor on hot-pressed paper.
There is, locals claim, an extensive network of caverns underneath the town where I live. The first I'd heard of it was a few weeks ago, when the newspaper published some old timers' recollections, and others wrote in to corroborate. Apparently it's a town secret of sorts.

The caverns were discovered in the early twentieth century when someone was digging for a well. This was right in the middle of town, about half a mile down the street from my house. A number of adventurers descended into this civic underworld, using candles for light, it being the Great Depression. The explorers found chambers and long passages and lakes and flowing waterfalls. There were abortive attempts to seal off the system because of the dangers it posed, but these came to naught. The fun ended at last when a couple of young men lost their way and had to be rescued. Aunt Polly triumphed, and the hole was plugged with concrete.

And there it sits to this day, a circle of concrete in someone's back lot on the south side of town, forgotten by all but a few. But the newspaper had one old picture of several men in a sizable chamber hung with speleothems. Just to think, that could be right under my feet!

Other people wrote in to say that they remembered a cave mouth in a field up north of town, but no one knows where it's at now. It led to an extensive cavern that was accessible only by rope. It's thought that the systems connect. One person claims that someone once walked underground all the way here from Bat Cave in the hills north of town, but that is a manifest falsehood. Still, the testimony is unanimous that there is a secret subterranean world underneath our houses.

All of which immediately made me think of the girl of the Gueiquesales, whose image I painted in Bosque-Larios I last winter:

Being the romantic that I am, I conjecture that her incorrupt body reposes somewhere beneath the town. The natives doubtless had access to the system from some opening that is now lost.

I painted Bosque-Larios I as the first installment of a series of paintings depicting local legendry, especially that which comes down from the Spanish colonial era. This particular story (which I recount here) is not very well known. I became interested in it after reading a historical marker about the High Mass on the Nueces River.

I've just completed the second installment, Bosque-Larios II, which depicts said High Mass with no particular regard for historical accuracy (see above).  It measures 5 inches by 7 inches and is painted in watercolor on Arches hot-pressed paper. The landscape is typical of the area. In the background we have a cottonwood and a couple of ash junipers; a palo verde (a lovely green-skinned acacia with bright yellow flowers) hangs over the group, and prickly pear, cenizo, and agave occupy the foreground. The slightly crazy perspective is inspired by Henri Rousseau (or so I tell myself), as are various other elements; there's a bit of Diego Rivera as well.

I've been showing my art locally, hence the emphasis on local culture. This painting and others are currently on display in a one-man show at a gallery and community center called Casa de la Cultura, located on the historic Brown Plaza in Del Rio, Texas. La Casa has kindly put me up for a couple of nights in town at a cool retro motel called Whispering Palms Inn, and that's where I'm writing from.

The exhibit has a wall dedicated to Dragonfly art, accompanied by a pedestal with a few Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks and a Frank Frazetta-illustrated copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars and Chessmen of Mars between bookends. It's the first shrine to pulp fantasy in the middle Rio Grande border region that I know of. The show's opening is tonight. I wonder what my fellow citizens will think of it?

I don't live in Del Rio, but it's on the circuit I ride as a professor. I have a lot of good friends here. The people are friendly, the culture diverse, the air hot, and the vegetation sparse. It's a remote place, standing at the eastern end of the longest stretch of U.S.-Mexico border with no crossings. The next crossing is the Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, which is hundreds of miles away. Between here and there is a whole lot of nothing, and directly west is what's been called one of the remotest places on earth. But, simply put, this is one of my favorite places in the world.

There are no bookstores in Del Rio, and in fact the nearest bookstore on this side of the river is one hundred and fifty miles away, in San Antonio. Perhaps one day that will no longer be the case. It's my hope that, in my own small way, I can help to effect a change for the better.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Charles Saunders and Imaro

I'm very happy this week to find myself enjoying an author I hadn't read before: Charles R. Saunders, seminal writer of sword-and-soul set in a mythical Africa-that-never-was. I first learned of Mr. Saunders' work over at Swords and Sorcery; Mr. Vredenburgh has also reviewed it at Black Gate. I read (er, listened to) Saunders' 1981 fix-up novel Imaro over the weekend, and finished up Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush today.

And, wow. Something about it just resonates with me. I've read latter-day sword-and-sorcery by the likes of Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock, and found it enjoyable enough, but to me it just doesn't carry the bite or freshness of Robert E. Howard or the other old pulp writers. Charles Saunders' brooding Imaro obviously owes a lot to Conan, but the tales of his exploits have a depth and substantiality all their own. For all that they're entertaining adventure stories, they take themselves seriously, and occasionally transcend the genre.

As in the best of fantasy, the Imaro stories are suffused with the living presence of their secondary world. And, to me at least, it's a refreshingly different secondary world. Nyumbani is a beautiful and stirring picture of the soul of Africa and its peoples as seen from within, as opposed to the exotic and alien but essentially flat backdrop of Howard's, Burroughs', or Haggard's Africa.

It's pretty obvious to someone who adulates and emulates the great triumvirate of the pulps (REH, HPL, CAS) that Mr. Saunders is inspired by their works – the first two especially – but with a certain amount of inner conflict. I've written a bit about this on my own account. In one story that I particularly like, "The City of Madness," the first part of Imaro 2, the hero encounters a lost city of white men – a common trope in Haggard, Burroughs, and Howard – where the inhabitants' conquests are celebrated in carvings of lordly white men subduing "apish" (Saunders' word) black men, a dehumanization that deeply angers Imaro. That descriptor is drawn, with heavy irony, from Robert E. Howard, who uses it to describe the black men in his stories. And as for H. P. Lovecraft, whose racial views are well-known, the story concludes with a crude jest at the expense of a cosmic entity with a name not unlike Yog-Sothoth.

But at the same time, this and the other Imaro stories are not "smart" postmodern exercises in deconstructive metafiction. No, they're ripping good yarns told with a straight face, with the zest and aplomb of the best pulp writers. So in Saunders I see someone who genuinely loves the work of HPL and REH while deeply hating the racism that mars it, and who has the audacity and courage to write stories that celebrate the good while critiquing the bad.

Here's another example. Weird horror leaks into the Imaro stories all over the place – as it should in any true sword-and-sorcery tale – and its form is often reminiscent the Chthulu mythos. In "The Place of Stones," the third story in Imaro, the eponymous hero, an isolated half-breed, encounters a sorcerer whose willing commerce with the dark forces of mchawe have transformed his body into something out of "The Dunwich Horror." The parallel seems pointed. HPL's Wilbur Whately is a monster precisely because he is a half-breed. Imaro, on the other hand, is a half-breed pitted against an adversary who has made himself a monster through his own choices. In the former, evil is in heredity; in the latter, evil is in choice.

So there are incisive comments here and there, for those with the eyes to see them. But, as I said, the stories themselves are not commentaries. They don't preach or moralize. They are supremely enjoyable S&S tales, unapologetic homages to REH and the rest. Imaro may pause to brood over bas reliefs, but he then goes into the crumbling city like Conan into Xuthal or Xuchotil to save his woman and thwart elder evils.

This is a writing blog (mostly). When I review books, I do so from the point of view of a writer. As a writer, I think Mr. Saunders will be an inspiration to me in the future.

For one thing, his Imaro books have had a difficult career, to say the least. The first three volumes were published by DAW Books in the eighties, but a cover quote calling Imaro "a black Tarzan" (!?) on the cover of the first provoked a lawsuit from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, causing delays and poor sales. The series was eventually dropped by DAW after the third installment as a financial failure. Attempts to revive the series over the next decade or so proved unsuccessful.

The first two volumes were published in revised editions by Night Shade Books in 2006 and 2008, together with the excellent audiobooks to which I'm listening. But, alas, nothing more came of that for Imaro, when the series was again dropped due to poor sales. Mr. Saunders subsequently published a revised version of the third volume independently, through Sword & Soul Media, and the fourth volume of Imaro finally came out through the same channel in 2009.

Now, okay, I haven't read the third or fourth volumes, but I've read the first two, and found them damn good. It's a shame that Mr. Saunders has had to resort to self-publishing. My natural reaction is: What is wrong with people? Apparently there's no room for Imaro on the shelves of readers or bookstores. Who's at fault? I don't know. Nobody, maybe.

And yet Mr. Saunders has stuck with it all these years. That really says something to me as a writer. He walks a difficult line, writing what he likes rather than what people think he ought to write. I found this on his blog:
I think we need to concentrate on writing good stories with fast-moving plots, compelling characters and intriguing backgrounds. Readers – whether they are black or otherwise – will be attracted to those stories, provided that they become aware of the stories' existence. I should amend that to say some readers. There will always be certain readers who simply don't like a writer's stuff. But there will also be those who love a writer's stuff, and the Internet provides an excellent way to connect with them... 
Meanwhile, I have no time for this "If you don't write about the ghetto, you ain't black" nonsense. You write what you are inspired to write. Inspiration is what motivates you to produce the perspiration necessary to pursue any creative endeavor, whether it's writing, visual art, music, or film-making. If a writer is inspired to write "street lit," then he or she should go for it. But we should not impose limits on our inspirations – or our imaginations. [Audience – Where Are You?]
But he's also caught flack of another sort. When Imaro was issued by Night Shade Books, one of its six stories ("Slaves of the Giant Kings") was replaced by a new story ("The Afua") because the former, Mr. Saunders felt, too closely resembled the Rwandan genocide. This didn't sit well with some readers, and one went so far as to accuse him of having made the change because of "misdirected shame" over the fact that blacks can behave just as atrociously as whites. The comment is offensive for multiple reasons which I'll not try to enumerate. But so there's that kind of thing, too.

Incidentally, I enjoyed "The Afua" considerably. I wasn't aware that it was a newer story while listening to it. The titular image, worshiped by a forest tribe, is a mute, enigmatic figure covered with golden spikes, reposing in a shrine remote from the rest of its village. It possesses a strange, creepy magnetism, and serves as the center that binds the community together. When the people are robbed of it they are robbed of common purpose and life's meaning. Disorientation and despair overwhelm them. Ultimately they meet a haunting fate in the deeps of the jungle.

I recently visited an African exhibit at a museum of fine arts. I looked at the artifacts carved of wood and decorated much as this Afua, and wondered what gulfs must separate my mind from their makers'. What was the world like to them? Was it a good place? A frightening place? What does an image like Afua mean to the person who venerates it? The term idolatry that a Westerner might be tempted to apply hardly seems sufficient, or just. For a people dwelling at the dawn of man (in state if not in time), enclosed by the dark womb of nature, the universe is a sublime and terrible place, and just because their instinctive movement toward latria can't be codified doesn't mean that their practices, though strange to our eyes, are mere simple-mindedness or superstition. I don't know if it is possible to really say what Afua means to them.

So you see, these are the kinds of things that occur to me while reading the Imaro stories. Elric of Melniboné sparks no such speculation. I intend to follow up the further adventures of Imaro in volumes three and four once I get around to ordering them, and may try Saunders' other work as well.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders, for continuing to write original, honest-to-goodness sword-and-sorcery. You are an inspiration, sir.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"The Scale-Tree" Reviewed

Lois Tilton has reviewed "The Scale-Tree" at Locus Online. It's thoughtful and appreciative, which is as much as any writer can ask.
The traditional fairy tale has a flat narrative and characters who tend to be types rather than fully-realized individuals: there is the King, the Witch, the Stepmother. One advantage of retelling these tales is the opportunity to add dimension. So that instead of a generic city, we find ourselves in “Enoch, the world-city that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega”—not only a neat image but an example of the way the text mixes words from the Hellenic and Hebrew. Here live Zeuxis, an artist who takes aerial photographs from a sort of ultralight flier, and his wife Helen, who, like many aging couples in the tales, want to fulfill their lives with children. They perform a rite that brings them a son and a daughter. All is more or less well with them until a brute happens to see a picture of the daughter, Philomena, and immediately covets her. Before long, Zeuxis is dead, the brute has become Mena’s stepfather, and we know his intentions. 
I like the twist of giving the usual stepmother a male guise. The story mingles several classic fairytale tropes, including some that go very far back indeed, but I have to say that the conclusion, which follows one well-known story almost word for word, is rather a disappointment after the creativity of the earlier elements. What I like best here, though, is the well-imagined cosmology behind this world, and the views of Zeuxis on the artist’s life:
“We’re conduits. When we stop the outflow, no more can flow in, and we stagnate. We die daily to live. It’s the flow that matters, not the possession of what’s not really ours anyway.”
Check out the review here. Incidentally, the dialogue about art mentioned by Ms. Tilton comes from a conversation I had with my six-year-old son, who was very angry at me last summer for selling some of my paintings. I'm still somewhat anguished about the selling process myself, and the story was written partly as a way of coping with my first public exhibition, partly as a symbolic exploration of abstraction in the visual arts, which I pontificated about in Part II of my post on The Arts of the Beautiful. Paul Klee had a lot to do with this story.

In related news, I'm pleased to announce that my story "At the Edge of the Sea" will appear in the upcoming Beneath Ceaseless Skies year's best anthology. Stay tuned for further details.