Sunday, December 6, 2015
Books of the Year - Robert Eldridge
Robert Eldridge, Wormwood contributor, and vintage fantasy bookseller (ask for his catalogues at rfx51[at]charter[dot]net) writes:
Contemporary fiction usually flies below my radar, but a review by Michael Dirda of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C. D. Rose (Melville House) intrigued me enough to make me order a copy. It's a slim volume (on whose tribe be blessings!) of 52 miniature biographies of imaginary authors. Its theme is the variety of paths by which diverse literary efforts can all arrive at the same destination: Oblivion. These outlandishly foolhardy assaults on Parnassus come to life for the reader as Rose's flood of meticulous detail lifts them out of dry-dock. Then come the torpedoes, the running aground, the running out of steam. Almost every story provoked laughter at some point as I helplessly witnessed bad ideas collide with bad luck. Most impressive, though, for a project that would seem to imply ridicule, is its compassion. A note of plangent dismay reverberates through these accounts. Rose shows a sympathetic understanding for the kind of artistic infatuation over which its author is powerless. He understands that allowing any writing to proceed from such a temperament is both unwise and inevitable.
I've only read about 1% of it so far, but a book I discovered this year has become a constant companion at my bachelor's dinner table. The Reader's Encyclopedia, edited by William Rose Benét, lies open there, just beyond my plate. (It came out first in 1948; I have the second edition, from 1965.) I use it as an intellectual tapas bar, flipping the pages at random or following some unexpected skein. The entries cover authors and specific literary works, but also themes, movements, genres, characters, plus notable figures from other fields and historical events. On page 434, for instance, can be found entries on haggadah, Haggard, Otto Hahn, haiku, Haile Selassie, The Hairy Ape, hajar-al-assad, Hajji Baba of Ispahan, and Richard Hakluyt. (I left out the obscure ones.) Entries might run to a page or more but most confine themselves to a paragraph. Brevity can feel peremptory but it comes across here as modest, and it's that combination that invites one into unfamiliar subjects.
These were diversions from the staple of my reading diet: 19th and early 20th century weird fiction. I'll mention four quite different novels that impressed me for one reason or another. These should not be taken as recommendations but as descriptions. Experience has made me aware of the blind spots and obsessions that shape the tastes of readers, myself included. In reverse chronological order:
Strange Awakening by Dorothy Quick (1938). A story of fantastic adventure set on Venus, told within the conventions of inter-bellum pulp fiction. Weird Tales and Unknown were the author's main markets but she also published in romance pulps, slicks and little magazines, producing not just fiction but poetry and expository prose, including a reminiscence of her friendship as a young girl with Mark Twain, who encouraged her writing. The present novel centres on a young Earth woman who is magically transported to a habitable Venus where she is fought over by the two most powerful men on the planet. The author understands the requirements of romance/adventure writing: bold-stroke sketches of character, attention to pacing (short chapters ending on a cliff-hanger, switching between two or more narrative threads), and a focus on spectacle and action. While keeping the psychological element of the story on an archetypal level, the author provides novelty through scenic details. There's a nice twist at the end about the immortality belts that everyone wears on Venus, which is colour-coded into four adjoining kingdoms, their central meeting point presided over by a notoriously lecherous super-king. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the novel, given my usual antipathy to pulp magazine fiction of this period. All works of art obey the conventions of whatever genre they occupy. So why do some examples carry conviction while others -- the great majority -- just carry a sense of dumb submission? Fortunately, the conventions of this Year-End-Roundup prevent me from entering into such a swamp of controversy.
The Devil's Mansion by Rex Jardin [i.e., Robert F. and Eve Burkhardt] (1931). A weird Gothic thriller set mostly in a rural part of British Columbia. The authors teamed up to write several commercial-grade detective stories, and the final portion of this novel does move it into that direction when the hero, a writer, has to exercise powers of deduction in order to find and rescue the heroine, abducted by a nefarious dwarf. But the bulk of the novel places it more accurately in the category of the weird (as attested by its presence in the 1948 Bleiler Checklist). Certain aspects of the story are indisputably fantastic, including just about every resident of the mansion: the owner, a wealthy old misanthropic woman, Morelle, who can't walk; her servant, Nita, who can't speak; the pet chameleon that roams about Morelle's neck and bosom on a slender golden leash; the vicious dog, Rajah, who wears no leash and obeys the commands of neither woman, though he keeps his distance from the chameleon. The captive heroine, Janet, lured to the mansion by the offer of employment as a paid companion to the old lady, soon discovers that her predecessor, who failed to make the grade, has been locked up in a turret. And there's another resident. The mansion's true master is Morelle's offspring, a fantastically deformed freak with dreadful powers of mesmerism. The real position for which these woman are auditioning is his mate.
The Star of the Sea by N. Ter Gregor (1897). A highly imaginative, if eccentric and rough-hewn, fantasy melding very different kinds of material: mythological fantasy, fairy tale motifs, heroic adventure, roman à clef allegory, carefully researched historical fiction, sensationalistic tales of banditry, as well as earnestly utopian and apocalyptic visions. The setting is 6th century B.C. Persia. The main story is the obstacle-strewn romance of two lovers. The key word in that summary is "eccentric." I confess to a soft spot for these passionate, and often clumsy, outpourings of crotchety obsession and visionary fancy. The vigor of Gregor's imagination compensates for much of his stylistic awkwardness. What makes the story a slow read are its startling juxtapositions, but this is also what makes it interesting. The author drops gems of macabre horror and humour in his erratic path like a thief fleeing in the night with an overstuffed bag of loot. You want an off-handed reference to inter-marriage between humans and monkeys? You got it. Chinese nobles who believe pearls are fragments of petrified fish who ate a star that fell into the sea sixty centuries ago? Ditto. Zoroastrian dualism? Well, obviously. The loud snoring of the Buddha? Yes. Subterranean demon soldiers made of glass? Yes. An evil magus who finds growing out of his shoulders huge serpents that must be fed with human brains, after which they sprout wings and take him to the moon, where he decimates all life. Yes, of course: did you doubt it?
In Both Worlds by W. H. Holcombe (1870). Another piece of fantastic historical fiction, this one set in the Middle East around the time of Jesus, and written with more than average skill. Unlike the other three novels mentioned here, In Both Worlds was published by a prestigious literary firm (J. B. Lippincott of Philadelphia). Not the least of its virtues is resisting the temptation to shove archaic second-person pronouns and adjectives into the story to piggy-back on the authority of the 1611 King James translation of the Bible. The frame narrative establishes the discovery of a manuscript written by Lazarus, a quarter of which describes his experiences while dead (in a purgatorial "stomach of the universe"). Before and after this interlude, the novel adroitly introduces one Biblical figure after another including the sisters of Lazarus (Mary and Martha), John the Baptist, Mary Magdalen, Jesus, Barabbas and Pontius Pilate. All are treated from a fresh perspective. The portrayal of Jesus is notably restrained. The story’s arch-villain is Simon Magus (not mentioned in the Scriptures but a historical figure described by many early Christian writers as the most powerful sorcerer of his day). That power is vividly demonstrated in several scenes. Holcombe expresses unconventional views. One of his heroes is a wealthy Zoroastrian. St. Paul comes off as a bit of prig. In a period (c. 1870) not exactly brimming over with sympathetic portrayals of black characters, two enslaved Negro brothers in this story act with extraordinary dignity. Most of these famous Biblical characters -- the first-generation Christians -- feel romantic longings that are frustrated by circumstances. The final paragraph of Lazarus’s memoir, presenting his vision of a future paradise, emphasises the fulfillment of these longings.