Archives for category: Novels

Angus Wilson was a second-tier literary figure of post-war Britain. Does anyone read him any longer? I know that I have not. But I do own four of his novels. And the openings are quite good:

This opening of The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot strikes me as perfect. We are going to get a good character study by a competent observer of the social world. The book is my age. I really should read it.

Perhaps only because I recognized the fine writing of the first novel, above, I bought this second, on a whim. I did not carefully read this first page in the book store. Buying Late Call was an impulse purchase. But his 1964 novel’s first page is unexceptionable, indeed worthy of more attention than I have given it. It is a pity that Angus Wilson just looms in my imagination as an less as a vital author and more as Terra incognita.

Old Men at the Zoo (1961) is one of his most popular books, from what I have so far gathered, and I bought the Granada/Panther paperback with assurance from John Wain on the front cover — the back cover blurbs being most unhelpful. Wilson’s cautionary note up front is fairly amusing:

The fourth book of his in my library is the oldest, from 1956 (though this is a second edition), and the paper cover of my copy is creased and worn. Somebody almost certainly read it, years ago.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was written long before the very concept “Anglo-Saxon” was considered racist, as it is today amongst the college crowd and cognitive elite in America, but not before the notion conveyed some comic embarrassment and a whiff of the absurd. The main character appears to be “depressed”:

Now, Angus Wilson usually suffers from the inevitable comparison with Kingsley Amis, whose comic novels usually place him above the rest of the Angry Young Men set. Lucky Jim (1954), which I have read three times, at least, is a perfect confection. In my Twenties I read a whole shelf of Amis books, including Take a Girl Like You (1960) and One Fat Englishman (1963) and even The Alteration (1976). But I haven’t read Amis’s fiction in years, and what I have in my shelves includes several I haven’t read past the first chapter.

Indeed, I have read only two of these: Jake’s Thing (1979) and The Green Man (1969). The former is hilarious and first rate while the latter is a surprisingly good ghost story, with a transcendent aspect (God makes a showing).

Jake’s Thing benefits from being a comedy of impotence and growing old — built-in hilarity — but more substantive is the satire on modern faddish therapeutics. I remember this being one of Amis’s very best novels.

But I probably enjoyed The Green Man more. It is the Amis book I am most likely to re-read.

Until taking this snap of the first page, I may never have cracked open The Crime of the Century (1975). It does not really move me to read on.

I tried to read The Russian Girl (1992) just this last winter, but the writing struck me as bad; looking at it again, now, and I am mystified as to why I leveled such a strong negative judgment against it.

Difficulties With Girls (1988), on the other hand, entices. It is probably the next Amis I will read. But I don’t think it has much of a reputation. Which is probably why I have neglected it so far.

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Karl Marlantes, an all-too-typical comsymp.

Deep River is a novel about the valley over the hill from where I live. My mother grew up in that valley. She and my father built their first home in the valley head. My older siblings spent the early years of their lives there. I have fond memories, for the most part, of that shadowy place not far from home.

The novel is said to be quite good, and its author, Karl Marlantes, a genius.

He does not seem like one.

Not on the basis of the Seattle Times article about the novel, anyway. I got stuck on something he said, a comment about Communism. I raise more than a mere single eyebrow:

Today we have this fear of anyone who has a different political attitude from us. My grandmother was a communist, but her kitchen was clean. She wasn’t scary, but today we gin up the fear.

Oh, is that what we do? Gin up the fear. How thoughtless of us! How bigoted!

Replace one word in his defense of his grandma, though, and would anyone still consider his defense of his grandmother’s radicalism reasonable?

Today we have this fear of anyone who has a different political attitude from us. My grandmother was a Nazi, but her kitchen was clean. She wasn’t scary, but today we gin up the fear.

Karl Marlantes would not write that. He knows that National Socialism was evil. And had one of his relatives been a Nazi who worked as “a political agitator” stirring up “a heap of trouble” in trying to organize for a cause he approved of — like, I bet, a welfare state (which Nazi Germany did indeed establish) — he would rightly be too squeamish to brush aside our abhorrence of the ideology.

But it is worse than that. Communists killed over 100 million of their fellow citizens last century. Hitler, an utterly evil dictator, was a slacker compared to Stalin and Mao.

Oh, and Hitler praised Karl Marx’s economic analysis, too. Leftists cannot hide behind unhistorical platitudes of “anti-fascism” and a witless love for “the left.” The bodies pile up higher the further left you push. And even the “anarchist-communists”/“communist-anarchists” of bygone years have something to answer for, because they promoted ideas that led to revolution that in turn led to tyranny and mass slaughter.

And it is not as if the Wobblies, whom Marlantes’ character Aino — based on his grandmother — “agitated” for, were all sweetness and light. They engaged in quite a number of riots, and several forms of terrorism. Along with the bomb-throwing (and bomb-throwing adjacent) anarchists, they understandably got caught in the anti-terrorist backlash in the early 20th century, and were suppressed.

Marlantes appears to be a typical “progressive” moral moron. He carries on a long leftist tradition of taking sides in the Pick Your Tyranny game that has played for nearly a century. Fascism is bad; communism is . . . well, “communists mean well.”

I am not sure I have ever encountered a leftist willing to plumb the depths of the Totalitarian Ideology Problem, willing to not Pick Your Tyranny. They exist, sure. But once one really comes to grips with the problem, one tends to cease being a leftist.

Leftism is a culturally acceptable Yog-Sothothery, an open flirtation with outrageous moral horror. It is a cult. It corrupts minds. And it is very widespread among moderately bright artistic types. Like Karl Marlantes.


Oh, and for the record: my grandfather hated the Wobblies. Not all Finns were commies.

There were Red Finns, sure, but there were about an equal number of Church Finns — “Whites” — at least in America. My education in politics did not rest upon this divide, but it did haunt the back of my mind. I grew up knowing about the tragedy of “Karelian Fever.” I also knew of the terror of living under Stalin. Socialism of any kind was always a bit suspect.

What made me so lucky, when so many of my culturally “left” artists succumbed? Well, much older relatives of mine, who were Reds, knew it all too well. And told their story. Which was repeated.

Family lore about my great uncle and aunt was this: early in the mad “experiment” of Communism, they had moved, as newlyweds, to the USSR — and within six months became almost afraid of each other. Political correctness under a totalitarian state is one of terror, not mere ill manners and inconvenience. They fled, lucky to escape.

Finnish-Americans who will not honestly confront their history with communist evil don’t do anyone any good.

I will wait to read Marlantes’ latest novel, I think, perhaps pick it up used. Call it my personal boycott of apologists for totalitarianism, “politically correct” fools who make light of mass murder, regimentation, and the philosophy of pushiness and plunder.

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echo of a Goodreads review (2/14/2019)

Originally publishd as Lady Killer.

It seems apt to have finished reading this novel as Valentine’s Day begins in the wee hours. For this is not romantic comedy, it is romantic noir.

I am not really an avid reader of “pulp fiction,” though I did recently read an early Jack Vance crime novel — The Flesh Mask, originally published under the pseudonymous signal “Peter Held.” Oh, and I am a Charles Willeford enthusiast, favorite novels including his tough guy/Stirnerite spins on Ayn Rand themes, Burnt Orange Heresy, Cockfighter, and The Woman Chaser. I would not be surprised to learn that Willeford studied not only Woodford’s writing manuals, but also pulp novels such as this one, originally called Lady Killer and published under a pseudonym (Howard Kennedy) in the 1930s, the decade in which he produced his largest fictional output.

This book is less a novel of ideas than the author’s Illegitimate and Unmoral, which I have reviewed here; it is much more like Willeford’s work. It is less talky, and does not elaborate Woodford’s “selfism”; it is more along the lines of a standard love triangle — except that Woodford’s method is more aptly termed a “love tangle.” Here we have a revenge scenario worked out. The plan fails, and, after a few twists and a murder, we have a happy ending. As usually with Woodford, the opening chapter is brilliant, while the happy ending will probably please today’s readers least.

I have a theory about the value of this author’s fiction. Woodford considered his work in this field — which he called “sex novels” — to be junk. He thought of himself a manipulator of readers for whom he had little respect. (But he showed much more disrespect for publishers. I recommend his Loud Literary Lamas of New York as a fun book-length rant against his bêtes noir. Woodford made his living as a self-publisher, and recommended to would-be authors that very publishing method — though he had to give it up in his final decade.) The nature of his “sex writing” method was the ramping-up of sexual excitement. It worked back in his day, when there were multiple taboos against “prurience” in speech and in literature. And Woodford found the perfect way to navigate through the Comstockian minefield: by never mentioning a sex organ, in either technical or vulgar wording, euphemistic or dysphemistic. This book is no exception. But nowadays all that sexual frustration has dissipated. Vanished. Nothing sexual is hidden from us, free on the Internet — even Network TV is far, far more explicit than Woodford was. So we are left with the strength of his prose, the ingenuity of his characterization and plots, and the charm of his cynicism.

It is rather like Greek statuary: their true greatness was revealed eons later, and in no small part because the original gaudy painting had worn off. The sexual repression and titillation constitute the ancient Greeks’ paint.

This is one of his better efforts. I am pretty sure he despised it, or at least pretended to. But I don’t. I think it has merit. I enjoyed it, and studied how it was constructed. Many a literary “masterpiece” of his era is no longer worth reading. This “trash” is.

Here is an oddity, though. Twice in the novel he used the word “strengthy.” I had never encountered that word before. Why not, simply, “strong”? I am pretty sure Woodford did not choose the word lightly. And I was almost taken aback at discovering that it was a once-common word. I am a bit surprised I had not noticed it before. Checking Google’s Ngram viewer, I see it has dropped out of the language. The word’s heyday was the 1840s, a century before this paperback hit the racks.

There is an advertisement for his line of books from “The Woodford Press” — including two of the novels I mentioned above — and was undoubtedly a provision Woodford insisted upon adding to The Hard-Boiled Virgin’s publishing contract.

The title of this novel is, of course, classic — and was cribbed from Frances Newman’s modernist monstrosity made infamous in the Twenties.

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My copy has seen better days.

Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée (1747), is usually just referred to solely by the name of the protagonist, Zadig. It is the first of the great French writer’s “romances” in my big volume of Voltaire stories, and the first I have read in 40 years. It is, all in all, an excellent tale, echoing the manner of the Arabian Nights, filled with amusing episodes and light philosophical insights:

A warm dispute arose on one of Zoroaster’s laws, which forbids the eating of a griffin.

“Why,” said some of them, “prohibit the eating of a griffin if there is no such animal in nature?”

“There must necessarily be such an animal,” said the others, “since Zoroaster forbids us to eat it.”

Zadig would fain have reconciled them by saying:

“If there are no griffins, we cannot possibly eat them; and thus either way we shall honor Zoroaster.”

No griffins were harmed in my reading of Zadig, for none appear. And neither does the Basilisk, which enters the story later on, but only as hearsay. This is not a work of high fantasy . . . or low.

C6D18A31-189B-4E43-975F-36EDC13D34C9I admit, I may be ambivalent about the story’s moral, but the character of the eponymous protagonist is heroic in his quests and honest in his struggle to meet his outrageous challenges in a world filled with pain and frustration, not least being the betrayals and stupidities of our fellow men . . . all the while trying to puzzle out the nature of Fate. Its inspiration never flags.

It is worth mentioning the full title as given in the edition I read: Zadig, or Fate. Destiny is the main theme, and Voltaire’s deism shows in a revelation towards the end, with an angel offering the great secret . . . pertaining to why a world with so much suffering exists. This explanation is very interesting. Today’s bewitched youngsters might be amused to learn that Diversity Is a Sign not of Our Strength . . . but of the Creator’s.

Note: This is not a novel. Voltaire tells his story in the manner of ancient tall tales, not in the modern novelistic style with its characteristic attention to moment, aiming to induce the reader into the soul of the protagonist, whether hero, victim or anti-hero. There is no “interiority” here. Do not read it expecting anything like a modern thriller, and most especially not like a classic novel such as Silas Marner and Fathers and Sons. This is a droll tale in the olden style, but with Voltaire’s wit woven in to leaven the lump.

I highly recommend Zadig. Every literate person should be familiar with this form of fiction. And what is that form, exactly? I believe it would properly be called an “anatomy,” to use the terminology of Northrop Frye, taken from Robert Burton. The ancient term is Menippean satire. Some of my favorite writers engage in this genre: Lucian, Denis Diderot, Aldous Huxley, and James Branch Cabell. But I have of course read a lot more of the standard novel form than of this genre. Still, it is the case that, as I grow old, and soak up our civilization’s scattered stores of wisdom — wringing them out, periodically, in the course of my many follies and foibles — I find my taste for reveling in the arts of feeling, of streams of consciousness and flows of tropisms, wane.

What waxes, instead, are the dazzling philosophical perspectives of Lucian and Cabell. And Voltaire.

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Lin-Carter-Down-to-a-Sunless-Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea by Lin Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lin Carter was important to my early literary education, such as it was. Were it not for his books Tolkien: A Look Behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy I may have never found some of my favorite writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Peter S. Beagle, and the great James Branch Cabell.

But Carter’s own fiction did not beckon my attention. The books of his I saw looked like hackwork, rehashes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And, what with their garish covers, I avoided them as if they were the Gor books by John Norman.

Well, as if to break a long habit, I bought two Gor novels, not long age. I took a dip its pages. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I did not get very far. Which does not mean I found anything objectionable. They seemed somewhat like throwback fiction, good Burroughsian fun. But of course their reputation is harshly negative, especially along “political correctness” lines. That is, as Jack Woodford might have said, there is no Communism in them, and (I hear tell) Norman does not believe today’s accepted feminist fictions, er, norms. I do not either, so I may return to Gor some day.

Not long after I put down Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor a few months ago, I bought a few Lin Carter fantasy/science fiction paperback on a whim. And I then read the one that seemed to have the most promising beginning, Down to a Sunless Sea, one of his last books, written, I gather, while he was dying of cancer.

The romantic-sexual interest in the book is not too far from what I have heard to be John Norman’s. The hero is masculine, and the two women are distinct and familiar feminine types, though both Martian. There is no political correctness in it, just as there is no Communism. But there is frank sexual talk, and acceptance of the Sapphic practice. Not very far from Woodford territory, after all, though the focus is on the hero, not the heroine — which is where it almost always was with Woodford (who claimed to have written the same book over and over).

This retro-sexuality does not bother me. It seems pitiful and weak to even bring it up. Masculine and feminine are archetypes, and reflect a lot of biological and historical reality. To object to it now is merely to accept current ideological fashion as Eternal Truth, which is of course bilge water.

Carter combines, as he states in his afterword, Brackettian fantasy with a Merrittesque descent into a Lost World. The first half or more of the short novel is adventure; the second half introduces our ragtag band of outlaws to a fantastic underworld civilization that is mainly shown to us in a slightly dramatized utopian format. The point being: the utopia is too good for these depraved, uncivilized Terran and Martian adventurers.

I cannot say that this seems in any way exceptionable — or very exceptional. Except — yes, there is an “except”: the writing, on the sentence level, is superior to popular No Style style writing of current popular fiction.

So, there is more than one way that Down to a Sunless Sea is throwback fiction. And more than one way that this is not at all a bad thing.

View all my reviews

FLUENCY CONFLUENCE BOOK ONE

Is not the “No Style” style, in which most fiction is written, these days, what has been left us after the “keep it simple” demands of editors, publishers, and the influence of writers such as Hemingway, Orwell, and Camus?

And does that not leave us with works of fiction that read like film treatments more than literary endeavors?

Maybe the answer to the second question is a No, but sometimes I wonder whether it be better answered with a Yes. Hence my query.

Before 1950, the No Style style (hereinafter “NSs”) was not prevalent, even with popular fiction. F. Marion Crawford, for instance, had a “literary style” that attempted some subtlety in the prose, on a sentence by sentence basis (first novel, 1882; last, 1910). Jack Woodford, the “sex novelist” whose modus was never to mention a body part of an, um, intimate nature, sported sentences and paragraphs that can run circles around most of today’s bestselling authors (heyday, ’30s and ’40s). Even the initial run of the Hardy Boys (1927-1947) could boast more individuality in the literary presentation than nine tenths of what we get today.

Still, the NSs makes for easy and fun reading. As in the science fiction novel I opened up today (see cover, above).

Indeed, you can see the contrast in sf, where even today you are more likely to come across interesting writing qua writing than in most other genres.

Philip K. Dick wrote in the NSs, but Jack Vance certainly did not. Robert Heinlein wrote in the NSs, except in the prose failure (but story success) of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Alfred Bester was definitely not an NSs practitioner; A.E. van Vogt should have wished he had been. Terry Bisson writes beautifully, but close to NSs; Gene Wolfe is as close to a great literary artist the genre has produced, and writes far from the all-too-standard NSs pop fiction prejudice — and is not very popular because of it. I’ve read a lot of NSs authors. But my favorites tend to be those who did not and do not write quite that simply:

  • Ray Bradbury
  • Thomas M. Disch
  • Michael Moorcock
  • Harlan Ellison
  • Brian Aldiss
  • George Alec Effinger
  • Lucius Shepherd
  • J. G. Ballard

Any thoughts?

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IMG_4141If you have not read the work of James Branch Cabell, where would you start? I began with The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasion, when I was 17. I have no regrets. But I do not think there is any question about the ideal Cabell starter: The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome, from The Witch Woman (1948).*

But after that, what?

Well, it depends.

I have a go at a decision tree — hey, it branches! — to aid the curious reader:

The James Branch Cabell Oeuvre 

* The first printing of the story was as a large, stand-alone illustrated book published by the John Day Company in 1926. It is a lovely edition, but the final printing in The Witch Woman was the final revision of the story, and it is the best. Read that version.

Jurgen by Cabell

Chapter 34, in which our hero learns
the true nature of torture in hell:

Now the tale tells how the devils of Hell were in one of their churches celebrating Christmas in such manner as the devils observe that day; and how Jurgen came through the trapdoor in the vestry-room; and how he saw and wondered over the creatures which inhabited this place. For to him after the Christmas services came all such devils as his fathers had foretold, and in not a hair or scale or talon did they differ from the worst that anybody had been able to imagine.

“Anatomy is hereabouts even more inconsequent than in Cocaigne,” was Jurgen’s first reflection. But the first thing the devils did was to search Jurgen very carefully, in order to make sure he was not bringing any water into Hell.

“Now, who may you be, that come to us alive, in a fine shirt of which we never saw the like before?” asked Dithican. He had the head of a tiger, but otherwise the appearance of a large bird, with shining feathers and four feet: his neck was yellow, his body green, and his feet black.

“It would not be treating honestly with you to deny that I am the Emperor of Noumaria,” said Jurgen, somewhat advancing his estate.

Now spoke Amaimon, in the form of a thick suet-colored worm going upright upon his tail, which shone like the tail of a glowworm. He had no feet, but under his chops were two short hands, and upon his back were bristles such as grow upon hedgehogs.

“But we are rather overrun with emperors,” said Amaimon, doubtfully, “and their crimes are a great trouble to us. Were you a very wicked ruler?”

“Never since I became an emperor,” replied Jurgen, “has any of my subjects uttered one word of complaint against me. So it stands to reason I have nothing very serious with which to reproach myself.”

“Your conscience, then, does not demand that you be punished?”

“My conscience, gentlemen, is too well-bred to insist on anything.”

“You do not even wish to be tortured?”

“Well, I admit I had expected something of the sort. But none the less, I will not make a point of it,” said Jurgen, handsomely. “No, I shall be quite satisfied even though you do not torture me at all.”

And then the mob of devils made a great to-do over Jurgen.

“For it is exceedingly good to have at least one unpretentious and undictatorial human being in Hell. Nobody as a rule drops in on us save inordinately proud and conscientious ghosts, whose self-conceit is intolerable, and whose demands are outrageous.”

“How can that be?”

“Why, we have to punish them. Of course they are not properly punished until they are convinced that what is happening to them is just and adequate. And you have no notion what elaborate tortures they insist their exceeding wickedness has merited, as though that which they did or left undone could possibly matter to anybody. And to contrive these torments quite tires us out.”

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The artwork featured here are details from that produced by Virgil Burnett for the Limited Editions Club edition of Jurgen, 1976. The female figure is of the vampire Florimel, who was created from the mind of Jurgen’s father, Coth, as fit punishment for his own sins. She is featured in the chapters on hell as one of Jurgen’s two romantic dalliances, the other being the wife of Grandfather Satan.

Chapter 39, in which our hero laments the
affection shown to him by his demon lover:

“It is my title she loves, not me,” reflected Jurgen, sadly, “and her affection is less for that which is really integral to me than for imperial orbs and sceptres and such-like external trappings.”

And Jurgen would come out of Florimel’s cleft considerably dejected, and would sit alone by the Sea of Blood, and would meditate how inequitable it was that the mere title of emperor should thus shut him off from sincerity and candor.

“We who are called kings and emperors are men like other men: we are as rightly entitled as other persons to the solace of true love and affection: instead, we live in a continuous isolation, and women offer us all things save their hearts, and we are a lonely folk. No, I cannot believe that Florimel loves me for myself alone: it is my title which dazzles her. And I would that I had never made myself the emperor of Noumaria: for this emperor goes about everywhere in a fabulous splendor, and is, very naturally, resistless in his semi-mythical magnificence. Ah, but these imperial gewgaws distract the thoughts of Florimel from the real Jurgen; so that the real Jurgen is a person whom she does not understand at all. And it is not fair.”

Then, too, he had a sort of prejudice against the way in which Florimel spent her time in seducing and murdering young men. It was not possible, of course, actually to blame the girl, since she was the victim of circumstances, and had no choice about becoming a vampire, once the cat had jumped over her coffin. . . .

Chapter 39, in which our hero continues his
search for justice (and his missing wife):

“It is a comfort, at any rate,” said Jurgen, “to discover who originated the theory of democratic government. I have long wondered who started the notion that the way to get a wise decision on any conceivable question was to submit it to a popular vote. Now I know. Well, and the devils may be right in their doctrines; certainly I cannot go so far as to say they are wrong: but still, at the same time—!”

For instance, this interminable effort to make the universe safe for democracy, this continual warring against Heaven because Heaven clung to a tyrannical form of autocratic government, sounded both logical and magnanimous, and was, of course, the only method of insuring any general triumph for democracy: yet it seemed rather futile to Jurgen, since, as he knew now, there was certainly something in the Celestial system which made for military efficiency, so that Heaven usually won. Moreover, Jurgen could not get over the fact that Hell was just a notion of his ancestors with which Koshchei had happened to fall in: for Jurgen had never much patience with antiquated ideas, particularly when anyone put them into practice, as Koshchei had done.

“Why, this place appears to me a glaring anachronism,” said Jurgen, brooding over the fires of Chorasma: “and its methods of tormenting conscientious people I cannot but consider very crude indeed. The devils are simple-minded and they mean well, as nobody would dream of denying, but that is just it: for hereabouts is needed some more pertinacious and efficiently disagreeable person—”
And that, of course, reminded him of Dame Lisa: and so it was the thoughts of Jurgen turned again to doing the manly thing. And he sighed, and went among the devils tentatively looking and inquiring for that intrepid fiend who in the form of a black gentleman had carried off Dame Lisa. But a queer happening befell, and it was that nowhere could Jurgen find the black gentleman, nor did any of the devils know anything about him.

“From what you tell us, Emperor Jurgen,” said they all, “your wife was an acidulous shrew, and the sort of woman who believes that whatever she does is right.”

“It was not a belief,“ says Jurgen: “it was a mania with the poor dear.”

“By that fact, then, she is forever debarred from entering Hell.”

“You tell me news,” says Jurgen, “which if generally known would lead many husbands into vicious living.”

“But it is notorious that people are saved by faith. And there is no faith stronger than that of a bad-tempered woman in her own infallibility. Plainly, this wife of yours is the sort of person who cannot be tolerated by anybody short of the angels. We deduce that your Empress must be in Heaven.”

“Well, that sounds reasonable. And so to Heaven I will go, and it may be that there I shall find justice.”

“We would have you know,” the fiends cried, bristling, “that in Hell we have all kinds of justice, since our government is an enlightened democracy.”

“Just so,” says Jurgen: “in an enlightened democracy one has all kinds of justice, and I would not dream of denying it. But you have not, you conceive, that lesser plague, my wife; and it is she whom I must continue to look for.”

“Oh, as you like,” said they, “so long as you do not criticize the exigencies of war-time. But certainly we are sorry to see you going into a country where the benighted people put up with an autocrat Who was not duly elected to His position. And why need you continue seeking your wife’s society when it is so much pleasanter living in Hell?”

And Jurgen shrugged. “One has to do the manly thing sometimes.”

from Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, James Branch Cabell

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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ballantine put out a number of high fantasy paperbacks. The publisher called the series “Adult Fantasy,” and many of them featured the unicorn head colophon as well as introductions by Lin Carter. I rate the books here, for no particular reason. I have not read them all yet. (But I would probably sell my complete set for $500. Inquire.) And it is worth mentioning, most of my ratings do not figure in the quality of the forewords, which range from the excellent (the Kai Lung books) to the inaccurate (James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest) to the maddening (The Man Who Was Thursday — do not read the foreword before you read the novel: Carter gives away one of the big surprises).

Several of the books I label “not read” (with the letters “nr”) are the result of me giving up on them. I have never been able to get into E. R. Eddison, and the joys of Lovecraft have so far eluded me.

I offer my judgments with asterisks, in the usual five-star manner, common in movie reviews. (Four-star may be more common, for all I know, but I went with the odd number.) Five stars mean not only did I enjoy the book, but think it has great literary merit. Three means either I enjoyed it, but think it lacks high literary merit, or I did not enjoy it, but confess to seeing its literary merit nevertheless. One star means I definitely did not enjoy it and I regard it as not good. Two means a fairly low interest from me, personally, and recommendation, literarily.

Well, here’s the list, taken from The Haunted Bibliophile, marked with my judgments.

Precursors to The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series

  • THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. Tolkien. August, 1965. ****
  • THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE TWO TOWERS, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE RETURN OF THE KING, J.R.R. Tolkien. December, 1965. *****
  • THE TOLKIEN READER, J.R.R. Tolkien. September, 1966. ****
  • THE WORM OUROBOROS, E.R. Eddison. April, 1967. [nr]
  • MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, E.R. Eddison. August, 1967. [nr]
  • A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, E.R. Eddison. February, 1968. [nr]
  • THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, J.R.R. Tolkien & Donald Swann. October, 1968.  *
  • TITUS GROAN, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • GORMENGHAST, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • TITUS ALONE, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. ***
  • A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, David Lindsay. November, 1968. *****
  • THE LAST UNICORN, Peter S. Beagle. February, 1969. *****
  • SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR & FARMER GILES OF HAM, J.R.R. Tolkien. March, 1969. ****
  • THE MEZENTIAN GATE, E.R. Eddison. April, 1969. [nr]

The Series proper

1969

  1. THE BLUE STAR, Fletcher Pratt. May. **
  2. THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, Lord Dunsany. June. ****
  3. THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, William Morris. July. [nr]
  4. THE SILVER STALLION, James Branch Cabell. August. *****
  5. LILITH, George Macdonald. September. **
  6. DRAGONS, ELVES, AND HEROES, Lin Carter, ed. October. **
  7. THE YOUNG MAGICIANS, Lin Carter, ed. October. ****
  8. FIGURES OF EARTH, James Branch Cabell. November. ****
  9. THE SORCERER’S SHIP, Hannes Bok. December. ***

1970

  1. LAND OF UNREASON, Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp. January.  **
  2. THE HIGH PLACE, James Branch Cabell. February. *****
  3. LUD-IN-THE-MIST, Hope Mirrlees. March. ****
  4. AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, Lord Dunsany. March. *****
  5. PHANTASTES, George Macdonald. April. **
  6. THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, H.P. Lovecraft. May. **
  7. ZOTHIQUE, Clark Ashton Smith. June. ****
  8. THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT, George Meredith. July. *****
  9. THE ISLAND OF THE MIGHTY, Evangeline Walton. July.  ****
  10. DERYNI RISING, Katherine Kurtz. August. [nr]
  11. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 1, William Morris. August. *****
  12. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 2, William Morris. September. ***
  13. GOLDEN CITIES, FAR, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. BEYOND THE GOLDEN STAIR, Hannes Bok. November. **

1971

  1. THE BROKEN SWORD, Poul Anderson. January. [nr]
  2. THE BOATS OF THE `GLEN CARRIG’, William Hope Hodgson. February. **
  3. THE DOOM THAT CAME TO SARNATH, H.P. Lovecraft. February. [nr]
  4. SOMETHING ABOUT EVE, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  5. RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN, Joy Chant. March. ***1/2
  6. HYPERBOREA, Clark Ashton Smith. April. ***
  7. DON RODRIGUEZ: CHRONICLES OF SHADOW VALLEY, Lord Dunsany. May. ***
  8. VATHEK, William Beckford. June. ****
  9. THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, G.K. Chesterton. July. ****1/2
  10. THE CHILDREN OF LLYR, Evangeline Walton. August. *****
  11. THE CREAM OF THE JEST, James Branch Cabell. September.  *****
  12. NEW WORLDS FOR OLD, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  13. THE SPAWN OF CTHULHU, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. 37. DOUBLE PHOENIX, Edmund Cooper & Roger Lancelyn Green. November. [nr]
  15. THE WATER OF THE WONDEROUS ISLES, William Morris. November. ****
  16. KHALED, F. Marion Crawford. December. ****1/2

1972

  1. THE WORLD’S DESIRE, H. Rider Haggard & Andrew Lang. January. [nr]
  2. XICCARPH, Clark Ashton Smith. February. ***
  3. THE LOST CONTINENT, C.J. Cutcliffe-Hyne. February. **
  4. DISCOVERIES IN FANTASY, Lin Carter, ed. March. ***
  5. DOMNEI, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  6. KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS, Ernest Bramah. April. ****
  7. DERYNI CHECKMATE, Katherine Kurtz. May. [nr]
  8. BEYOND THE FIELDS WE KNOW, Lord Dunsany. May. *****
  9. THE THREE IMPOSTERS, Arthur Machen. June. [nr]
  10. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 1, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  11. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 2, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  12. THE SONG OF RHIANNON, Evangeline Walton. August. ****
  13. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #1, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  14. EVENOR, George Macdonald. November. ****

1973

  1. ORLANDO FURIOSO: The Ring of Angelica, Volume 1, Translation by Richard Hodgens. January. [nr]
  2. THE CHARWOMAN’S SHADOW, Lord Dunsany. February. ***1/2
  3. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #2, Lin Carter, ed. March. [nr]
  4. THE SUNDERING FLOOD, William Morris. May. *****
  5. IMAGINARY WORLDS, Lin Carter. June. ***1/2
  6. POSEIDONIS, Clark Ashton Smith. July. [nr]
  7. EXCALIBUR, Sanders Anne Laubenthal. August. **
  8. HIGH DERYNI, Katherine Kurtz. September. [nr]
  9. HROLF KRAKI’S SAGA, Poul Anderson. October. [nr]
  10. THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST, H. Rider Haggard. December. **

1974

  1. KAI LUNG UNROLLS HIS MAT, Ernest Bramah. February. *****
  2. OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY, Lord Dunsany. April. *****

Honorable Mention (Related Follow-up Volumes)

  • MERLIN’S RING, H. Warner Munn. June, 1974. [nr]
  • PRINCE OF ANNWN, Evangeline Walton. November, 1974. *****

In looking over this list, I see that it is obvious that I need to re-read some of these, give others another try, and maybe amend my judgments here and there.

The books I have pictured here are ones I have extra copies of. I am more than willing to sell these for c. $10 per copy. Inquire.

twv


Virginia author James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) wrote comic romances (a term perhaps less confusing than “romantic comedies”) on a set of themes. One of these themes is expressed in the idea that there exist women too beautiful for many men safely to look at.

In The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment, young Florian espies the sleeping Melior (ensorcelled in a castle ensconced upon a High Place) and it unsettled his life, sending him into a flagrantly immoral life of lust, murder, and (in the end) world-shaking cataclysm.

In Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, the title character — having been given a temporary visage of youth — finds himself with the opportunity to remove a sleeping Helen of Troy’s blanket, but cautiously refrains. This restraint allowed him to return to his normal life as a pawnbroker, and bargain with Koschei the Deathless for the retrieval of his wife from distant realms, to take up her former position as his nagging partner.

Mere fantasy? The peculiar obsession of a perverse mind?

I doubt it.

Sexual selection is powered, in great part, by enticement based on beauty. Flowers are beautiful, the peacock’s feathers are beautiful, and so can be women (to varying degrees). The more beautiful the more likely to attract the bee or the mate, and thus the greater the beauty the more likely they are to procreate, thus spreading the world with more beautiful beings. In some species it is the male that displays the more elaborate enticements to mate, the peacock and peahen being a prime example. In Homo sapiens, it is the woman who attracts chiefly by physical beauty — and the men more moved by that beauty. But, admittedly, among humans the variety of sexual attractions and sexual strategies makes everything vastly more complicated than a themed story.*

But this is a major force in life and its evolution, not a mere technical display, an acquired habit of culture, as so many of today’s trendy people pretend to believe. Lust for — and enchantment with —  sexual beauty is built into our psyches, well, most male psyches, anyway, as amply demonstrated in science and literature. And it rules, often with the whip hand. Beauty suffuses nature, and the lust for beauty spurs life to continue. Further, because it runs so deep, it can be as (or more) powerful than the drive for mysticism, for the numinous.

Carl Gustav Jung suggested that organized religion exists to curb the unsettling power of mystical experiences. By formalizing the Divine, and limiting it to certain rites, places, times, it allows for mundane life to continue.

Traditional marriage and family life did something similar. The mundane curbs the sheer transcendent power of Beauty. To prevent destruction.

Nowadays, the most beautiful of women are plucked from obscurity, farded to perfection, and paraded about for all to see. This alone — with instantiations from modeling, to acting, to pornography (which some would say and was once widely believed were all allied arts) — may be a major factor in modern culture . . . to the unsettling nature of family and community life.

If Cabell were right, this modern development leads to disaster for some men, and perhaps a problem for many men as well as most women. The disaster might be a bit more humdrum than the one perpetrated by Florian.

Behind all the romance, irony, symbols, and elegant prose, Cabell’s philosophic argument was that the natural curb for this aspect of sexual bedazzlement is marriage: one woman to one man, quickly followed by motherhood and fatherhood, thereby speeding up the process known to all: nature’s universal answer to all enchantments, including life itself. Decline and Death. Mother Sereda bleaching all. That suffices to dull the beauty in life.

twv

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* Of course there are anomalies, outliers to life’s main story. Gay men and lesbian women look on the world of beauty and sexuality rather differently, each. And certainly confirmed bachelors like me have a different perspective on the story than do married men and, of course, women. But the central story will always be the one that directly carries on the regeneration of life. We outliers must recognize our place. And when society bends to the outlier, to make their stories central, as it seems to be doing now, we can expect cataclysms. Brave New World was not Utopia.