Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Skald's Score

The local library branch had a major book sale last weekend, and paperbacks were priced at twenty-five cents apiece. There I was, cheerfully browsing, when my heart started to race, my hands started trembling in barely concealed excitement:

OMGOMGOMGOMG!! You will notice that Fantasms and Magics and Eight Fantasms and Magics appear to be different editions of the same book, and you'd be correct. If, however, you had read The Miracle Workers, you'd have bought both editions as well:

The war party from Faide Keep moved eastward across the downs: a column of a hundred armored knights, five hundred foot soldiers, a train of wagons. In the lead rode Lord Faide, a tall man in his early maturity, spare and catlike, with a sallow dyspeptic face. He sat in the ancestral car of the Faides, a boat-shaped vehicle floating two feet above the moss, and carried, in addition to his sword and dagger, his ancestral side weapons.

An hour before sunset, a pair of scouts came racing back to the column, their club-headed horses loping like dogs. Lord Faide braked the motion of his car. Behind him, the Faide kinsmen, the lesser knights, and the leather-capped foot soldiers halted; to the rear the baggage train and the high-wheeled wagons of the jinxmen creaked to a stop.

The Miracle Workers is first-order Jack Vance, it is certainly one of his most accessible works. Although I love Vance's characteristic purple prose, he maintains a more subdued tone in this novella, a more spare and catlike prose, so to speak. The protagonist is also one of Vance's most felicitous characters, rather than a handsome, hypercompetent superman, we are presented with a "thick-set youth with a round florid face, overhung with a rather untidy mass of straw-colored hair" who is characterized by another character as "innocent and a trifle addled". No Mary Sue here, but a comical, sympathetic lead. As in many of Vance's works, The Miracle Workers is set in a stagnant, overly-conservative society faced with the need to change dramatically or face collapse. It's a theme that Vance explores in many of his works, and Vance does so rather succinctly, and extremely engagingly in The Miracle Workers.

The story provides a good blueprint for a "magic & masers" type setting, but I would not characterize it as a "sword & planet" tale, because the characters are all either native-born humans (the autocthones are all anonymous), and there are no fair damsels to be rescued by a mighty-thewed hero.

The third book is a copy of Galactic Effectuator, which contains two stories about a space-faring private investigator. The first story concerns industrial espionage, the second (SPOILER ALERT) concerns, I kid not, a client whose testicles have been removed, and replaced with another set. While fun, the book is certainly not Vance at his best.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Look Into The Mound, by HPL and Zealia Bishop

Impelled by a completist's desire, I tracked down The Mound, a collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop, one of the few HPL stories I hadn't read (posted on the fun Spacewesterns website). Set in western Oklahoma, The Mound reads like a pastiche of an A. Merritt novel, sandwiched in the middle of a typical Lovecraft story- it starts as an account of an ethnologist seeking out native legends in the vicinity of a mound (which recalls the sídhe, which open onto the underworld in Irish legend). In his investigations, the ethnologist finds a metal tube, which contains an account by a member of Coronado's expedition, who persuades a native guide to bring him to the entrance to an underground realm. The focus of the tale then shifts to the conquistador, Pamphilo Zamacona, and his adventures in this underworld. This portion of the tale, featuring a "man of action" rather than an academic, reads like a typical Merritt tale, with its theme of a lost race possessing the vestiges of a now poorly-understood "super-science". As is characteristic of most pulp-fiction lost races, the inhabitants of this underworld are bloodthirsty- in this case, their depravity is the result of ennui resulting from immortality, combined with a horror of the inhabitants of the outside world, who are characterized as "evilly connected" slaves of the "space devils" which drove them underground. In true "Merritt-fashion", the protagonist enlists the aid of a smitten noblewoman of the lost race, an element foreign to the bulk of Lovecraft's works (although Ms. Bishop was apparently better known for romantic tales than for weird fiction). After the account of Zamacona's adventures underground, the tale shifts back to the ethnologist, who is compelled to enter the mound, in which he finds corroboration of the conquistador's tale, and barely escapes a horrid end.

The bulk of The Mound is somewhat flat, it is not so much a narrative as a metanarrative- we are reading a story about a man reading a synopsis of an adventure story. Rather than a stirring narrative, The Mound is a travelogue of an imaginary place, inserted into a lesser Lovecraft tale. The tale would have been better served if the framing device had been left out, and the conquistador had been the protagonist (or, perhaps, left out altogether, with the ethnologist playing an exploratory role, rather than reading about another's expedition). It's Lovecraft phoning in a Merritt pastiche for a client who apparently stiffed him- that doesn't sound very promising. That being said, for the true Lovecraft fan, it is worth reading, as it concerns not only the sinister Vaults of Zin, but also locales mentioned in The Whisperer in Darkness:

They’ve been inside the earth, too — there are openings which human beings know nothing of — some of them are in these very Vermont hills — and great worlds of unknown life down there; blue-litten K’n-yan, red-litten Yoth, and black, lightless N'kai.

The story also features a somewhat jarring, totally unexpected characterization of an old friend:

Temples to Great Tulu, a spirit of universal harmony anciently symbolised as the octopus-headed god who had brought all men down from the stars, were the most richly constructed objects in all K’n-yan

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Popul Vuh, the Animated Series

Oh, my poor, neglected blog... it's been a busy month, juggling two jobs with other social obligations. So, with little time for posting, I'll use that old "post a video" gambit. Inspired by James Maliszewski's Tamoachan retrospective, here's a beautiful animated video of the Quiché Maya epic Popol Vuh, which details the creation cycles leading up to the present day, and the exploits of twin god-heroes Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. One of the highlights of the narrative is the slaying of Vucub-Caquix (Seven Macaw), the "sun" of the previous creation cycle, and his monstrous sons Zipacná and Cabracán, personifications of earthquakes. Another high point in the narrative involves the descent of the twin heroes into Xibalba, the underworld, in which they engage the deities of the dead in the ritual ballgame. Anyway, enough of my yapping, here's part one of Patricia Amlin's beautiful animation, with visuals based on Mayan ceramics: