Sunday, August 14, 2016
Once again, I find myself posting a farewell on this blog. The end? I don't know. But I'm switching my focus to my new "official" website, matthewjconstantine.com. You'll be able to read the same amazingly on-point ranting about how great Star Trek is, how terrible the 90s were, and how handsome Jason Statham is (Jason, you gotta get back on the horse, man. Do Crank 3, already!).
In the Mouth of Dorkness has been an amazing outlet for me for several years. Brad has moved on to One Perfect Shot (and the ITMODcast, of course). I hope to continue to engage folks through my new site. So, please come join me. I've got some big stuff planned in the near future. Well, it's big to me. See you there.
Chaosium’s “Cycle Books” are a fantastic series of themed anthologies (for the most part). But they do have one thing that I’m not thrilled with, usual series editor Robert M. Price. It’s not one thing I can necessarily point to. Sometimes his introductions give away major plot points and spoil the story’s surprise. That’s annoying. Especially as short stories often live and die on their dramatic or surprising endings. He also has a sort of Tom Snyder style pomposity. There’s something in his writing style that makes me think of a boorish cocktail guest, speaking too loudly, relentlessly name-dropping, and smoking especially rank cigarettes. And finally, I find myself in disagreement with him on his interpretations of Lovecraft and the Mythos on a semi-frequent basis. However, I must admit that his knowledge of the subject is deep and profound, with a wide reach. He frequently pulls stories and information from surprising sources.
With “The Yith Cycle” he has collected several stories either directly involving the Great Race of Yith, or dealing with related topics like mind transference or unusual time travel. The Great Race featured in the original H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow Out of Time,” which is among my very favorite. Their history is strange and convoluted, but the gist is that they’re aliens from somewhere very distant, who transferred their minds into creatures in Earth’s distant past. From there, they reached forward into the minds of various beings throughout Earth’s history (including the protagonist of “The Shadow Out of Time”) and into our far future. In that future, in a time after Humanity has passed into forgotten history, they will eventually project themselves into beatle-like things in that future. The Great Race is not especially evil or hostile. In fact, while they certainly couldn’t be said to have Humanity’s interests at heart, they are fairly civil, and for an alien species, somewhat relatable. Simple, right?
The anthology starts with the novel, “The Purple Sapphire,” which I have reviewed previously. I was not a fan. And in truth, I just don’t see why it was included. Connecting it to the concepts of the Yith seems like a stretch. You could have put in H. Rider Haggard’s “She” or any number of other “lost civilization” or “reincarnation” novels and it would have had just as much point, and perhaps less racism (perhaps?). From there things improve. There are several good stories and interesting reads. I especially liked ‘The Horror from Yith,’ a round-robin story by three authors. Each segment explores and expands upon a theme, using some recurring characters. One of the authors has a follow-up story included, ‘The Changeling,’ which is also quite good. ‘The Sands of Time’ is a cool old science fiction story, reminding one of Edgar Rice Burroughs and others of his ilk. And the next story, by Richard L. Tierney is quite interesting, building on Lovecraft, but also on ‘The Sands of Time,’ and using other genre references. It has a very 70s, anti-hero kinda thing going on.
One thing that started to bother me a lot were the typos. I know Chaosium isn’t a big publishing company, but I found the frequency of typos, especially in the second half of the book to be off-putting.
The book would have been stronger without the inclusion of “The Purple Sapphire,” but features enough good stories that anyone interested in The Great Race should certainly give it a read. If you want a bit more science fiction in your Lovecraftian, cosmic horror, this is the way to go.
-Matthew J. Constantine
Monday, August 1, 2016
Fantasy isn’t my genre of choice. I’m a Science Fiction fan. Even when it’s mostly a matter of aesthetics, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, for example. I prefer laser guns and repulsor beams to spells and magic carpets. Yet, there are plenty of exceptions. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is the obvious. I can’t get enough of those stories. And like many lonely, sad teenage boys, I read Michael Moorcock’s Elric with great eagerness (though I preferred Corum). And then there’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. They’re something else.
Contemporary Fantasy literature tends to be descended from two major figures in the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. There were others, of course, but those two represent two of the major themes and styles. Tolkien’s side of the spectrum is High Fantasy, with lots of magic, destiny, mysticism, and Medievalism. Howard’s is more Low Fantasy, focusing on Nietzschean individualism, earthiness, and Antediluvianism. Yet, those two ends of the spectrum are not the final words on the genre. There are other voices that have done a great deal to influence writers over the decades. And Fritz Leiber is up there at the top of the list. Reading the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories, you can’t help but feel like you’re entering a familiar world, even though things are very weird. Dungeons & Dragons, deeply rooted in Tolkien though it is, was obviously trying to reach for something from Leiber. In spite of the 30s/40s origin of the characters, the feel the stories elicit is of those wonderful 70s paperback covers. There’s a pulpiness, sure. But there’s also wistful nostalgia, bitterness, and hints of psychedelia, that makes it feel far more modern.
“Swords Against Death” is the second collection of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser stories. Leiber went back and arranged the stories into chronological order, and fleshed some things out in the 60s. So in this volume, the two heroes (?) are fast friends, well acquainted with each other, and building something of a reputation. Over the course of the stories, they achieve some victories, finally put to rest some ghosts, and gain some weird patrons. They also explore the world enough for you to get a sense that Nehwon is far stranger place than expected. Lankhmar, the city where most of the stories are based, is a kind of fantasy, urban archetype. All the seedy, degenerate, corrupt, and exciting things you’d expect in a medieval or ancient metropolis are present and thriving. But leaving that city, the world around is strange and fractured, wild and weird.
For Fantasy fans, Leiber’s stories are must read classics. For fans of tabletop RPGs, especially games like D&D or Rolemaster, these tales are an absolute must. But for folks who simply enjoy well told tales, these stories are also quite good. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are a great odd couple team. Fritz Leiber is a solid writer, and more ‘Literary’ than a lot of his contemporaries, who manages to inject a good deal of humor along with a lot of sadness in to his adventure stories.
-Matthew J. Constantine