Monday, August 23, 2010

A Bundle o' Classics

As I was in the final days of my Masters degree (now completely over WOOOHOOOO!), I was still reading. But I wasn’t doing much writing. There’s too much water under the bridge now to do a separate review for each of these classic works, but I wanted to at least get my disorganized thoughts on record. As such:

H. P. Lovecraft, Shadow Over Innsmouth and At the Mountains of Madness
I’d read Lovecraft short fiction before, and this was my foray into his novels. I liked them better than I thought I would. After wading through all the “eldritch horrors that cannot be described” stuff, there’s some really good sf world building buried in there, especially in Mountains. The back stories of all the alien races and how they came into contact with humanity was pretty cool, especially if you read it as straight sf instead of getting all freaked out by it like the narrators did. It would have been fascinating to see what Lovecraft would have done 10 years later with Campbell’s Astounding as a primary market instead of Weird Tales.

Generally speaking I liked Mountains better than Shadows (and thanks to Mark Kelly for recommending the former). I’m a sucker for Arctic/Antarctic exploration narratives to begin with, having loved non-fiction such as The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard as well as fiction like Dan Simmon’s recent The Terror. I also felt that the world-building and alien archaeology hung together better, and the narrators weren’t so unmanned by their fear as the guy in Shadows. And in Shadows I’m afraid I just can’t get quite as horrified by the prospect of miscegenation as Lovecraft obviously expects. Finally, there’s a moment in Mountains where he’s ramped up the tension to a peak, then presents a picture of a Shoggoth overtaking the heroes that presented me with a perfect, and perfectly scary, visual image—much stronger than average for me. (By the way, this is also something I noticed with Van Vogt—the stand-alone visual image that is so perfect and stark that it really sticks in your head.)

Edgar Allen Poe, Narrative of Mr. Gordon A. Pym
This was referenced by Lovecraft in Mountains, so I went back and picked it up. It’s a bracelet story: a series of vignettes that can be wrapped up whenever the author’s contract runs out. This was an easy read—Poe really was a fantastic writer, especially at the sentence level—but didn’t necessarily stick in my head much. It also had a moment of vivid visual horror, when shipwreck survivors see a ship coming towards them, only to realize that it is a ship manned only by the dead. Reminded me of the Tales of the Black Freighter sequence from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. By the by, I also read this story (in places) as sf, when it describes Antarctic exploration that hadn’t yet taken place. Although I don’t necessarily think that “it will get warmer as you get nearer the Pole!” was the best piece of extrapolative prediction ever.

Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon
Speaking of bracelet tales, this is one of the Conan the Cimmerian (or Conan the Barbarian) novels. Or rather, ‘novels,’ as this is also a series of adventure vignettes. My husband Curtis pointed out that my ‘classics’ list was sorely lacking in Sword and Sorcery, and since I plan on reading Moorcock someday, I picked this up. In the spirit of Gary & Jonathan’s “Books You Don’t Need to Read” bit, Hour of the Dragon is almost exactly the book you expect. Conan is deposed from his throne and almost killed by sneaky evil magic. But his barbarian fortitude, physicality, and sex appeal to women help him win the day. It’s racist, misogynist, and has no sense of humor (much like Howard’s good friend, the above mentioned Lovecraft). I feel no need to read any more Conan stories, thank you very much.

Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter
I’m afraid to say that I was also somewhat underwhelmed by this classic of the fantasy genre. I think my expectations were set too high, both by Neil Gaiman’s frequent gushing about the book and my own gushing about Dunsany’s short fiction. It was good, don’t get me wrong. Beautifully written, with characters that feel True even when they’re obviously archetypes. And the conception of Faery as a place where nothing ever changes, the antithesis of our world of tumult and turmoil, was a fascinating one. However, I felt that it dragged at points, and the ending was a disappointment to me: in keeping with the nature of Faery, the tale eventually just stops dead. Felt a bit like stepping on a step that wasn’t there. There are lots of charming elements: the troll in the pigeon coot, the foxes and unicorns, the break in the middle to ‘historically ground’ the tale through the gift of a unicorn horn once given to a Pope, and others. But it didn’t seem to have the coherence I was expecting and it didn’t quite lift me up and carry me off to its world the way I was hoping.

So with all that I’m much closer to being finished with my pre-Campbell sf/fantasy reading. I have high hopes of finishing the last of it before the end of the year. That’s especially important since I’ll soon be embarking on an extensive project reading Greg Egan’s works, and it will be good to have the 1920’s/30’s stuff out of the way.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Be curious if the upcoming movie version of Mountains of Madness follows the story - at all. So far, I've yet to see a Lovecraft adaptation that follows the story, let alone does it well.

Roz said...

Dunsany is much better in short stories - and for me that's where his importance as an influence lies, both on early Lovecraft and more recently on writers like Michael Swanwick. Try any good collection of the Edge of the World stories.

His clubland stories are also pretty good - 'The Two Bottles of Relish' is one of those stories you never thought anyone actually wrote, that it had existed autonomously from the beginning of time.

Karen Burnham said...

Alex- Yeah, I can't imagine a good film adaptation of Lovecraft. I'm not even sure how you'd try--so much of his 'horror' is so abstract!

Roz- Thanks, I'll keep my eye out for those! I haven't picked up any of his club stories yet. Do the Jorken books include them, or is there a separate collection?

Tim Walters said...

I agree about KoED--it never gels. The Charwoman's Shadow is much better.