Weird #2 The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908)

“The Screaming Skull” (1908) by Francis Marion Crawford, the second story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, takes us into the mind of disturbed retired sailor as the skull of a possibly murdered friend haunts his guilty conscience. Told in the first person in what the editors call “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, verging on steam-of-consciousness at times” (11), Crawford’s story is also an outstanding example of the fantastic literature of uncertainty.

“No, I am not nervous,” the narrator assures us. “I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one” (11). Those familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator will see through the narrator’s posturing and recognize the equivocation at play. However, the narrator’s commitment towards finding a naturalistic, rational explanation for the screaming skull that haunts him earns enough of the reader’s trust.

Tzetan Todorov defined his idea of the ‘fantastic’ in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. His definition of the term was much narrower than what we consider fantastic literature today, but the concept he describes fits this story perfectly. Todorov’s fantastic is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Todorov famously breaks down Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” to highlight how the narrator switches back and forth between being convinced that the events he witnesses have a naturalistic explanation and being convinced that what he sees must be supernatural. This narrow genre relies completely on the narrator’s feeling of uncertainty as it struggles to decide whether a haunting is genuinely supernatural or not.

Todorov could have called “The Screaming Skull” a paradigm of ‘fantastic’ literature–except that the uncertainty is ultimately resolved at the end. In this supernatural tale, the rational mind of an ex-sailor, one Captain Charles Braddock, the narrator, is pitted against a suggestion of a supernatural cause lying behind the death of his friend Mr. Pratt, a country doctor.

Mr. Pratt tells the narrator that he suspects his wife is planning to poison him. During their conversation, Charles alludes to a legend about a woman who poured molten lead into the ears of her four husbands, murdering them while they slept. After Mrs. Pratt turns up dead, Mr. Pratt suffers profound grief and anxiety. He “grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight” (12). Finally, he is found dead on the beach with markings on his neck and a human skull lying in the sand, placed in such a way that it appears to be staring at his face.

Did the skull itself kill Mr. Pratt, or did his death and the coincidental placing of the skull have another explanation? This question comes to obsess Charles until the very end of the story, when the supernatural reality of the skull is confirmed. Thus, “The Screaming Skull,” though it features strong elements of Todorov’s ‘fantastic,’ ultimately becomes what Todorov would call the ‘marvelous,’ or a genuine supernatural tale.

Charles’s sense of guilt also has something to do with why he feels such a powerful repulsion at the thought of the screaming skull. He suspects that it might be Mrs. Pratt’s skull, screaming at him to remind him of his terrible guilt. If Mr. Pratt actually murdered Mrs. Pratt, which Charles suspects, then it would also be true that Charles as good as killed Mrs. Pratt himself, since Charles, in a spirit of grim amusement, suggested the M.O.: the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a slumbering spouse.

Charles becomes obsessed over whether he will find a ball of lead rattling inside the skull. Its existence would prove that it was, in fact Mrs. Pratt. His need to avoid the terrible burden of guilt by association motivates his intellectual hesitation.

“[M]y taste never ran in the direction of horrors,” Charles tells the narrator, “and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story” (15). Equivocal statements like this suggest that a supernatural explanation for Mr. Pratt’s death does exist, although Charles is suppressing his admission of this reality. Acknowledging the existence of the marvelous would resolve his ambiguities, but he remains meticulously stubborn. As Charles proceeds, like a detective, to locate any evidence of the skull’s commonplaceness, all he uncovers is further proof of its supernatural properties, until it becomes increasingly clear that he is latching at straws and is on the cusp of madness himself.

Next week, I will dig into the next strata of my archaeology of weird fiction and review Algernon Blackwood’s florid descriptions of the natural world in his famous weird tale, “The Willows” (1909).

Weird #1 The Other Side (excerpt) by Alfred Kubin (1908)

In the spreading of the weird fiction virus, “which book was first sick?” (Miéville, “Afterweird,” 1116). Alfred Kubin’s novel Die andere Seite (The Other Side) can be thought of as ‘Patient Zero,’ or at least the one Ann and Jeff VanderMeer thought acceptable to identify for the purposes of their anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. It is doubtful that the true Patient Zero can be identified at all. However, Miéville admits “we’re tempted to hunt [it]” (1116). The Other Side may be as close as we can get.

Kubin, an Austrian writer influenced by E.T.A. Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe, published his novel in 1908 and an excerpt translated by Mike Mitchell is text #1 included in The WeirdThe Other Side bridges the gap between old traditions in supernatural writing and new, more modern twentieth-century forms. In the literary history created by the anthologists, the composition of The Other Side is chosen as to represent the moment weird fiction begins to take shape.

Fittingly enough, for a genre Miéville describes as a “burrowing infestation” (“Afterweird” 1115), The Other Side begins with a disease. From the first line, the story is haunted by a sense of the inescapable: “An irresistible sleeping sickness had Pearl in its grip” (1). The omniscient narrator describes a fictional city falling victim to what is at one point explicitly compared to the sleeping spell in the Brothers Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty. An American, who later becomes a prophet of doom, is the only one unaffected by the sickness, like the Prince in the fairy tale in question.

The sleeping spell spreads rapidly. Society stops what it is doing and falls asleep. This pointedly fails to lead to revolution, despite the opportunities a sleeping populace presents. A political speaker “suddenly bent down over the table, lowered his head and started to snore rhythmically” and the military “training to prepare… for the threatened revolution … just lay down on the ground” (1). With very few exceptions, the entire city is affected for six days, or “at least that was the time calculated by the barber who based his estimate on the length of his customers’ stubble” (2).

By the time the town awakens, however, the real trouble begins, for “during out long sleep another world–the animal kingdom–had spread to such an extent that we were in danger of being swept aside” (2). Creatures large and small have multiplied and infested the city. Foxes and vultures, deer and ibexes have turned Pearl into a terrifying zoo, where beasts may be hunted in the streets for food.

Here the narrative departs the scenario of a modernized fairy tale and enters fully into territory we recognize as ‘weird.’ Human beings and their civilization are being eclipsed by a power larger than themselves: the animal world. The city plunges into decay as wildlife retakes the urban core. The imagery here reminded me of films like 28 Days Later and I am Legend, minus the zombies. The Other Side‘s publication in 1909 proves that such post-apocalyptic visions are not exclusively the domain of contemporary culture.

The novel’s translated prose describes the devastation with a keen imagination and  sensuousness reminiscent of magic realism. There are plagues of locust, serpents, and buffaloes. Castringius, one of the characters, has an apartment with “bats hanging like smoked hams from his curtain rail” (4). Soon the decay of the city is not only evident in the animal infestations but the decay of buildings and artworks, as “precious objets d’art succumbed to an irresistible inner decay without any reason being evident” (5). Kubin, influenced by the Decadent movement, has provided us with this phenomenal representation of decline. It is barely a coincidence that this imagery is eerily reminiscent of the corruption of the painting in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Other Side introduces several important images and patterns of thought that will become prominent in later weird tales. For example, Kubin represents the blurring of the categories by which humanity defines its place in the world: “the nights were wreathed in a strange half-light that blurred all the contours” (5). Furthermore, one’s body and even one’s thoughts become prisons before the inevitability of death and decay. “Oh, if only I could stop thinking, but that functions automatically,” cries the narrator. “There are no certainties that are not countered by uncertainties!” (9) This despair captures the uncertainty and unease that weird fiction will continue to articulate in its later iterations.

How can narrative closure be reached amid such anxiety? It turns out that the only way Kubin can conclude this portion of his novel (keeping in mind that only an excerpt is included in the anthology) is through the narrator’s recognition of a fundamental contradiction in human experience. “Incapable of extended thought, I took strength from the consciousness of my own impotence,” he says (10). The final revelation he experiences “closed off the abyss of my doubts and anxieties.”

This statement should, if anything, make the reader feel deeper anxiety. “I took strength from the consciousness of my own impotence”: Kubin’s existential irony suggests that human beings are powerless before their environment, but can nonetheless gain some strength by acknowledging this fundamental lack of power. It is almost a variation of Socrates’ famous maxim that he is wisest because he knows that he knows nothing.

However, is this statement really as optimistic as it sounds? Admittedly, it does not sound very optimistic already. But added to the basic gloominess of this conclusion is the philosophical implication that the realization of our impotence does not by itself guarantee that we can have actual power. It is, after all, the fundamental nature of humanity to be impotent. Realizing our powerlessness by itself cannot give us real power, or it would contradict the terms of this thought experiment. Therefore, it can only give us inner strength.

Realizing that we are the puppets of other forces in the universe cannot by itself rescue us from our fundamental condition of enslavement. As puppets, we cannot cut our own strings. The best that can be hoped for is a certain stoicism as we recognize our place as puppets within the larger system that controls us.

There’s your cheery thought for the day.

The Weird opens with Kubin’s observation of an existential contradiction. Although it is not a very optimistic vision, the infestation of the weird has begun and I’ve cracked the topsoil in my archaeological study of weird fiction. On that note, I leave you until next week, when I will express my thoughts on The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908).

The Alchemists’ Council by Cynthea Masson

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I happened to receive a free copy of Cynthea Masson‘s The Alchemists’ Council (ECW Press, 2016). It introduced me to a transdimensional universe in which alchemy is treated as a metaphor for ecological sustainability. I’ve never read alchemy treated in this way before and the subject matter was treated in a complex, dialectical fashion that I found really appealing.

It was such an engaging read that I reviewed it for The Bull Calf Review. You may read the full review here.

http://www.thebullcalfreview.ca/cynthea-masson

The current issue of the Bull Calf Review has also published reviews done by several of my colleagues, Zain R. Mian and David Pitt. It has also published my Poetics teacher from my undergrad years at McGill, Joel Deshaye, as well a review by the 2016-2017 Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke. The Bull Calf is an “accessible, academic, and diverse tri-annual collection of reviews and retrospectives” and was founded at McGill in 2010.

Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant

Red Moon and Black MountainLast January, Dorothy Bray, a professor at McGill University where I study, handed me an old Ballantine Adult Fantasy classic: Red Moon and Black Mountain (1970) by the well-named Joy Chant. Rediscovering the Ballantine fantasy books proved to be a nostalgic romp through territory supposedly familiar to all of us who read and love fantasy novels. The Ballantine series was where the motifs and cliches of the genre supposedly had their birth, but my experience was not of reading yet another derivative fantasy novel. Those who pick up Joy Chant are in for something deeper.

Joy Chant, although otherwise obscure, is an author of classic heroic fantasy. Her work is a product of the generation more or less directly succeeding the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lord Dunsany–at least, that is how the Ballantine series markets itself. Here the tradition of heroic fantasy is pure. There’s no steampunk, cyberpunk, slipstream, or New Weird; historical fantasy, urban fantasy, and magic realism are likewise nowhere to be seen. This is the fantasy of the hippies and the anti-Vietnam protesters. There is something fundamentally distinct about this period of fantasy, still untouched from the complex generic fusions and postmodernisms of later generations. There is a nostalgia here I never experienced myself, being too young to witness these novels’ actual publication, but it has nonetheless left its mark on me indirectly. These novels were the fantasy Guy Gavriel Kay and Charles de Lint grew up reading. It was the fantasy several of my McGill professors grew up reading, namely Profs. Bray, Brian Trehearne, and Sean Carney, among others no doubt.

(An excellent history of fantasy up until the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series is given by Jamie Williamson in a book published by Palgrave Macmillan called The Evolution of Modern Fantasy.)

Ballantine for better or worse made fantasy what it has become today, by marketing authors who could write novels in the bestselling styles of Tolkien, Lewis, Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, and other fantasists from earlier in the century. I am inclined to think there would be no shelf space at your library or bookstore labelled ‘fantasy’ if it were not for this series.

Joy Chant’s contribution to the development of the genre was small but one of high literary quality. It may not be easy to get your hands on a copy of Red Moon and Black Mountain, but if you happen upon it at a second-hand bookstore, you will discover a novel written in the high style of Tolkien but with child protagonists worthy of Lewis–who, by the way, Chant represents realistically and profoundly. Like YA novels today, Red Moon and Black Mountain can be enjoyed by adults as well. Indeed, Lin Carter writes in his introduction that he was convinced, after reading Chapter 3, “The Battle of the Eagles”  “that this was not only not going to be  a children’s book, but also that it was going to be a masterpiece” (x).

The three Powell children, Oliver, Nick, and Penelope, are off exploring an English country road when they pass a gate and inexplicably tumble into a secondary world known as Vandarei. Nick and Penelope find themselves alone on an icy mountaintop. Oliver, their big brother, is no where in sight. Fortunately, Princess In’serinna rescues them with her retinue of bodyguards on their way to witness a battle between the white and black eagles, the result of which battle will foretell the fate of the land. The dark lord Fendarl has been bound within Black Mountain, but the wards that hold him at bay wear thin and he is preparing to test the terrible power he has mastered against the magic of the Star-Born.

Meanwhile, Oliver finds himself among the Khentor, a race of nomad plainsmen. He becomes Li’vanh to them, adopting to the Khentor way of life, forgetting his old name, Oliver Powell. Since he clearly does not come from Vandarai, Li’vanh is viewed as a deliverer from another world. A man, where in England he had only been a child. Tuvoi, the Chosen One.

As the red moon waxes, Fendarl begins to mass his forces and the power of the Star-Born wanes. An epic catalogue of the armies of Vandarei marches forth to do battle against the dark lord and its massed horde. In the ensuing battle, Oliver will be forced will confront his destiny, at a dear cost.

Joy Chant writes in the style of classic fantasy, a refined, formal mode that is, however, not unfamiliar with techniques of stream of consciousness to grant immediacy of emotion to what the child protagonists are feeling and sensing. Every sentence is measured and intoned consistently with faultless delivery. It is the kind of style to expect from a Ballatine classic.

The vulnerability of Penelope and Nick is lovingly rendered and they are believable as children who suddenly find themselves wrapped up in a strange, frightening world. Penelope must conquer her fear of heights and Nick is chased by wolves in one harrowing scene. By the end of the novel, the reader has the sense that the characters have matured and conquered their fears, although it is Oliver who ages the most profoundly in the end.

The Miseries of Mister Sparrows by Matthew A.J. Timmins

sparrows_cover_timmins (1)Picture a cold, damp hut, surrounded by mischievous crows, on the banks of a swollen river, against the backdrop of a smoky, nineteenth-century city awash in crime lifted straight out of a penny dreadful. Add this to the miserable squalor: that the resident of said hut, one Robin Sparrows, serves as office clerk to a predatory law firm whose motto, Lupi pastores erunt, means ‘the wolves shall shepherd them.’ Not exactly the image of a virtuous law practice, although its clerks do command a respect of their own.  It is this dank, putrid, and, yes, miserable world that Mister Sparrows must navigate in order to solve a case that will carry him everywhere from the slimiest sewers to the poshest neighborhoods.

Claudon is the capital city of Albion and a metropolis of a far-stretching empire–quite like London in its Victorian heyday. News of distant wars from the colonies stirs its population into patriotic fervor, the singing of anthems and ballads, and hero worship. One such hero, Captain Dearing, will present a gift to the ambassador of Crocodon, a set of graven images, to help ease tensions following the Crocodile War. Against this backdrop, Sparrows must deliver a mysterious package to the infamous blackguard Kermit J. Tarnish.

The Scoundrel of the Empire, the Shame of His Majesty’s Redcoats, Tarnish committed the unpardonable crime of kidnapping the Crocodon princess. Sparrows’s mission is a top secret delivery to Tarnish’s dark prison cell, but to apply Murphy’s law, not everything goes according to plan.

Dickensian in its squalor and cartoonish humour, each chapter titled with the “In which” of a nineteenth-century novel, The Miseries of Mister Sparrows cannot help but make the reader laugh at its quirky characters and the–need I say miserable?–circumstances into which Mr. Sparrows constantly stumbles headlong. There is some intentional slapstick to the humour at the same time as you feel Mr. Sparrows’s cold plight seep into your bones. Matthew Timmins boldly sets out to pastiche the humour of P.G. Wodehouse, a task at which few have succeeded. Since I myself have never read Wodehouse, I will leave it to the discerning leader to judge his success. However, the playful nineteenth-century style he opens his novel with remains consistent until the end, a real accomplishment that lends a great texture to the novel.

Purchase The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows on Amazon!

 

 

Did you like this book? You might be interested in these:

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville: https://matthewrettino.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/perdido-street-station-by-china-mieville/

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: https://matthewrettino.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/neverwhere-by-neil-gaiman/

Matthew A.J. Timmins
Matthew A.J. Timmins

*Disclosure: I acted as proofreader for this novel.

Sleepless Knights by Mark H. Williams

Sleepless KnightsAt the beginning of another MythCon, this one in Colorado Springs–where I am now, giving a presentation–it is fitting to review the book of the first MythConer with whom I ever struck up a conversation. This is one of the only cases where I knew the author before I knew he was an author. I found him waiting in line to be registered at the desk and we started to talk.

“Mock,” he told me his name was, but then I realized he had an accent, that his name was “Mark.” He too was reading through John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet at the time and I thought I was one of the only people in the world to be reading it. We struck up a rapport.

‘Mock,’ incidentally, is more or less what he does to the Arthurian tradition in Sleepless Knights, a novel shortlisted for the 2014 Mythopoeic Prize for Adult Fiction. Last MythCon, it went up against Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Land and the winner, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (which, also incidentally, I have just heard recommended as an audiobook by Mary Robinette Kowal on the Writing Excuses podcast). Mark is also a playwright and scriptwriter, having written for the Horrible Histories series–and traces of that series’s humour winds up in Sleepless Knights. I still have my old copy of Horrible Canadian History on a shelf downstairs.

If Sleepless Knights had been nominated for this year, I like to think it might have had a better chance of winning, since the MythCon theme this year is on the Arthurian Mythos. A review now, during the conference, is certainly a propos

Toby Whithouse, a writer for Doctor Who and Being Human, calls Sleepless Knights “a cracking good read” and his British jargon accurately describes the book’s Monty Pythonesque humour. It is a unique mixture of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day–a very British but wholly unconventional pairing.

Lucas is King Arthur’s butler. He has served the Master with absolute devotion for thousands of years into the modern era, when one Ritual Day, Arthur vanishes to unknown parts. It is fundamental that Lucas rally the team and keep the Knights of the Round Table together. But since the glory days of Camelot, Sir Kay has become a book-hoarding murderer, Sir Lancelot has become an inspirational speaker, and Sir Pellinore is a crazed and delusioned hunter after the mysterious Questing Beast. Soon the only thing that can save them is Merlin himself.

But when they find the place in Wales where Merlin is said to lie in waiting, they unwittingly open a path to the Otherworld, unleashing a mass destructive Apocalypse that only the knights have a clue how to fend off. But as the modern era begins to grow uncomfortably aware of the existence of King Arthur, it becomes Lucas’s responsibility to ensure his Master’s safety and the integrity of the Round Table.

Sleepless Knights also contains a series of flashback chapters to the glory days of Camelot in which we see Lucas in his element, directing kitchen staff during a busy festival. How does a butler assist and provide for the guests with minimal intrusion? How does a butler organize the seating around the Round Table, especially when one of the knights, Sir Mordred, is destined to betray Arthur? There are passages where Mark successfully captures the sang froid of Kazuo Ishiguro’s butler Mr. Stevens, who at one point in Remains of the Day expresses admiration for the ability to remain calm and professional even if a tiger takes up residence under the dinner table. The difference with Sir Lucas is that he is slightly less repressed and has to deal not with tigers, but werewolves. Mark provides a fresh angle on Arthurian legend seen from the perspective of a servant. It is not so long before Sir Lucas must venture on a quest of his own.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well I enjoyed Sleepless Knights. One thing Mark did well and that I wanted a lot more of was Lucas’s sang froid attitude. That voice was strong in the beginning chapters, but the Apocalypse, for obvious reasons, provides only a few opportunities for exhibiting calm orderliness under Otherworldly duress. The only resistance I encountered in reading it was, since I read it nightly chapter by chapter, I had some difficulty picking up the thread of adventure after the day caused me to forget what was happening right before I put the book down. Some chapters end after suddenly introducing a wholly new situation–Sleepless Knights is, after all, a wild, cartoony, dragonback ride. That’s part of what makes it funny and I was happy to trust in the author through several out-of-nowhere surprises, which were eventually explained. The good thing is that these defects simply act as motivation to binge-read Sleepless Knights all the way through.

Mark confided to me that there is, actually, some textual/historical evidence for the existence of Sir Lucas in Arthurian legend. That satisfies the scholar in me. I suspect the reference might be to The Chronicles of Godfrey of Wales, the source text to which he appears, by his own admission, to have consulted. Sleepless Knights is a great example of a how a lost detail in a tale can be exploded into the concept for a whole novel.

 

If you appreciate a laugh and a wacky adventure, I certainly recommend Sleepless Knights. Order the book from the Atomic Fez website and get it as a nice present in the mail. These Canadian publishers specialize in ‘eclectic, genre-busting fiction.’ Support them! Support small presses!

Mark H Williams, author of Sleepless Knights. Photo taken from back cover.
Mark H Williams, author of Sleepless Knights. Photo taken from back cover.

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

20150722_111003-1Does magic exist in the contemporary world? Charles de Lint’s mythic fiction brings supernatural beings into the context of the everyday and Forests of the Heart explores the contact between ordinary people and what he calls Mystery.

Bettina and Adelita are sisters, both partly Mexican, partly Indios, and raised by their grandmother to see la époco del mito, the time of myth. However, as they grow older, Adelita puts the childish stories away, while Bettina becomes trained by her grandmother to become a skilled curandera, or healer. After her grandmother disappears, she comes up north to Newford, the imaginary setting of many Charles de Lint’s novels and short stories, and finds work as a model for a high-end artist’s retreat.

Meanwhile in Newford the folk/Celtic music scene that de Lint writes about so well is thriving even as an especially frigid winter threatens to upset the normalcy of the city. Miki and Donal are sister and brother, a musician and artist, who came years ago to Newford from an abusive family background in Ireland. Hunter, a man who stands out somewhat because he has no artistic leanings at all, owns Gypsy Records, a music record store that forms a hub for local musicians. De Lint provides copious details about the ins and outs of running such a store, likely because he has had experience running his own store. The author’s talent as a folk musician likewise brings an irresistible spark of life to his depictions of the musical communities of Newford.

But it is not into this community that serves as our introduction to Newford. At first we see Ellie, a sculptor, at work with the city’s Angel network, which helps out the homeless. Work is especially needed now that the weather is getting steadily worse. Our first impression of her comes from her heroic act of saving a homeless man choking to death on his own vomit, by giving him a most unpleasant mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Her companion on these outings with the Angel relief van is Tommy, a young Native American whose many aunts seem, to Ellie, to be mythical characters than real women.

When Ellie meets a mysterious man, who may also be a woman, on the streets that night who gives her a business card with the name Musgrave Wood upon it, she feels the first inkling of destiny beckoning to her. Is it a sculptor’s contract or something weirder?

Meanwhile at the Irish pub, Miki, Donal, Hunter, and Ellie grow suspicious about a group of dark strangers who sit in the back of the room to hear the Irish reels. Donal claims that they are hard men, made bitter by years of drunken Irish angst, and that it is better you don’t look at them for too long lest they try to make you their friend–an honour conferred by a punch to the guts. The weird thing is that Bettina, across town, can see them too, standing without winter clothing in the cold snow smoking just outside her window. And she grows steadily more convinced that they derive from the same magic world her grandmother showed to her.

It turns out these dark men are none other than the Gentry, exiled Irish spirits who wander homeless in the city. And they want their revenge against the native manitous, or Mysteries, the rightful spiritual guardians of North America. Their plot to assert dominance over the Mysteries will cause much destruction and draw all of de Lint’s characters into a test against the destructive potential that lies in the bitterness and darkness that all human beings carry deep inside of them.

Although this is not a new novel by Charles de Lint, it is more recent than his classic work Moonheart, a product of the 1980s. I strongly suspect the winter storm was inspired by the ’98 Ice Storm, a turn-of-the-century ordeal that blew out the power in hundreds of cities across the eastern seaboard and is still etched clearly in my memory. The conflict of the musicians/artists against the dark forces of the Gentry gains something of the air of the Fisher King myth, where the salvation of the land itself and its fertility is at stake. What’s so great about this is everyone over a certain age can remember this Ice Storm and feel that much closer to the myth. That’s part of the payoff of setting fantasy novels in the here-and-now.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

Quintessence by David Walton

QuintessenceJohn Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet asks the question, “What if there was more than one history of the world?”; David Walton’s Quintessence, on the other hand, actually explores one of these alternate histories. It is set in a world that follows the rules of known science in the sixteenth century–which means the world is flat and alchemy is possible.

Lord Chelsey arrives from a voyage to the edge of the world on board the Western Star, but his arrival in London is unlike any undergone during the Age of Exploration. His entire crew is dead before they dock and the diamonds, gold, and silver that they brought from the distant continent of Horizon has turned to salt and sand.

Christopher Sinclair wants to find out why. A world explorer with enlightened views of science in a scholastic society that still reveres Aristotle as the final authority of knowledge, he has his eyes set on Horizon, a continent literally situated at the end of the world. In Protestant England he is feared as a sorcerer and a heretic, but he is really an alchemist who employs the empirical methodology of Sir Francis Bacon decades before the founding of the Royal Society.

Stephen Parris, a surgical doctor, is similarly beset by a European culture that misunderstands his work. Cutting corpses open to see how the human body works is considered a desecration of the sacred, but it is what obsesses Parris: the chance to see how illnesses work and find a way to cure them. Both Parris and Sinclair are united in their quest to conquer death using science, but they are at cross-purposes until the Spanish-led Catholics coup the Protestant kingdom and an inquisition descends on them both.

Soon Parris, Sinclair, and Catherine, Parris’ adventurous daughter who is eager for science as well and has made the acquaintance of a mysterious manticore, are off on an epic ocean voyage to discover the remains of Lord Chelsey’s colony. Sinclair leads the desperate crew onward with the promises of wealth and riches, but he really has eyes for only one thing: to discover the secrets of quintessence, the fifth element than binds earth, air, fire, and water.

Quintessence may be called the quintessential historical fantasy, situated as it is at the historical moment where what we consider fantasy is about to give way to rigorous science, as superstition slowly becomes erudition at the end of sixteenth century. Only in this alternate history, the fantasy stays through the dawn of science.

What is truly original about Walton’s historical fantasy, more than the idea of alchemy being real, is his combination of the ideas of quintessence and Darwinism in his explanation of the evolution of magical Horizon creatures. From the leviathan in the great ocean to the iron fish that can transform at will into heavy metal to the memory-sharing manticores, all the creatures on Horizon use quintessence to hunt or protect themselves from hunters in a science-magical ecosystem. Slowly the settlers learn from these creatures’ physiognomies in order to develop new kinds of technology.

Quintessence is a unique mix of historical fantasy that never forgets its historical situation, even if it might introduce Darwinism in all but name, along with other modern ideas–that’s the game of alternate history, after all. It is also unique in being equally a science fantasy. Finally, it’s a fun comment on some tropes of sixteenth century colonization and exploration, such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Davies, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ferdinand Magellan, who were each either lost at sea, brought worthless metals home thinking they were gold and diamonds, founded failed colonies, converted the natives, or made Europeans aware of the true size of the globe.

Endless Things by John Crowley

20141217_202835If you arrived at a crossroads, would you take the right or the left fork? We are faced every day of our lives with choosing a path. Once our decision takes us onward, we cannot return. The past that once was–and the path we might have chosen instead–grows more and more distant with each ‘Y’ junction we pass.

The courses of history and personal lives divide at such moments. The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 on Y-Tag, or Y-Day, the same day that New York City’s World’s Fair expressed a utopian optimism. Barbarism or civilization: which path did history take at that moment, and where did it go after?

Endless Things by John Crowley is the final book in his Aegypt Cycle. It is the culmination of thirty years of thinking, research, and writing on the part of the author, and an ending to a series that is thematically preoccupied with endings. Endless Things is a completion without an ending per se. After all, the thousands of possible futures that might come into existence at any moment are as endless and infinite as the universe itself.

Pierce Moffet has left the Blackbury Jambs for Old Europe on what sounds like an epic quest–to find the Holy Grail, or the Philosopher’s Stone, in either case an artefact that can prove once and for all that the world has more than one history, that its laws are mutable. Alchemy, once briefly possible for John Dee and Edward Kelley, is in our modern world no long possible–at least, Fellowes Kraft’s last unpublished novel claims so, which Pierce is supposed to copy and rework into a book. He follows Kraft’s old notebook through cities such as Rome, Florence, and Prague, which was once the centre of European civilization and scientific experimentation, circa 1588.

The setting of Prague, Pierce’s destination, is a central setting of the Aegypt Cycle, given its historical relevance. Once long ago, two diplomatic officials were thrown out of a window in that city, an event that led to the Thirty Years’ War, which tore apart Europe and the metaphysical certainties that bound it. Catholic fought Protestant for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Like Y-Tag, this is another juncture in history, and it forever changes the face of religion, diminishing its epistemological importance while the scientific method becomes, gradually, the new paradigm for truth.

All this is preceded by an ideal royal wedding that for all its purity, becomes the reason for strife. Traveling players perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest to celebrate the union. At the play’s end the sorcerer Prospero vows to drown his books and end his magical career, just as magic has come to an end in the wider world.

Prague, now part of the Czech Republic, is behind the Iron Curtain when Pierce goes on his quest. The author’s bio at the back of the book shows John Crowley’s own passport that he used on a research trip to Prague earlier in his life (photo undated), suggesting a certain level of identification between the author and Pierce. Combined with the author’s metafictional reflections through the character of Kraft himself, this autobiographical suggestion makes Endless Things into a novel about writing novels–and about narratives, especially endings.

The story of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom is one example of a tale that doesn’t end when history suggests it did. The heretic philosopher, who was the first to suggest that the universe was infinite and the earth not at its centre, was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori for his crimes of belief–but at the last moment, his soul transferred, by metempsychosis, into the body of an Ass, a sacred donkey. This Ass, living as the metamorphosed Lucius does in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, that is, as a human in a donkey’s body, in turn transforms into the mysterious originator of the Rosicrucians, Philip à Gabala, who claimed to possess the deepest secrets of the universe’s meaning, but who never revealed them.

There are many surprises in Endless Things, the story of which substantially departs, in its first half, from the familiar settings and characters that direct the first three books. My biggest shock was that in one scene, Pierce appears to hold conversation with Dame Frances Yates, whose study, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, is one of the central research texts that Crowley consulted when writing Aegypt. Crowley’s identification with Pierce, which is implicit throughout the cycle, was made here nearly explicit, though never untactful. If there was any doubt the Aegypt Cycles’s earlier books are postmodern metafictions, Endless Things puts those doubts to rest.

The final chapters of Endless Things move towards an ending with graceful meditation–and it is an ending in a changed world, yet a world that we can all recognize. We see the advent of computers and the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the it leaves off some time in the 1990s–connecting events that happened as far back as the sixteenth century to the years of my own childhood. Prague once again becomes the locus of a revolution–the Velvet Revolution–that quietly forges a new world. With the fall of Communism comes the beginning of an increasingly globalized and history-less Western society. And in the midst of this, Pierce, with his rocky romance with Rosie in his past, has, upon his return from Europe, one last chance to find true love.

Endless Things ends my first reading of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, but it will not likely end my involvement with it. I plan to include some kind of discussion of Crowley’s work in my MA thesis, if I can, and I could think of no worthier object of study.

Brian Attebery in his 1996 essay “Tolkien, Crowley, and Postmodernism” argues that Crowley’s previous novel Little, Big makes the “fantasy tradition descending from George MacDonald, William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis … formally indistinguishable from postmodernist uses of the fantastic” (21). I would gladly extend Attebery’s observation to the entire Aegypt Cycle, although I note that Little, Big has much more to do with the tradition of Tolkien and MacDonald than Aegypt does. Gnostic allegory and Renaissance philosophy are closer to the real tradition behind Endless Things.

Bringing New Left theorist Fredric Jameson into the conversation, I would like to quote the introduction to his study Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in which he says that the postmodern “looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instance after which it is no longer the same” (ix). If fantasy is a genre in which new worlds are built, then the Aegypt Cycle looks, rather, for events, these breaks that alter history.

These are the Y-junctures that result in changes we cannot go back on, the decisive moments in a society that alter even our ontological perceptions. The change from medieval animism and superstition into Enlightened science comes as a result of just such a break. Crowley accomplishes a dramatization of exactly how the former metamorphoses into the latter, how the world became what it is today and why it is no longer what it once was, explicitly addressing that age-old question, “Why is the world the way it is and not some other way?”

 

Demon Hunter Severian: Lady of the Night Gates by Giovanni Anastasi

grafica Demon hunter flat

Milan during the time of Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD was the new centre of the Roman Empire, a cosmopolitan city home to Christian and pagan alike–the perfect setting for demon hunt.

A young girl and an elderly priest are found dead in their beds under similar circumstances, after a night of restless nightmares. Meanwhile, pagans are brought outside the city walls to be burned at the stake, since the new laws proclaimed by Theodosius make worship of the old gods a crime punishable by death. Milan is undergoing a violent transition from the classical world into the Christian Middle Ages. Embodying that transition in many ways is the hero of this novel by Italian author Giovanni Anastasi.

Aurelius Severian is an ex-Roman soldier turned priest who has now given up both professions to hunt the invisible, incorporeal agents of the devil. His calm, silent demeanor and larger-than-life capability make him a force to contend with. Like his namesake Marcus Aurelius, he is a stoic, perhaps as way to cope with his tortured past. We perceive Severian mostly through the lens of his servant Flavian, a pagan slave boy he saves from the stake. As Christian and pagan, they distrust each other at first, but circumstances force them to adopt a necessary partnership.

Severian and Flavian must race against time to examine the corpse of the slain girl and find out who killed her and why. Meanwhile, a mysterious sorcerer works black magic while watching their every move, calling on the name of the Lady of the Night Gates, the demon whose statue Severian discovers under the girl’s bed.

I was pleasantly surprised by Demon Hunter Severian. It’s a horror mystery/historical fantasy romp through late classical Milan. There were a few typos and some similes and descriptions that didn’t quite work for me, however. The novel at times follows a standard formula for historical action thrillers–I won’t point out what that formula is exactly, but some scenes follow the script gesture by gesture. Which isn’t to say the story didn’t work. It was a fun ride and left me satisfied at the end.

Demon Hunter Severian has the potential of developing into a series revolving around its central character, and if it does, it would be interesting to see whether the secondary characters introduced in this first novel develop any further. The novel’s setting is unconventional, capturing a curious moment in Italian history where pagan and Christian could still live side by side, even though the pagans were starting to be hunted down for their religious differences. It’s a situation of religious intolerance mixed with politics that speaks a lot to the world of today, especially in the Middle East. What I liked about Anastasi’s treatment of good and evil is that neither side is given moral superiority–there are Christians who act good and bad just as there are pagans who act good and bad. These shades of grey enable the novel to pay respect to the hybridity of Milanese culture at the time.

I think Acheron’s mission to publish Italian fantasy and speculative fiction for the English-speaking public is a fine one. Italy has so much history, so many ancient ruins, and so many old, forgotten cities buried underneath the modern ones that the fantastic literature emerging from such its landscape is guaranteed to be rich.

Adriano Barone, the head editor, told me by email, “With Acheron we want to fill a gap we think exists in the fantasy world, that is, Italian settings and Italian folklore. Italy is renowned for its history and art … we think this fascination can extend to speculative fiction too.”

At the Northeast MLA Conference last weekend in Toronto, which I attended, there was a panel in Italian on fantastic literature. This leaves me with the impression that Italian fantastic literature is making inroads at a time when it stands to build bridges between cultures and languages.

Acheron Books is an online ebook publisher of Italian fantasy and speculative fiction authors in English–“Your ferry to the Other Worlds” is their slogan. Giovanni Anastasi is the pen name of Luca Tarenzi, author of two previous novels When the Devil Strokes You and Godbreaker. He won the Premio Italia Fantasy and SF Literature Prize in 2012. The text has been translated from the original Italian by Nigel J. Ross.

Read an excerpt here.

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Giovanni Anastasi (aka Luca Tarenzi) author of Demon Hunter Severian
Giovanni Anastasi (aka Luca Tarenzi) author of Demon Hunter Severian