Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Evil in Pemberley House (Philip Jose Farmer & Win Scott Eckert, Meteor House, 2014)

I swear this isn't a Philip Jose Farmer fan-blog, and I will cover more material not written by Farmer.  However, I am reading a lot of Farmer lately, so I'm covering a lot of Farmer here.  I should also note that I received my copy of this book gratis from the publishers for the purpose of review; this will not bias me unduly in favor of the book.  It will be praised or damned solely on its own merits, because I do not play the payola game.

Set in the early 1970s, the novel follows Patricia Wildman, daughter of James Clarke Wildman (aka Doc Savage), as she discovers that she may stand to inherit Pemberley Hall, an ancestral manor in England.  The news comes at an opportune time; having just lost both her parents and her husband in a matter of months - Patricia's been having a rough time of it.  Add to that her unresolved Electra complex towards her father, and you can image the mess her mental and emotional state were in.  A vacation in England may be just the thing to clear her head.

Unfortunately, things seem even crazier in England - she quickly learns that everyone in and around Pemberley House is completely sex-mad, and only the current Duchess, at age 103, isn't trying to get into her skirt.  Within hours of arrival in England, she's not only leered at by her cousin Richard (who proceeds to receive fellatio from a local barmaid while driving Patricia to Pemberley) but sexually assaulted by an aggressive lesbian poacher who runs their car off the road.  Nobody seems willing to take "no" for an answer from her as she's groped, prodded, drugged, molested...despite all this, Patricia is determined to get to the bottom of whatever mysteries Pemberley holds - is it haunted? Is the Duchess trying to drive her away from the House? If so, why? And why can't anybody keep their hands out of her knickers for five minutes?

I was not prepared for the quantity of sex in this book.  I knew in advance that it would be playing with the tropes of Gothic fiction (Pemberley House, after all, being the setting of Pride and Prejudice), but I didn't realize quite what updating those tropes to the 1970s would entail.  It took me more than a little by surprise, I can tell you!

Which is not to say that it's a book meant to be read one-handed.  The sex scenes aren't written to be salacious or titillating; given the conceits of the Wold Newton universe, it's intended to be a frank and "historical" chronicle of events as they happened to Ms. Wildman.  And while the sex may seem to dominate my synopsis above (and what can I say, I am an individual of prurient interests), and is a dominating theme in the novel, it's not the exclusive source of action, metaphorical or otherwise.

Pat Wildman finds herself in some of the most vicious life-or-death fights I've ever seen committed to the printed page, swinging through trees like her cousin the Lord Greystoke, and using every skill she's ever learned from her father, from Kent Allard, from Holmes' daughter and other tutors to save her skin and get to the bottom of the Pemberley matter.

This being a Gothic novel, despite its 1970s setting, we're treated to updated versions of some of the classic tropes of that genre - a manorial home that is somehow both expansive and claustrophobic, a cast in which everyone has at least one dark secret, buried treasure, the sins of the fathers being visited upon the tenth generation, and even, in what I can only assume was a tip of the hat on Farmer's part to Matthew Lewis' The Monk, a nymphomaniac ghost!

The mystery twists and turns in ways that are imminently satisfying and follow organically from preceding events; nothing feels overly contrived, except possibly the sheer number of Wold Newton descendants who appear; Dr. Moran being the grandson of the infamous Colonel Sebastian Moran, henchman of Holmes' nemesis Moriarty, is a prime example.

Farmer began this novel many years ago, and with his blessing and detailed outlines, Win Scott Eckert completed the novel to Farmer's satisfaction.  Truth be told, I couldn't tell you where Farmer's text ends and Eckert's begins; the transition is seamless.

Also worth mentioning, I'd like to note that The Evil in Pemberley House made Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer's follow-up to Tarzan Alive, "click" for me.  I read Doc Savage a few weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of reading Tarzan Alive, and didn't "get" it because I was expecting it to be of a piece with its predecessor, and it wasn't.  I didn't write a review of it at the time because I recognize that I was missing something, and at the time I thought I'd just not read enough Doc Savage for me to get it.  But in the wake of The Evil in Pemberley House, I realize that what I wasn't getting was that Farmer wasn't just playing Creative Mythographer, but tearing down the mythology of Doc Savage to look at what such a man would really be like and what effect he would have on those around him.  I'll probably give that one another read in the not-too-distant future and review it, now that I understand what it's offering me.

A wild neo-Gothic set in the swinging 1970s, overflowing with sex and psychosexual drama, replete with savage violence, buried treasure, familial secrets and callbacks to classic pulp literature, The Evil of Pemberley House is one not to be missed.  A sequel, The Scarlet Jaguar, is coming soon, and I'm eager to sink my teeth into that one as well.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Carnacki: The New Adventures (Ed. by Sam Gafford, Ulthar Press 2014)

I'm still baffled at the fact that there hasn't been a Carnacki the Ghost-Finder movie yet.  I mean, hell, I'm stunned at how little attention William Hope Hodgson gets from horror fans these days - "The House on the Borderlands" is a masterpiece, while "The Night Land" holds the honor of being the second "dying earth" story, preceded only by a few paragraphs from H.G. Wells.  His short story "A Voice in the Night" was adapted in Japan in the 1960s as the eerie MATANGO, but other than that he's largely been ignored by film and television.  Carnacki would seem to be his most approachable character, and given that he's essentially a Steampunk Ghostbuster, you'd think someone would have to capitalize on that - the words "Steampunk Ghostbuster" are like a license to print money, right?

This collection, originally assembled by Sam Gafford in 2013, returns the reader to Carnacki's Cheyne Walk abode with new stories by a variety of authors, detailing new adventures (as the title suggests) in which Carnacki pits his wits, the Sigsand Manuscript and his trusty Electric Pentacles against new nightmares from the Outer Dark.  A couple highlights:

  • "Carnacki: Captain Gault's Nemesis" by William Meikle opens the collection on a very strong note, introducing Carnacki to one of Hodgson's other characters, the morally ambiguous Captain Gault, who has picked up an illicit piece of Babylonian archaeological plunder with intent to sell it to the British Museum.  Unfortunately, the piece in question has other ideas...The story very nicely ties Carnacki together with Hodgson's maritime fiction, and showcases wonderfully the sort of cosmic horror that Hodgson was creating in the years before Lovecraft's career took off.  
  • "Carnacki and the President's Vampire," by Robert Pohle - I'm a sucker for fictionalized Theodore Roosevelt (I've got a short piece I've written in which an encounter between the Bull Moose and a young sasquatch is the "truth" behind the creation of the Teddy Bear) and this story has Carnacki needing to intervene to protect Roosevelt from a bloodthirsty horror on his wedding day.  H.G. Wells also appears in this story, and what he observes in assisting Carnacki proves influential towards his own career in fiction.  
  • "The Haunting of Tranquil House," by Jim Beard (whose work we've read before in Airship Hunters) - Carnacki comes closer to death's door than ever before in this story, and Beard places more focus on the human side of Carnacki's investigations - after all, if a ghost is the restless remains of a human soul...who was that soul in life? Who grieves for them in their wake? The story has a lot of power.  
The collection concludes with the script of a Carnacki stage-play, a format I'm not familiar enough with to comfortably pass judgment on, but it's exciting to see Carnacki appear in another medium.  

My one disappointment with the collection is that none of the stories included are "red herrings" - in Hodgson's original work, there are a couple Carnacki stories where his investigations prove that hauntings are the work of pranksters or thieves looking to scare people away (and thus providing the template for 40-odd years of Scooby Doo), and I was hoping to get a story here along the same lines, because they're a nice palate cleanser and a break like that makes the horrors of the Outer Dark that much more frightening when they next appear.  Unfortunately all the stories here involve the supernatural making an appearance, so maybe if I want Edwardian-era Scooby Doo investigations, I need to write my own Carnacki story.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Flight to Opar (Philip Jose Farmer, Meteor House Restored Edition, 2015)

I gave up on A Voyage to Arcturus.  Tormance fails utterly to hold me as a planetary romance, and even moreso as a philosophical treatise.  As a palate cleanser, I picked up the next book in Farmer's Khokarsa series, and I can't tell you how relieved I am to have done so.  With the next book in the series, The Song of Kwasin, hitting this month, I'm delighted to continue on with the adventures of Hadon, Lalila and the rest of the cast.

Picking up immediately where Hadon of Ancient Opar left off, Flight to Opar opens with Hadon single-handedly holding a mountain pass against a small detachment of the mad King Minruth's guardsmen, buying time for Lalila, Paga, Hinoklys and Queen Awineth to escape.  Regrouping in a Temple of Kho, Hadon learns that Lalila is pregnant with his child.  He also learns that it is prophesied that if her child is born in the Temple of Kho in the city of Opar, then she will have a great and glorious destiny ahead of her.  While Awineth tries to twist the prophecy to separate Hadon (who by rights should be her husband) from Lalila, a friendly priestess lets Hadon know the real deal, and he sets out with her and a few handpicked companions to return to the city of his birth.

Their voyage there is beset by plague, pirates, religious fanatics of several flavors and of course the ticking clock of Lalila's pregnancy - but that's a cakewalk compared to the powder keg Hadon walks into upon entering Opar...

I cannot get enough of Khokarsa.  It is, simply put, the single most deeply thought out and elegantly delivered "fantasy" setting I've ever encountered.  Compared to the Hyborian Age (real world history with not even the whole serial number filed off), Middle Earth (English county squire fantasy, joy), Westeros (England the size of a continent, yay), even fantasy gaming worlds like Greyhawk or Tekumel don't deliver as much so concisely as Farmer does with Khokarsa.  With just a few words here and there, Farmer paints an incredibly vivid picture of a wholly unique culture existing in Ice Age central Africa, with attention paid to such matters as religion, clan affiliation, architecture, even fashion and food and drink (hibiscus coffee, anyone?).

The result is impressionistic; from hundreds of tiny word-brushstrokes, a grander picture emerges that absolutely knocks my socks off.  Khokarsa is rich in a way that nobody else's fantasy worlds are.

As far as the story itself goes, Flight to Opar feels like the Empire Strikes Back of the Khokarsa series; in one sense, it's a bridge-piece, linking the first and third acts without having too much in the way of huge battle sequences or world-changing events to call its own.  But that's fine - because like Empire, it's more of a character study, focused on showing the readers the growth of the characters, especially Hadon.  We've watched him here grow from a youthful athlete who won and lost a kingdom in a single day to a confident leader of men, putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few or the one (my favorite kind of hero, incidentally), and now watching him grow into the responsibility of fatherhood - not only of his own daughter, but his fostering of Abeth, Lalila's daughter by a previous lover and taking her in and caring for her as his own.

Continuing the Star Wars analogy, as a kid I was all about Return of the Jedi, with its crazy alien criminals, speeder bikes and bloodthirsty Ewoks; it took me a long time to appreciate what Empire Strikes Back has to offer.  I'm glad it didn't take me as long to recognize what Flight to Opar brings to the table.

Meteor House has done an amazing job with their reissue of Flight to Opar, restoring over 4,000 words of Farmer's original text excised by the editors at Daw, with a beautiful new cover illustration by one of my favorite painters, Bob Eggleton (along with a snazzy frontispiece depicting Hadon, tenu-sword drawn) and scans of Farmer's original manuscript included in the back.  The book is a joy to behold and heavy with the care that went into bringing it to the world.  If you buy an old DAW copy instead of this version, you're doing yourself a huge disservice.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

I still live!

I'm sorry for the lack of posting here as of late; I've just not been able to devote as much time to reading as I would like lately, and as such I've been very slowly slogging through David Lindsay's "A Voyage to Arcturus" with no real end in sight.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Quest of Frankenstein (Frank Schildiner, Black Coat Press 2015)

One of my big failings is that, for however well I use the English language, other languages are beyond me.  No matter how hard I work at it, I can never learn more than just a few words or phrases in languages other than the one I was raised speaking.  My sister got the good language genes - she picks up languages like they're nothing.  But for me, it's a futile struggle.  I mention this, because one of the great finds in adventure literature that I've come across but cannot access myself because of the language barrier, is Jean-Claude Carrière's Frankenstein.  This is not like Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," but rather a series of novels, written in French, detailing further adventures of the Frankenstein Monster - who in this version, is truly monstrous, a razor-toothed devil intent on exterminating the entirety of the human race.  To the best of my knowledge, these novels have never been translated into English.  I know Carrière's Frankenstein solely through his influence on others.  Frank Schildiner's new novel, The Quest of Frankenstein, is a perfect example of my vicarious consumption of this fascinating take on the patchwork creature.

In 1914, the Frankenstein Monster, who has taken the name Gouroull, is having a marvelous vacation in France, gleefully slaughtering soldiers on both sides of No Man's Land - snapping necks between his fingers, tearing off heads, ripping out throats with his teeth.  The sickly-sweet smell of, not death, but undeath leads him to a hospital far behind the lines, where an energetic, mousy young doctor is eagerly testing a serum of his devising...yes, Gouroull meets Herbert West, who's ecstatic to be meeting the monster; he'd studied Victor Frankenstein's work while devising his own attempts at reanimation, and when Gouroull demands that West make him a mate, the Re-Animator is eager to comply.  He has a copy of Frankenstein's notes, and from it provides Gouroull with a list of alchemical items needed to effect a successful creation.

From here, we follow Gouroull on not one, but technically two quests: First, he wanders Europe collecting the materials West needs, an expedition that puts him in conflict with a number of monsters drawn from a spectrum of horror pop-culture; a colony of Deep Ones gets invaded, a vampire conclave (attended by Barnabas and Quentin Collins, the Master from Buffy, and Hong Kong's Mr. Vampire, among others), etc.  Secondly, he needs the skeleton of a powerfully-evil woman as a frame to build his bride on, and this introduces him to some of the most deliciously evil women in fiction, from Princess Tera (from one of my favorite Hammer productions, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, where she is portrayed by goddess Valerie Leon) to Nakari, the she-fiend brought low by Solomon Kane in Robert E. Howard's "The Moon of Skulls."

The Quest of Frankenstein is a fun monster rally of the classic sort, and a light and quick read.  When both Rondo Hatton's iconic Creeper and the Blind Dead showed up, I knew Frank Schildiner was a kindred spirit (or had somehow snuck a peek at my DVD collection), and there are few I'd more readily trust with creating such a monster rally.

Gouroull is a more truly hateful and evil version of the Monster than we're usually treated to, with sympathetic versions having become the norm as of late.  Gouroull seeks nothing less than the complete extinction of life on Earth - to be the last conscious creature on the burned-out cinder of the planet.  To this end he seeks to breed an army of creatures like himself, and he will not tolerate other occult entities' attempts to include him in their own schemes, be they warlocks, vampires or worse still.

Schildiner is also not afraid to roam much further afield than the ordinary monster rally; one of the highest of a series of high points in the novel for me led Gouroull to an encounter with the last sad relic of the Norse Gods.  That's not an encounter I ever would have dreamed of, but Frank Schildiner not only dreamed it, he put it in print and gave it to the world.

He also gives us a Dracula who isn't afraid to revel in his power, isn't some maudlin prince seeking a lost love but a veritable Prince of Darkness to cower before, and that's no small thing.  As the author notes, Dracula is truly a protean figure, with as many meanings and interpretations as there are interpreters, and the one that appears here is one of my favorites.  A damn sight better than the naked, entrail-draped savage that appeared at the climax of Anno Dracula.

Order The Quest of Frankenstein direct from the publisher here.