Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Dark World (Henry Kuttner, Ace Books 1946/Paizo 2008)

I think it's very likely this will be my last post here at Paperback Perils for the year, so first and foremost, I'd like to wish my readers the happiest of holiday seasons and present my best wishes for the year to come.  2015 has been a very big year for me as a pulp reader, with Pulpfest and the amazingly knowledgeable, passionate, and friendly people I met there being the jewel in the crown as it were.  Gina and I will be returning to Pulpfest in 2016 with larger budgets and possibly a slightly longer stay as well.  Why, you ask, is this likely to be my last post for the year? Well, I've been shanghai'd into spending my lunch breaks at work with a group of my coworkers, so that knocks a half-hour off my reading time per day, meaning I'm reading less, and also I've got a few other creative endeavors clamoring for my attention: first, I'm participating in the Analogue Hobbies Annual Painting Challenge over at my other blog, which means I'll be trying to paint as many toy soldiers between December 20th and March 20th as I can.  Second, and I don't know how much I can say so I'll be vague here, I was asked to provide a short story for an upcoming anthology, with my due date for that being March 16th.  So painting and writing fiction are going to eat into my blogging time for the next couple months, though I will still be reading and reviewing as I can.

All that being said, let's get on with what I've been reading.  This is Henry Kuttner's The Dark World, as reprinted in 2008 by Paizo Publishing as part of their Planet Stories line of reprints.  I have been overwhelmingly impressed with every one of these that I've picked up, and it's a shame they proved relatively unprofitable for Paizo, resulting in the line's cancellation.  For roleplayers (Paizo being primarily known as the publishers of the Pathfinder RPG), the line was a great way to collect a lot of the classic pulp literature that had inspired the creation of Dungeons & Dragons back in the day.

The Dark World is the story of Edward Bond, a man trapped in a double-life; he's been tossed back and forth between the mundane Earth-reality and the nearby parallel dimension known as the Dark World, a quasi-medieval world ruled by superstition and fear, wielded by an organization known as the Coven.  Bond's body and memory have been shuffled with that of his Dark World duplicate, the arrogant warlock Ganelon, a high-ranking Covenanter.  Confused and suffering an identity crisis, Bond/Ganelon is torn between his loyalty to the Coven and its dark god, Llyr, and the freedom-seeking Green Men of the forest led by the white witch Freydis.  When his fellows in the Coven decide it's better to sacrifice him to Llyr than risk his loyalties shifting, they discover what a powerful enemy they've created...

I've not read much Kuttner prior to this, only a few Mythos stories he penned, so this was a very new experience for me.  The novel's relatively short and moves at a very brisk pace, the action covering only a few days' time in the Dark World, while the language is kept pretty spare - not Hemingway, for sure, but Kuttner does not seem to have had time for purple prose.

Genre-wise, the story falls squarely into one of my favorite subgenres - that of science fantasy, blurring distinctions between mythology of science fiction.  The Convenanters are candid in explaining to Bond/Ganelon that Earth and the Dark World are but two of many worlds, fissioned off one at a time as decisions were made and actions taken in one world or another.  The Dark World split off from Earth with the birth of Llyr, a mutant abomination that should not have occurred on Earth for another few hundred million years.  Establishing itself as a god in the Dark World, the weird energies radiating off of Llyr generating mutations in that world's human population that gave rise to human-offshoots virtually indistinguishable from the mythological vampires, werewolves and gorgons of Earth.

Even more interesting, late in the novel we get the revelation that Edward Bond was not the first Earth-man to transition to the Dark World; that centuries earlier it was done by a founding member of the Coven, who is strongly implied (though never explicitly stated) to have been the historical Merlin.

The Dark World is a good, light, quick read (in the introduction to the Planet Stories edition, Piers Anthony describes the events of the book as moving at a "sometimes bewildering pace") that blends sword-and-sorcery with science fiction and even a dash of Lovecraftian cosmic horror in a way that I don't feel like I see enough of these days.  The characters are largely archetypal, rarely given any real sense of characterization - heck, the evil witch/vampiress is even named Medea here - and much of the plot is probably easily predictable to anyone who's read a few fantasy novels of science fiction stories of this era.  It's far from the best or most original piece of fiction I've read this year, but it was fun to read it nonetheless.

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