Tuesday, January 4, 2011

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

DARKNESS WEAVES by Karl Edward Wagner

There are many impressive aspects to the Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, among them the tendency for the character to grow over time. He begins with youthful idealism and has become a worldly cynic in the stories focused later in his life. Through it all, though, he maintains a zest for life and a desire to meet and surpass all challenges.

There is no such development for Kane, the lead character of Darkness Weaves and Wagner's most famous series character. Kane appears in this and other novels, in novellas, in short stories, and through it all he is intelligent, devious, jaded and cold. Unlike Conan, who distrusted magic, Kane is a sorcerer as well as a swordsman. And he is the focus of many rumors, the most common of which is that he is immortal.

The stories bear out that rumor; they are set in a variety of time periods across a primal landscape and sometimes even in our own present day. From my interpretation, it appears that he survives prehistoric periods through our modern day, into a post-nuclear future and then beyond. It is likely from the hints granted to the reader that he is in fact the biblical Cain, cursed to live forever and to perpetually see his long-term schemes fail and his desires fail; that is never directly stated, however.

Like Parker in Donald E. Westlake's "Richard Stark" novels, Kane is an ideal antihero. He reflects many of the perceived ideals - self sufficiency, strength, a measure of loyalty toward those he respects and are loyal to him - while casually embracing his self-interest at the expense of others. This was Karl Edward Wagner's signature character, and this is arguably his best novel appearance, originally released in a savaged form by Powell in 1970 and re-released under the author's original text by Warner in 1978.

This book follows Kane through a war between a mutilated Witch-Queen and the brutish King who nearly killed her. Both are highly flawed, unpleasant people and it slowly becomes apparent that Kane is playing his own game against both of them. This isn't particularly surprising, but the way the story progresses manages to provide the many action sequences expected in an heroic fantasy tale as well as the tension and shock present in the best horror tales of the pulps.

As with any series where there is one primary character who is certain to survive more-or-less intact, the dark side of this book leans far more to the thriller than the traditional horror tale. That said, it is well-crafted and engaging with the careful construction which was to become a standard of KEW's fiction. It holds up nicely over time along with Moorcock's Elric and C.L. Moore's Jirel as standouts in the heroic fantasy field.

Five stars out of five


We all know that Robert Bloch was a deft hand with humor and horror, whose prose style was one which seemed deceptively easy. This book seems to prove that theory. While a smooth, simple prose style is normally quite difficult to maintain, Bloch's essays here generally reflect a similar tone. The primary difference is a tendency to incorporate far more humor than he did in most of his other nonfiction.

This is undoubtedly because this book consists of essays Bloch wrote for fanzines, from a time period between 1949 and 1958. During this time he was incredibly prolific both for his professional work and his work for fanzines, and he addresses the difference in the book. He also addresses many other topics of the day in the sf community, which at the time encompassed science fiction, fantasy and horror. There are discussion of early convention experiences, analyses of fan activity and appreciations of BNFs. BNF being a shortened form of Big Name Fan, which is something many contemporary readers of horror might not know. Bloch also proposes a method of delineating people who are merely famous within the fan community from people who have earned BNF status.

And that's part of the value of this book. Sure, it's full of humorous essays. But it's also a glimpse of the history of the field, and simultaneously it's full of thoughtful consideration about what it means to be a fan of science fiction, fantasy, or horror.

Five stars out of five.

THE DAY HE DIED by Lewis Padgett

In The Eighth Stage of Fandom, Bloch describes the progression of fandom in the opening essay. The Second Stage, he says, is characterized by the fan starting to "write letters to the pro magazines commenting on the stories and urging that the editors throw out everything except Kuttner yarns." The Third Stage, however, finds the fan "sending personal letters c/o the editor to his favorite authors (outside of Kuttner, most fans seem to like Lewis Padgett, Keith Hammond, Lawrence O'Donnell, Will Garth, Hudson Hastings, Paul Edmonds and such people.)" The joke is that all of those authors were merely pseudonyms of the highly productive Henry Kuttner, often in collaboration with his equally talented wife C.L. Moore.

The Day He Died is the second mystery that Kuttner produced, undoubtedly with some help and insight from Catherine. The plot concerns a female author who is trying to deal with a variety of problems. The most obvious concerns are an aggressive ex-husband who wants to reunite with her on his own potentially violent terms; the group of con-game mystics who are seeking her husband and operating under the assumption she's on good terms with him; a freeloading ghostwriter who is living at her uncle's home and depriving her of sorely needed rental income and a suitor who seems to be a little off-kilter since returning from World War II.

The big concern, however, is something less readily apparent to outsiders; she thinks she's losing her mind. Her memory is going, as best as she can tell. Things are rearranged when she wakes up in the morning, and sometimes lights are on or taps left running when she returns to her home. As a mystery writer, she has verified that nobody is entering when she is away or asleep; there are little hairs left in key locations, flour on the floor to catch footprints, and other devices, none of which have been tripped. Also, she has a new set of locks with only one key, and there are no alternate ways into the apartment.

This concern is magnified by the fact that pages have been finding their way into her stories which she doesn't recall writing; pages that plagiarize famous works by other authors. She didn't realize the first time it happened, but since then she's found a number of other pages in stories about to go out, and it's completely undermined her confidence.

Of course, as anyone who reads mysteries knows, she isn't doing this herself; it's a classic locked room mystery, albeit this time without a body. That fact is even referenced within the book, which is a nicely recursive touch for a book written in 1947. The story doesn't rely solely on the locked room aspect, though; the other elements combine for a crime thriller and eventually a murder mystery. Through it all Kuttner - sorry, Padgett - manages to convincingly present a view of a woman at the end of her rope and trying to regain control rather than succumb to the traditional feminine helplessness shown in many protagonists of the era.

The good news is that it's a great story. The bad news is that it's hard to find, even in paperback, and I haven't found any indication of it being reprinted. The other good news is that when you DO find it in paperback, it's not particularly expensive. Kuttner and Moore are seeing a tiny bit of a revival, no doubt in part fueled by the wonderful collection recently produced by Centipede Press, but most of their work remains under the radar for now and inappropriately cheap in paperback editions.

Five stars out of five.

--Bill Lindblad