Archive for the 'Weird fiction' category

My favorite weird fiction of the past 3 years

Aug 29 2010 Published by under [Etc], Horror, Weird fiction

Happy (belated) blogiversary to me!  August 14th was the 3rd year anniversary of this blog, a milestone that I missed yet again in the hubbub of daily life.  Nevertheless, an anniversary is a good time for reflection, and one thing I wanted to look back upon is all of the fiction that I've read over the past 3 years.

I started "Skulls in the Stars" with a dual goal of increasing my reading and enthusiasm for both science and weird fiction.  These goals have been met and then some, but I've been particularly delighted by the amount of truly classic yet obscure weird fiction that I've come across that I wouldn't have otherwise.

With that in mind, I thought it would be nice to go back and share my favorite reads over the past 3 years, with a brief explanation of why I think they're great!  Most of these books are currently in print, thanks to the valiant efforts of a number of dedicated publishers.  These are not only some of the best books that I've read over the past 3 years, but now some of my favorite novels of all time.

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Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil?

Aug 07 2010 Published by under Weird fiction

For those who are new to Skulls in the Stars, my other major topic -- other than science -- is "weird fiction", often but not exclusively of the late 1800s/early 1900s.  "Weird fiction" is a term that broadly describes any sort of tale that includes some aspect of the unreal: horror, science fiction, fantasy, and things that are genuinely unclassifiable.

I like to argue that there are threads that tie weird fiction and science blogging together -- weird fiction has historically drawn upon the science of its time to fuel its ideas and give them a plausible feel.  Weird visionary H.P. Lovecraft used the then modern theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to craft a new type of cosmic horror, and was knowledegable enough about science to write an astronomy column for his local paper.  Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), a science fiction utopian novel, introduces robots, ray guns, the equivalent of jetpacks -- and justifies it using direct quotations of Michael Faraday!

However, I also review weird fiction on the blog because I adore the genre and blogging gives me a motivation and an excuse to delve into rare, neglected and forgotten works that are truly wonderful.

One of those truly wonderful books is the collection of stories about "John the Balladeer", titled Who Fears the Devil? (1963), by Manly Wade Wellman.  I've been aware of this collection for some time, but waited to read it until the release of Paizo Press' new edition in February of this year:

This isn't my first encounter with Wellman's work, however; I previously reviewed Wellman's sublimely silly and naive novella Giants From Eternity, which featured history's greatest scientists resurrected to do battle with an alien invader! This isn't even my first encounter with "John the Balladeer": I also blogged about Wellman's series of five novels featuring the character; you can read the description of those books here.

What can I say about John the Balladeer, also known as "Silver John"?  He is an Appalachian mountain man and wanderer who travels the wilds of the South meeting folks, learning new songs, and performing to pay his way.  The wilderness of Wellman's imagination is a dangerous land populated with the fearsome creatures of Southern folklore, and Who Fears the Devil? is a collection of tales in which John faces off against supernatural evil using only his wits, his brawn, his goodness, and his silver-stringed guitar!

These are some of the most beautiful and I dare say inspiring stories I've ever read.  There has never been another character quite like Silver John, and I venture to say there will never be again.  Let's take a closer look at Wellman and the stories of 'Devil...

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Marie Corelli's Vendetta

Jul 14 2010 Published by under Mystery/thriller

Marie Corelli (1855-1924) is another of those curious set of authors whose work was stunningly successful during their lifetime but is virtually unknown today. This neglect is often independent of the quality of the writing: Richard Marsh, another Victorian/Edwardian era thriller author, has yet to disappoint me with one of his stories.

Fortunately, Corelli is gradually being reintroduced to the public with a number of excellent quality editions.  Last year, I discussed Marie Corelli's supernatural revenge novel Ziska (1897), which had recently been reprinted by Valancourt Books.  More recently, Zittaw Press released an edition of Corelli's second novel, the macabre Vendetta (1886):

Vendetta is, like the later Ziska, a tale of vengeance.  Though I occasionally felt like the novel got a little too wordy (at least to my 21st century ADD brain), the story is dark, atmospheric, and compelling.  I ended up staying up way past my bedtime to reach the conclusion, which is pretty high praise on my part!

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A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar

(I've been working on a particularly difficult science post for a week now, and the end is still a ways off.  In the meantime, I thought I'd catch up a little on my weird fiction posts.)

Author A. Merritt (1884-1943) was, in a sense, the exception that proves the rule in fiction writing.  Though he was first and foremost a successful journalist and newspaper editor and only wrote weird fiction as a sideline, he was one of the most successful authors such stories of his day.  On this blog, I've discussed a number of his works, including his first serialized novel The Moon Pool (1919), the sublimely alien The Metal Monster (1920), Dwellers in the Mirage (1932) and The Face in the Abyss (1923).

Unfortunately, Merritt has been largely neglected in recent years, with the exception of his fantasy adventure novel The Ship of Ishtar (1924), which seems to be considered a classic of the genre.  I put off reading it until the release of the Planet Stories version this past October:

Curiously, though I enjoyed TSOI, I also felt like it had the least to offer of all of Merritt's books that I've read so far.  There were also some rather unenlightened aspects of the story that I found rather unappealing and dated.

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Richard Marsh’s The Goddess: A Demon (Valancourt edition)

Jul 02 2010 Published by under Horror, Mystery/thriller

With the release of the Valancourt edition of Richard Marsh's The Goddess: A Demon, I thought I'd repost my earlier review of the book, with some modifications specific to this edition.

I've read a lot of the books of Richard Marsh (1857-1915) over the past few years, and have yet to be disappointed in his work.  Marsh's breakthrough work was The Beetle (1897), and he produced many other clever and atmospheric tales of weird fiction, including the bizarre horror tale The Joss (1901) and the silly social commentary The Magnetic Girl (1903).  Sadly, most of these books were forgotten and neglected early in the 20th century.

Valancourt Books has been doing a wonderful job reprinting Marsh's work, with the added bonus of scholarly introductions and often reproductions of the original covers.  Their most recent release is Marsh's The Goddess: A Demon (1900):

Let's take a look at it...

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Jeff VanderMeer's Finch

May 19 2010 Published by under Horror, Science fiction, Weird fiction

I've had the good fortune to read many good works of weird fiction since starting this blog -- in fact, one of the major motivations for starting the blog was to "force" myself to get back into reading strange and creepy stories such as those that had captured my imagination as a youth.  Every once in a while, though, I come across a work so wonderful and fascinating that it will permanently haunt the depths of my psyche.  Case in point: I was absolutely blown away by Jeff VanderMeer's recent novel, Finch (2009):

The novel defies easy characterization: it is part detective novel, part science fiction novel, part war novel, part fantasy novel -- and part horror novel.  Even with that mixing of genres, VanderMeer manages to tell a very serious, intricate, and mesmerizing tale.

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Robert E. Howard's El Borak

Apr 08 2010 Published by under Adventure fiction, Robert E. Howard

Finally, I've gotten to read some new Robert E. Howard!  Well, not new -- Robert E. Howard committed suicide in 1936 -- but new to me, anyway!

For those who are unfamiliar, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) was a Texas author who wrote fantasy, adventure, and horror fiction for pulp magazines such as Weird Tales.  He is best known for his creation Conan the Cimmerian, though he wrote a large body of memorable work and introduced many fascinating heroes.  For instance, the title of this blog, "Skulls in the Stars", is a title of a story of Howard's about his character Solomon Kane, a puritan adventurer and justice-seeker.

Most of Howard's other works have fallen into obscurity, overshadowed by the popularity of Conan, but in recent years compilations of some of them have been released.  I recently picked up a compilation of Howard's modern desert adventures, titled El Borak:

"El Borak" is the Arabic name of American adventurer Francis Xavier Gordon, and the bulk of the tales, though not all, focus on his adventures.  The tales are stories of action and intrigue set in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East, stretching all the way to Afghanistan.

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"The Wicker Tree?" (Updated)

This one was an immediate WTF moment for me: Robin Hardy, the writer/director of the original version of the film The Wicker Man (1973), is "reimagining" his film as The Wicker Tree, slated for release sometime this year:

For those who aren't familiar with the original film, it is undeniably a classic of the horror genre and in my opinion one of the greatest horror films of all time: subtle, atmospheric, darkly humorous, and genuinely horrifying*.

Details are sketchy as it stands; the official movie site is little more than an image right now.  IMDB has the following summary, which may or may not be accurate:

Young Christians Beth and Steve, a gospel singer and her cowboy boyfriend, leave Texas to preach door-to-door in Scotland . When, after initial abuse, they are welcomed with joy and elation to Tressock, the border fiefdom of Sir Lachlan Morrison, they assume their hosts simply want to hear more about Jesus. How innocent and wrong they are.

I'm definitely of mixed emotions about this news.  On the one hand, I'm horrified (and not in a good way); an abysmal remake of The Wicker Man was just recently released in 2006 and illustrates that there is no lower limit on the quality of such projects.  On the other hand, The Wicker Tree is by the original writer/director, and he has seen fit to bring back Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, one of the most inspiring castings of all time.

I suppose we'll just have to wait and see...


* Seriously -- this film has one of the most cringe-inducing moments of any horror movie I've ever seen, and shames a lot of the "extreme" modern horror films.


Update: As long as I'm talking about unusual movie projects, I see IMDB has a trailer up for the Solomon Kane movie, "based" on the character by Robert E. Howard.  I'm not sure what to think, as yet: it might end up being an enjoyable movie, but it doesn't look, or sound, much like Howard's Solomon.  The IMDB summary says a lot:

A mercenary who owes his soul to the devil redeems himself by fighting evil.
Howard's Solomon is a fanatical Puritan who fights the devil's works overly wherever he goes!  It is pretty much impossible to imagine that character having made a deal with the devil, as the summary and trailer implies.

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"Supernatural Buchan", by John Buchan

Feb 23 2010 Published by under Horror, Weird fiction

One of the truly fascinating things about writers of weird fiction is how many of them are remarkably accomplished in other aspects of their lives.  We have folks such as A. Merritt, who had a very successful career as a journalist and newspaper editor, R.W. Wood, who was a very distinguished scientist, Lord Dunsany, who was, well, a Lord, and M.R. James, who was a very distinguished medieval scholar.  And, of course, there's my pièce de résistance, Winston Churchill.

I can now add to my personal list John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (1875-1940).  Buchan was a politician and novelist, and his resumé includes an impressive collection of honorary academic degrees and military honors.  He was also the 15th Governor General of Canada, representing the monarchy in local Canadian affairs.

In writing, he was incredibly prolific, producing countless novels and works of non-fiction, many based on his time spent working for the colonial administrator of South Africa.  Of his fiction, the work  most likely to be known by most people is his novel The 39 Steps (1915), which was very, very loosely adapted into a great film of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935*.

Buchan also dabbled in horror stories, and many if not most of these have been collected in Supernatural Buchan, a collection by Leonaur Ltd, who have produced quite a few impressive limited editions of weird fiction:

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Richard Marsh's A Spoiler of Men

Jan 21 2010 Published by under Horror, Mystery/thriller

I have yet to be really disappointed by the works of Richard Marsh (1857-1915)!  Over the Christmas holiday, I spent some time reading A Spoiler of Men (1905) , which has recently been reprinted by the always great Valancourt Books, complete with a scholarly introduction and a facsimile of the original cover:

Marsh was a quite versatile writer: his books range from supernatural horror, to murder mystery, to comedy, to adventure, to the genuinely unclassifiable.  Marsh continues the trend in A Spoiler of Men, where the primary character is in fact an anti-hero, and the story is a bizarre thriller involving, among other things, chemical zombification!

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