Archive for the 'Adventure fiction' category

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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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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Johnston McCulley's The Bat Strikes Again and Again!

Aug 14 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction, Mystery/thriller

Name this scene:

Yet he was one man working alone against the crooks and the corrupt politicians who went hand in glove with the evil forces of the underworld.  For that reason he must become a figure of sinister import to all of these people.  A strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedom.


He was still thinking.  Just what the character would be that he intended to assume was still vague in his mind.  He only knew that it would have to be some nubilous creature of the night that lurked in the shadows.

He glanced at the oil lamp burning on a table.  Then he swung around, suddenly tense.  In the shadows above his head there came a slithering, flapping sort of sound.


He reached up, tore at it with fingers that had suddenly grown frantic.  He flung the thing aside.  As he did so he saw that it was a bat.  An insectivorous mammal, with its wings formed by a membrane stretched between the tiny elongated fingers, legs and tail.

As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge shadow upon the cabin wall.

"That's it!"

If you guessed "Batman", you're half right!  The scene is from "The Bat Strikes!", a serial published in 1934 in Popular Detective by an author using the pseudonym "C.K.M. Scanlon"; Batman would not appear in Detective Comics until 1939.  A total of four stories about "The Bat" were published in 1934, and then the character (and author) vanished as mysteriously as he appeared.  Recently, Altus Press reprinted the serials in the volume, The Bat Strikes Again and Again!:


Though I cannot say that The Bat is the most interesting or well-written pulp fiction I've read, it is a fascinating look at the almost completely unknown prehistory of one of comics' greatest character!

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The Time Axis by Henry Kuttner

Aug 03 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction, Mathematics, Weird fiction

The more I read of Henry Kuttner, the more ashamed I am that I didn't read all of his works long ago!  Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) was a versatile writer of pretty much every genre of weird fiction imaginable: science fiction, horror, fantasy, adventure, and things that defy ready classification.  His is undeniably one of the most influential science fiction writers of the early 20th century, and many of his short stories are beautiful and classic.

I've been using this blog as an excuse to read more of Kuttner's work, though I don't really need one!  I've previously written about his foray into sword-and-sorcery fiction, in his Elak of Atlantis stories, and his exploration of adventure stories, with Thunder Jim Wade.  All of these are short stories, however, so I finally got around to reading one of his novel-length works, The Time Axis (1948):


(picture of an early edition via Fantastic Fiction.)  The book is currently available in an excellent quality albeit rather plain edition by Wildside Press, and can also be read online.

It's great!  Like a lot of Kuttner's work, it manages to blend a pulp adventure tale together seamlessly with a science fiction story, and gives the reader a sense of awe and wonder that is altogether rare in fiction.

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Bertram Mitford's The King's Assegai

Jun 13 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction, Fantasy fiction

Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that I've become a really big fan of Bertram Mitford (1855-1914).  His novels, written in the late 1800s, are on the surface adventure novels which draw on his experiences living and working in South Africa.  Valancourt Books has been valiantly reprinting many of Mitford's novels, and I've discussed three of them here: The Weird of Deadly Hollow, Renshaw Fanning's Quest, and The Sign of the Spider.  All are excellent novels which possess much more depth of character and meaning than one would expect.  The Sign of the Spider, with its anti-hero protagonist and descent into darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is now one of my favorite novels.

Already some time ago, I picked up the first book in Mitford's tetralogy of Zulu novels, The King's Assegai, also published by Valancourt:


Curiously, I waited a long time before actually reading it, unlike Mitford's other books.  I suspect I had a little dread about reading a Westerner's fictional interpretation of "African savages", or perhaps I simply didn't think I could get into a novel about African warriors.  (I had a discussion to this effect on an earlier Mitford thread.)  In any case, I shouldn't have been worried -- though I didn't enjoy it as much as I did Mitford's other work, The King's Assegai is an excellent adventure story which gives a very human (and not stereotypical) view of tribal Africa.

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Henry Kuttner's Thunder Jim Wade

May 26 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction, Robert E. Howard

Any time I see a book with Henry Kuttner's name on it, I pay attention --  Kuttner was a masterful author who wrote some true classics of science fiction and fantasy, including one of my favorite stories of all time, the science fiction mystery story "Private Eye", written jointly with C.L. Moore.  Others are more familiar with his classic "Mimsy Were the Borogroves".

Kuttner was a true literary chameleon: he could and would write in any pulp market which was paying for stories.  I've written before about his excellent Elak of Atlantis stories, which were written to fill in a need for sword-and-sorcery after the untimely demise of Robert E. Howard.  By the early 1940s, the pulps were in trouble: comic books had become immensely popular.  Heroes with incredible powers and even more incredible outfits such as Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel were drawing readers and revenue from the pulps, and they wanted to introduce their own heroes to compete.

Henry Kuttner to the rescue!  Writing under the pseudonym Charles Stoddard, Kuttner described the adventures of a new hero for the pulps, Thunder Jim Wade:


Five TJW stories appeared in the pages of Thrilling Adventures in 1941.  Those stories were collected together in one nice volume last year by Altus Press.  Let's take a look...

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Bertram Mitford's Renshaw Fanning's Quest

Apr 06 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction

Bertram Mitford (1855-1914) could be said to have been the darker cousin to H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925).  Both authors wrote adventure novels set in the perilous wilds of Africa, but Mitford seems to have used that setting, and his own experiences, to explore the darker side of human nature much more than Haggard.

To me, Mitford's magnificent work The Sign of the Spider is a study of human desperation: the main character is an anti-hero whose attempts to earn his fortune lead him -- both figuratively and literally -- down an increasingly dark path.  Mitford's compact ghost story The Weird of Deadly Hollow looks at the motivations and consequences of revenge.

Mitford's novel Renshaw Fanning's Quest (1894), his eighth, is an African treasure hunt story reminiscent of King Solomon's Mines, but more significantly is a story of human greed and betrayal.  Valancourt Books still leads the charge on this fascinating author, and has reprinted 'Quest with a facsimile of its original cover:


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A. Merritt's The Face in the Abyss

Mar 22 2009 Published by under Adventure fiction

I've been continuing my reading of the works of A. Merritt (1884-1943), which began with his first serial novel The Moon Pool (1919), continued to his masterful The Metal Monster (1920) and most recently visited The Dwellers in the Mirage (1932).  I was originally planning to step away from Merritt for a little while, but one other volume caught my eye: Merritt's 1923 serial novel, The Face in the Abyss:


I have to say that I really enjoyed The Face in the Abyss (to be referred to henceforth as FIA)!  Though not as brilliantly otherworldly as The Metal Monster, it tells a great adventure story filled with wonderful and haunting imagery, all set in a science fiction world of appreciable complexity.  Though the hero of the tale is still more or less a pulp-fiction stereotype, several of the other main characters have a surprising amount of complexity to them.

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A. Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage

Abraham Merritt (1888-1943) was one of the greats of pulp fiction, although up until recently his work was largely forgotten.  Recently, two of his novels were reprinted, The Moon Pool (1919) and The Metal Monster (1920), both of which I've blogged about in some detail.  I found The Moon Pool, on the whole, a rather ordinary pulp adventure novel punctuated by scenes of brilliant weirdness, while The Metal Monster was a truly unique masterpiece of weird fiction.

I wanted to see where other works of Merritt would fall on the mundane/genius scale, but the book that most caught my eye isn't currently in press.  Dwellers in the Mirage (1932) was too intriguing to pass up for me, though, as the cover will make clear:


That tentacled monster on the cover of the novel is the "terrible octopus-god Khalk'ru", who heralds from an area outside space and time.  If you read H.P. Lovecraft, Merritt's "Khalk'ru" will sound very much like Lovecraft's "Cthulhu".  Let's take a closer look at Merritt's interpretation of the Cthulhu mythos...

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Edgar Rice Burroughs' Venus series

Dec 03 2008 Published by under Adventure fiction

I've talked a bit about Edgar Rice Burroughs' sword and planet adventures before; in particular, I've discussed his 'Barsoom' (Mars) series briefly and did a post on the first two books on his 'Pellucidar' (Hollow Earth) series.  In preparation for another massive literature survey post, I decided to read Burroughs' fantasies set on yet another planet: Venus!  The series, describing the adventures of scientist/adventurer Carson Napier when he crash lands on Venus, consists of four books: Pirates of Venus (1934), Lost on Venus (1935), Carson of Venus (1939), and Escape on Venus (1946).  (There is also a posthumously published story, Wizard of Venus, which I haven't read.)

The novels are interesting and distinct for a number of reasons.  First, the 'Venus' series was initiated much later than the other adventures Burroughs is known for, and represents the last series he would start (though he continued to write Tarzan, Barsoom, and Pellucidar books at the same time).  Perhaps because of this, the Venus series seems a little more mature and a little less spectacular than its predecessors.  Whereas David Innes, for instance, had completely dominated Pellucidar in the span of two books, Carson Napier is more or less on the run throughout the four books.

Let's take a tour through Burroughs' fictional version of Venus, and meet its inhabitants!

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