Opinion time, readers. What is your preference, or perhaps tolerance, for the amount of description of places, things, physical appearance, etc. in fiction? Do you like to have an exacting rundown of what the characters look like, what the furniture in a room looks like and how it is arranged, and what everyone is wearing? Or do you tend to skip the descriptive paragraphs and scan down the page until the action recommences?
Today I continue considering the authors of Appendix N. August Derleth managed to escape my voracious reading attention for a very long time. That is surprising, considering the volume of material he produced. Derleth wasn’t an Asimov-class churner of words, but with over 100 published books to his credit, he was respectably prolific. And, like Asimov, he covered a lot of subject territory in both fiction and non-fiction.
What August Derleth is best known for is his championing of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. He published collections of Lovecraft’s stories and even wrote a biography of HPL. Additionally, he dove into the Mythos himself, writing several stories of Elder Gods, forbidden books, and the questionable inhabitants of New England.
Philip Jose Farmer (or P.J., as Appendix N has him) was a prolific author of pulp adventure. (By the way, I don’t need to keep spelling out what Appendix N is, do I? If you’re reading this web log you’re probably hip to the reference.) I’d call him an acolyte of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He mined the same story veins, and even wrote in Burroughs’ worlds, including some straight-up Tarzan books, as well as spin-offs. Check out his Opar novels, fantastic pre-history, lost-civilization adventures spun off from Tarzan’s adventures in Burroughs’ fictional Opar.
Farmer is noted in Appendix N for his “World of Tiers” novels. I’ve not read them all. Something I should, perhaps, remedy. What I think of when I consider Farmer is his “Riverworld” series. I picked up “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” when I was twelve or thirteen. And I proceeded to devour the entire series. Those books started a fascination with Richard Francis Burton that lasted until I learned a lot more about the famed explorer’s true character and actions. I like Farmer’s Burton much more than the original.
The conceit of “Riverworld” is that everyone who has ever lived on Earth wakes after death upon the banks of a world-encircling river. The reader is tossed into the story in the point of view of Burton, and learns the mysteries of “Riverworld” along with him. There’s a lot of great action as well as spot-the-historical-figure fun. These latter include Alice Liddell and Samuel Clemens. At least, I think so. It has been decades since I read these books, but they did leave an impression.
Farmer was an obvious fan of genre fiction. His oeuvre is replete with pastiches of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, and Tarzan. (Yes, I did just serve up the phrase “oeuvre is replete.” Deal with it.) I doubt I presume too much suggesting that Farmer’s taste in stories aligned closely with that of Gary Gygax. It’s hard to imagine Farmer not appearing in Appendix N. (Though I imagine “J.C. on the Dude Ranch” was less to Gygax’s liking. I recall reading that story with appalled fascination as a kid.)
The man was a pro, a solid entertainer. He’s not going to knock your socks off with his prose stylings, but he wrote competent, engaging fiction. If you pick up one of his books you’re practically guaranteed a fun read.
There is a tendency to think the military comprises dour, unimaginative people of the sort who’d have no use for science fiction, fantasy, or other such frivolous nonsense. A lot of films depict soldiers as robotic, linear thinkers, programmed to follow orders without deviation.
I think most of us know better than that, right? The military has long been home to devotees of speculative fiction. Pick any large military base in the United States, then travel to the nearest town. In addition to the inevitable military supply stores, sewing shops (never short of customers needing new patches sewn on uniforms), tattoo parlors, barbershops, and bars, you will find a well-stocked game store, a comic book shop, and a used bookstore with an excellent selection of science fiction and fantasy.
Is there a work of science fiction that acts as the standard-bearer for the entire genre, the way “The Lord of the Rings” does for fantasy? I’m not sure. The field is crowded with worthy candidates. But I’d nominate Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
It is a sprawling, glorious space opera, replete with memorable images, clever conceits, scientific speculation on a grand scale, and magnificent characters. The villains are vile and the heroes heroic. Who can ever forget Baron Vladimir Harkonnen? Or Duncan Idaho? “Dune” gave us mentats, gholas, hunter-seekers, the Gom Jabbar, and ornithopters.
Bernard Cornwell is one of the foremost historical novelists working today. He is best known for his “Sharpe’s” novels (“Sharpe’s Company”, “Sharpe’s Tiger”, et. al.,) chronicling the military exploits of the fictional Richard Sharpe during (and prior to) the Napoleonic Wars.
“Why then, Ken,” you may ask, “are you writing about Bernard Cornwell in a web log geared more to discussion of speculative fiction?” Or, you may not. Probably not. But let’s pretend you do. And here’s the answer: “The Warlord Chronicles.” Cornwell wrote an excellent Arthurian trilogy. Once you start writing about King Arthur (a ‘historical’ personage notable mostly for his apparent non-existence), no matter how meticulous your historical research, you’ve stuck your foot into the fantasy pool. Often you’ll find “The Warlord Chronicles” shelved in the fantasy section of the bookstore.
Here is another entry in my irregular series on Appendix N. Today I’m considering Lin Carter.
Those of us who enjoy fantasy of a bygone era, pulp or otherwise, owe a debt to Lin Carter. Many consider his great contribution to the field to be his collating and editing of past masters, either in anthologies (e.g. “Flashing Swords”) or in reprints from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. I doubt I would have encountered James Branch Cabell so early had it not been for Lin Carter championing the great writer.
As a writer himself – well, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Right? I certainly am not going to cast the first stone, despite sitting through more than one Thongor of Lemuria story. I haven’t got around to any of the Callisto books. I’m not in any particular hurry to do so.
But what I think of when the name Lin Carter flashes across my mental radar is “Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings.” I picked up a copy of the paperback at a yard sale when I was a kid. A pristine copy. I must have read it through cover to cover three or four times. It is still in pristine condition – I was a fastidious custodian of my paperbacks back then, less so now. But what a great book. I’ve since heard rumblings about the accuracy of his scholarship, but at the time that book opened up new literary vistas for me. I’ll be forever grateful to Mr. Carter for it.
That’s all for today. Still dealing with the aftermath of water damage, so back to manual labor.
The wellsprings of modern fantasy run deep. Very deep. People could write books about it. And they have. So if I have the temerity to toss my two-cents worth into the conversation I’d best limit the scope. I’m limiting myself to author’s who wrote in the Twentieth Century (some continue on into this century) and ignoring all the giants of prior centuries upon whose shoulders they stand. This is pure subjective opinion on my part. I’ve done no empirical research to support my conclusions, so take this a grain of salt the size to meet your USDA daily sodium intake.
I’d like to include writers such as E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell. But their influence appears to have waned. You might see a touch of Eddison in Clark Ashton Smith, or a hint of Cabell in Jack Vance. Might be a faint echo of both in Gene Wolfe. But I don’t see elements of either in much contemporary fantasy. So my personal preferences won’t play much part in this list.
Note that I’m excluding YA authors from the list. Hey, it’s my list. Write your own damn list if that bothers you.
On with it.
Number 10. Some essayists claim you should begin with your strongest argument. I’m a contrarian, or a fool. Maybe both. Meaning I’m beginning with an entrant whose qualifications I’m least certain about, Anne Rice. “Anne Rice,” you splutter, “doesn’t she write horror?” I don’t know. Could be. These definitions get nebulous at the borders. She writes about vampires, werewolves, and mummies in a more lyrical vein than most horror writers. I think she can be considered a fantasist. Whether she qualifies as a fantasy writer or not, she was certainly influential. The shelves in the bookstore wouldn’t look the same absent her popularization of the vampire. Modern urban fantasy wouldn’t exist in its current form without her. The Science Fiction/Fantasy section wouldn’t feature covers of sword-wielding biker chicks embracing half-clad vampires. So, Ms. Rice leads off at number 10.
Number 9. Jack Vance.The great Jack Vance brought us world-weary amoral heroes. He brought sparkling dialogue and a sardonic sense of humor. His influence comes primarily through his Dying Earth stories. You can trace the genealogy of stories set in a future Earth nearing the end of its habitability to Vance. There are earlier examples of the subgenre, sure (e.g., William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith.) But Vance popularized the concept. You can find anthologies paying homage to the Dying Earth. Gene Wolfe’s Long Sun books owe much to Vance. Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison, to name just a couple, have written books in this subgenre.
Number 8. Fritz Leiber. Leiber and Vance shared a literary sensibility. Fitting they’re paired here. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fathered any number of duos and odd couples. Leiber’s DNA is all over mismatched pairings ranging from Violette Mahan’s Dhulyn and Parno to Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher.
Number 7. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fingerprints are all over fantasy. Tarzan helped popularize lost civilization stories. They are less common now in this time of satellites and Google Earth but writers from A. Merritt to Philip Jose Farmer used to spin those. ERB brought us the Sword and Planet or Planetary Romance novel. Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner, to name three, carried on that tradition. Wasn’t that long ago Disney released a big budget John Carter film. Word is Edgar Rice Burrough’s Inc. is trying to get another version in the works. Hollow Earth novels are still seeing publication. ERB’s influence continues.
Number 6. Michael Moorcock. The speed-writing peddler of the multiverse, Law vs. Chaos cosmological conflict, and albino, elf-like anti-heros. Others may have preceded him with some of these. Poul Anderson was writing independently about a Law/Chaos divide. But Moorcock owned it with his Eternal Champion cycle. The concept of the multiverse is common parlance now, popping up in everything from novels to television shows. Elric of Melniboné can almost be considered an archetype now, cf Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Number 5. Anne McCaffrey, mother of dragons. Time was you picked up a book with a dragon in it, you knew who the villain was. With The Dragonriders of Pern and those gorgeous Michael Whelan covers that all changed. Now you see a dragon on the cover it could just as easily be an ally as an enemy. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series can claim Pern as a progenitor.
Number 4. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. There’s the horror/fantasy question again, though there used to be little – if any – distinction made between fantasy, science fiction, and horror. HPL’s influence is unquestionable on horror, even science fiction (think Alien or any other H.R. Giger-involved film.) But he was also influential in the development of fantasy. Even immediately so. Think Conan, preventing a wizard from summoning a nameless cosmic horror from the gulfs in the blackness between the stars. This is HPL’s influence, the idea that the demon being conjured is not in fact a demon in the traditional sense at all, but an unknowable entity from a cold, uncaring universe with no interest in man one way or another. I’d argue that philosophically the “grimdark” school owes something to Lovecraft. And you know the Cthulhu mythos has wormed its tentacles deep within popular culture when you can buy a Cthulhu plush doll.
Number 3. Glen Cook. With The Black Company Cook altered the landscape of fantasy. Writing with a gritty, modern prose style, Cook laid the groundwork for the so-called ‘grimdark’ school. Without Cook there is no Joe Abercrombie, no Steven Erikson, possibly no Game of Thrones (though that’s hardly G.R.R. Martin’s only claim to fame.)
Number 2. Robert E. Howard. Can there be any question? One of the big three (along with HPL and Clark Ashton Smith) Weird Tales contributors, Howard was the quintessential pulp writer, churning out Westerns, boxing tales, hard-boiled detective stories, horror, and fantasy. He created the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane, the barbarian-turned-king Kull, and the barbarian-turned-king Conan. Every broadsword wielding, mighty-thewed barbarian to come down the pike since owes his existence to Conan. From Brak the Barbarian to Druss the Legend, Howard’s influence is undeniable.
Number 1. Come on, say it with me. J.R.R. Tolkien. You saw that coming, right? Tolkien’s influence is deep and indelible. Starting with The Iron Tower and The Sword of Shannara the bookstore shelves have overflowed with Tolkien imitators. You couldn’t find a paperback fantasy back cover blurb in the 1980’s that didn’t compare the author to Tolkien. When people like something they want more of it. And if you’re going to imitate something you could do worse than The Lord of the Rings.
There you have it, the top ten. What do you think? Did I miss an obvious candidate? Is my order out of whack? Who is in your top ten?
I’m going to continue with the theme from last week, celebrating the birthday of the late, great J.R.R. Tolkien. Yesterday the family and I met some friends at the Kennedy School to take part in the annual Tolkien Birthday Bash festivities. For those of you who don’t know about the Kennedy School allow me a few lines to explain. The Kennedy School was, as the name suggest, a school. The McMenamin brothers, the dark overlords of a brewpub empire sprawling throughout the Pacific Northwest, purchased the defunct property and turned it into a hotel, brewery, restaurant, and theater. In addition to being able to belly up for a drink at the restaurant and outside the theater doors, you can get a pint at other locations in the school which the McMenamins converted into bars: You can buy a beer (and smoke a cigar) in Detention, have a cocktail in the Honors Bar, drink in the Boiler Room downstairs, etc. Every year in January the Kennedy School throws an all day party to commemorate Tolkien’s birthday. They run all three of the “Lord of the Rings” films in the theater. In the gymnasium (where you can also buy a beer) a radio troupe performs snippets of scenes from “The Hobbit.”
That ought to give you an idea. Many people arrive in costume. In fact the event includes a costume contest. You can see children as young as three or four dressed as hobbits, or ents, or elves.
And that, I think, is amazing. I was considering that while ordering off the special Tolkien themed menu (I ordered Mrs. Maggot’s Shepherd’s Pie – excellent, though oddly shy of mushrooms.) Every year parents bring in their children to share their love of the Professor’s creation. And a new generation grows to appreciate it. What a legacy, an ever expanding legacy. So many authors produce a lauded work that fades from the popular imagination after a year or a decade. Some may endure in the memory of a generation. But only a signal few influence and entertain generation after generation, inspiring movies, celebrations of the author’s birth, art, costuming, imitations, games, etc. Alexandre Dumas, perhaps. Arthur Conan Doyle. A few others.
What would Tolkien think of this? Would he despair at this ‘deplorable cultus,’ disturbed by the commercialization, the films, toys, games, and merchandise? Would he consider it a form of idolatry? Or would he appreciate the fact that others take pleasure in the very thing he did when it was little more than a personal plaything, an imaginary history in which to set his invented languages?
Who can say? What I can say is that I will endeavor to pass along my enthusiasm for Middle-earth to the next generation. Maybe she’ll like it. Maybe she won’t. I won’t push it. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
And maybe I’ll see you at the Kennedy School for next year’s celebration.
Yesterday marked the birth date of Jonathan Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Had flights of Maia not called him home in 1973 he’d be pushing the Old Took for longevity records, but still shy of Bilbo’s Ring-assisted accomplishment.
An admirable man, a man I’d like to have met. Of course given that I was all of four years old when he died that wish falls into the category of sheer fantasy. And I’ve still not been to England. I’ve not visited the Professor’s gravesite, not had a pint at the Bird and Baby. Any connection I have to the man remains the written word.
And that’s remarkable. The power of Tolkien’s story and his (underrated) ability to tell the story leads to annual tributes such as this from people who have no personal connection to the man at all. Talk about a legacy.
To an extent we are all living in the world Tolkien created. Not his Middle-Earth, but our media saturated world of video games and fantasy films, all of which owe a debt to his writing. That’s a topic others have dealt with in depth, but it is worth at least recognizing. (Example picked from the internet’s upturned hat.)
When I sit down to write fantasy I’m forced to acknowledge Tolkien’s vast shadow. That acknowledgement for me comes in the form of deliberately steering clear of dwarves (note the ‘v’, another of Tolkien’s influences), elves, and hobbit analogs. You can pile “Lord of the Rings” homages high enough to rebuild Barad-dûr. That’s fine. I like pizza, I don’t mind new pizzerias putting pepperoni on the menu. But I don’t want to emulate that pie when I’m sweating before the brick oven.
So here’s to the good Professor. One way or another we all shelter in his shadow. I, for one, am grateful for the shade.