Archives: Authors

Elmore Leonard, An Appreciation

So you’re asking, “Ken, what the hell? Elmore Leonard didn’t write science fiction or fantasy. What’s a post about him doing on your web log?” To which I say, “Huh?” and proceed to otherwise ignore the question.

It is true that – to the best of my knowledge anyway – Elmore Leonard did not produce any speculative fiction. I wish he had. I’d like to read an Elmore Leonard fantasy. He did cut his teeth on Westerns. You may have heard of a story titled “3:10 to Yuma.” Yeah, that was Leonard. So he could have written pulp sci-fi if he’d wanted. You know the commonplace wisdom – replace six-shooters with blasters and horses with spaceships and your Western becomes sci-fi. Not hard sci-fi, and not necessarily good sci-fi, but it could be. And a good story is a good story no matter the trappings.

Elmore Leonard developed perhaps the most unique writing voice in modern American Fiction. His style is unmistakable. It is immediate, engaging. It is unquestionably a painstakingly crafted style, but it reads as naturalistic, real. He had a tremendous ear for dialogue, rarely writing speech that rings forced or flat. A rare gift.

Hollywood at least appreciated the gift, though the film adaptations flopped as often as they missed. “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” soared. “The Big Bounce” didn’t, two tries failing to get it right.

Sadly, we’ll see no more stories from the master of American crime fiction. Elmore Leonard died in 2013. He’ll be missed. But his books will live on. That reminds me, it is time to get back to reading “Bandits.”

Immortal Creations

I think the pages of Sherlock Holmes pastiche I’ve read equals or surpasses the volume of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” I have on my shelves. And I’m certain I’ve barely scratched the surface of the short stories, novels, comic books, etc. featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. I’ll be able to skip three of the stories in the anthology of Holmes stories I’m currently reading since I read them already in another anthology I own. Has anyone ever performed a count of non-Canon Sherlock Holmes stories? I imagine the tally would be obsolete by the time it was completed. And the number is even larger if we include anonymous appearances by the great detective, e.g., Roger Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October.”

It is a rare and wonderful feat for a character to outlive its creator. Few characters capture the imagination of large enough swathes of the reading public to inspire new adventures after the original author dies.

L. Sprague de Camp, Appendix N.

I come to praise L. Sprague de Camp; let others bury him in undeserved, virulent dudgeon.

The man’s fingerprints are all over science fiction and fantasy from the Golden Age of science fiction up until the end of the Twentieth Century. He more than earned his place in Appendix N. He was prolific, fighting in the Isaac Asimov weight category (though, let’s face it, Asimov remains undefeated for sheer volume of publication.) De Camp’s writing was urbane, learned, witty, and full of clever innuendo. I, for one, love it.

Glen Cook's Fantasy Fiction: The Instrumentalities of the Night

I’ve written before about Glen Cook’s fantasy fiction. But with a writer as prolific as Mr. Cook there is always more to say. I’ve not been shy of pointing out that I’m a fan. His – and Steven Brust’s and Roger Zelazny’s – employment of the first-person smart ass school of fiction was influential in the writing of “Reunion.”

I’m currently reading book four of his series “The Instrumentalities of the Night.” It is classic Glen Cook: fast paced, spare in descriptive detail, full of snappy banter between and among characters (often including extensive stretches without identifying the speaker, which can get confusing if you’re reading at speed and not closely tracking the interchange.)

Fredric Brown

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Continuing my infrequent looks at the authors mentioned by Gary Gygax in Appendix N of the DMG, today I consider Fredric Brown. Fredric Brown is one of the forgotten authors of the mid-twentieth century. He was popular enough, by all accounts. He made a living with his writing alone, quitting his job as a proofreader. And he was influential, a couple of his novels were adapted for film, and one of his stories famously inspired an episode of “Star Trek.”

But we don’t read him now and I think we are missing out. I’ve read only a single collection of his short stories. But now I’m going to keep him in mind whenever I forage through a used book store.

Leigh Brackett

20140216_115418_1Here’s another in my sporadic series on the authors of Appendix N. Today’s feature: Leigh Brackett.

You can check out her screenwriting credits if you like, it is an impressive body of work. But her admission to the ranks of Appendix N luminaries is due to her Sword and Planet novels, stories owing a lot, I think, to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” and “Carson of Venus” stories, and sharing the same branch of the literary family tree as C.L. Moore’s “Northwest Smith.”

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ "The Mucker"

20140202_124632_1Continuing here the sporadic series discussing the works of Appendix N. Well, sort of. The entry for Edgar Rice Burroughs lists Tarzan, the John Carter books, the Carson of Venus books, and the Pelucidar books. I’m not going to discuss those. I doubt they need much more digital ink spilled on them. Instead I’m going to discuss one of ERB’s lesser known books, “The Mucker.”

“The Mucker” features a bona fide anti-hero. The main character is utterly unlike the standard ERB lead: a  virtuously noble paladin. Instead we have Billy Byrne, the eponymous Mucker, a term apparently describing a certain class of criminal lowlife with no redeeming characteristics. And ERB writes Billy Byrne as living up  – or down – to that label. He’s a thief, a drunk, and an overall bounder. For the first third or so of the novel. It’s kind of refreshing.

Alastair Reynolds

This web log is not meant as a forum for me to vent. I’ll whisper my complaints into a mug of beer in a dark, quiet corner. Don’t worry, I’ve no intention of whining. A squalling infant in the wee hours, inutile family drama threatening to start a suppurating ulcer need not concern you.

So let’s talk about science fiction.

The Face in the Frost

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This another of my erratically spaced web log posts concerning the books of Appendix N. Today I consider “The Face in the Frost” by John Bellairs, a delightfully charming short novel.

Bellairs is known for children’s books and at first glance “The Face in the Frost” seems to fit that categorization. It begins whimsically. And a certain sense of whimsy suffuses the entire narrative. But the story soon turns onto increasingly dark pathways. This is not a children’s book.  Real dread prevents the comical adventures of Prospero (“not the one you are thinking of”) and Roger Bacon from becoming too light to take seriously.

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

Did America ever produce a more elegant writer than James Branch Cabell?  Every phrase, every simile, every line of dialog is smooth, cultured.  His work displayed urbane wit on par with Oscar Wilde.

Here is a paragraph from what many consider Cabell’s magnum opus, “Jurgen.”

So they fought.  Now Jurgen was a very acceptable swordsman, but from the start he found in Heitman Michael his master.  Jurgen had never reckoned upon that and he considered it annoying.  If Heitman Michael perforated Jurgen the future would be altered, certainly, but not quite as Jurgen had decided it ought to be remodeled.  This unlooked for complication seemed preposterous; and Jurgen began to be irritated by the suspicion that he was getting himself killed for nothing.

I love the droll, tongue-in-cheek understatement.  And the man filled volumes with this cultured verve.  Fritz Leiber often achieved similar heights, though he did not imbue his work with the same sense of aristocratic archness.  Clark Ashton Smith could weave words and worlds with the same facility as Cabell, but while both men wrote from a position of world weary cynicism, Smith seldom displayed the same degree of sustained humor and when he did it tended toward the grim rather than the philosophical.

And Cabell was doubtless a philosopher.  How should a man live in an uncaring universe, and does it matter?  Cabell addressed these issues.  And few since Shakespeare have delved as insightfully into love, lust, and marriage.

Cabell – at one point a household name – has sadly fallen into obscurity.  It is a shame that such a master – once banned in Boston, a sign of quality if there ever was one – should no longer be widely read.

What say we try to reverse that?