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 2003 REVIEWS 

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EMPIRE
Niall Ferguson
Basic Books | 0-465-02328-2 | 2003 | 392 pages | $35.00

** 1/2 (out of four)

Reviewed May 2003

 

Oxford historian Niall Ferguson has become something of a celebrity in recent weeks, garnering rave reviews for his new book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. The book was originally subtitled "How Britain Made the Modern World" for its British release, but both that and the cover art were revised for the American version. Reviewers from all the corners of the media landscape gushed about Ferguson's "revolutionary work" that was "extensively researched and analytical" even if many disagreed with his premise: that, on balance, the British Empire was a good thing for those that lived under it. Nevertheless, many of the articles praising Ferguson's lessons for American power seem to have forgotten to read the 350 pages which lie between the introduction and the conclusion, the only two places where the "lessons for global power" are discussed. More interesting by far was Ferguson's recent New York Times Magazine piece directly discussing America's imperial role and comparing it with Britain.

Ferguson presents a superficial history of the British Empire, from its beginnings in 16th century privateering expeditions to harass Spain to its rapid decolonization in the 1950s and 60s. With quick prose and silver-tongued sentences, he speeds through the major events of imperial glory and imperial shame, never dwelling more than a few paragraphs on any one thing. Arguably, he had to go quickly to capture 400 years of history in under 400 pages, but since the book is double-spaced, presumably there was some room for more prose. He nevertheless manages to provide a fairly even-handed view of history, telling both the positive and negative effects of British rule. On the plus side there was the rule of law, economic prosperity, and political stability. On the negative side, there was also racism, violence, and oppression. For Ferguson, the balance favors the positive role of Empire, measured largely in economic terms. If it was good for capitalism, it was good for all the Empire's citizens.

Yet something seems off about this book. Something seems to be missing, a layer of insight and depth that would truly distinguish this from any other lavishly-illustrated coffee table book. Compared to other works from the past decade on imperial topics, like Thomas Pakenham's The Scramble for Africa (1991) or David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace (reissued 2001), Empire lacks the kind of insight that goes beyond the history-book timeline approach. Important figures like Queen Victoria make only a cameo appearance in the book, while her son Edward is omitted from the history altogether. Ferguson, rather than providing character sketches or insight into the protagonists of his tales, instead discusses which imperial figures were gay and how they enjoyed having sex (like his claim that Lawrence of Arabia enjoyed being raped by Turkish guards). Also out of the history is Hong Kong, most of the 19th century arms race, the defeat of Napoleon, or even a reasonable description of the industrial revolution and its impact on the average Briton. Analysis, when offered, is confined mostly to the introduction and conclusion.

Empire's chief virtue is also its cheif failing: it provides a concise history of the Empire without any of the detail and depth that academic books might risk. It reads like a television script, unsurprizing since the book came out of a British TV series of the same name, and it retains too much of the picture-show quality of its electronic original. For those who have never learned of the time when Britian ruled the world, this is a useful introduction. But since the book has been targeted at those who wish to draw lessons about America's future role, there is little in the book that is new. If you want to know what all the commentators are making a fuss about, read the first few pages and the last few. The story in between has almost nothing to do with them at all.

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WARRIORS OF THE WASTELAND

John Grigsby

Watkins | 1-84293-058-3 | January 2003 | 242 pages | $19.95

 

*** (out of four)

 

Reviewed May 2003

 

 

 

While reading John Grigsby's new book on the search for the legend behind the Holy Grail, you will likely have the following three thoughts: 1. Grigsby is absolutely right. 2. He is absolutely wrong, and 3. He might be right about some things. Depending on the reader, these thoughts might come in any order.

 

Grigsby, a former research assistant to alternative historian Graham Hancock, is responsible for the unproven theory that the temples of Cambodia's Angor Watt site form an image of the constellation Draco as it appeared in 10,500 BC. Now in Wariors of the Wasteland he attacks a more mainstream subject, searching for the pagan cult of human sacrifice that he believes forms the origin of the legend of the Holy Grail. Grigsby traces the Grail myth back in time, linking aspects of the story to the Celtic myths he believes gave rise to the tale. He also ties the mythic journey to the mummified bog men of northern Europe, wonderfully preserved after 2000 or more years. Grigsby believes that the mysterious manner of their deaths hints that they were reenacting the primal myth of an ancient religion, one that worshipped the dying and rising gods of the Neolithic.

 

Here, of course, we run into some of the weaknesses in Grigsby's argument. He claims that the secret lunar cult of the dying and rising god survived from its extinction at the end of the Neolithic (c.2700 BC) to its putative resurrection around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain some 2600 years later. How this was done, he can only speculate unconvincingly. Drawing on the Aryan invasion theory, Grigsby postulates that the lunar cult gave way to the sun-worshipping Aryans, but that their religion of masculine reason and light destroyed humanitys primal connection to the dark and feminine. Therefore, he believes the mystery rites of both Classical religion and the druids were designed to restore the pre-Aryan faith by questing for the lunar god the Aryan solar warriors had killed. Therefore, the Holy Grail is nothing more than the vessel that imparts the knowledge of the unconscious and the mystical mind.

 

But here is another weakness. His argument resides solely in his interpretation of the Celtic myths, preserved only in the guise of medieval poems written some 1500 years after the fact. These, he wants us to believe, preserve in salvageable form ancient thinking. But his ordering of the myths as preserving three separate strands (lunar, solar, and the return to lunar) rests on his ability to demonstrate that these stories were composed in the order of his proposed history. This he fails to do, but he hides the fact well by only occasionally making reference to the vast range of dates (2700 BC-AD 1400) over which he draws his material. He has no answer to the obvious question: does the continuation of a story mean a continuation of the beliefs behind it? After all, if Buffy the Vampire Slayer draws a weapon from a stone, that does not mean she is reenacting the medieval Christianity that animated the Arthur story, only that she borrowed a motif for its mythic quality.

 

Nevertheless, Warriors is an entertaining read that raises profound and interesting questions about the religion of our ancestors. Grigsby's account sees the ancient world as more complex and nuanced than many scholars are prepared to accept, and that is a step forward. His theory is interesting, and at times compelling, but it seems custom designed to reflect modern, not ancient, spirituality. Grigsby sees the ancient lunar religion as closer to nature, closer to the unconscious and, well, New Age. The solar cults of Zeus and his ilk are by contrast patriarchal, Western, rational, and therefore evil: "I dont wish to launch into a diatribe against modern life," Grigsby writes, "but how different might the world be if instead of raping nature we saw ourselves as part of it if the vision of the Grail was ours?" Nevertheless, Grigsby's work is a highly readable account of the way many wish the past could have been.

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FROM THE PEST ZONE: THE NEW YORK STORIES
H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz
Hippocampus | 0-9673215-8-1 | January 2003 | 150 pages | $15.00

 

** (out of four)
Reviewed March 2003

 

The editors of From the Pest Zone never seemed to really pull the book together or decide exactly what it was going to be, and this is evident right when the reader opens the cover. While the beautiful red and green cover art (by Sean Madden) presents a haunting vista and the cover design triumphantly proclaims the subtitle as The New York Stories, the interior cover opines that the true subtitle is instead Stories from New York. This is a small but telling point. This book is unsure of what it is.

S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz have tried to pull together a volume describing H.P. Lovecraft's "New York exile," the two-year period when the Providence author was in residence in New York, a city he came to loathe. The goal, From the Pest Zone tells us was to "show how Lovecraft came to terms with America's only true megalopolis." I can see how they tried to do that, but for all but hard-core Lovecraft specialists (who know this stuff anyway), the result is less than satisfying.

The two editors open the volume with a lengthy introduction that is substantively a reworking of information from Joshi's biography H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. They provide an elementary description and light analysis of the five stories that comprise Pest Zone's middle section. In essence, they say that Lovecraft's poverty and bad experiences with the multiethnic masses of New York influenced him to write fiction that reflected his loathing of the city. Yet too much space is spent reproducing Lovecraft's letters and correspondence in voluminous detail without incorporating them effectively into the awkward introduction. Again, the introduction reinforces the book's split personality. The introduction tries to be both biography and literary analysis. The two ideas never come together and the essay is confusing and obscure for readers not intimately familiar with the material (and thus in no need of repetition).

The main section of the book is made up of the five stories Lovecraft wrote during his New York period. These include "The Shunned House," "The Horror at Red Hook," "He," "In the Vault," and "Cool Air." All of these stories are familiar to Lovecraft fans and can be had at half the price in other editions with plenty more (and better) stories. Therefore, the reason one would read this book would be for the extensive annotation that the two editors provide for the stories. However, while Pest Zone promises "exhaustive notes to each story, supplying information on their background, history," etc., more than half the notes are definitions of words in the stories culled from the pages of the Oxford English dictionary. Most of the rest are an address book for place names used in the stories. Some lengthy ones probe the origins of the stories' themes and offer comparisons. The notes cannot decide whether they are a dictionary service or literary analysis. More duality.

But my biggest beef with the book is that it never came together. The three sections (introduction, stories, and notes) do not form a coherent whole. If they wanted to make a good book about Lovecraft's New York years that combined the best aspects of biography and analysis with the stories themselves, there was a better way. If the editors had embedded the stories in their biography it would have worked so much better as a true literary achievement. They should have divided up the introduction/analysis so that each story would be introduced by that part of Lovecraft's biography that led up to its creation and followed by the analysis of what the reader had just read. Then the sections would be part of an organic whole. As such, there is nothing new in From the Pest Zone to attract the afficianado of all things Lovecraft, and it is too confusing and fragmentary to attract new readers.

 2002 REVIEWS

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THE LAST OBLIVION: THE FANTASTIC POEMS OF CLARK ASHTON SMITH
Clark Ashton Smith
Hippocampus | 0-9673215-5-7 | October 2002 | 194 pages | $15.00

 

*** (out of four)
Reviewed November 2002

 

I'm not sure how to review a book of poetry, especially the kind of poetry that Clark Ashton Smith wrote. His meter was as faultless as it was archaic, and his vocabulary numbs the senses. I have never been partial to reading poetry, and attempting to read almost 200 pages of it was something of a daunting task. Nevertheless, the haunting beauty of some of the poetry more than met my expectations. To quote from it would be pointless; to excerpt a poem is to destroy its essence.

The Last Oblivion is not the first book of Smith's poetry, but it is the first one that has been widely available to the public in at least thirty years. It also has the added benefit for fans of weird fiction of providing in one place only those poems that touch on the strange and the fantastic.

Smith is perhaps best known today as a friend of H.P. Lovecraft and the writer of weird and poetic fantasies with names like "The Abominations of Yondo" or "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan" set in remote times and places, like medieval France, prehistoric Hyperborea, or futuristic Zothique. The introduction to the new volume by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz tells us that these tales were mostly written in just five years (1930-1935), but Smith's "devotion to poetry remained constant from earliest childhood to his final days." Smith wrote much poetry, and The Last Oblivion collects that segment of it that touches on the same sense of the weird and wonderful that animates Smith's prose.

But here is one of the principal troubles with The Last Oblivion. The editors, both "leading authorities on Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and their circle" have attempted to cull from Smith's vast body of poetry that which is of greatest interest to readers of Smith's and Lovecraft's fiction, namely the weird and fantastic. They have arranged the poems in thematic categories ("The Eldritch Dark," "Said the Dreamer," etc.) but they relegated the composition dates for the poems to the back of the book, so it is hard to get a sense of how Smith's poetry changed over time. A parenthetical date in the text could have helped. They also provide a glossary of words Smith used which would be unfamilar to casual users of the English language, and they reprint a (very) few of Smith's fantastic paintings. A couple of extra paintings could have helped break up the density of the text.

Joshi and Schultz caution the reader that Smith's poetry is an acquired taste, and while they believe he ranks as one of America's greatest poets, they feel that today's scholars unfairly rank it as "esoteric or passe" because it does not conform to modern expectations. Yet, they fail to notice that Smith wrote from the 1920s to the 1960s, at the height of the modernist movement, yet chose to compose his poetry in the archaic and ancient styles of the 15th-18th centuries. His mastery of form and meter is faltless, but it is the faltlessness of the student of the Old Masters. While the book's editors doubt that "literary merit is somehow equivalent to contemporaneousness,"one would not praise a play written today in iambic pentameter or music composed for the lyre. Smith's poetry is undoubtably beautiful, elegaic, and haunting, but it is beautiful in the way that America's Neo-Gothic cathedrals are beautiful. They are a glorious throwback to another Age, but they can never be truly great because they work within conventions that the great men of times past set. But if you can understand that much, then this book is a wonderful companion piece to Smith's weird fiction, a kind of Book of Psalms for the Lovecraftian canon.

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ROUTE 66 A.D.: ON THE TRAIL OF ANCIENT ROMAN TOURISTS
Tony Perrottet
Random House | ISBN: 0-375-50432-X | 2002 | 393 pages | $25.95

** (out of four)

THUNDER AT TWILIGHT: VIENNA 1913/1914
Frederic Morton
Da Capo | 0-306-81021-2 | 2001 | 387 pages | $18.50

**** (out of four)

Reviewed July 2002

Summer is the traditional time for light reading, time to escape from the angst-ridden world of reality to another time and another place. Two new books call up the ghosts of other times and other places and resurrect, ever-so-briefly, worlds that have been and gone: the wonders of the Roman Empire at its height and the decadence of the Austro-Hungarian in its senescence.

Tony Perrottet, a world traveler, finally decided to see the Mediterranean after years of visiting less hospitable areas. Dragging his pregnant wife along for the adventure, he retraces the path of the ancient Roman Grand Tour, visiting the imperial tourist's favorite destinations, like Naples, Athens, Turkey and Egypt in Route 66 A.D.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists.

Perrottet's Route 66 A.D. is perhaps the highest-profile history and travel book released this summer, As the title indicates, the book's jokey, self-effacing style gives it a winsome and breezy charm. Through such chapters as "The Empire on Ten Denarii a Day" and "Lucian Takes a Sex Tour," the author presents us with a compendium of factoids about Roman tourism and Roman culture. He compares and contrasts the tourism of yesteryear with that of today. Though his book is chock-full of little nuggets of information (like the menu of the McDonalds outside Pompeii), the book often feels a little light on its history and a bit superficial.

Complicating matters, Perrottet makes several mistakes in his book, twice confusing A.D. and B.C., thus erroneously making Homer contemporary with Charlemagne and the emperor Septimius Severus with Classical Greece. In a caption to a photo from the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts, he misidentifies the god Triton as his father Poseidon. Most annoying, he claims, "In Victorian Britian, they [mummies] became key ingredients of Egyptian gothic horror tales with suggestive titles like The Mummy's Foot, Some Words with a Mummy, and Imprisoned with the Pharaohs." Needless to say, "Some Words" was a story by the American author Edgar Allan Poe, and "Imprisoned" was a story by none other than H.P. Lovecraft, written in the hardly-Victorian date of 1924 for Harry Houdini and appearing under the latter's name.

Mistakes aside, Perrottet provides a light and energetic tour through antiquity's wonders, breathing new life into the Old World. In a similar vein, Frederic Norton's Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 resurrects another world dead and gone, the declining splendor of Austria-Hungary in the last years of Emperor Franz Joseph. This 1989 work is newly reissued by Da Capo press with a new afterward by the author. Centering around the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne, Thunder masterfully traces the life of a city that played host that year to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Freud, and others who gave birth to the twentieth century in a place that still looked back fondly on ages past.

In words that are sheer poetry, Norton takes us inside the Imperial and Royal Hapsburg Family (the Empire was Dual Monarchy, so the Hapsburgs were Imperial in Austria and Royal in Hungary). We see that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was more than the the man in a feathered hat shot dead. He was a lover who faced disgrace to marry the woman he loved, the woman scandelously not royal enough to be considered Imperial. He loved peace and fought to stop the inevitable European conflict that his death would ironically start. We meet the old Emperor in his most of ancient of days, sunning with the actress he loved but refused to let himself love physically.

We sense the glittering pageant of Viennese life and feel sympathy for the unweildy old empire tottering on the verge of modernity. We see the inevitable slide to war, the way the best of intentions led Austria-Hungary to an ultimatum against Serbia, whose native sons had conspired to kill the Archduke. We see and recoil at the way the system of alliances that Austria had devised to make war impossible instead became a suicide pact that made peace unfathomable. The story unfolds with the rhythm and power and inevitablity of Greek tragedy. In competing views of empires lost, spend a few hours at Twilight rather than on Route 66.

Metal Monster

THE METAL MONSTER
A. Merritt
Hippocampus | ISBN: 0-9673215-1-4 | June 2002 | 237 pages | $15.00

 

** (out of four)

Reviewed June 2002

 

Hippocampus Press came up with an unusual conceit for its new line of books. They publish a line of books reprinting titles that horror author H.P. Lovecraft owned, read, and loved. Called "From Lovecraft's Library," it promises to offer "the modern reader" new editions of copyright-free works that were popular around 1920. Lovecraft read voraciously and compiled an essay called Supernatural Horror in Literature (see below) to detail and rank the best elements of weird fiction. Pointedly, The Metal Monster is not included.

In the story, a certain Dr. Walter T. Goodwin journeys to the Trans-Himalayan region (Tibet), where he bumps into an odd assortment of his old friends on his quest for some rare flower or another. Why all these people are bumming around a corner of the earth that the author calls "the unexplored upheaval" is never explained, but our cast of adventurers runs into a lost race of Persians who decided to hide out from Alexander the Great two thousand years earlier.

Along the way, our heroes run into Norhala, a strange woman of the plateau who seems to control powers that are greater than man. All of this leads us inexorably to the revelation of the Metal City, made up of sentient metal blocks, its strange cosmic intelligence and its plan to rule where man now rules. The ending is reminiscent of the Norse legend of the Kraken made metal and is deeply unsatisfying.

On the other hand, the novel contains many admirable passages that capture, ever so briefly, the cosmic horror inherent in an intelligence that is at once greater than humanity and completely indifferent to it: "something utterly uncomprehending, utterly unconscious of, cosmically blind to all human emotion; that spread itself like a veil over her own consciousness." Some of the descriptions of the strange phenomena of the Metal City are spectacular, but mostly they are long and difficult to follow and keep straight. The human characters are unspeakably wooden and lifeless. The metal has more vitality than these cardboard cut-out characaters.

To be fair to Merritt, the author of many fine stories including "The People of the Pit," The Metal Monster is not all bad. It does, however, have a schizoid personality that forced me to admire the artisit's vision while finding myself utterly indifferent to the story itself. Much of this is due to the pulp fiction style of the 1920 story first serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly. Sentences are typically written backward, with the adverb first, and many exclamation points at the end: "Swiftly flesh melted back upon him, clothed him!" or "Weird enough was the sight!" It is both tedious and exhausting to read.

Since this book is marketed as a favorite of Lovecraft, I can do no better than let him speak for himself. In 1934 Lovecraft wrote: "Actually the book contains the most remarkable presentation of the utterly alien and non-human that I have ever seen. I don't wonder that Merritt calls it his 'best and worst' production. The human characters are commonplace and wooden --just pulp hokum-- but the scenes and phaenomena!" Merritt went on to revise the story several more times before the serial was first collected as a 1946 novel, but Merritt still disliked the final copy. The Hippocampus version reprints the original 1920 serial edition, the one Lovecraft read. Read it for the scenery, but don't expect anything from the characters.

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THE ANNOTATED SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE
H.P. Lovecraft
Hippocampus | ISBN: 0-9673215-0-6 | 2000 | 172 pages | $15.00

**** (out of four)

THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME: THE CORRECTED TEXT
 H.P. Lovecraft
Hippocampus | ISBN: 0-9673215-3-0 | 2001 | 136 pages | $15.00

** (out of four)

Reviewed June 2002

Small book publisher Hippocampus Press formed three years ago to publish editions of H.P. Lovecraft and other 1920s and 1930s pulp authors. To that end, they have put out two annotated editions of Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature and The Shadow Out of Time. Each of these works shows Lovecraft at his best, and for the most part the notes by editor and Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi enhance the texts and shed new light on familiar work.

In 1927 Lovecraft published Supernatural Horror, an essay detailing the rise of the modern supernatural tale from its origins in the 18th century Gothic tradition until Lovecraft's own time. Joshi tells us that the essay "has been widely acknowledged as the finest historical treatment of the field." Joshi also provides this edition with a clever little introductory essay outlining Lovecraft's theory of weird fiction as the reserve of the intellectual few, which he contrasts with the Steven King/Clive Barker horror genre as a whole, seen here as "superficial, if lucrative, hackdom." It is Neitzsche's philosophy applied to literature: only the best minds are worthy of exposure to greatness, the rest should be placated with trash.

Of course, Supernatural Horror itself makes up the centerpiece of volume, and it still holds up well on iths 75th anniversary. Joshi's notes supplement Lovecraft's text, illuminating how the author selected titles for inclusion in his survey and showing how the books Lovecraft included influenced his own fiction, which would rightly come to be regarded as the culmination of the evolution of the weird tale. I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that since Lovecraft's death the weird tale has not emerged much from his shadow. This new edition provides 35 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography of all the titles referenced in the Supernatural Horror. This is a marked improvement over the 1973 Dover edition where I first read the essay.

Lovecraft opened Supernatural Horror with the immortal line, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." By the time he wrote his last major story, The Shadow Out of Time, he had employed this universal fear of the unknown to create an immortal vision of an impersonal cosmos that had no special place for man. In the story, a Miskatonic University professor suffers from a strange mental disease and visions of a bizarre race of giant creatures from the remote past that seem capable of changing minds with sentient beings of any time and place. The set up leads to a horrible revelation in the deserts of Australia.

Shadow first saw publication in the June 1936 Astounding Stories, but typographic errors and errors in paragraphing mangled the original text. Now Hippocampus has for the first time published the original Shadow taken directly from the newly-discovered manuscript as Lovecraft wrote it. But as much as editors S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz insist that the "two dozen word changes and the inclusion of six lines of previously omitted text" significantly altered the story, I can't say that I noticed any of the differences without comparing the new version side by side with the old. I never did find those missing six lines, and paradoxically the authors say in the introduction that in the 1936 publication "no actual passages were dropped."

But more annnyoing are the footnotes. They are sometimes illuminating but often insult the reader's intelligence. The editors see fit to footnote most polysyllabic words and offer up Oxford English Dictionary definitions, lest one find Lovecraft's writing too difficult to understand. They define for us "megalithic," "spectral," "anamolous," and other such high school vocabulary words. Worst of all, the editors, who spent so much time with the dictionary seem to have spent no time with the encyclopedia. Some of their notes are flat out wrong. In the most outrageous instance, they tell us that Lovecraft was wrong to refer to a pre-Inca people since there "is no known civilization in Peru before the Incas." Even the most cursory examination turns up dozens of spectacular Peruvian civilizations over thousands of years, like the Wari, Moche, and Chimu.

Book reviews usually tell you whether a book is worth reading, not whether it is worth buying. But since the Lovecraft texts are available for free on the internet, it is fair to ask whether Supernatural Horror and Shadow are worth their $15 cover prices. For dedicated Lovecraft fans, Supernatural Horror is worth the price for the notes and commentary alone, but for the general reader the $5.95 Dover edition (or the free internet one) is all the Supernatural Horror they will ever need. Only people with an abiding interest in Lovecraft scholarship or textual purity should buy Shadow. For the general reader, any other edition packs the same punch ($10 will get you 16 Lovecraft tales, including Shadow, from Del Rey), those 24 different words not withstanding.

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NAMELESS CULTS
Robert E. Howard
Chaosium | ISBN: 1-56882-130-1 | December 2001 | 353 pages | $15.95
 

*** (out of four)
Reviewed Februrary 2002
 
 

Robert E. Howard is probably best known as the creator of the legendary Conan the Cimmerian series of stories in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. In "Nameless Cults," we see a less famous aspect of Howard's writing, his H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

By far, the stand-out gem of this collection is "Skull Face," a story that works on many levels and seems scarier today than when it was written in 1930. It is the story of a young drug addict lured into the seedy underworld of drug running only to discover that the man behind the drug ring was an evil mastermind bent on uniting the Islamic world (and other oppressed peoples) to create a universal empire: "Here in the very heart of civilization's metropolis, the direct enemy of that civilization commits crimes of the most outrageous nature and goes free! We are children, wandering in the night, struggling with an unseen evil--dealing with an incarnate devil, of whose true identity we know nothing and whose true ambitions we can only guess."

The parallels between Kathulos the Skull-Faced and Osama bin Laden are unmistakeable (even down to physical appearance), and as a prophecy of the war on terror, this story is decades ahead of its time. On another level, the story is a virtual retelling of Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" though both were written independently of each other. The two authors found the parallels uncanny.

Yet, like "Cthulhu," "Skull Face"and nearly all the stories in "Nameless Cults" reveal Howard's dark side, a decidedly racist streak that permeates, and sometimes overpowers, otherwise fine stories. Chaosium went so far as to include a warning the stories in the volume "contain racist stereotypes and references." Nevertheless, if one can look past the knee-jerk racism of the 1930s and see the stories as the adventures of flawed men, unable to overcome their (and Howard's) prejudices, yet somehow still triumphant, one can truly get a sense of how exhilarating Howard's action-adventure must have seemed during the Depression.

Other outstanding tales include the creepy "The Black Stone" and "Dig Me Know Grave." The volume also reprints a rare piece of Lovecraft, a 1935 round-robin tale "The Challenge From Beyond," of which Lovecraft and Howard each contributed one of the five sections.

There are, however, some reasons to quibble with editor Robert Price's judgment. He has chosen to print fragments Howard left unfinished with new endings written over the decades by himself and others, and while he does reveal where Howard left off, the result is still unsatisfactory (a space or break between sections would have helped). Also, for a volume subtitled "The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard," the book is remarkably light on the Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, some of the stories have nothing to do with the Mythos at all, stories which Price admits "Howard did not intend in a Lovecraftian vein."

Even with these flaws, "Nameless Cults" is still an energetic read, a look back at a time when pulp fiction was an entertaining romp through unknown worlds and unremembered times. Howard was one of the greats, and it is great to be able to read some of his lesser-known work, warts and all.

Shadows Over Innsmouth

SHADOWS OVER INNSMOUTH
H.P. Lovecraft and Others
Del Rey / Ballantine Books | ISBN: 0-345-44407-8 | September 2001 | 468 pages | $14.00

** 1/2 (out of four)
Reviewed January 2002



"Shadows Over Innsmouth" is a competent and well-written book that offers exactly what any reader would expect of it and nothing more. Editor Stephen Jones set out to create another anthology of Lovecraft-inspired horror, this time choosing one of the Cthulhu Mythos author's most famous stories, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as the topic for the volume's new fiction. David Sutton, whose "Innsmouth Gold" appears in the book says in the end notes, "The story he chose is one of the author's major yarns, but I wouldn't have pegged it as the focus for the present book."

The book begins with the now-standard Mythos introduction defining the life and legend of H.P. Lovecraft and introducing the all-British cast of authors who took the original Lovecraft novella as "inspiration" for their own work. We then read Lovecraft's fine story, which any fan will have read several times over in Del Rey's other anthologies. It introduces the decrepit Massachusettes seaport of Innsmouth, whose quasi-human inhabitants have made a sinister pact with the otherworldly Deep Ones and bide their time until those alien spawn can once more rule the world. Until then, they are content to call home anyone whose ancestors have mated with the fishy folk.

After this, we cut into the new fiction that attempts to trace the subsequent history of the town, from 1928 through today. The first entry, Basil Copper's "Beyond the Reef" tells a strong tale of mysterious goings-on at a college, but the stories quickly degenerate into Lovecraftian pastiches. Too many tales start with riffs on the classic introduction to Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu," and too many stories seem virtual rewrites of Lovecraft's originals dressed up with computers and modern appliances.

Among the stand-out pieces are Peter Tremayne's Irish horror story "Daoine Domhain," Nicholas Royle's scientific interpretation of the Mythos in "The Homecoming" and Brian Lumley's "Dagon's Bell." The last story's final imagination of a temple of the Deep Ones makes up for an otherwise standard plot. Anthologies are always uneven, so it is no surprise that other stories, like "A Quarter to Three" and "Deepnet," seem amateurish and clumsy.

"Shadows Over Innsmouth" is an overall solid book, filled with fine writing. But the book suffers from focusing exclusively on one story, and the repetition of place names and ideas feels by the end as old as the Old Ones themselves. Consequently, the book feels more like a reference book for the Deep Ones and less like an entertaining voyage to the edge of forever.

 2001 REVIEWS

Song of Cthulhu

SONG OF CTHULHU:
TALES FROM THE SPHERES BEYOND SOUND

Various Authors / Edited by Stephen Mark Rainey
Chaosium | ISBN: 1-56882-117-4 | August 2001 | 211 pages | $13.95


** (out of four)


Reviewed October, 2001


When H.P. Lovecraft wrote his stories of cosmic horror, he attempted to infuse the classic horror story with a powerful message that transcended mere story-telling and struck deep into the subconscious. For him, the monsters were only the bait that drew readers into a potent philosophy that stretched the boundaries of imagination. Sadly, his later admirers and imitators seem to have rejected Lovecraft's cosmic vision and instead of charting new territory, each story in "Song of Cthulhu," an anthology of music-themed Lovecraftian tales, seems to replay the same old tune like a dozen bad covers of one truly great ballad.

The collection opens with a reprint of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann," a story the author considered one of his greatest, though I have never thought much of it. Immediately following the "classic" tale, the volume gives us a six page literary analysis of "Zann," something sorely out of place in an anthology of fiction. The least editor Stephen Mark Rainey could have done would have been to label the piece "nonfiction."

Hands down, the best tale in the book is a World War I period piece called "Mud," in which author Brian McNaughton actually approaches Lovecraft's cosmic vision. The tale infuses a transmundane horror into the madness of war, granting a cosmological significance to one of man's most meaningless actions. And, oh yeah, it is also a pretty good story, too.

Second-best is William R. Trotter's "Drums," an atmospheric look at the horrors of post-colonial Malaysia, though the story is almost ruined by hackneyed ending where the monster exacts horrible vengence in a rough parallel to Lovecraft's story "Call of Cthulhu." Other notables include Rob Sugg's interesting but familiar "The Next Big Thing," and E.A. Lustig's powerful but formulaic "The Enchanting of Lila Woods."

Otherwise, the volume is filled with fifteen other stories that range from unimaginative pastiches of Lovecraft ("In the Rue D'Auseil" and "Shallow Fathoms") to unispired attempts to modernize the Cthulhu Mythos ("Chant" and "The Flautists"). One tale, "How Nyarlathotep Rocked Our World" had the sad distinction of making me laugh at a horror story with such uncosmic and unscary writing as: "Ann and Jeff had been toking some major weed, but from the instant the old Egyptian appeared, the musky hemplike aroma of their doobie was overpowered by a smell deeper and more earthy..." Nevermind that in Lovecraft Nyarlathotep was the embodiment of universal consciousness and not, as the story has it, "Boris Karloff in 'The Mummy' [with] a red fez." Nearly all the stories are filled out with the most horrible excess of modern Lovecraftian writers: the laundry-list mentions of every place or monster Lovecraft ever mentioned.

Nearly all the stories are as instantly forgettable as yesterday's pop hit, though several aspire to greatness without actually finding it. The final story, "Yog-Sothoth Superstar," combines all of the worst elements into one. The story not only uses the laundry-list of Lovecraftian names but also has the distinction of being a comic-horror blend that was not funny but definitely horrible. "Superstar" has the distinction of possessing the single most inappropriate ending any book could possilby have in the months following the September 11 terror attacks: in the story (written in 1997) a Lovecraftian monster destroys the World Trade Center live on CNN. Obviously, the publisher did not forsee the attacks when they sent the book to the printer in August, but if you're looking for Halloween horror escapism, this is not the place to turn. That final scene left a sour taste in my mouth and ruined an otherwise mediocre book.

EGYPT OF THE PHARAOHS
Brian Fagan with photographer Kenneth Garrett
National Geographic | ISBN: 0-7922-7294-3 | July 2001 | 288 pages | $35.00

(no photo available)

**** (out of four)

National Geographic presents a breathtaking tour of Ancient Egypt in all its splendor courtesy of prominent archaeologist Brian Fagan, a man so prolific that he also wrote the textbook I used in my North American prehistory class at college. This time around, he turns his attention to Egypt and delivers a stunning overview of a culture that lasted more than 3,000 years.

Fagan's text sparkles with anecdotes and stories that enliven Egyptian history. It's easy to think of the Pharoahs as a long line of semi-divine characters who ruled in a remote time, primal and serene. Fagan resurrects the deeds of these dead monarchs and makes their world come alive with battles, intrigue and the excitement of life on the edge of eternity.

Among the little known facts contained in the book: "Pharaoh" was NOT the name of the Egyptian monarch for most of that nation's history. In fact, Pharaoh originally referred to the royal palace and only came to mean the king during the last third of Egypt's history, the New Kingdom.

But like any National Geographic presentation, the most important part is not the words, it's the pictures. "Egypt of the Pharaohs"is chock-full of absolutely exquisite photographs, courtesy of Kenneth Garrett, who shoots for National Geographic and other famous magazines. Nearly every page has a new treasure to behold, as one of archaeology's best photographers captures some of history's best art.

Fagan and Garrett give the pyramids their due, but they place them in context, as a fleeting moment in three millennia of Egyptian history. This book is about the whole of the ancient civilization, not just the pyramids and King Tut. Also, there are few pictures of mummies, as the book tends to focus on the lives of the Egyptians, rather than their deaths.

Some alternative authors like Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval try to paint Egyptian religion as a stellar cult focused on the night sky ten millennia back, but a read through Fagan's text and a look at Garrett's pictures strongly impresses the reader that the Egyptians were a *solar* people, and this accessable volume is an eloquent refutation to some of the more radical theories on Egyptian civilization. National Geographic has made a stellar volume (pardon the pun) that can bring to everyone the wonder and magnificence of Egyptian life.

The Unwanted Gaze cover

THE UNWANTED GAZE: THE DESTRUCTION OF PRIVACY IN AMERICA
Jeffrey Rosen
Vintange | ISBN: 0-679-76520-4 | June 2001 (paperback) | 282 pages | $13.00

* * * (out of four)

Now out in a slightly revised paperback edition, Jeffrey Rosen's important look at the stunning lack of privacy in America is enough to make anyone begin to envy the Unabomber's Montana cabin. In "The Unwanted Gaze," Rosen makes the case that recent Supreme Court decisions in the realm of sexual harassment law have steadily eroded the distinction between public and private conduct. Throw the internet into the mix, and the personal quickly becomes the public. Today, thanks to Congressional action, video tape rental records are federally sealed, but the prescription you had filled at the local pharmacy has no such protection.

Rosen traces the erosion of privacy to the feminist movement in post-war America. As women entered the workplace, sexual harassment became a major concern. When feminist writers pioneered the idea that privacy was a form of sex-discrimination because private places are where men oppress women, sexual harassment laws stripped workers of any semblence of a private life. As technology allowed greater prying and eavesdropping and telecommuting made the home part of the office, everyone has fallen under a kind of fascist-style monitoring of his or her private life.

Among the scariest sections of the book are the detailed cases of government using the tools of new technology to keep tabs on its citizens. Rosen mentions the case of an ice cream parlor that sold to an advertising firm the list of people who received free birthday sundaes. The government bought the list and had the Selective Service send draft registration notifications to those birthday boys turning 18.

In other sections, Rosen shows how easily anything a person does on the internet can become public knowledge, even if done in the privacy of one's own home. Thanks to the internet, turning on the computer has become almost akin to turning on a camera into one's life.

One of the unlikely heroes of Rosen's book is Monica Lewinsky because the Clinton intern fought Independent Council Kenneth Starr tooth and nail over invasions of her privacy. Lewinsky had to reveal intimate details of her own (consentual) affair with Bill Clinton because another woman, Paula Jones, had made rather flimsy claims of sexual harassment. In Rosen's view, the schizophrenic harassment law prevented anyone from investigating Jones's sex life, but Monica Lewinsky had to discuss her favored sexual positions in intimate detail despite not having claimed harassment.

Rosen's book is eloquently written and deeply disturbing. Not only does he shine a light into the problems facing America in the 21st century, he also tries to offer solutions. However, his book goes off track in a few places that can make "The Unwanted Gaze" slightly annoying to the casual reader. Rosen refers too often to the obscure legal theories of early privacy advocate and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis so that by the end most readers will wish Brandeis had kept more of his thoughts private. Also, Rosen goes off-topic in the middle third of his book, dealing exclusively with sexual harassment without tying it firmly to the privacy issues he advocates elsewhere.

But the book's flaws are far out-weighed by its merits, and this book is destined to be remembered as one of the first attempts to chronicle the birth of Orwell's Big Brother in all his horrific glory. Oh yeah, one handy little tip: if you don't want anyone to know you bought "The Unwanted Gaze," make sure you pay cash.

Ancient Ones cover

ANICENT ONES
Kirk Mitchell
Bantam | ISBN: 0-553-10914-6 | May 2001 | 326 pages | $23.95


* (out of four)


Some reviewers might call Kirk Mitchell's writing sparse, but consider the events of just the first chapter of his most recent novel, "Ancient Ones." In it we have a rape, a prison parole, alcoholism, grave-robbing, a fish-ladder, spirits, child sexual abuse, sexual therapy, nude showering, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, public sex, a roller coaster, and Las Vegas. And I just hit the highlights.

In the first chapter we meet our heroes, Anna Turnipseed and Emmett Parker, two federal agents in love, though Anna could not physically love until now because of the specter of sexual abuse. She's in therapy as we meet her, and the dialogue is laughable: "Did you enjoy the hand-holding, Anna?" Then, later: "Emmett, take Anna somewhere public and show her how much fun heavy petting can be."

The two agents arrive in Oregon where a prominent anthropologist has declared some old bones found in a river bed to be the 14,000-year-old remains of a Caucasian cannibalized by the ancient paleo-Indians living in the area. The local tribes are outraged and demand the skeleton be buried as their ancestor, as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Needless to say, everyone from mad scientists to lesbian army personnel to white pagans wants the skeleton to satisfy his or her complex motives. It is up to the two intrepid agents to stop the madness before all hell breaks loose and scientific paradigms fall.

However, Parker and Turnipseed act on the advice of author Kirk Mitchell and spend most of the book trying to have sex, but they are interrupted every time they attempt to couple. Mitchell has a grand time trying to find new ways to stop his protagonists from having sex, going so far as to detonate a bomb in their car to stop the love-making. This pattern becomes painfully regular as the agents pause two-thirds of the way through every other chapter to restart their aborted fornicating, leading to the inevitable climax (pun intended) at the end of the novel. Any reader who could not see it coming deserves to have the surprise spoiled.

Of course, between the torrid bouts of coitus interruptis, the agents take time to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who may or may not have anything to do with an attempt to steal the 14,000-year-old bones. This leads them through an adulterous affair between the wife of the leader of a Norse Pagan movement and a native sorcerer busy casting spells. Somewhere there is also a lesbian subplot and some hot army sex.

For good measure, Mitchell also throws in those old horror-novel standbys, the Mad Scientist and cannibalism. But Mitchell's heart of darkness also includes 21st-century horrors like Mad Cow Disease and Institutional Racism. And just in case you don't know any of the big words he uses - like "hydroplaning" - the author helpfully defines all three- or more-syllable words with dashed definitions. Also, he declines to make use of the more complicated forms of sentence structure, like those which involve predicates.

In fact, little in "Ancient Ones" is in any way surprising or original. Each chapter is jam-packed with every hot-topic and modern bug-a-boo that someone who obviously watches too much CNN could possibly come up with. Had Mitchell used a more fluid writing style and developed his characters beyond their genitalia, he might have had an interesting novel, especially with all the current buzz about the ancient, supposedly Caucasian Kennewick Man, from whose headlines this novel was, to paraphrase Shakespeare, untimely ripped. But the novel's characters are cardboard and the action is strictly by-the-book, as one would expect from an author who spent a career writing police reports.

The end of the plot comes about three chapters before the end of the book for all but the dullest readers, so it is odd to read on the tacky turquoise book cover "a novel of suspense." In that, "Ancient Ones" fails on both counts, since the book is neither novel nor suspenceful.

Three Impostors Cover

THREE IMPOSTORS AND OTHER SHORT STORIES
Arthur Machen
Chaosium Inc. | ISBN: 1-56882-132-8 | April 2001 | 234 pages | $13.95



* * * (out of four)



When Arthur Machen's novella "The Great God Pan" first appeared in 1894, its cautious hints at illicit sex scandalized the Victorians, prompting the Manchester Guardian to proclaim the work "the most acutely and intentionally disagreeable we have yet seen in English." In the years since, Machen's weird fiction has steadily climbed in public opinion, having nowhere to go but up. Now "Pan" has a reputation for being a truly great horror story and one of the best Machen ever wrote.

I first encountered Machen in a cheap horror anthology, and I have enjoyed his fiction ever since. Now Chaosium gives us "Three Impostors," the first volume of Machen's collected weird stories. The book includes a novella of the same name, "Pan," and two other short stories. It also features some truly bizarre cover art of what appears to be a mutant potato floating outside a Victorian mansion.

Perhaps the best-known tale in the book, "Pan" tells the story of a scientist whose experiments allow the ancient Greek nature diety Pan to appear to a frightened young woman. Years later, another woman brings terror and death to prominent men. The connection between the two events displays the horror and cruelty of Nature.

The title novella is a loose collection of short stories revolving around a superfluous mystery tale. It contains two famous self-contained stories that are often anthologized on their own, "The Novel of the White Powder" and "The Novel of the Black Seal." The former tale tells what happens when a pharmacist accidentally gives his patient the wrong medicine, while the latter is a true classic in the Lost Civilization genre. "Black Seal" is the story of a professor who makes the discovery of a lifetime: he has pieced together the remnants of a lost civilization similar to Atlantis, whose survivors hid under the cloak of mythological creatures. To tell more would be a great disservice to the reader.

For that reason, anyone reading this volume as a first encounter with Machen's work should NOT read S. T. Joshi's introduction until finishing the stories themselves. Joshi, a learned scholar and biographer of horror author H. P. Lovecraft, insists on giving away the endings to all the stories and all the eerie elements, oblivious to the fact that it is precisely the element of surprise that makes a weird tale work.

Like any collection of a single author's work, the volume is uneven because Machen himself was wildly uneven. But with "White Powder," "Black Seal" and "Pan," those three stories alone make "Three Impostors" a worthy addition to any horror fan's library.

NOTE: Chaosium plans to publish a second volume, "The White People and Other Tales" at a later date. "The White People" is roundly considered Machen's best story.

mummytomb.jpg

INTO THE MUMMY'S TOMB
Berkley Publishing Group | ISBN: 0425176648 | April 2001 | 352 pages | $14.00

* * (out of four)


"Into the Mummy's Tomb" comes to book stores at the same time that "The Mummy Returns" hits theaters, and the book aims to satisfy an itch for all things Egyptian. The slickly-produced cover promises "ancient mystery--and terror--unearthed by the world's greatest writers" and then lists such notable names as Anne Rice, H.P. Lovecraft and Agatha Christie. However, editor John Richard Stephens put together an uneasy mixture of fact and fiction that left me wanting more of both. He places side by side fictional accounts of Ancient Egypt with out-of-copyright Egyptological reports and even Howard Carter's report on opening Tutankamun's tomb.

Fortunately, these forays into fact are short and don't take too much from the showcase pieces of fiction. Among the gems collected here: a rare Agatha Christie story about Poirot investigating the curse of a mummy's tomb, Ray Bradbury's tale of the fun a kid can have with a genuine homemade mummy and an obscure little gem from Elizabeth Peters presenting a Sherlock Holmes-style detective tale set in the ancient past.

On the other hand, the volume has quite a few pieces of filler, including weak pieces by the too-often-anthologized H.P. Lovecraft (writing as Harry Houdini, of all people) and Edgar Allan Poe, whom I suspect were included for name recognition. Another one to skip is a long story by Sir H. Rider Haggard that imagines an archaeologists brought before the ghosts of all Egyot's Pharoahs.

The editor rounds out the book with an excerpt from Anne Rice's recent novel "The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned" and an abridged version of a Bram Stoker novel set in, where else, Egypt.

"Into the Mummy's Tomb" is fun reading for stormy summer nights, the hot kind with plenty of atmospheric thunder and lightning, but I'd recommend buying it in the summer discount bin. -- J.C.

 2001-2003 Jason Colavito. All rights reserved.