Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Clark Ashton Smith, the Poseidonis and interplanetary stories

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was part of the Lovecraft literary circle, corresponding frequently and at great length with Lovecraft and other masters of weird fiction such as Robert E. Howard. They frequently exchanged ideas and often borrowed characters and settings from each other. It was an incredibly fruitful arrangement.

Lovecraft and Howard achieved major cult followings by the 1960s and their popularity remains extremely high. Smith has never quite achieved the same level of popularity with the book-buying public although among true aficionados of weird fiction he is generally regarded as being their equal.

Smith was a writer who relied on atmosphere and style to an extreme degree. Many of the great pulp weird fiction writers were fascinated by the idea of civilisation in decline. Lovecraft wrote about civilisation decay and degeneration. Smith was obsessed by civilisational decadence. His great strength was that his style was in itself decadent and therefore perfectly matched his material. His prose is more self-consciously literary than Lovecraft’s but his prose is even more purple. Prose just doesn’t get any more purple than this. But it works.

The bulk of Smith’s short stories belong to several cycles, the best-known being the Zothique cycle. Somewhat lesser known are the handful of Poseidonis stories. Poseidonis is a mythical island, the last remnant of the lost continent of Atlantis. It is a world of sorcery, and of power struggles between great (although frequently evil) sorcerers. Smith’s Poseidonis cycle comprises eight stories and poems. I will be considering three of the stories here (and they happen to be three very fine stories).

In The Last Incantation the ageing but powerful sorcerer Malygris discovers that even his formidable magic cannot recapture the memories of youth. There’s no real horror in this tale. It’s more a story of melancholy and perhaps of the limits of power.

In The Death of Malygris the King, Gadeiron, suspects that the much-feared sorcerer Malygris may have finally died. But so powerful is this sorcerer’s magic that no-one wants to take the risk of entering his tower to find out if he is really dead. A sorcerer with Malygris’s powers can be dangerous even when dead. The King has the services of the master necromancer Maranapion but he knows that will not be enough. He recruits twelve more sorcerers but perhaps even that may not be sufficient to deal with Malygris.

The Double Shadow is the tale of a master necromancer and his acolyte who conjure forth a demon whose existence was previously unknown, a demon from the impossibly remote past, from the age of the serpent-men. It might have been infinitely wiser not to have conjured this particular demon.

While Smith could at a stretch be considered a writer of sword-and-sorcery tales the emphasis was very much on the sorcery (certainly compared to Howard who put the emphasis on the swords). These three stories are entirely tales of sorcery. There’s no action at all, but there’s plenty of horror  and there’s as much weirdness as any reasonable person could desire.

Among Smith’s lesser known works are his interplanetary stories, set on Mars or on several imaginary planets. They’re perhaps as close as he got to science fiction and that’s not very close.

The Flower-Women has a science fictional setting but it’s still basically a story of sorcery, concerning a sorcerer who becomes bored because his magic is too powerful and he no longer faces any real challenges. He gives up (temporarily) most of his magic to pursue adventure on one of the several planets of which he is ruler. The flower-women really are flower-women - half carnivorous plant and half woman. The flower-women are being menaced by reptilian sorcerers who seem like they might provide an invigorating challenge.

The Monster of the Prophecy is much closer to actual science fiction. A poet, unable to face poverty and the indifference of the world, is about to find a watery death by throwing himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. A strange old man offers him an alternative. The old man is an alien wizard and he transports the poet to a distant planet inhabited by very strange creatures. The alien wizard is more scientist than wizard and he intends to use the poet to further his ambitions. The plan doesn’t work out as neatly as he’d hoped. There’s no actual magic in this story, which is pretty unusual for a Smith story.

The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis is one of Smith’s Mars stories. This is Mars as imagined in the early 1930s, an inhabited world with life being mostly clustered about the canals. An archaeological expedition is exploring the ruins of the impossibly ancient city of Yoh-Vombis, a city built by a long-extinct Martian race rather different from present-day Martians. Yoh-Vombis is far from the life-giving canals and there is no possibility that anything could be alive in those desolate ruins. What the expedition finds there is an unimaginable horror, the secret to the disappearance of the people of Yoh-Vombis. This is a very Lovecraftian story, in both content and style.

I still regard the Zothique stories as being Clark Ashton Smith’s greatest achievements but his other story cycles are well worth investigating. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

S.S. Van Dine’s The Casino Murder Case

The Casino Murder Case was the eighth of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mysteries. While the theory has been advanced that the quality of the Philo Vance books declined precipitately towards the end of the series I found this 1934 entry to be more than satisfactory.

It begins with Vance receiving a typewritten letter warning him that some unspecified doom is about to descend of the wealthy Llewellyn family. It’s the sort of letter that might well have been sent by a crank but there’s something about it that worries Vance. The note particularly warns Vance to keep an eye on young Lynn Llewellyn on the following night when he will be visiting his uncle Richard Kincaid’s casino.

The young man does indeed suffer a serious misfortune after winning big at the casino. The really odd thing is that his wife suffers the same misfortune at the same moment, on the opposite side of the city. In both cases poison is involved but how could someone poison two people simultaneously miles apart?

And the poisoner has not yet completed his (or her) work for the evening.

Right from the start Vance has the feeling that both he and the police are being toyed with, but in a very subtle and ingenious way. There are clues that seem too obvious, but are they deliberately intended to seem too obvious? Is the killer trying to point Vance in a particular direction, or simply trying to make Vance think that he is doing so?

There have been three poisonings, but only one was successful. There are possible motives but none that seem sufficient to lead to murder. On the other hand there are so many complex personal dislikes and resentments within the family and their circle of hangers-on that nobody can really be eliminated from suspicion.

The murder methods seem more conventional than in Van Dine’s other novels but he makes up for this by making the circumstances surrounding the murders and attempted murders so puzzling. And once Vance starts to come up with possible solutions we find that they’re not so conventional after all.

As always with Van Dine the crimes take place among the rich and famous. Glamorous settings were an essential part of the Van Dine formula. That’s something I don’t have a problem with. One of the privileges of being rich is that if you want to commit murder you can do so in an imaginative and stylish manner. Murder might be unpleasant but there’s no reason for it to be commonplace or sordid.

Vance is in fine form, fretting about cultural influences on ancient Sumerian civilisation and missing out on dog trials (we already know from The Kennel Murder Case that Vance has a passion for dogs), and on the vanity of human passions. He also indulges himself in frequent biblical allusions.

As usual his friend, District Attorney John F.-X. Markham, is mystified by the workings of Vance’s mind. Sergeant Heath of the Homicide Squad is equally mystified but he’s accustomed to Vance’s peculiar methods.

Psychology certainly plays a role in this story. Vance is sure that if he can understand why the murderer has carried out the crimes in a particular way he can crack the case. The difficulty is that he’s dealing with a group of people all of whom are perhaps slightly psychologically abnormal.

This one doesn’t have the over-the-top baroque flourishes of The Scarab Murder Case or The Dragon Murder Case but it does have a pleasingly fiendish plot. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Desmond Bagley 's The Golden Keel

The Golden Keel appeared in 1963 and launched Desmond Bagley on a successful career as a writer of thrillers. To me Bagley is the guy whose books you read when you’ve run out of Alistair MacLean books to read. Bagley’s style is similar, he’s not as good as MacLean, but he’s OK.

The Golden Keel had a contemporary setting but the early part of the story is told in a series of flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks. The technique works since the past is always a presence in this story. What happened back in 1948 is important, and what happened back in 1943 is absolutely crucial. But exactly what did happen in 1943? It’s a story told by a drunk and might be nothing more than a tall story. Or it might be true. Or partly true.

The narrator is English yacht designer Peter Halloran who had headed for South Africa after the war ended. He prospered there and eventually came to be the owner of a very successful boat-building business. He had everything he wanted out of life, and then suddenly something happened and it no longer meant anything to him. And then he encountered the drunk, a man named Walker, once again. He is now convinced that Walker’s story is true and he intends to do something about. It will be an adventure and he may rediscover a reason to go on living.

Walker had been an Allied prisoner-of-war in Italy who, along with a tough Afrikaaner sergeant named Coertze, escaped and joined a partisan band. These were not communist partisans but monarchists, a fact which later assumes some importance. At some point very late in 1943 half a dozen of these partisans, including Walker and Coertze, ambushed a convoy of German trucks. The trucks were carrying Italian Government documents, large sums of currency and an assortment of extremely valuable jewellery. And they were carrying one other thing - four tons of gold. This was apparently the treasure of Mussolini but Mussolini was destined never to see his gold again.

There were several things that the six partisans could have done at this point but human nature being what it is it’s not surprising that they decided to keep the treasure for themselves. Their problem, and a very big problem it was, was how to get the gold out. They decided to hide the treasure in an abandoned lead mine and they dynamited the entrance to keep their hoard secure.

This gold brought ill luck to most of the partisans. No less than four of the six men involved met violent deaths (some in slightly mysterious circumstances) before the end of the war.

Fifteen years later neither Walker nor Coertze has been able to come up with any workable scheme for getting the gold out of Italy. But Peter Halloran has such a scheme. It will require money and careful planning and it will require a yacht. Halloran has the right yacht for the job. The tricky part is that he’s going to need Walker and Coertze to behave themselves and co-operate and since Walker is an alcoholic and Coertze is short-tempered and they hate each other this will be quite a challenge.

As you would expect the top-secret plan to extract Mussolini’s gold from Italy doesn’t remain a secret for very long. There are soon other interested parties, and they play rough. And of course there’s a woman. She’s beautiful and somewhat mysterious and as to whether she is untrustworthy, that’s a question that only time will answer.

There are some ambitious action set-pieces although they are a bit confused and chaotic. Bagley doesn’t quite have MacLean’s gift for building tension. He also doesn’t have MacLean’s gift for taut plotting. His plots lack the neat little twists that MacLean was so good at. There’s a clever story here but it drags just a little in places.

There is one other striking similarity to MacLean in this novel. The romance sub-plot doesn’t quite work. Halloran and Francesca fall in love because the plot requires them to but we don’t really get much of an inkling into the reason for their mutual attraction. It just suddenly happens.

While I’ve always had slight reservations about Bagley’s plotting I have to admit that he handles the character interactions (the non-romantic character interactions) extremely well. He brings together a small group of people who don’t know each other very well, don’t necessarily like each other and definitely don’t trust each other. They also have to deal with several outsiders and those outsiders might be friendly, or neutral, or downright hostile. Somehow they have to pull off a complicated plan without double-crossing or being double-crossed.

The best moments take place on the yacht and Bagley does go close to pulling off a MacLean in these scenes, with the sea itself as much of an enemy as the bad guys. The fact that we’re not entirely sure who are the bad guys also helps. The climax (at sea) is well executed and quite exciting.

The Golden Keel is a pretty solid action thriller. Not quite in the top rank but still recommended.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

R.A.J. Walling's The Mystery of Mr Mock

The Mystery of Mr Mock (the US title was The Corpse with the Floating Foot) was written in 1937 by R.A.J. Walling and of course features private detective Philip Tolefree.

Tolefree and his friend Farrar (who narrates the story) have joined another old friend of Tolefree’s, Professor Pye, for a period of relaxation in the country. They have chosen the village of Combe in Wiltshire. Combe’s main claim to fame (indeed its only claim to fame) is the Wheel Inn. This hotel was converted from an old water mill and the water wheel is still in existence. It has to be admitted that the Wheel Inn really is most picturesque as well as being rather comfortable while Combe itself is a thoroughly pleasant little spot.

Pye is a Professor of Moral Philosophy but he is also somewhat obsessed with a much less respectable subject. Pye just loves crime. Had he not been a Professor of Moral Philosophy he would dearly have loved to have been a detective.

The time passes most agreeably with considerable entertainment being provided by two of the other guests at the Wheel Inn, Mr Mock and Mr Annison. These two gentlemen argue constantly and their arguments include an extraordinary leavening of profanity. This attracts the ire of the godly Mr Cornwood who does his best to save the souls of these two reprobates. Mr Mock and Mr Annison might dislike one another but there is one thing that unites them - their mutual detestation of Mr Cornwood.

And then, on Guy Fawkes Night, Mr Mock vanishes. His ancient car vanishes as well. Actually he’s not the only one who vanishes after that night.

There are a couple of odd little details that worry Tolefree. He’s particularly worried by Mr Mock’s hat. These little details will lead to a grisly discovery (which we already know about since the book opens with the finding of a corpse and we then get a flashback that fills in the story of the previous four days).

The discovery of the corpse raises more questions than it answers. Tolefree would love to have a glimpse of a motive but at this stage there’s absolutely no sign of one. He is convinced that no real progress towards solving the case can be made without knowing why the man was murdered.

This is a fine example of making the most of the unusual features of the splendid setting. The water wheel itself plays a part in the story and the old mill building turns out to be a most curious structure with all sorts of secrets hidden within its depths.

Combe itself is quite an entertaining little place with more than its fair share of slightly odd and colourful characters. The landlord of the inn is a retired naval captain who has been known to forget that on land his authority is no longer unlimited. Professor Pye is a genuine eccentric and his philosophical debates with Tolefree are quite amusing. Mr Mock and Mr Annison are likeable old sinners. Mr Cornwood is a bit of a stereotype, the priggish devout sort always seeking to save souls, but he has some unexpected hidden depths. There’s also the village Don Juan, young Calderstone, who may be less empty headed than he appears to be.

While this is a book that is very much in the puzzle-plot mould it’s not just a matter of looking for clues. The personalities of the characters do count as a factor that Tolefree cannot ignore.

Alibis play a vital role and, rather unusually, the alibis have to be remarkably specific since Tolefree is eventually able to fix the time of the murder almost precisely.

Fishing will be important as well, although in this case the fishermen are not necessarily after fish.

This is not one of those detective novels in which the detective settles himself in his favourite armchair, fills his pipe and proceeds to solve the entire mystery without leaving his study. Tolefree will have to do a great deal of tramping about, he will have to display considerable energy and agility and will even have to put himself in harm’s way on occasion. He even has cause to be grateful that he brought his revolver along with them.

In fact in fairness to Walling it should be pointed out that most of Tolefree’s cases do involve quite a bit of leg work and at times some danger.

If you’ve always assumed that Walling was merely one of the more obscure writers of the Humdrum School and therefore of little interest The Mystery of Mr Mock might just change your mind. It’s really a thoroughly enjoyable tale of detection. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Leigh Brackett's The Last Days of Shandakor

The Last Days of Shandakor is a novelette by Leigh Brackett. It first appeared in the April 1952 issue of Startling Stories. It’s typical of the very best of her sword-and-planet tales.

It’s set on Brackett’s Mars, a once-green planet that is now mostly desert. The great Martian civilisations, civilisations that were ancient aeons before the beginning of recorded history on Earth, have fallen into decay. Most have vanished almost entirely, leaving just a few tantalising traces.

A planetary anthropologist from Earth, John Ross, encounters a man named Corin. Corin fascinates him because he seems to belong to no known surviving race. Corin claims to have left the dying city of Shandakor, a city as unknown as the race to which Corin belongs.

Corin wants to return to Shandakor and John Ross, realising that he could be on the brink of discoveries that could make his professional reputation, wants to accompany him.

Shandakor is a city that knew times of greatness. Now it is dying, or is it already a dead city? It depends on what you mean by dead. What John Ross finds is a shadow of that greatness but it’s a very peculiar shadow.

This is the sort of thing that Brackett did supremely well. It’s a story that relies absolutely on mood and it’s a mood of loss, of melancholy, of doom both feared and welcomed. There is physical death, and there is the death of the will to survive.

Brackett was obsessed by the idea of lost civilisations and the death and decay of civilisations. She was obsessed by what might be called the idea of historical deep time, of the past as something incredibly vast and majestic and terribly sad. It’s a subject she approached with sensitivity and compassion but without sentimentality. Civilisations live and they die, that’s just the way things are. men live and they die as well. There is a time to die.

John Ross will make his anthropological discoveries and he will make discoveries about himself as well. He will find love but it seems to be an impossible love. Is love stronger than death? John Ross will find the answer to that question.

This novelette is included in the excellent Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks volume Sea Kings of Mars.

The Last Days of Shandakor is one of Brackett’s most successful stories. Very highly recommended.