Top 10 Fantasy (Special Mention) – Cult & Pulp

 

TOP 10 FANTASY (SPECIAL MENTION) – CULT & PULP

 

And now we round out my Top 10 Fantasy Books (and Top 10 Fantasy Stories & Works) with my roll call of cult & pulp favorites, short of my honorable mentions of ongoing interest or my special mentions of iconic status.

 

 

CULT

 

(1) JAMES BRANCH CABELL – JURGEN (1919)

 

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true”

 

James Branch Cabell was a fantasy author held in high regard in the early twentieth century, but one that has largely receded from public consciousness since – which is a pity, because he was influential in inspiring the comic fantasy genre with his “dreamy but snarky tales of adventure”. Cabell perhaps achieved most of his notoriety with his novel Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, as it was the subject of an obscenity trial after its publication. Of course, by today’s standards, it is very mild – much of the ‘obscenity’ consisted of double entrendres about the titular hero’s ‘sword’ (or similar object) by the women seduced by him. In the end, the presiding judge dismissed the case as “the most that can be said against the book is that certain passages therein may be considered suggestive in a veiled and subtle way of immorality but such suggestions are delicately conveyed” – an observation that also summarizes Cabell’s elegant prose style.

 

The novel itself involved the titular pawnbroker (one hesitates to call him hero, as he is somewhat more anti-hero) seducing his way through ever more fantastic realms, ultimately even to Hell and Heaven. His journey to Hell (where he even seduces the Devil’s wife) was of course the obligatory underworld passage for any aspiring solar deity or hero. Indeed, his sojourn in Hell is one of the highlights – I particularly enjoyed that Hell is a democracy (as opposed to the monarchy of its adversary Heaven) but one which has been suspended during its war with Heaven, or that its occupants make their own Hell through their power of belief (with Jurgen’s father in the fire and brimstone hell of his belief).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

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(2) L. SPRAGUE DE CAMP – LEST DARKNESS FALL (1939)

 

L. Sprague de Camp is sadly somewhat obscure these days, despite being a major figure – and prolific writer – of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1930’s and 1940’s, chumming around with better remembered writers such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. (Similarly to de Camp in Lest Darkness Fall, Asimov retold the history of the fall of the Roman Empire in his Foundation series – his Galactic Empire in turn influenced the Empire in Star Wars).

 

I encountered L. Sprague de Camp in a Golden Age of Science Fiction anthology from school. His present obscurity seems particularly undeserved, as I preferred his playful comedic story style to Asimov’s robotics (I’m referring to his characters and plots, not the actual robots) and whatever it was Heinlein was on – as much as I did like both Asimov and Heinlein. As opposed to Asimov and Heinlein, de Camp’s stories – and he excelled in shorter fiction, typically for the magazine publication of the Golden Age – are elusive to find, with the notable exception of his most notable stories.

 

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The first of these are his light fantasy Harold Shea or Compleat Enchanter stories, written in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt. The premise of those stories is that the protagonist (and companions) use symbolic logic or the ‘mathematics of magic’ to travel to parallel worlds in which fantasy, myths and legends are real – Norse mythology, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (where Shea meets his wife Belphebe), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kublai Khan, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, the Finnish Kavela and Irish mythology. These stories had a certain resonance for me as they seemed to symbolize the magic of reading fantasy itself.

 

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However, it is the second that has had the more lasting influence, in my enduring love of alternate histories, particularly alternate histories created by time travelers from our own time – his novella Lest Darkness Fall. Written in 1939, it “is certainly one of the earliest and most influential” of the alternate history genre (although it in turn is similar to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

 

Visiting the Pantheon in Rome, protagonist Martin Padway finds himself transported by a mysterious storm to sixth century Rome – and sets out to singlehandedly stave off the impending Dark Ages. The western Roman Empire has fallen, but the Ostrogothic Kingdom that has replaced it in Italy is suitably stable for Padway’s purpose. (Indeed, this mirrors a historical viewpoint that traces the true onset of the Dark Ages not to the fall of the western Roman Empire, but to the destruction of the Ostrogothic kingdom in the disastrous so-called Gothic Wars with the resurgent eastern Roman Empire. I’ve previously looked at the Gothic Wars through its leading general Belisarius).

 

Fortunately, Padway is a capable individual for this tall task – I’d have been royally screwed. For one thing, he is a scholar of the period (hence his visit to Rome) and speaks Latin. He sets out to acquire money for his task from a moneylender – if you thought modern interest rates were usurious, you should see the Roman moneylending rates. However, Padway negotiates for the waiver of the usurious interest rates by showing the moneylender how to make his business much more profitable – through Arabic numerals and double entry book-keeping. Padway then invests in his own profitable business in a revolutionary new product – distilling brandy. Padway then uses his money to create, by trial and error, the technologies of communication that he sees as the means to prevent the Dark Ages (printing press and a crude semaphore telegraphic system) – while becoming increasingly involved (and predominant) in politics and war as he seeks to preserve the Ostrogothic kingdom from its opponents, particularly the eastern Roman Empire.

 

As I said, Lest Darkness Fall inspired my long-lasting love for alternate histories, particularly alternate histories through time travel, which become even more fun when you don’t just send individuals back in time, but whole groups or even towns – such as John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy (in which a twenty-first century naval battle group is transported back to the Battle of Midway and find themselves fighting a very different Second World War) or Eric Flint’s 1632 series (in which the whole town of Grantsville in modern Virginia finds itself transported back to Germany in the Thirty Years War).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 3 STARS***

 

 

(3) JACK VANCE – DYING EARTH (1950-1984)

 

Jack Vance was a prolific writer of fantasy and SF. And also eloquent, with a dry sense of humor:

 

“What are your fees?” inquired Guyal cautiously.

“I respond to three questions,” stated the augur. “For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue”.

 

Although he wrote “a massive amount of incredibly diverse science fiction and fantasy”, probably his most well-known is his Dying Earth series – which in turn influenced a whole Dying Earth subgenre of fantasy. In the words of TV Tropes:

 

“Welcome to Earth, a few million years in the future. Magic is back, mostly displacing science, and it is both After the End and Just Before the End: Civilization has pretty much collapsed, and the Sun is close to going out. Earth’s remaining inhabitants are generally aware of this but have no means to escape their increasingly hot and barren Crapsack World. Those that haven’t become religious zealots are largely nihilistic fatalists, engaging in what debauchery they can in the time left.”

 

And of course there are demons and eldritch abominations, the former of which are the coagulated mass of humanity’s debauched desires, fantasies, and vices given form by magic.

 

 

As for the magic, Vancian magic (as it is styled) has had an influence throughout the fantasy genre, mainly because it was adopted as the system of magic in Dungeons & Dragons, for the utility of its ‘fire and forget’ mnemonics as a game mechanic. Essentially, wizards could memorize a set number of spells to use (depending on various factors such as their intelligence or level of skill), but which were depleted upon use until they were renewed by re-memorizing them.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

 

(4) MICHAEL MOOROCK – ELRIC (1965-2005)

 

Michael Moorcock is a prolific fantasy and SF writer (who famously dismissed The Lord of the Rings in his essay Epic Pooh), most of whose work revolves around the concept of the Eternal Champion – “a being who undergoes repeated incarnations throughout time, and is destined to maintain the balance between Law and Chaos— whether he wants to or not”. Indeed, the Eternal Champion is somewhat Moorcock’s monomyth – typically vying for an Eternal Consort against an Eternal Enemy with the assistance of an Eternal Companion. (Moorcock’s concept of Law and Chaos also influenced the moral ‘alignment’ system of Dungeons and Dragons).

 

Although his surrealistic James Bond-style Cornelius Chronicles or his decadent Dancers at the End of Time come close, his most well-known series is that of Elric of Melnibone. Elric is a deconstruction of heroic fantasy in general – and Conan in particular. Indeed, Elric is almost a complete inversion of Conan. Their worlds of a mythic prehistoric Earth are similar, but whereas Conan is a powerful warrior, Elric is a sickly albino wizard. Elric is the prodigal son of the decadent and evil Melnibonian kingdom, fighting for his patron Lord of Chaos Arioch with his soul-sucking sword Stormbringer – which enthusiastically devours the souls of his companions as much as, if not more so than, his enemies, and if anything is even more evil than Elric himself (who is more angst-ridden than evil).

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

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(5) JAMES BLISH – BLACK EASTER / THE DAY AFTER JUDGEMENT (1967 / 1970)

 

I have a soft spot for fantasies of the Apocalypse, as in the Biblical Apocalypse or Book of Revelations, but deconstructed or subverted (or otherwise not played straight).

 

Black Easter (or Faust Aleph-Null) is a classic Nebula-nominated work by James Blish, in which an arms dealer contracts with a black magician by the name of Theron Ware to literally let all hell break loose for one night on earth – out of curiosity to see what would happen and to boost profits from arms sales. Most of the narrative is an intricate exploration of the ritual involved, based on actual books of such rituals, although there is a pleasant diversion involving a rather fetching succubus.

 

The white magicians of the Catholic Church are also involved, but are limited to observations of protocol due to their non-aggression compact with the forces of black magic. However, what everyone, including Ware himself, was implicitly relying on to contain the ritual, falls apart in the concluding punchline to the novel (I’d give a spoiler alert, but it’s a little late for a novel now almost fifty years old) – the demon Baphomet takes the time to gloat to them that the War is Over and God is dead, so that the forces of Hell cannot be compelled to return…

 

There is a sequel – The Day After Judgement – but it never truly rises to the force of the concluding punchline of the first novel (which in turn would probably have been more effective as a shorter work). A one-sided apocalypse ensues, but the demons mysteriously seem restrained in their destructive force. The original characters from the first novel attempt to reverse the apocalypse, on a quest to the City of Hell that has risen in the place of Las Vegas (where else? Although Stephen King had a similar idea in The Stand…). The mystery is uncovered when a mournful Satan gives his Miltonian speech – that in the absence of God, he will have to take God’s place, and that winning the war was not as much to his taste as fighting it. This is the final and most fell of all his fell damnations – he never wanted to be God at all, and so having won all, all has he lost.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE!  3 STARS***

 

 

(6) STEPHEN DONALDSON – CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT (1977 – 2013)

 

Like most modern literary fantasy, particularly high fantasy, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant occupies much of the same space as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Unlike most modern literary fantasy, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant unforgettably deconstructs or subverts it.

 

On the face of it, the fantasy world, known simply as The Land, seems similar to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, albeit more directly connected to our world – particularly in its Dark Lord adversary, known amongst other names as Lord Foul the Despiser, albeit one that makes Tolkien’s Sauron seem warm and fuzzy by comparison (as well as much less dangerously competent). Not to mention his demonic lieutenants, the Ravers, that operate by possessing the bodies of their adversaries. However, readers face their moment of deconstruction or subversion soon into the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant trilogy. That moment may vary from reader to reader, but the primary candidate is anti-hero Thomas Covenant’s despicable act upon entering the Land. (In fairness, he believes it to be a mad fevered dream and is also overwhelmed by a magical return of sensation to his diseased body). Well, either that or when the Land’s military champion fails in his campaign against Lord Foul’s armies in the second book of the trilogy.

 

The biggest deconstruction or subversion is in its protagonist, Thomas Covenant – a distinctly anti-heroic figure. Covenant is a “bitter, divorced leper shunned by his community due to his illness”. The symptoms of that illness can only be managed by rigorous discipline (including an almost ritualistic practice of visual surveillance of extremities or VSE because of his lack of sensation in them) – above all, as his doctor has told him, that there is no cure and he will only survive by rejecting any fantasy of a cure. And so when he finds himself summoned to the Land, where magic can cure his illness (at least in the Land itself), he cannot accept it or believe in it – ironically calling himself the Unbeliever, even as the denizens of the Land look to him as their prophesied chosen one or savior (with the wild magic in the white gold of his wedding ring), dismissing the Land as a dream. Indeed, at least in the First Chronicles, it is not clear whether it is dream or reality – with the Land potentially symbolizing Covenant himself, inexorably succumbing to the corruption of his disease. Covenant’s unbelief never really changes, but he ultimately decides that it is a dream that he cares about – although it helps that Lord Foul is so, well, foul. After all, “he laughs at lepers”…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

 

(7) GENE WOLFE – BOOK OF THE NEW SUN (1980-1983)

 

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun might well be placed in the Dying Earth subgenre of fantasy – although it is more accurately science fiction disguised as fantasy. Actually, pretty much everything is disguised in the Book of the New Sun, including the unreliable narrator in the first person, Severian of the Torturer’s Guild – and for that matter, the plot, as one is repeatedly left wondering what the hell is going on in its mind screw of a narrative. It is not an easy read, dense and complex, with very little explained outright and of which most is only hinted.

 

It is however full of vivid images which remain with the reader – a far future and almost unrecognizable Earth, lit by a dim red sun and green moon (as the latter has been terraformed to grow vegetation), with declining technology barely understood as magic as well as time travel and alien creatures or people. Images that have remained with me most are the New Sun itself, as well as the green-skinned time traveler from even farther in the future (in which humanity have genetically engineered themselves with chlorophyll) posing as an oracle, the soldiers of the Orwellian Ascian state who speak only in their governmental slogans and perhaps most of all, the alzabo, the alien predator that can absorb the memories of its prey (a characteristic that plays an important part in the plot) and can speak with their voices to lure new prey…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

 

PULP

 

 

(1) PIERS ANTHONY – A SPELL FOR CHAMELEON 1977  (TAROT 1979-1980)

 

And now we come to the first of my pulp fantasy entries – and it doesn’t get much, uh, pulpier than Piers Anthony. There always seems to be something adolescent about his writing – and I say that as a perpetual adolescent. Fortunately, I encountered (and eagerly devoured) his writing in my actual adolescence, and although I have outgrown it, I can’t deny its influence. He certainly seems quite personable as an author and his writing certainly does seem to have a comic sensibility – both in terms of humor (perhaps the focus of that aforementioned adolescent quality) and in terms of often feeling like the script for a comic. (It would certainly be interesting to see it in the form of the latter).

 

In the words of TV Tropes, “he has a pattern of starting a new series with a fresh innovative idea”, although the execution of that idea tended not to live up to its full potential or promise, typically because he extended it in too many sequels – or again in the words of TV Tropes, “and then never stopping it unless the publisher begs him to”.  (Accordingly, the best way to read Piers Anthony is in measured doses, either in his shorter series and standalone novels or only reading each series to the point of optimal satisfaction).

 

A case in point is his Xanth series, named for the magical land of Xanth (suspiciously similar to a name derived from a phonetic combination of the author’s first and second names). When I read the first novel A Spell for Chameleon, it indeed seemed a fresh innovative idea unlike that I had read in other fantasy. Firstly, the land of Xanth itself is a magical extra-dimensional peninsula, that overlaps with similar peninsulas in our world (known within Xanth as Mundania due to the absence of magic) throughout space or time – most notably the author’s home state of Florida (which it resembles in the book maps), but also Italy and Korea in historical invasions by Mundanians (Carthaginians and Mongols respectively). The land itself is populated by virtually every creature of magic or mythology (indeed, as the source of such creatures in our folklore or mythology). The particular fresh innovative idea of the series is that every single native-born Xanth human has a unique magical ‘talent’, so that everyone is magic. Of course, not all magic is equal, with talents ranging from weak or virtually useless (the so-called ‘spot on a wall’ talents, such as literally creating a spot on a wall) to powerful and versatile (such as being able to communicate with inanimate objects or to transform creatures – including humans – into any other creature). The latter are the Magicians, from which the aristocracy and royalty of Xanth is drawn. Unfortunately, the premise of the series only sustains it to a point (varying with taste), as it has been drawn out over so many sequels – and worse, puns, increasingly sourced from fans, so that it starts to resemble some sort of rambling fan forum thread. However, the premise worked, at least for this reader in his adolescence, in the first novel and for a few after that.

 

Close runner-up is his somewhat more adult Tarot trilogy, set on the human space colony of Tarot (and in the backstory of his galactic Cluster series), settled by all sorts of bizarre fringe religious cults – and on which mysterious manifestations and visions may just answer humanity’s questions about the nature of God. Certainly my views of religion were never the same again after reading it.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

 

(2) ALAN DEAN FOSTER – SPELLSINGER (1983-1984)

 

Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger series is in a similar vein of pulp fantasy to the works of Piers Anthony (and the latter’s Xanth series in particular), or perhaps C. S. Lewis in a much more lighthearted vein. Again, the premise involves a magical world separate from our own, but with various magical links between them. That world is a world in which humans are only a small minority with other animals, mammalian or avian (larger than their equivalents on our world) that otherwise have the abilities or attributes of humans – walking upright, manual dexterity to make or use clothing and tools, sapience and speech. (They don’t eat each other – their niche in the economy would appear to be occupied by reptiles, so that the non-sapient animal population resembles the world of smaller dinosaurs). Their antagonists are the giant intelligent insects or Plated Folk – the protagonist is mistakenly summoned from our world by a tortoise sorcerer to counteract his insect counterpart’s summoning of some mysterious source of power from our own world to aid their conquest of the other animals once and for all. Although the protagonist does not prove to be the ‘engineer’ sought by the wizard, he does prove to have a mysterious magical ability that may just be their salvation after all – a ‘spellsinger’ with the ability to conjure magic through music.

 

Again, the premise is best sustained in the first two books (essentially two halves of the one narrative), but declines in the sequels

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

Top 10 Classic Children’s Fantasy

 

TOP 10 CLASSIC CHILDREN’S FANTASY

 

Within my Top 10 Fantasy lists, I reserve my Top 10 Fantasy Special Mentions for a category of entries that are typically of special iconic quality. However, it is striking how many of the iconic works of fantasy are (nominally) for children – so much so and in such number that they deserve their own top ten list…

 

 

(10) E.B.WHITE – CHARLOTTE’S WEB (1952)

 

As an arachnophobic child, I hated spiders (and still do, as an arachnophobic adult) – except Charlotte. I loved that spider. Even if I still eat bacon – sorry, Wilbur. You’re just too delicious.

 

Yeah, that’s pretty much the plot – the nicest spider you’ll ever meet tries to save the pig Wilbur from growing up to become bacon through some rad web graffiti tags

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) RUDYARD KIPLING – THE JUNGLE BOOK / JUST SO STORIES (1894-1895 / 1902)

 

Who can forget the Jungle Book, with its animals of India and the ‘man-cub’ Mowgli? Well actually, perhaps most people – as the original book has been somewhat displaced in modern popular culture by the Disney adaptations, particularly the recent live-action adaptation. Kaa the python was one of the good guys, damn it, saving Mowgli from marauding monkeys – even if I don’t mind the live-action version being sexily voiced by Scarlett Johansson! Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book was inspired by it – only even more awesome, as a human child raised by ghosts and other graveyard denizens, and it adapted Kaa more faithfully to the original book.

 

Funnily enough, I prefer the animal and other modern beast fables of Kipling’s Just So Stories – poetic ‘just so’ origin stories (How the Leopard Got His Spots and so on – with my favorite being how the kangaroo got his legs) that you really have to read out aloud.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(8) ARABIAN NIGHTS

 

The Arabian Nights, or the One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Fairy Tales typically associated with the Middle East but also drawn from sources ranging as far afield as India or China – with all the features typically associated with the elements of Middle Eastern folklore, such as genies and flying carpets. Only a handful of its stories are widely known in modern popular culture, although these tend to be iconic through subsequent adaptations – with Aladdin being the most iconic, followed by Ali Baba and Sinbad to some extent.

 

Of course, the most iconic character should be Scheherazade or Shahrazad. Although you may not know her by name, you may know her by narration – as the narrator of the Arabian Nights itself and heroine of its frame story. The king of her realm discovered that his first wife had been unfaithful. Of course, the king executed that wife but then conceived of the most insanely misogynistic plan outside of certain modern internet forums – he resolved to marry a new virgin wife each night and execute her the following day. Rinse, lather and repeat with a new bride – so that no woman would ever betray him again. And so he did for about three years – or executing over 1,000 brides.

 

Schehrazade, or as I prefer the Persian variant, Shahrazad, was the vizier’s daughter – and against her father’s wishes, volunteered to be a bride. However, she had a plan for her own survival, as well as the protection of other women as future brides. On her wedding night, she told a story, such that the king listened in awe and anticipation – but left it unfinished on a cliffhanger by morning. Eager to hear the ending, the king postponed her execution for another night – but when she finished that story, she started another story, which again was left unfinished on a cliffhanger by morning, so that the king again postponed her execution. And so on, for all the stories of a thousand and one nights, until she finally said that she had no more stories and was ready to die – but by that time, the king had genuinely fallen in love with her and kept her as his queen.

 

And sometimes things don’t work out quite so well for Scheherazade – from the webcomic Oglaf

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(7) AESOP’S FABLES

 

Ancient animal fables from Greece – we’re talking BC, baby! They were originally oral tales – and not necessarily by Aesop either as opposed to being attributed to him – until they were written down centuries later. They’re also the original tales with a moral to the story.

 

Aesop’s Fables deserve a top ten list of their own, as they include iconic stories which have endured for centuries – The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Fox and the Grapes (to which we owe the expression ‘sour grapes’), The Ants and the Grasshopper, The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg and our feature image The Tortoise and the Hare. Although I’m still betting on the hare…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(6) A.A.MILNE – WINNIE THE POOH / THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER (1926 / 1928)

 

If modern society were to restore a pantheon of animal deities, it could do worse than the menagerie in Winnie the Pooh and its sequel House at Pooh Corner.

 

There’s the eponymous bear himself, that bear of little brain and sweet tooth (although he underestimates his intelligence) – who is perhaps the most balanced of the animals (and deserving of his place at the head of the pantheon) – and his companions, who might be said to represent various psychological disorders, from the anxious Piglet to the depressed Eeyore and the manic Tigger.

 

The books are famously inspired by the author’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, and his collection of stuffed animals (as well as one or two others, not to mention heffalumps). The iconic status of the books is somewhat displaced by their Disney adaptation – which is apparently more lucrative than Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto combined! (So much for THAT animal pantheon).

 

And if you dismiss the spiritual nature of this latter-day animal pantheon, just try Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh, and its sequel, The Te of Piglet.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(5) J.M.BARRIE – PETER PAN (1904 PLAY; 1911 NOVEL)

 

J.M. Barrie is best known for the eponymous trickster hero Peter Pan in his original play and novels, as well as a source of subsequent adaptations, allusions and inversions in popular culture – “a playful demigod, with aspects of Puck and Pan” (the latter even in his name) and “a cultural symbol of youthful exuberance and innocence”.

 

The elements of Peter Pan have lent themselves readily to adaptation and popular imagination – Neverland, the Lost Boys, Captain Hook, the crocodile, mermaids and fairies (with their magical pixie dust), not to mention Wendy and Tinker Bell.  Indeed, as the unofficial mascot of Disney, Tinker Bell might even be argued to be more iconic than Peter Pan himself. In the original stageplay, she was played by lights and voiced by bells, but the book sexed her up a little (for an Edwardian children’s book) – where she is “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage”. Her most iconic visual imagery owes itself to the Disney character, which took that description and ran with it.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(4) L. FRANK BAUM – THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1900)

 

“I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

 

Although influenced by Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz comes close to rivalling the former’s iconic status, even if that is more from the 1939 cinematic adaptation than the original novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

 

Through its protagonist Dorothy Gale’s adventures with their vivid imagery and characters, not least the central trio of her companions in the original novel and cinematic adaptation (the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion), the Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been a source of adaptations and allusions throughout popular culture.

 

Whereas Alice is quintessentially (Victorian) English, Dorothy is fundamentally (mid-western) American, befitting the protagonist of what was intended as a modern American fairy tale – as L. Frank Baum introduced his novel, “the story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.”

 

Dorothy is a Kansas farm girl (although she subsequently becomes a princess of Oz and lives there – in the numerous sequels), an orphan raised by her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, with her equally iconic dog Toto. Famously, she and Toto are swept up in a tornado to the Land of Oz, which has lent itself to similar allusions to Alice’s Wonderland. However, Dorothy is more iconic in popular culture through the 1939 cinematic adaptation (portrayed by Judy Garland) than her original novels. Her appearance was never set out in the books, so that her cinematic appearance has become iconic – although it did retain the literary description of her clothing as her trademark blue and white gingham dress. Otherwise, the film condensed the novel – but most significantly altered the ending, that it was all just a dream – unlike the original novel, where it was all definitely real (but ironically like the literary adventures of Alice).

 

Interestingly, although the Wicked Witch is Dorothy’s iconic adversary from the first novel and film, she is rarely even referred to in the literary sequels and it is the Nome King who is the principal adversary. Again, the Wicked Witch derives her iconic status – complete with flying monkeys and an inexplicable tendency to have her weakness, water, at hand – from her cinematic portrayal by Margaret Hamilton, which also introduced her green skin. Subsequent adaptations have often retained the green skin – as in the revisionist novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire, in which she is the protagonist.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(3) C.S.LEWIS – NARNIA CHRONICLES (1950-1956)

 

The Chronicles of Narnia is not quite as definitive of modern literary fantasy as The Lord of the Rings (although it may well loom somewhat larger in children’s fantasy and between them, Tolkien and Lewis codified modern high fantasy). Narnia lacks the same grandeur as Middle-Earth and is of course much more directly allegorical of the Christianity Lewis shared with Tolkien. Yet for me it will always have a charm and place close to my heart – the epic fantasy of children drawn from our world through various portals into the magical world of Narnia, presided over by the great Lion Aslan (if only he did so in our world, as I would find it much easier to believe in Aslan). The Chronicles of Narnia range from Aslan’s sacrifice and resurrection in the first published novel (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) through to the very creation and apocalypse of Narnia. And so enchanting that after reading them, what young reader doesn’t search wardrobes for other worlds? (Or hot White Witches with turkish delight? Except I’ll pass on the Turkish delight). I know I still do…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(2) LEWIS CARROLL – ALICE’S IN WONDERLAND / THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (1865-1871)

 

“Curiouser and curiouser”…

 

Few works of fantasy are as iconic as Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass (although the two books are often merged in popular culture). Ultimately, the first is based on a pack of cards and the second on a game of chess, but they both go deeper than that, even if it’s all just a dream – “a parade of the surreal, with all the logic of a dream — and invoking the madness of quite a lot of mankind’s so-called “logic”. Through the vivid imagery or encounters of her adventures, as well as their potential symbolic allusions, Alice has lent herself readily to adaptation and popular imagination.

 

Allusions to Alice have earned their own trope on TV Tropes, which notes that the original novels can be associated with surreal or psychedelic fantasy, drug imagery (as in Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit), gothic horror and other aspects of Victorian England, such as steampunk.

 

As TV Tropes notes, “the name ‘Alice’, when used in a reference to Alice in Wonderland, therefore tends to be used for fantastical, ethereal characters or concepts, and that goes double if her last name is a variation on Carroll” (or Liddell – her namesake from real life but more about that later). Other frequent references include white rabbits or going down the rabbit hole (as in The Matrix) – into a world of the hero’s journey that doesn’t conform to real world logic (and in which our heroine has to use intuition, a good heart, and an ability to acquire allies). Not to mention Cheshire cats, mad hatters and tea parties…

 

As for Alice herself, Lewis Carroll described her (when writing on her personality in “Alice on the Stage”) as “wildly curious, and with the eager enjoyment of Life that comes only in the happy hours of childhood, when all is new and fair, and when Sin and Sorrow are but names — empty words signifying nothing!”. I can’t think of a better – or more endearing – description than that.

 

For Carroll, there was, at least to some extent, a real Alice – Alice Pleasance Liddell, who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when she asked Carroll to tell her a story on a boating trip in Oxford. The extent to which his character can be identified with Alice Liddell is not clear (and the brunette Liddell certainly did not resemble the blonde illustrations in the original book by cartoonist Sir John Tenniel). However, there are direct links to Liddell in the books – they are set on her birthday and her half birthday six months later (with the corresponding age), they are dedicated to her and the letters of her name are featured in an acrostic poem in the sequel.

 

As Catherine Robson wrote in Men in Wonderland – “In all her different and associated forms—underground and through the looking glass, textual and visual, drawn and photographed, as Carroll’s brunette or Tenniel’s blonde or Disney’s prim miss…in novel, poem, satire, play, film, cartoon, newspaper, magazine, album cover or song—Alice is the ultimate cultural icon, available for any and every form of manipulation, and as ubiquitous today as in the era of her first appearance.”

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(1) FAIRY TALES (CHARLES PERRAULT, BROTHERS GRIMM & HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN)

 

Few works are so iconic on a worldwide scale as fairy tales (which deserve and will get their own top ten list).

 

Of course, that term needs a little clarification. For one thing, few fairy tales actually feature fairies, even from those European countries with a developed fairy folklore, and tend to use talking animals or something else instead. Some modern versions of classic stories, such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, do involve fairy figures (while other stories such as Rumpelstiltskin allude to the darker fairies of folklore) – although Perrault’s Cinderella “is an oddball” as “normally the Cinderella figure is helped by her dead mother” (which in some ways has a better ring to it). Modern literary fairy tales originate in oral folk tales, some of which go back a long way indeed (potentially even thousands of years) and which are found in cultures around the world – although “only a tiny handful of them are known in modern culture” or feature in the best known classic stories. “The name of the genre can be traced to Madame d’Aulnoy’s Les Contes de Fées, which appeared only after literary fairy tales became all the rage” and “folklorists have made valiant attempts to give the category more accurate names, such as “wonder tale”, or the Grimms’ original term “household tale” or Märchen, but the name sticks”. Ironically, Tolkien used the term for modern literary fantasy in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, but the name didn’t stick there – too many associate fairy tales with the classical stories of that name.

 

However, fairy tales do have a number of distinctive features. At heart, they are stories which depict “a fantastic sequence of events”, usually taking place “once upon a time” with few (if any) references to real or historical people, places or events. They are often told in a spare and laconic style, often in terms of catchphrase rather than description and archetype rather than character. “Fairy tale is often used in modern times to depict an idealized romance or ending, although many classic fairy tales are much darker than many people realize” – and were even darker in their original or alternate versions. Modern literary fairy tales tend to be presented as children’s stories, particularly in their most famous Disney adaptations, but they were originally intended for all ages.

 

There has been extensive attention paid to fairy tales, from the fascinating Aarne-Thompson system of classification to fairy tale tropes and motifs as well as functions of folktales. Modern literary fairy tales are in turn adaptions (often lighter and fluffier) of their original folk tales  – and in turn, they have been further adapted, deconstructed, fractured, parodied and subverted.

 

As for my favorite fairy tales, I tend to focus on the classic trinity of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 Fantasy (Special Mention)

 

TOP 10 FANTASY – SPECIAL MENTIONS

 

Stark After Dark has its Top 10 Fantasy Books as well as its Top 10 Fantasy Stories & Works, but these are my Top 10 Fantasy Special Mentions – a category of entries that have some special quality that sets them apart from the top tens or honorable mentions. Obviously. What is that special quality? Well it varies, although it tends to be iconic, thematic or idiosyncratic – I make my own rules and break them anyway.

 

Anyway, these are my Top 10 Fantasy Special Mentions.

 

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(1) BRAM STOKER – DRACULA (1897)

 

Count Dracula is THE vampire – in the words of TV Tropes, as Sherlock Holmes is to detectives, James Bond is to secret agents and Superman is to superheroes, so Dracula is to vampires. The eponymous villain of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is the archetypal vampire, such that his name is synonymous with vampire – again in the words of TV Tropes, the vampire known even by people not familiar with the book or even the genre, particularly through countless (heh) adaptations in popular culture.

 

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Indeed, Bram Stoker’s novel codified the definitive vampire tropes in fiction, although Dracula still manages walking around in sunlight without bursting into flame (albeit depowered) and certainly without sparkling. The novel itself can be somewhat surprising to those more familiar with cinematic adaptations, since it is told in an epistolary format through letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, ships’ logs and so on. However, most of the plot elements have been adapted into popular culture – Jonathan Harker as Dracula’s guest in Transylvania, (unknowingly helping the latter ‘invade’ England), Harker’s ill-fated predecessor Renfield (now eating his way up the food chain from insects in an asylum in an attempt to emulate Dracula), the Brides of Dracula (soon to extend to the unfortunate Lucy Westenra and Harker’s fiancee Mina Murray), Lucy Westenra’s band of suitors, Abraham Van Helsing.  The novel “has been assigned to many literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, the gothic novel, and invasion literature”. Arguably also, Dracula is amongst the first supervillains in popular culture, and potentially a Dark Lord to rival Sauron in the genre of fantasy. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too hard to recast Dracula as The Lord of the Rings, substituting Transylvania for Mordor and the Brides for the Black Riders (only much sexier). Kim Newman did something of the sort with his Anno Dracula series, where Dracula bests Van Helsing and vampirizes Queen Victoria to rule the British Empire. Or at least, Dracula might have done if he’d had any sort of plan in Stoker’s book beyond picking up British chicks – but then that’s just how he swings, baby.

 

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Essentially, if a work of fiction in any medium involves vampires, chances are it will at least involve a reference to Dracula at some point, if not an adaptation (or subversion) of him, directly or indirectly. He has apparently appeared in more films than any other character, fictional or otherwise, except for Sherlock Holmes, including films where they have appeared together and which would be utterly awesome. (Apparently, Godzilla, James Bond and Mickey Mouse rank next). Dracula is also an iconic villain in fantasy or horror who was adapted from a figure almost as iconic and villainous from some perspectives (but heroic from others, notably his native Romania or Transylvania) – Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, named after his favorite hobby. Or Vlad Dracula – Son of the Dragon, which sounds just as badass as the fictional character (but perhaps not so much for his estimated 40,000 – 100,000 victims).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS – ADVENTURES OF TARZAN (1912-1947 AND BEYOND!)

 

Tarzan is perhaps the most iconic hero of fantasy and science fiction – the archetypal jungle hero (or perhaps modern barbarian hero), in the series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from the first novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912 to Tarzan and the Foreign Legion in 1947 (not including posthumous publications), as well as all the adaptations in popular culture.

 

Born John Clayton and heir to English aristocracy as Lord Greystoke (or more precisely Viscount Greystoke), he was marooned with his aristocrat parents and ‘adopted’ after their deaths by a maternal female ape within a ‘tribe’ of great apes – indeed, Tarzan is his name in the ape language.

 

Philip Jose Farmer has helpfully condensed Tarzan’s fictional ‘biography’ from the series by Edgar Rice Burroughs into his book Tarzan Alive, an entertaining read and worthy substitute for reading the series. Farmer was an enduring fan of the character and wrote of Tarzan (or his world) in a number of books – most infamously in A Feast Unknown, featuring a thinly veiled erotic pastiche of Tarzan and Doc Savage (where they fight each other with their erections – I bet THAT got your attention), or most famously, in his so-called Wold Newton Universe, where he linked together a number of fictional superheroes to the effect of a meteorite.

 

And I say superheroes as Tarzan is a fantasy hero with virtually superhuman powers – after all, we’re talking someone who has wrestled virtually every animal.

 

Indeed, Tarzan's workout seems to be to wrestle a different animal each day - sometimes he skips shark day

Indeed, Tarzan’s workout seems to be to wrestle a different animal each day – sometimes he skips shark day

 

In short, he easily out-Batmans Batman and is the Superman of the jungle.

 

He is also of superhuman intelligence – a feature not readily discerned from the unfortunate monosyllabic and broken English of his screen adaptations. In the books – indeed, the first book – he could read English before he could speak it, having taught himself to read from the children’s picture books left in his parents log cabin and deducing the symbols as a language, in complete isolation from humans. He also spoke French before he spoke English, learning it from the first European he encountered. He readily learns to speak English – as well as thirty or so languages after that. So much for “Me Tarzan, you Jane”.

 

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Despite a certain lack of plausibility, he remains an enduring hero – a “daydream figure” who obviously appeals to our continuing fascination for an animal or nature hero (and perhaps less fortunately to a ‘white god’ figure).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** (THREE STARS FOR THE PULP AND ONE FOR THE CULT)

 

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(3) ROBERT E. HOWARD – CHRONICLES OF CONAN (1929 – 1936 AND BEYOND!)

 

Robert E. Howard’s Conan, often styled as Conan the Barbarian or Conan the Cimmerian (after his proto-Celtic homeland Cimmeria), is one of fantasy’s greatest and most iconic heroes, roaming the Hyborian Age punching out eldritch abominations and wizards. You know, the Hyborian Age – prehistoric Earth, “after the oceans drank Atlantis” and before recorded history. (Howard’s way of evoking historic cultures without any of that pesky research – he was writing quick magazine stories after all).”Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian; black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feat”.

 

Conan is the definitive barbarian hero, playing a large part in creating the fantasy sub-genre of sword and sorcery (being the protagonist sword against the antagonist sorcery). Alternatively, he is the Hyborian Bond, with the requisite episodic Bond girl or two each tale – mostly classic damsels in distress of course, to be slung over his shoulder or hanging off his leg in fantasy art poses. In fairness, most characters, male or female, are damsels in distress compared to Conan himself. In his youth, he was thief, outlaw, mercenary and pirate – in middle age, he becomes warlord and king of Aquilonia, the greatest Hyborian kingdom.

 

Metropolis - Final

 

Conan is described as “sullen” and “smoldering”, with volcanic” blue eyes and a black “square-cut mane”. His size is never made clear, although it is clearly, uh, big. And strong. Strong enough to pull himself off a crucifix, which would make for an interesting gospel according to Conan. The literary character sensibly wears armor or clothing typical to his location – his comics or fantasy art counterparts usually wears the more visible option of loincloths and similar outfits suitable to body oil. He may be all muscle but he’s not dumb muscle – his rippling appearance belies a shrew intellect:  skilled as a warrior and in other trades, talented as a military and political leader, versed and literate in a number of languages.

 

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In short, Conan is the sort of hero for which they coined the phrase mighty thews and it is fortunate that he is limited to his own heroic fantasy, because he’d make short work of any other – as George R. R. Martin observed of The Lord of the Rings, coming to it as he did from Conan

 

“Robert E. Howard’s stories usually opened with a giant serpent slithering by or an axe cleaving someone’s head in two. Tolkien opened his with a birthday party…Conan would hack a bloody path right through the Shire, end to end, I remembered thinking.”

 

On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two...

On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** (THREE STARS FOR THE PULP AND ONE FOR THE CULT)

 

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(4) MARY SHELLEY – FRANKENSTEIN (1819)

 

Frankenstein is one of the most iconic figures in horror, fantasy and SF. And yes, literary purists, I know that Frankenstein was Dr. Victor Frankenstein (perhaps the most famous doctor in literature), not his nameless monster – but the latter has also been named Frankenstein by popular culture and they’re a matched pair in any event.

 

Of course, their iconic stature owes more to their cinematic adaptations rather than the original novel by Mary Shelley, in which they are mutual tragic figures. Brian Aldiss claimed Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, but the original novel still seems more Gothic fantasy to me, particularly without all the, you know, science that we see in the cinematic adaptations. Mary Shelley was understandably scant on the process of the monster’s creation and does not describe it in her narrative, other than vague references to chemistry – as opposed to the electricity and “it’s alive!” and the rest of the monster’s creation that is the most iconic part of the cinematic adaptations. Indeed, the strength of Shelley’s work lies in its ideas and themes (including the Promethean theme of its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus), which have lent themselves to popular culture – the work itself may seem somewhat dated (and melodramatic) to a modern audience.

 

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Victor Frankenstein is frequently invoked as a symbol of scientific hubris, a recurring theme in SF and popular culture in general – although his true villainy was more arguably abandoning his creature, because it was so, ah, ugly.

 

Perhaps it would have worked out better like this?

 

After he is so superficially abandoned, the monster rises to his own villainy with a murderous rampage. Okay, so murderous rampage is something of an overstatement, since he kills one person, Victor’s brother, William (and an innocent servant girl is hanged for the crime). He approaches Victor in truce, seeking Victor create a female companion for him. Victor initially does so, then destroys her as he fears a race of monsters. (Really, Victor? Come on – show a little imagination, man. You could always create her without ovaries. Or make the monster a male companion). The monster renews his rampage with a vengeance, or more vengeance anyway – killing Victor’s close friend and then Victor’s bride Elizabeth. In her bed on their wedding night – admittedly a nice villainous touch. Victor’s father dies of grief, as was the fashion at that time. Victor then pursues the monster to the Arctic for his own vengeance, but fails miserably and freezes instead. The monster then mourns his creator, perhaps because he realizes he will now have nothing to do, and vows to destroy himself.

 

In the novel, the character of Frankenstein’s monster is somewhat different from his iconic film appearance, not least because he is sensitive and emotional – like an emo Hulk without the smashing. He is also highly articulate and literate, indeed having read Paradise Lost – clearly no good could come of that. Even so, he is as iconic as his creator – an enduring influence in theme, when not directly adapted in name or image. In his personal study of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King considered Frankenstein’s monster (along with Dracula and the Werewolf) to be an archetype of numerous horror figures in fiction, in a role he referred to as “The Thing Without a Name” – although he acknowledged that “its classical unity is broken only by the author’s uncertainty as to where the fatal flaw lies—is it in Victor’s hubris (usurping a power that belongs only to God) or in his failure to take responsibility for his creation after endowing it with the life-spark?”

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** (THREE STARS FOR THE PULP AND ONE FOR THE CULT)

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(5) ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON – THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886)

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the alternative halves of the iconic character from Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, with the latter as the monstrous or villainous half (although that is arguable as Jekyll unleashed Hyde in the first place).

 

Hyde’s villainy is characteristic of his original Victorian melodrama, as he does not actually do much. At the outset of the novel, he tramples and injures a young girl, but pays compensation when accosted! In fairness, he does enjoy nightly forays of unidentified depravity, and ultimately does beat a man to death with a cane. The appeal of the novel lies in its now well known twist that the respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll IS the evil Mr. Edward Hyde – or more precisely, transforms, into Mr. Hyde. Initially, that is with a serum of his own creation – and somewhat surprisingly, Hyde is more diminutive than Jekyll. Over time, however, Hyde becomes stronger and more powerful than Jekyll, such that Jekyll begins to involuntarily transform into Hyde without the serum, firstly while sleeping and then in waking hours – and Jekyll has to use the serum to transform himself back. Ultimately, Jekyll commits suicide as his serum is about to be exhausted – and accordingly his ability to reverse the transformation.

 

Jekyll and Hyde have achieved iconic stature, which has been a source of adaptation or influence ever since (with perhaps my personal favorite being Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde), perhaps reinforced by Jack the Ripper shortly after its publication. It is in turn an enduring modern adaptation of werewolf legend. Hyde is symbolic of the Dark Side of each of us, the inner struggle between good and evil within each of us.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** (THREE STARS FOR THE PULP AND ONE FOR THE CULT)

 

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(6) OSCAR WILDE – THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1891)

 

Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is of somewhat similar symbolism to Jekyll and Hyde, with his Hyde in a portrait rather than a serum – Dorian remains young while his magical portrait ages and shows all the signs of his corruption and depravity. And we all know what that ‘corruption and depravity’ was, don’t we, Oscar?  Which makes it all seem somewhat coy and not so depraved today – so that the modern reader might want to imagine something more evil than gallivanting around gay old London. In fairness, Dorian does murder his friend and the painter of the portrait, before blackmailing another friend into destroying the body. (He is also responsible for other deaths, but more through callousness and melodrama). Ultimately, he stabs the portrait, fatally transposing the wound to himself while swapping their appearances (so that the portrait is now young and innocent while he is aged and corrupt).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** (ONE STAR FOR THAT PORTRAIT IN MY ATTIC…)

 

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(7) W.W. JACOBS – THE MONKEY’S PAW (1902)

 

This supernatural short story, penned by W.W. Jacobs (who mostly wrote sailing stories and other non-fantasy fiction) in 1902, has since achieved iconic status – not least for the near infinite variations and adaptations of its story.

 

The titular paw (removed from the dead titular monkey) is something of a cursed magical item, akin to the worst genies – it does indeed grant three wishes, but in the worst possible way, such that you wish you hadn’t wished in the first place (CENTURY OLD SPOILER ALERT…)

 

The protagonist couple, Mr. and Mrs. White, obtain it from Sergeant-Major Morris, who obtained it while with the British Army in India (although he does attempt to destroy it first by throwing it in the fire, but Mr. White recovers it). In a spirit of trivial levity and skepticism, Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds for the final payment on his house (although he doesn’t really need it). He does indeed get it – when his son dies in a work accident and the employer, although denying responsibility, pays the Whites a goodwill payment of…200 pounds. About a week or so after the funeral and maddened by grief, Mrs. White urges Mr. White for their son to return to life. Against his better judgement, he does so – and what follows is effective mounting suspense, building to the knocking at the door. His wife rushes to the door and fumbles with the locks, while he desperately retrieves the paw to make his third and final wish – which is revealed as Mrs. White opens the door to find nothing there. (I guess the monkey’s paw couldn’t find a way to subvert taking back a former wish, as opposed to every child who has cried no take backsies!)

 

It has been directly parodied, not least by The Simpsons in one of their Halloween episodes, perhaps the highest accolade to which a literary short story can aspire (although how could wishing for world peace go so awry?)

 

Its story has been endlessly adapted in other works. One of the most notable is in Stephen King’s monkey’s paw of a novel, Pet Sematary, which even follows the original story’s rule of three as the protagonist just keeps burying things in that damned revenant Indian burying ground – his cat, his infant son and finally his wife. It also follows the effective suspense and final lack of reveal, which best leaves things to the audience’s imagination (“Darling!”) – the cinematic adaptation not so much, as the film fumbled the final reveal by actually showing it. However, another notable television adaptation of the original story also followed the final lack of reveal – the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Forever” (in which Dawn and Spike wish for Buffy’s mother, died of cancer, to return – although it is Buffy herself who rushes to the door).

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** (THREE STARS FOR EACH WISH AND ONE FOR THE PAW)

Top 10 Fantasy (Honorable Mention)

 

TOP 10 FANTASY – HONORABLE MENTION

 

Stark After Dark has its Top 10 Fantasy Books as well as its Top 10 Fantasy Stories & Works, but there is always more love to share in fantasy for my ongoing roll call of Top 10 Fantasy Honorable Mentions – ongoing, that is, as the definitive criteria for honorable mention is for authors and their works which I continue to follow or in which I maintain an active ongoing interest.

 

So, numbered in chronological order, these are my Top 10 Honorable Mentions in the literary genre of fantasy.

 

 

(1) TERRY PRATCHETT – DISCWORLD (1983 – 2015)

 

Discworld needs little introduction to fans of fantasy – a literal flat-earth (hence its name) balanced on the back of four titanic elephants in turn on the back of the cosmic turtle, Great A’Tuin. This world is the setting for a fantasy comedy series (spanning over 40 books and a similar number of years) which is a parody or satire of virtually every trope within fantasy and many outside it, as well as virtually every major work of fantasy – from Lovecraft through Conan to Tolkien and even the bard himself, Shakespeare.

 

Books in the series follow different story threads or characters within it – with my favorite being those that follow the cowardly ‘wizard’ Rincewind, “a wizard with no skill, no wizardly qualifications, and no interest in heroics” (and the Wizards of the Unseen University in general), ever since his role as the protagonist in the first two books (escorting the naïve tourist Twoflower and his Luggage). Sprawling in some degree through most of the books is the city of Ankh-Morpork (and its City Watch, the protagonists of their own story arc or thread of books within the series) – a city clearly influenced by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, and like that city, a city which somehow survives despite itself.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(2) DAN SIMMONS – SONG OF KALI (1985)

 

Where to start with this genre-crossing author, spanning fantasy, horror and SF?

 

There is his towering SF classic, the Hyperion Cantos – which opens with its frame story, modelled on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with its diverse group of ‘pilgrims’ to the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion, sent by the galactic Hegemony and the Church of the Final Atonement to face the terrifying Shrike.

 

Or his other towering SF classic in two parts, Ilium and Olympos, in which the Trojan War is reenacted by post-humans posing as the Olympian gods on a terraformed Mars around (where else?) Mons Olympus.

 

Or perhaps his dark fantasy or horror Summer of Night, reminiscent of Stephen King with its group of adolescent boys facing a medieval supernatural terror, or his take on psychic vampires in Carrion Comfort.

 

The correct answer is all of them, but for my honorable mention entry, I’ll nominate where it all started – with his 1986 World Fantasy Award winning novel The Song of Kali, a psychological horror about a journalist encountering a latter day cult of Kali.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(3) JOE LANSDALE – THE DRIVE-IN (1988-1989)

 

You will never eat popcorn again.

 

Joe Landsale is a genre-hopping self-branded mojo storyteller so Texan his books positively drawl, but in a good way. His fantasy is never purely fantasy, as he writes books and stories (and comics!) in a number of genres, often at the same time. Westerns, of course – although he is from east Texas – but often of the Weird West. Horror – or so-called splatterpunk. Mystery, suspense and thrillers.

 

A good introduction to Lonsdale is perhaps his short stories, which are particularly difficult to pin down in genre. I mean, how do you classify Bubba Ho-Tep (subsequently adapted into film starring none other than the Chin himself, Bruce Campbell) – in which an aged Elvis Presley and a black JFK battle a soul-sucking mummy in a nursing home? (No, seriously – Elvis Presley, having swapped with a double to opt out of fame. Not sure about JFK though – he claims the Conspiracy swapped his mind into his present body. Even Elvis is skeptical). Or his post-zombie apocalyptic On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks? “Frequent features of Lansdale’s writing are usually deeply ironic, strange or absurd situations or characters”. Indeed.

 

And perhaps none more so bizarre than my introduction to Lansdale and still my favorite, although it is a little intense (if by intense you mean insane) – The Drive-In, or for its full title, The Drive-In: A ‘B’ Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas. It starts as a normal summer Friday night horror movie marathon at the Orbit Drive-In in Texas. And then it becomes the horror-movie marathon, as they are trapped by a demonic grinning comet in the drive-in, beyond time in an eternal night – seemingly at the whim of the dark gods of B-grade movie horror:

 

“On a cool, crisp summer night, with the Texas stars shining down like rattlesnake eyes, movie-goers for the All-Night Horror Show are trapped in the drive-in by a demonic-looking comet. Then the fun begins. If the movie-goers try to leave, their bodies dissolve into goo…The world outside the six monstrous screens fades to black while the movie-goers spiral into base humanity, resorting to fighting, murdering, crucifying, and cannibalizing to survive”

 

And the dark B-grade movie horror gods lend a hand to all the base humanity with a little (or a lot of) monstrosity of their own, with the Popcorn King. O God – the Popcorn King.

 

Don’t eat the popcorn…

 

It's watching you.

It’s watching you.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(4) TAD WILLIAMS – OSTEN ARD (1988 – PRESENT)

 

Tad Williams fantasy series set in the world of Osten Ard – with its definitive Memory, Sorrow, Thorn trilogy – perhaps represents the archetypal post-Tolkien high fantasy, with the arguable exception of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, itself influenced by Williams’ series. (The other arguably archetypal post-Tolkien high fantasy is possibly Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, although that can be a little too intense for readers).

 

Osten Ard, like Tolkien’s Gondor, has a history influenced by that of the Roman Empire (indeed Tolkien’s Gondor is essentially the Roman Empire – or more precisely the Byzantine Empire), although its equivalent in Osten Ard has since been overshadowed by the predominant Erkynlanders (resembling medieval England with some Arthurian folklore thrown into the mix) under their legendary king Prester John.

 

Unlike Tolkien’s Middle-Earth however, the mix of fantasy counterpart cultures extends to broader world cultures – and its dark lord, the Storm King, has more justice to his claims, in the near genocide of his elfin Sithi people, although that is outweighed by the evil of his means.

 

Williams has recently returned to his world of Osten Ard – after a prolific career in other series or works – with his new sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(5) SIMON KURT UNSWORTH – THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE (2015)

 

I have a soft spot for posthumous fantasy and this debut novel, now the first in what is emerging as a series of novels for its protagonist Thomas Fool, is that darkest of posthumous fantasies set in Hell itself.

 

Hell, however, is not quite what one might expect. It is no longer a hell of burning torture – much to the disappointment of a hardcore angel in Heaven’s visiting delegation. It is a hell of bureaucracy and brutality – the latter typically supplied by Hell’s demon population, which coexists uneasily with its human damned population. The sinners who occupy it don’t even remember their past lives. In the words of one reviewer – “Hell is essentially the worst parts of all the worst cities…part slum, part gang territory and part red light district”.

 

Amidst all this is Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men – or what passes for a minimalist police force, both in terms of numbers and function, the latter virtually as bystanders to Hell’s crimes. However, for once, the powers that be in Hell want him to actually investigate a murder through to a conclusive finding, apparently for their amusement as much as anything else – although it may have also something to do with keeping up appearances for the visiting delegation of angels from Heaven.

 

Of course, murders in hell evoke the line from Apocalypse Now – “charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500”. In this case, however, there is more to it than meets the eye.

 

And that is essentially the inventive twist of the novel – a detective ‘noir’ novel set in Hell, although it is the world-building of Fool’s Hell that holds attention here.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(X) ALANA MELOS – DELILAH DEVILSHOT / VILLAINESS

 

No, I haven’t swapped over to Roman numerals – X marks the spot for a special category within my honorable mentions. Firstly, and by way of full disclosure, part of this special category is for writers I encounter as friends or followers on social media, which I hope to expand over time as I haphazardly make my way through my reading list. Secondly, and not unconnected to the first, it is for writers that publish e-books rather than in print. Thirdly, and not unconnected to the second, it is typically for writers that you won’t find in the prim and proper part of your bookstore, even your electronic bookstore – writers of fantasy kink. And no one does fantasy kink better than Alana Melos.

 

Now obviously this won’t be to everyone’s taste. Some of her titles even make me blush. Just kidding – I’m unblushable. I’m sorry but you’re too late for that, Alana. Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to my science fiction and fantasy – I read his Image of the Beast (and its sequel Blown) and it…changed me. So now when it comes to literary erotica, I find it mundane or tame without some wild fantasy – and Alana Melos scratches that itch. In her own words, “she’s endeavored to write the very best interesting, weird plot-driven and hot stories”.

 

In particular, I enjoy her Delilah Devilshot series and Villainess series, as those have the more compelling narratives in their own right. Delilah Devilshot (love that name!) is perhaps hotter to my taste, as the titular heroine embarks on a proverbial roaring rampage of revenge in a Weird West setting – rising writhing as a succubus with a six-shooter with a little infernal help from her dying deal with a devil. And no prizes for guessing how that deal was sealed – or how she seals most of her deals from now on

 

The Villainess series on the other hand, with titles named for Crowley-Thoth Tarot cards, has a story dripping playfully with all the best comic book tropes in a fantasy kitchen sink kink setting. Indeed, I would very much like to see it adapted as a comic, perhaps by more mature labels such as Image or Heavy Metals. The titular villainess for hire, Caprice or Capricious Whim in full (again, love that name), positively revels in her supervillainy in a setting that flits fantasy and science fiction in alternate worlds or histories (always a favorite of mine) – and a taste for discipline…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

Top 10 Fantasy & SF Films (Revised 2017)

Metropolis - Final

 

TOP 10 FANTASY & SF FILMS (REVISED 2017)

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For many – perhaps most – people, fantasy and SF is a cinematic or screen experience rather than a literary one. (Although I recall it said that SF films lag about a generation behind SF literature in the development of ideas – and SF television about a generation behind SF films)

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Arguably all films (or Hollywood) in general are fantasy to some extent, even in real-world settings, although that is an argument for another day. Of course, a substantial proportion of them are fantasy or SF as a genre – probably even a majority, at least the blockbusters (but not the Oscar nominations – boo!)

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These are my top 10 fantasy & SF films here on Stark After Dark. As usual, I make my own rules:

They do not include films based on comics – even though these also tend to be fantasy or SF.  (Superhero movies are almost by definition fantasy or SF). They get their own top ten list.

They do not include any animated films, although again these also tend to be fantasy or SF. We’re talking live-action fantasy or SF films. Animated films also get their own top ten list.

They do not include horror, although the source of most horror is typically supernatural (excepting slasher horror of course – and even those can stray into supernatural horror, intentionally or otherwise). Horror films also get their own top ten list. Although as usual, I make my own rules and break them anyway, since a few of my entries could be classified as horror, albeit SF horror.

 

2017 sees me add the Blade Runner franchise to the top ten (with the release of the sequel)

 

Lights, camera, action!

 

 

(10) BLADE RUNNER (1982-2017)

 

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die”.

 

Blade Runner is a 1982 cult classic, cyberpunk neo-noir, genre-bending SF film that worked surprisingly well (although not in its initial box office) as a fusion of a classic film noir hard-boiled detective in a dystopian future (set in a Los Angeles with heavy Japanese influence). In the words of TV Tropes, “it established much of the tone and flavor of the cyberpunk movement and the film style of tech noir” – “a highly intelligent film, visually stunning, meticulously detailed and features a seriously great script and a then-groundbreaking soundtrack by Vangelis”. If you haven’t seen it, then I don’t know how you even got in here, so please just see it already – we’ll wait.

 

The plot, loosely lifted from (and improving upon) Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, involves Deckard, a titular blade runner – the name given to specialist police who hunt down and ‘retire’ renegade bio-engineered ‘replicant’ humans. Of course, in the tradition of film noir, cyberpunk or dystopian SF, it’s not going to be that easy.

 

And now there’s a cinematic universe with sequel Blade Runner 2049. Of course, the sequel was never going to have the same ground-breaking impact as the original (and sadly under-performed at the box office), but it holds up reasonably well, particularly in sheer visual style – probably one of the most visually gorgeous SF films you’ll see, even as it’s showing a future that is, in the words of one critic, “a gorgeous ruin”. Let’s just say the future sucked in the original and sucks even more in the sequel – but on the bright side, there’s giant pink holographic girls.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(9) THE MATRIX (1999)

 

The Matrix is perhaps the next most definitive cinematic Robot War after another entry on this list, and like that entry, it works best by combining the Robot War with another trope, in this case that of virtual reality. As such, it is the direct descendant of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, as the heart of science fiction is still all Martians and Morlocks. We’ll be looking at Martians later, but the Machines and their software Agents in the Matrix are Morlocks, except that it’s cyberspace travel rather than time travel. The original Morlocks were one of two evolutionary descendants of humanity, evolved from the working class – maintaining the advanced technology of the future for the Eloi, the other descendants of humanity evolved from its leisured upper class. The dark twist of Wells’ novel is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi, “farming” them like livestock. This theme of evolution endures in the Matrix, albeit transformed from Wells’ unrealistic biological evolution (without genetic engineering or mutation) to cybernetic evolution – involving artificial intelligence and robots as machine Morlocks that rise up against their human Eloi, particularly as the machine Morlocks do actually farm us for their food or energy. Ultimately however, this makes no sense – humans don’t produce more energy than they consume. The Machines would obviously use more energy keeping us alive than they would ever extract from us – and that’s not even including programming and maintaining the Matrix itself. My theory is that the human resistance have no idea what the Matrix is for and the Machines actually use the Matrix for entertainment, like television (or the internet) – “Let’s see what the humans are doing on Matrix tonight!”

 

And for a Robot War against humanity, the Machines are actually quite nice to us, whatever the purpose of the Matrix. Morpheus lets slip that humans fought a genocidal war with the Machines, in which we nuked the sun (NUKED the SUN!) to deprive the Machines of their solar energy (and you know, hopefully wipe them out). It didn’t work and we lost the Robot War, but instead of the Machines exterminating us like cockroaches, they keep us in our own cozy virtual dream world. Indeed, Agent Smith (who, unlike Morpheus, tells it straight) says that the Machines even tried to make it a perfect utopia for us, but human psychology wouldn’t accept it. As I see it, the Machines’ only mistake was not advertising the Matrix to sign people up for it as your own programmable (and not necessarily permanent) reality (like, say, the Playboy Mansion or World of Warcraft) – I should be so lucky as to lose a Robot War! “Seriously, you feed me and take care of me in a pod while I live it up in any number of dream worlds of my own design and all you want is my body heat? Sign me up! Screw that red pill!”. (Interestingly, the red pill – the choice that the film’s hero Neo makes to ‘wake up’ from the virtual reality of the Matrix – has become the metaphor of choice for the so-called alt right, or men’s rights groups, for those who have ‘woken up’ to the true nature of society – i.e. the Conspiracy. As Rationalwiki points out, “it is particularly hilarious that organised misogynists and reactionaries have wholeheartedly embraced a term from a movie, written and directed by two transgender women, in which a black male and a female convince a white male to fight subjugation”).

 

As for the sequels, just remember – there are no sequels.

 

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(8) JURASSIC PARK (1993)

 

Everything’s better with dinosaurs!

 

We all love dinosaurs, ever since we started digging up and piecing together their bones – and we particularly love them in cinematic form. I’d argue that there is not one film that would not be improved by a dinosaur (or dinosaurs). Citizen Kane would have been MUCH improved by a dinosaur. I tend to agree with Peter Griffin’s editing of that film in a Family Guy episode – he deletes the entire movie after the Rosebud quote, filming himself saying “It’s his sled. There – I saved you from two boring hours of film”.

 

Anyway, Jurassic Park is the pure awesomeness you get when you combine dinosaurs with Steven Spielburg’s mastery of cinematic action and visual effects. Does it need any further introduction? You all know it. You probably can all quote it, from some point or other in the film or franchise.

 

I actually read the book first. Michael Crichton might have gotten a bit…controversial in his later years, but he sure knew how to craft a story – and Jurassic Park was one of his finest and certainly his most successful. (I recall an airport bookstore for Crichton and King in a Simpsons episode. “Get out!” a hapless customer is told, after asking if they had any Robert Ludlum. And rightly so – Ludlum was a hack compared to the page-turning suspense of Crichton and King). Of course, there are the usual differences between the book and the film – the former had a starring role for the T-Rex’s tongue and the lawyer Gennaro was much more heroic (as lawyers should be), punching out a velociraptor and surviving rather than sniveling in a toilet before being slurped down by the tyrannosaur like the film’s lawyer.

 

Spielberg’s magic, was of course, to bring the book to life. The plot is the same – scientists discover how to recreate dinosaurs through a complex cloning process, involving dinosaur blood from mosquitoes fossilized in amber and filling in the gaps with other animal DNA, most notably transsexual frogs. Naturally, they come up with a dinosaur theme park to profit from this discovery, and equally as naturally, everything that can go wrong does go wrong – usually in the form of sharp pointy teeth.

 

Or in the words of character Dr. Ian Malcolm “Oh yeah, ‘oooh aaah’. That’s how it always starts. Then later, there’s the running and the screaming” – neatly summarizing each of the movies in the series, as TV Tropes pointed out.

 

The same quotation might arguably apply to diminishing returns of the sequels, albeit with marginally less running and screaming. To which I offer the counter-argument – shut up, there’s dinosaurs! Even so, I’ll stick with just the first film for this entry.

 

The next Jurassic Park sequel, as predicted by Calvin & Hobbes

 

Of course, when it comes to the dinosaurs, there is only one true star. Despite the franchise’s effort to focus on the velociraptors (which I understand they beefed up from their actual and less imposing size of chickens), there’s only one true king (or more precisely, queen) of the prehistoric jungle – the tyrannosaurus rex. Even though the plot of the fourth film genetically engineered a dinosaur hybrid for the specific purpose of being the most badass dinosaur ever, the so-called Indominus Rex, the tyrannosaurus rex still pops in to bitch-slap that pussysaurus (in the words of the Nostalgia Critic’s review) into submission (albeit with a little help from her friends).

 

Everything’s better with dinosaurs!

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

raiders

 

(7) INDIANA JONES (1981-1989)

 

“You call this archaeology?”

 

Indiana Jones is the pure awesomeness you get when you mix George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in a bowl of serials – the adventure cliffhanger serial films of the 1930’s. The centerpiece of that awesomeness is the film trilogy of the 1980’s, although there is a media franchise or expanded universe extending to books, comics and television. For Indiana Jones, archaeology was adventure – racing Nazis for mystical artefacts such as the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, as opposed to the much less adventurous reality of dusting off and sorting one piece of broken pottery from another, barely above watching paint dry in excitement. Who’d have thought that a bullwhip and pistol were such indispensable archaeological tools? In fairness, Indiana does actually teach archaeology at a university, but even then his classes are full of hot coed groupies, who spend their time writing love messages to him on their eyelids rather than studying.

 

It is hard to choose between the three films of the original cinematic trilogy (ignoring, as I do, the fevered dreams of a fourth movie nuking the fridge two decades later, hence my entry only extends to the first three films), but it is equally hard to beat the introduction in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the character and his historical world much cooler than ours. I assume it needs no further introduction? From the iconic opening scene in the South American tomb of terror to the equally iconic finale, it is a masterpiece of cinematic adventure. The plot of course revolves around the archaeological arms race between the United States and Nazi Germany for the titular Ark of the Covenant. (That’s right – they’re going Old Testament on each other). Indiana Jones is enlisted by the United States government to thwart the Nazi recovery of the Ark. (“Nazis! I hate those guys!” We all do, Indy, we all do). Which explains why Nazi Germany lost the war – well, that and they lost too many men in Castle Wolfenstein.

 

Pictured – the archaeological method

 

Of course, with all that cinematic adventure, it’s easy to miss that Indy is a terrible archaeologist, smashing his way through priceless historical monuments to steal obtain his pretty golden eye candy of choice. In that iconic opening scene, as Cracked has pointed out, Indy ignores the main archaeological prize of centuries-old fully functional intricate mechanical death traps, which would have rewarded years of careful and patient study, for the golden idol. Indeed, he casually destroys them in a matter of minutes by triggering them all. I mean – seriously, he didn’t miss one! I thought the point was to avoid the traps. But who cares? I still love that iconic opening sequence whenever I see it, down to the last boulder, although personally I’d have been out of there from the tarantulas at the start.

 

And spoiler alert – as Cracked and many others have pointed out, Indy doesn’t actually do anything in the movie, as the central plot is resolved by a literal God-in-the-box deus ex machina. Indeed, Indy may have actually made things worse, as but for his intervention, the Nazis might have flown the Ark to Berlin, where it could have melted off Hitler’s face before the war. Although I think this misses the true point of blame in the film – God exists and He is lazy. Sure, through the Ark, He vaporizes a few Nazis on a remote Greek island, but surely He could zapped the Ark off to Berlin to vaporize a few more. I mean, the Ark already casually burnt the Nazi insignia off its box in transit, but don’t worry, God – you just sit back and destroy some evil Nazi packaging, rather than do something that would have meaningfully stopped millions of lives lost or destroyed in the Second World War and the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi regime. No, don’t get up and help or anything – just keep sitting there on your lazy Ark.

 

But again – who cares? I love that movie and its two sequels.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) STAR WARS (1977-1983 /2015-PRESENT)

 

Of course – Star Wars (the franchise, not just the original movie), that space fantasy set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Readers of my blog know I like to rant about Star Wars, such as its complete lack of the art of war and how it’s just Plato’s Republic, the Roman Empire and the Second World War IN SPACE!. And believe me, there’s more rants to come – such as all the characters in it who would have made better heroes than Luke Skywalker.

 

For all my rants. I do like it, particularly as it has re-awakened (heh) in 2015 (and spun-off in 2016), and obviously pay enough attention to it to qualify as a fan, perhaps more than is strictly healthy (or sane). It is modern mythology for popular culture (deliberately so, as George Lucas crafted it as such, particularly from Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ of the classic heroic narrative in The Hero with a Thousand Faces). Its characters and imagery are iconic to popular recognition beyond its audience or fandom, as are even objects and concepts such as the Death Star, the Force and the Jedi. (The latter two derive much of their mythic power and iconic status from their Eastern influences such as Taoism). Although cinematic SF and fantasy preceded it, it was so definitive that cinematic SF and fantasy might be reckoned pre-Star Wars and post-Star Wars, raising the imaginative potential for what was possible (and the financial potential for modern blockbusters). However, I have limited my entry to the original trilogy and the sequel films to date – let’s not speak of the prequel trilogy.

 

Yet…I have a complicated relationship with Star Wars (as I do with a few things). I have a number of problems with it, so much so that I’ll have to list them. Perhaps in alphabetical order, from Anakin through X-wing, Yoda and – ah – Zeltron. OK – I had to cheat and look that last one up in the Star Wars Wookiepedia. (And I don’t really hate Zeltrons – they’re hot. Now Zabraks on the other hand…Or Ziro the Hutt. No, seriously. What is this – the Marx Brothers?). I have nightmares in which Ewoks defeat the Empire. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I don’t care how many Ewoks there are (or if they’re the Ewok-Cong or something), teddy bears with slingshots will not beat guys with lasers. Not to mention air support – I’ve had napalmed that forest moon of Endor – I love the smell of burnt Ewok in the morning. Smells like victory. I don’t actually root for the Empire (well, not always) – I just don’t like its contrived defeat by Ewoks, luck and magic (or fluke Skywalker).

 

O who I am kidding? For every time I strike it down, it becomes more powerful than I can possibly imagine – like some old dead guy in my head nagging me to use the Force. It’s all true – from a certain point of view. May the Force be with you!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(5) CLOVERFIELD  / 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2008 / 2016)

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Cloverfield evolved into a semi-franchise or ‘anthology’ in 2016, with its spiritual successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane – although apart from the Cloverfield title, the latter is not so much a direct sequel (or any sequel), but more a stylistically or thematically linked story. Of course, both are arguably horror films (although the latter is more thriller), but as you know, I make my own rules and break them anyway.

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Cloverfield is a found footage monster movie (before found footage became too tired a device). It is essentially an updated American kaiju movie. (To the uninitiated, kaiju is Japanese for ‘strange beast’ and involved gigantic monsters attacking cities, most famously involving Godzilla or Gojira). Cloverfield is the military code designation allocated to the found footage – which I can’t help but feel derives its C-F lettering from the military slang ‘clusterf*ck’, aptly enough for the urban disaster that follows the creature’s rampage in New York.

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cloverfield-lane-and-cloverfield-connected-798610

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The creature itself, a gigantic wingless alien space bat (to borrow a term from wilder alternative history fiction), effortlessly decapitates the Statue of Liberty and takes out the Brooklyn Bridge with its tail. Even the lice or parasites shed by the creature are dangerous, like dog-sized demonic spiders, with bites that are explosively toxic. Literally.

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cloverfield

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Of course, the film relies on the protagonists, one in particular, being compulsively glued to their camera rather than, say, their survival instincts – something I initially dismissed as improbable, but am now not so sure, given how many people are compulsively glued to their phones. (At least the protagonists filmed the creature and its parasites – now we’d be lucky if they looked up from their phones). And as Cracked pointed out, it also relies on the creature, having previously knocked over bridges and buildings (as well as beheading Lady Liberty) as it lumbered through the city, suddenly sneaking up on our protagonists like a ninja.

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As I said, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a direct sequel, but a spiritual successor, part of a stylistically and thematically linked ‘Cloververse’. As the title indicates, the Cloverfield in this film is an actual address. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an SF psychological thriller – as the film’s heroine awakens from a car accident to find herself with two male occupants in an underground bunker, which is not quite what it seems, due to a mysterious event, which is definitely more than what it seems. Ultimately, the thriller switches between the two with a plot whiplash exceeding that of the initial car accident – and with its heroine transforming herself into one of the most kickass female characters in recent cinema.

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

0thething

 

(4) THE THING (1982)

 

My fourth place entry is The Thing – not the original 1951 The Thing from Another World, or the 2011 prequel remake, but John Carpenter’s classic 1982 film. Once again, we’re back to Wells’ Martians and Morlocks, with some Lovecraftian Mythos thrown in for extra horror, because The Thing is at its core a horror film. Of course, in this case, we’re dealing with a Martian – not literally Martian but alien. And holy crap – every other alien in cinematic science fiction (including those of another entry on this list) are positively cuddly compared to the alien…thing in The Thing. That…thing doesn’t just invade our bodies – it assimilates them. Violently. The Thing is a shapeshifter, absorbing its victim’s body into itself, yet able to retain the appearance of (and mimic) that victim. And those victims would seem to potentially extend to any lifeform, such as the sled dog it assimilates to escape the Norwegian scientists bent on destroying it after they dug it up in Antarctica (making it something of a direct descendant of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness).

 

Of course, the Norwegians fail (and die) as the “dog” seeks refuge in a neighboring American base. And soon that base is subject to the body horror of the Thing – it takes the hostile environment and inescapable isolation of the setting and raises it with a full house of paranoia, as the Americans desperately try to figure out which of them have been assimilated (against the background of the grim calculation that if the Thing should escape the isolation of Antarctica, then all of humanity will be consumed), an uncertainty that continues to the ending itself. And when that Thing cheerfully takes the form of its victim’s “head”, separating itself from the “body”, sprouting spider-like legs from the upside down “head” and skittering around on those legs – that’s when I’d be out of there…

 

0the-thing1

 

Apparently, it’s an annual tradition for viewing by the winter crew at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the first evening of winter.

 

thing

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

hekhd7g1ddmnboxclncm

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(3) MAD MAX (1979-2015)

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And now for some classic Australian post-apocalyptic cinema – let’s face it, Mad Max defined the post-apocalypse or at least post-apocalyptic chic, the apunkalypse or biker leather with a bit of BDSM kink thrown into the mix. (Hmmm…maybe a LOT of BDSM kink).

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The only issue is which Mad Max film to choose? The correct answer is, of course, all of them – yes, the whole franchise. Even Thunderdome. They all have something to offer the post-apocalyptic genre, particularly as the apocalypse shifts somewhat in each one.

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Although overshadowed by its immediate sequel (so much so that the American audience was generally unaware that there was prior movie and the movie was instead titled The Road Warrior),  the first Mad Max is arguably the best or at least the purest of the films. Part of the latter is that it was shot on a shoestring budget – so much so that director George Miller paid extras in beer.

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In fairness, a "slab" of beer is legal currency in Australia

In fairness, a “slab” of beer is legal currency in Australia

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However, it is not purely a post-apocalyptic film – it also combines elements of ‘buddy cop’ movies and those roaring rampage of revenge movies, falling squarely within the so-called Ozploitation subgenre of contemporary films at that time (the Australian or ‘Oz’ version of exploitation films). Indeed, these elements predominate in the film – Max Rockatansky or Max is mad because a biker gang, led by Toecutter, burnt his cop buddy ‘Goose’ as well as running down his wife and infant child.

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Oh the apocalypse is there somewhere in the background, but it has happened offscreen. Something has caused central governmental authority to decline, but it is still present in Max’s police highway patrol. What’s more – life and society are still relatively intact in the Australian country towns, and there’s even commercial traffic on the roads. This apocalypse reminds me of the proverbial decline and fall of the Roman Empire – too few legions and too many barbarians, the latter represented by the biker gangs emerging in the towns. Indeed, the parallel to the Roman Empire is even closer – just as the legions themselves were increasingly comprised by barbarian Germans, the police force in Mad Max resembles the leather-clad biker gangs. When the highway patrol arrests one of the bikers, the biker even has the mainstay of cop movies, a sleazy defense lawyer, show up and get him out. I mean, come on – what self-respecting post-apocalyptic world has lawyers?! Man, lawyers – they’re hardier than cockroaches! I might have to revise my post-apocalyptic job criteria

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Um, does anyone need a lawyer?

Um, does anyone need a lawyer?

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It’s in the second film with the higher budget that the post-apocalyptic scene really gets into gear. And how – the opening narration speaks of oil running out and global (possibly nuclear) war. Long gone is the highway patrol – Max is now a lone survivor, albeit still in his iconic police super-charged V8 Pursuit Special. The plot revolves around an island of semi-barbarized civilization in the form of an oil refinery in an armed compound, besieged by the barbarian marauders. And what intriguing marauders in their leather bondage gear – led by the masked Lord Humungus (“the warrior of the wasteland, the ayatollah of rock-and-rollah” as he is announced) and his lieutenant Wez in those ass-less chaps.

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Uh-huh?

Uh-huh?

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The third film sees the last semblance of former civilization replaced by the barbarian Bartertown and its Thunderdome, ruled by an uneasy diumvirate of Aunty Entity and Master Blaster (although the latter is actually two people).

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Personally, however, I can’t go past the visual splendor of the fourth film, Mad Max: Fury Road, which resets the apocalyptic story back to somewhere about the time of the second movie. Indeed, it probably works best as a retelling of the second film, but ramped up to eleven – the fourth film makes the apocalypse in the second film look positively cosy, while Immortan Joe and his War Boys makes the Lord Humungus and his retinue look like a polite picnic party. The plot, characterization and dialogue are all pared down, but who needs them when the film is this visually spectacular? John Keats basically wrote the plot in His Ode on a Grecian Urn:

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Basically, that is, if Keats were to replace pipes and timbrels with flame-throwing electric guitar – and wild ecstasy with balls to the wall insanity. As I’m sure he would if he saw Mad Max Fury Road. Ode on a Fury Road, perhaps?

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O what a day, what a lovely day! All shiny and chrome!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) THE TERMINATOR (1984-1991)

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“I’ll be back”.

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The Terminator franchise is the definitive cinematic Robot War franchise, a science fiction trope that seemingly works best when combined with another science fiction trope. In the Terminator franchise, the Robot War is combined with that other compelling science fiction trope of time travel.

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In this, it is the direct descendant of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine – the heart of science fiction is still all Martians and Morlocks. We’ll be looking at Martians soon, but Skynet and its Terminators are Morlocks. The original Morlocks were one of two evolutionary descendants of humanity, evolved from the working class – maintaining the advanced technology of the future for the Eloi, the other descendants of humanity evolved from its leisured upper class. The dark twist of Wells’ novel is that the Morlocks eat the Eloi, “farming” them like livestock. This theme of evolution endures in the Terminator, albeit transformed from Wells’ unrealistic biological evolution (without genetic engineering or mutation) to cybernetic evolution – involving artificial intelligence and robots (or more precisely cyborgs) as machine Morlocks that rise up against their human Eloi. This descent from The Time Machine is doubly so for involving time travel, except in the other direction – almost as a direct sequel, as if the Morlocks had reverse engineered the Time Machine to travel back to the present (and indeed there is at least one direct sequel to The Time Machine with that scenario).

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Of course, at its core, the original Terminator is a horror film of relentless nightmare pursuit, literally evolved from James Cameron’s own nightmare vision of a metallic skeleton dragging itself from fire – which perhaps explains the franchise’s law of diminishing returns with each sequel away from its horror origins (hence my entry stops with the second sequel). Yes, even Terminator Judgement Day, which started the rot by breaking the rules of the original – although the action was so cool, we overlooked that. The original allowed time travel for only two ‘people’, the Terminator itself and Kyle Reese sent to stop it. The sequel allowed two more – a good cyborg Terminator and a bad liquid metal Terminator – and so on, until by the TV series Terminator Sarah Connor Chronicles, that Skynet time machine must be like a commuter train station with all the robots and humans going back and forth.

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People bemoaned the latest film Terminator Genisys because it messed up the timeline, but that timeline was messed up from the very first sequel – if not implicitly in the original itself. It’s always bemused me that Skynet is smart enough to build an actual time machine, but not smart enough to work out the implications of it – either you simply can’t change the past (because it includes your time travel already) or you can but it becomes a different timeline from your existing timeline (nice for the new timeline, but not your original timeline which you still haven’t changed). Terminator Genisys simply took the changing timelines already in the franchise in their logical direction from Skynet’s point of view – a timeline-hopping Skynet, because the only way it can actually win by time travel is for itself to do the time travelling, like Skynet crossed with Marty McFly in Terminator meets Back to the Future. Then again, Skynet is just too much of a dick – it also bemused me exactly why Skynet’s plan always involves killing humanity rather than making a killing on the stock exchange or otherwise using its artificial intelligence to become rich and powerful, ruling the world rather than destroying it.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(1) ALIEN (1979-1986)

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Whereas Terminator is the definitive robot war franchise, Alien is the definitive, well, alien franchise – the direct descendant of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

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As I said in my previous entry, the heart of SF is still all Martians and Morlocks to me (or evolution and entropy). We’ve looked at the machine Morlocks of the Terminator (and the Matrix) – the aliens in the Alien franchise are Martians. Not literally Martians from Mars of course, unlike the original Martians in The War of the Worlds, but still the sharp edge of evolution (Wells’ penultimate true villain), red in tooth and claw, pitted against humanity in the backdrop of cold, dead space (or Wells’ ultimate true villain of entropy).

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And holy crap – the Martians are positively cuddly compared to their cinematic descendant aliens, or xenomorphs, in the Alien franchise!  Sure, the original Martians may have been space vampires, sucking down human blood, but the Alien xenomorphs take it to a whole new level of body horror, with every possible bodily fluid and organ of Freudian subtext thrown in for kicks. Whereas the original Martians invaded our world, the xenomorphs invade our very bodies – in the most face-hugging, throat-raping, chest-bursting way possible.

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First contact. Or perhaps close encounters of the worst kind...

First contact. Or perhaps close encounters of the worst kind…

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Like the original Terminator, the original Alien was at its core a horror film – the body horror of the alien itself in the claustrophobic intensity of a spaceship – and subject to a similar law of diminishing returns with each sequel away from its horror origins, although the intensity of action compensated for it in the immediate sequel (hence again my entry stops with that sequel).

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 Comics

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TOP 10 COMICS

 

The casual reader of Stark After Dark might get the impression that I follow more comics than I actually do (perhaps because of my top ten girls of comics?), so it’s time for Stark After Dark to once again pin its colors to the mast and show just which comics rocked my world. Now it is true that I am aware of a wide range of comics – and that I read about (or read up on) comics, particularly with their cinematic or screen incarnations. (As for the latter, it’s my quip that I’ll see any film that’s adapted from a comic). I have a love of the medium and will have a look at anything in it. On the other hand, I actually read only a few of those comics and I actively follow even fewer of them, almost entirely outside mainstream DC Comics or Marvel – comics from my favorite anthology comic 2000 AD (by British publisher Rebellion Developments), Vertigo, Image and Dark Horse.

 

As for comics, they’re a natural extension of my love of fantasy and science fiction, which extend beyond beyond the medium of print literature into the medium of comics – indeed, I would estimate that the majority of comics are fantasy or science fiction. Superhero comics by definition involve some fantasy or science fiction in their superheroics.

 

It’s probably not necessary to state what comics are – although it is difficult to provide a definition that encompasses or captures the essence of all the medium – but perhaps it is necessary to state what comics can be. Comics are typically identified as being childish or adolescent, and indeed they often are – but then, what form of entertainment isn’t? To quote Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is crap.

 

However, even at their lowest common denominator, comics have always been mythic – particularly superhero comics, which have virtually created a modern pantheon. I’d venture that the basic details of the character of Superman or Batman are better known than most founding religious figures (as well as embodying many of their characteristics) – and certainly better known than figures from classical literature or mythology, which until recently used to be the distinctive hallmark of Western education. Indeed, it would be a simple matter to swap the Justice League for the Olympian pantheon.

 

Or just use actual gods

Or just use actual gods

 

And at their highest, comics have matured, particularly in the quality of writing – notably from about the 1980’s (although that is not to discount quality writing before then), such that the term graphic novels tends to be substituted for comic books.

 

So here are my top ten comics or graphic novels, judged by their mythic effect on me – the comics or graphic novels that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

 

(10) JIM ZUB – WAYWARD (IMAGE COMICS 2014 – PRESENT)

 

This series was pitched in its press release as the “perfect new series for wayward Buffy fans”, punning on its title.

 

The comparison is quite apt – as TV Tropes quipped, it’s the closest you’ll get to Japanese schoolchildren fighting monsters outside of manga. The protagonist, Rori Lane, is Buffy-like, a high school girl living with her divorced mother and transferred to a new school in a new city – indeed, a new country, being Japan of course (her father is Irish). In her case, she finds herself fighting Japanese demons instead of vampires – indeed, monsters drawn from authentic Japanese mythology, reinvented for a new age.

 

However, that’s where the similarities end, which makes this comic its own story. One important difference is that the protagonist’s ‘Scooby Gang’ all have powers – their powers are arguably more useful than Rori’s, although she emerges as the leader of the ‘new gods’ of Japan.

 

 

My personal favorite is Ayane, a girl made out of cats (literally), with a suitably feline personality to match.

 

The series has been optioned for television, so hopefully this will be another comic series come to life on the screen

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(9) MARJORIE LIU – MONSTRESS (IMAGE COMICS 2015 – PRESENT)

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Image Comics’ ongoing fantasy series Monstress leapt into my heart at first sight  – I mean, just look at  that lush and gorgeous art by artist Sana Takeda. Look at it! Are you not entranced? And unlike many other comics, the covers are representative of the lush art throughout the series.

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However, the lushness isn’t confined to the art but extends to the rich fantasy story, akin to an Asiatic steampunk Game of Thrones, with even higher stakes between the human Federation of Man and the magical Arcanic Empire – the latter populated by the various Arcanic races, descendants of humans and the animal deity Ancient Ones. After devastating war, there is an uneasy truce between the Federation and the Empire – a truce undermined on the Federation side by its ruling order of witch-nuns known as the Cumaea, who harvest Arcanic body parts for the fuel they use to power their magic, including resurrection. The Arcanic side is…not much better, divided between the decadent Dawn and Dusk Courts.

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Enter our Arcanic protagonist Maika Halfwolf, in an opening scene as arresting and striking as any in Game of Thrones – a teenaged female, one-armed and stripped naked for auction into slavery. Seemingly captive and helpless, it is all part of her plan to seek out answers about her dead mother (with lavish side helpings of vengeance), for which she has an ace up her sleeve, almost literally, in that she is irrevocably intertwined with one of the Monstra (Monstrum in the singular) or Old Gods, beings in the style of the Cthulhu Mythos – “There is nothing divine about the Old Ones. They are horrors”.

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And so begins her roaring rampage of revenge across the Federation and the Empire – in the words of TV Tropes, “driven by rage at the humans who enslaved her, the Arcanics who abandoned her, pretty much everyone really”. As a gem of dialogue sums her up – “Maika, are you alright? You look like you’re about to kill someone” “No…I think that’s her happy face!” A lot of powerful factions are trying to use Maika as a pawn towards their own goals – including the Courts, the Cumaea and the Monstrum itself (hence the title). But Maika is no pawn – and never will be.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(8) BRIAN K. VAUGHAN – SAGA (IMAGE COMICS 2012 – PRESENT)

 

“Star Wars for perverts”

 

How can you resist a tagline like that? Although it does overstate the perversion on display in Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga – as well as underestimate my imagination when it comes to Star Wars, perhaps the most p0rn parody-able (paradoable?) franchise in cinema.

 

Of course, the tagline was Vaughan’s joking description for his juxtaposition of its mature subject matter with its direct inspiration in Star Wars. A more serious tagline for solicitations was “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones” – as well as the distinct flavor of Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed lovers, almost literally.

 

Genre website io9 has previously published its own top ten list for Saga – 10 Reasons You Should Be Reading Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga. And it’s difficult for me to improve upon that list, so I will simply recap on some more distinctive features from it, albeit perhaps with some of my own personal spin on things.

 

The first reason in io9’s list was that “it’s just like Star Wars”. And indeed it is a fantasy space opera like Star Wars – except, as the second reason states, “it’s nothing like Star Wars”. Star Wars is a space fantasy that always seemed to aspire more towards science fiction but be a little ashamed of its fantasy elements, tiptoeing around them – the Jedi or Sith and the Force – in vaguely mystical terms or worse, the vaguely scientific rationale of midichlorians in the prequel trilogy. Saga fully embraces its space fantasy, for a galaxy that’s as full of magic and monsters as it is spaceships and lasers.

 

Like Star Wars, the setting is a galactic war fought between the technological planet Landfall with its winged inhabitants reminiscent of angels and its magical moon Wreath with its horned inhabitants reminiscent of devils. Unlike Star Wars’ resemblance to the Second World War, this galactic war resembles the Cold War, a proxy war fought throughout the galaxy as the belligerents fear the mutually assured destruction that would result if they took the war directly to the other’s home world. The protagonists are two soldiers, winged Alana from Landfall and horned Marko from Wreath, who have fallen in love and deserted together – and the series starts with the birth of their daughter Hazel, who occasionally narrates it from the future. The star-crossed couple are hunted by both sides, as each side is equally embarrassed by their desertion – and worse, their love and child – and retain bounty-hunters or ‘freelancers’ to track them down.

 

Unlike Star Wars, it is not a heroic narrative of a good war. In Saga, war is hell – with the civilians caught in the crossfire and exploited refugees we didn’t see in Star Wars. And the protagonists are not on a heroic quest to end the war or defeat the evil empire (the warring sides appear to be morally equivalent) – they want nothing more than to be left alone with their daughter.

 

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And then there is its wild creativity beyond anything in Star Wars – or to quote io9’s third reason, “it is completely insane”. You want robots? We have Prince Robot, one of the freelancers hunting down the protagonist couple and heir to the throne of Landfall’s robotic planet ally – except, like all of his people, he is completely humanoid but for his television head.

 

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You want aliens? There’s the Stalk, the kinkiest alien spiderwoman I’ve seen outside of Japanese anime and another freelancer hunting down the protagonist (and also in a s€xual relationship with human freelancer the Will – they swing all ways in Saga!)

 

And as io9’s eighth reason states, it has a Lying Cat – a walking, talking lie-detecting animal. Because we all need a Lying Cat in our lives…

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(7) LUCIFER (VERTIGO COMICS 2000-2006 / 2015-PRESENT)

 

When Neil Gaiman was asked which character he would choose for a spinoff from his Sandman series, he was quick with his answer – Lucifer. Lucifer was indeed one of the more, if not most, fascinating characters in the Sandman series – particularly as in the course of that series he abdicated from his reign of hell and literally handed over the keys, retiring initially to Australia (of course) and then to Los Angeles (again of course).

 

Gaiman had also insisted that Lucifer resemble David Bowie – “the Devil was David Bowie…you must draw David Bowie. Find David Bowie, or I’ll send you David Bowie. Because if it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie”. So now you know what David Bowie is doing in the afterlife – and hell is once again much cooler than heaven for it.

 

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However, Gaiman did not write the spinoff, but passed the torch to Mike Carey – who proved a worthy successor. Like a few other entries in this top ten, Carey is a British comics writer who previously wrote for 2000 AD (my favorite of his work there is his series Thirteen) and proved adept at portraying infernal politics or power plays – other works along such lines include his Felix Castor series of novels as well as his work on Vampirella, after her origin had been revised to Hell and her mother to Lilith.

 

Carey’s Lucifer commenced where it had ended in Sandman, with Lucifer running his piano bar Lux in Los Angeles. However, things soon become much more complicated when he acquires the door to his own universe (or multiverse), which places him in a power play and collision course with other powerful forces – the angelic host (although God is missing in action), his brother the archangel Michael, his niece and Michael’s daughter Elaine Belloc, Japanese gods and Nordic deities, including the truly terrifying Fenris Wolf. And the events set in train involve a large cast of characters, including perhaps my favorite character (along with Elaine Belloc), Christopher Rudd – who rises from amongst the damned to become ruler of Hell through sheer noble badassery.

 

That is, apart from the main character of Lucifer himself, who remains the engaging focus of the series. His word is his bond and indeed he refuse to lie, contrary to his title as lord of lies – “When the Devil wants you to do something, he doesn’t lie to you at all. He tells you the exact, literal truth. And he lets you find your own way to Hell”.

 

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Carey’s run on the series concluded with its 75th episode in 2006, but you can’t keep a good devil down – Lucifer is up and running in a new incarnation, with issues in 2017 being written by Richard freaking Kadrey of Sandman Slim fame. Awesome!

 

RATING : IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) PETER MILLIGAN – SHADE THE CHANGING MAN (1990-1996 / 2016-present)

 

Peter Milligan is another British writer that started in 2000 AD, most notably with Bad Company – a future war story in which a bizarre company of soldiers fight humanity’s bizarre war against the alien Krool.

 

However, contrary to my characteristic preference for 2000 AD, my favorite is his work for DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint label for more mature graphic novels outside the publishing restrictions of mainstream comics. Milligan came to Vertigo towards the end of the first wave of the so-called British invasion or ‘Britwave’ of British writers into American comics – and like his fellow British writers for Vertigo, he revamped an obscure DC Comics character, Shade the Changing Man.

 

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The focus of the series is Shade, an interdimensional traveler to Earth from the parallel world of Meta, with the reality-warping ‘power of madness’ (which seems to be part of Metan technology) – he resembles another of my favorites, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but with power born of madness instead of dreams. But then, what are dreams if not a little madness in our lives?

 

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In other words, it starts off weird and gets weirder – a psychedelic fantasy and odyssey. The initial narrative has the most defined plot structure, as Shade was sent to Earth to defeat a dangerous manifestation of madness and the American psyche or collective unconscious, the American Scream. After that, it is the personifications from Shade’s own psyche that are dangerous, as well as other beings born from the Area of Madness – which after all extends to the land of dreams and the dead, angels and the Devil. Shade himself dies, but is reborn through the power of madness – jumping bodies and on one occasion gender as Shade the Changing Woman.

 

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Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man ran for 70 issues and acquired a cult following, but unfortunately Vertigo has only republished the first 19 issues in collected editions (so that I had to hunt down each of the original comic issues, just before they published them digitally – sigh). It’s recently been revived (albeit without Milligan) as Shade the Changing Girl

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 4 STARS****

 

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(5) ADAM WARREN – EMPOWERED (DARK HORSE COMICS 2007 – PRESENT)

 

Empowered is Adam Warren’s ‘sexy superhero comedy’ graphic novel series – the titular heroine and her series, originated from commissioned ‘bondage’ sketches of a comics superheroine ‘damsel-in-distress’, which then became the basis for the episodic shorts for the commencement of the series, illustrated in Warren’s characteristic ‘manga’ influenced style. The series started (and still continues to some extent) as a playful deconstruction of superhero comics tropes, particularly those involving female superheroes, along with (in the words of TV Tropes) “healthy doses of bondage, fanservice and comedy”. Indeed, it’s a fantasy kitchen sink of comics tropes and more – alien doomsday technology, clans of ninjas in New Jersey, grandiloqent interdimensional hell-beings (trapped in coffee table ornaments), deals with the devil, psi powers, undead superheroes (or the ‘superdead’) and catgirls (nyaan!)

 

 

Empowered herself is a “plucky D-list superheroine”, who is precariously dependent and constantly betrayed by the fragile, fickle source of her superpowers – her skin-tight ‘hypermembrane’ suit. It gives her superpowers while it is mostly intact, but it tears easily – leaving her without powers at critical moments (although as the series progresses, the full nature of her suit and its powers becomes more complex and mysterious). As a consequence, Empowered spends most of her time with her suit in tatters or various states of undress, bound and gagged by supervillains or even common criminals (in accordance with the unspoken code of conduct towards captured superheroines, which precludes anything more harmful), a joke to her superhero peers and supervillains alike (albeit something of status symbol as arm candy to the latter).

 

As the series has progressed however, it has developed deeper, darker and longer story arcs – and Empowered has emerged as an increasingly formidable superheroine, relying on her wits and strength of character to overcome the flaws of her suit. On the other hand, her superhero colleagues or ‘Capes’ have become increasingly darker – beware the Superman! Remember San Antonio!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(4) NICK SPENCER – MORNING GLORIES (IMAGE COMICS 2010 – PRESENT)

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“What did you see when your eyes were opened?”

 

Well, for one thing, I saw Morning Glories, an ongoing series from Image Comics that has had me enraptured from the first issue I read. In the tagline of its writer Nick Spencer, it’s Runaways meets Lost. Indeed, in the words of TV Tropes, the tone and feel of the story is “something akin to Lost in its earlier seasons: lots of character exploration and flashbacks amid completely baffling events that seem to hint toward a bizarre and complicated machination”

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In my eyes, it’s as if the Illuminati had a high school – or perhaps more aptly, since it is referenced by name, as if Grant Morrison’s Invisibles had a high school. (Or if Night Vale WAS a high school, given that it has one). Indeed, Nick Spencer shows a Morrisonesque flair for twists and turns of storyline, at times even coming close to Morrison’s unrivalled hand at those fabulous comics one-liners or that juxtaposition of word and image. (High praise, given how highly I rank Grant Morrison as a comics writer, although he is a little…chaotic at times. Indeed, Morning Glories is more coherent than the Invisibles).

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The Morning Glories (or just Glories) is the nickname for the protagonist group of six new students, selected for the prestigious Morning Glory Academy – selected, that is, for a very particular set of selection criteria, most notably that they share the same birthday. Which may or may not explain that they all seem to manifest mysterious abilities or future selves, and that they all seem to have dark or strange pasts (including – perhaps – the occasional homicide). It doesn’t explain why the location of the school is kept mysterious by drugging each new student before arrival – or why their parents don’t even seem to remember their very existence when they call them from the school (with one notable exception, which necessitates the most unfortunate consequences). It certainly doesn’t explain the “mysterious and shadowy purpose of this dizzying boarding school of horrors”, which remains mysterious and shadowy except only that it seems to be the tip of a global conspiracy – or conspiracies. Not to mention the other paranormal phenomena or time travel within and without its walls. (In one of my favorite Morrisonesque one-liners from the series, a student enquires as to the trippy design of a time machine from the future self of one of the other students – “Who built it?” “You did” is the reply). Nor does it explain the sadistic faculty staff, led by the unseen headmaster behind the scenes – who don’t hesitate to resort to progressive mind control techniques, extreme physical discipline and the occasional sacrifice.

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After all, it’s “for a better future” (either that or “the hour of our release draws near”) and we all have to make sacrifices. Literally.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS****

 

DREAM

 

(3) NEIL GAIMAN – THE SANDMAN (DC VERTIGO 1989 – 1996)

 

Neil Gaiman. You knew this was coming, particularly if you read my top 10 fantasy books. Or if you’ve read him. Or if you read my seventh (and sixth) place entry, where I dropped hints for this one

 

As I said in my fantasy top ten, Neil Gaiman may simply be the greatest living writer of fantasy, the literary (and suitably English) heir to J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (both of whom were substantial influences on him). Stephen King has praised Gaiman as “a treasure house of story” and added that “we are lucky to have him in any medium”. And indeed we are – with his lyrical prose, his power of story and his sensibility of fantasy as ultimately the layers of story within our world.

 

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His most mythic work – indeed, the core of Gaiman’s mythos – is his comics series of The Sandman. It is of course within the genre of fantasy, with an episode even winning the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Fiction (prompting the awards administration thereafter to revise – or remember – the rules to exclude comics or graphic novels, those snobs!). Indeed, it “falls within the dark fantasy genre, albeit in a more contemporary or modern setting”, but transcends genre – and audience appeal, attracting fans who weren’t traditionally seen as readers of comics or fantasy – into urban fantasy, epic fantasy, historical drama, superheroes, mythology and more. Its mythos, and even more so its mythic themes of the power of belief and the power of story, recur throughout Gaiman’s writing.

 

Neil Gaiman was yet another part of the British invasion of American comics (albeit with minimal writing for 2000 AD), revamping obscure DC Comics characters for their Vertigo imprint – in Gaiman’s case, a number of obscure and embarrassing characters with the title of the Sandman. Gaiman transformed the Sandman into one of the seven archetypal beings known as the Endless, beyond even the gods and other mythological creatures (who exist because people believe in them) – including God and Lucifer – seven anthropomorphic personifications of Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Destruction and Delirium (previously Delight). The Sandman is of course Dream or Morpheus, ruler of the realm of dreams and of stories, the dreams of our world, which makes him the most powerful of the Endless, after Destiny and Death. He even faces down the collected hosts of Hell with the power of dreams – “What power would HELL have if those here imprisoned were NOT able to DREAM of HEAVEN?”

 

Gaiman once summarized the plot as “the Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die – and makes his choice”. Although it does capture the essence of the overarching story, “ultimately placing its protagonist in the role of tragic hero”, this summary – or any other – could never hope to capture the sheer dazzling range of characters and story threads within it, that linger in your imagination well after you have finished. Like dreams – or nightmares, like the Corinthian.

 

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As for the series, it starts off decently enough, but truly finds its depth and distinctive voice with the eighth ‘issue’ or chapter, “The Sound of Her Wings” – in which we are introduced to Dream’s older sister, Death, one of the most engaging characters in any comic and my personal favorite personification of death. And I’m seriously going to be very disappointed if I am not greeted by Death of the Endless at the end of my mortal life.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) GRANT MORRISON – ZENITH (2000 AD 1987 – 1992)

 

Quite simply, Grant Morrison is my favorite writer of comics. (My favorite comic on the other hand has been and is written by a number of authors – including Morrison!)

 

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Opinion is mixed about Morrison. In the words of TV Tropes, some people love him, while others “believe he’s just some wacky guy…whose constant forays into This is Your Premise on Drugs ends up dominating his books”. Although come on, be honest – even the latter sounds more awesome than many other things you read. Granted, Morrison can be self-indulgent and wildly esoteric, but then what else would you expect from a practicing chaos magician? (Seriously). What he never fails to be, even when his stories don’t quite work – or work all too well as sheer mind screws – is interesting and intriguing. Like the other writers of the British invasion of American comics, Morrison won his reputation revamping comics characters (starting with DC Comics’ obscure Animal Man for its Vertigo imprint), but perhaps distinguished himself even more so than the other writers – to the point he has been styled as the ‘revamp guy’ and to the point he can make any comics character AWESOME).

 

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However, my favorite Morrison work remains his first substantial work for 2000 AD, which brought him to the attention of DC Comics and other American publishers – Zenith. Perhaps that’s because of the perfect combination of his writing with the art of Steve Yeowell – or perhaps because his more flamboyant and mind screwy elements remain subdued in its elegant story and classic deconstruction of superheroes.

 

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The starting premise of Zenith is similar to that of Captain America – the Second World War and a serum that creates superhuman powers. Unfortunately, it’s the Nazis that have the serum to create their Nazi superman, Masterman. Even worse, the Nazis obtained the serum from the lloigor, who are nothing other than the extradimensional beings of the Cthulhu Mythos, down to their very names – although Morrison adapted Yog Soggoth to Iok Sotot and made him even more terrifying. The serum is simply their means to create superhuman bodies capable of being occupied by the lloigor as they come into this world. True to their Lovecraftian roots, the lloigor are beings beyond time and space, beings of infinite power and infinite cruelty – well, either that or the most dangerous lava lamp in history (read it and see)…

 

This always reminds me of work. Or life for that matter.

This always reminds me of work. Or life for that matter.

 

Fortunately, German defectors help the British to replicate the serum for the British superhero, Maximan. That’s effectively where the comic starts – and it illustrates Morrison’s ability to juxtapose words and visual images perfectly, as well as to cut from one scene to another. The opening scene is in the style of a kitsch British wartime newsreel, proudly displaying the feats of Maximan defeating German forces and declaring “it could all be over by Christmas”.

 

Cut to Berlin, 21 December 1944 – the Nazi Masterman stands gloating over the broken and fallen Maximan. “Does it hurt? I hope so. Even if I let you live, you’ll never use your legs again, you know that?” All Maximan can do in reply is murmur his hopeless prayer – Psalm 23 – and Maximan gloats further. “Save your breath. No one is listening. There’s no one up there”

 

Except…there is, although not quite in the sense that either of them had in mind, as we cut to an American plane, about to drop “the big one” – the atomic bomb – except in this history on Berlin. And we cut back to Masterman and Maximan as they are enveloped in light.

 

The story continues with a new generation of British superheroes created by the serum – but which have apparently lost their powers, been killed or disappeared, except for Zenith, a second generation superhero born of two superhuman parents, both killed by the American ‘Shadowmen’ agents. However, the Cult of the Black Sun – the secret society behind the Nazis – have other plans for Zenith, as they revive the Masterman twin for a new and more powerful lloigor. From this relatively straightforward contest, the story becomes increasingly complex and dark – more superhumans are introduced due to secret illegal testing of the serum and still more to a cosmic battle across parallel worlds as the lloigor seek the ‘alignment’ that will deliver the multiverse to them, concluding with the truly apocalyptic climax as the lloigor are finally unveiled for what they truly were, are and will be.

 

It would be amiss of me to conclude without reference to my favorite characteristic of Morrison – his ability to write perfect comic one-liners and dialogue. An example is when the organization secretly testing superhumans sent a killer robot after Zenith – Zenith destroys it, but not before it sends its footage back to the organization. One of them muses about Zenith – “He has his mother’s eyes”. The other replies “Really? I thought we had his mother’s eyes”. And indeed they do – the actual eyes in a jar behind them in their laboratory.

 

And we’ve all mocked villain monologues – but Morrison shows how it is done, to chilling effect (with verbal tics of insanity):

 

Now that's how you do an insane villainous monologue, bitches!

Now that’s how you do an insane villainous monologue, bitches!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

POS-DREDD-PROP_original

 

(1) JUDGE DREDD (2000 AD 1977 – PRESENT: 40 YEARS, PUNKS!!!)

 

You knew this was coming – I’ve said it before so I’ll just say it again!

 

My first and true love in comics is not one of the ruling duopoly of comics (and even more so comic book movies), DC and Marvel Comics, nor strictly speaking a superhero comic (although it’s main character is arguably as much of a ‘superhero’ as Batman), nor even an American comic (although it is set there, albeit drastically transformed in the twenty-second century).

 

It is Judge Dredd, the most iconic character from the British weekly SF anthology comic, 2000 AD, ongoing since it was launched in 1977 – although ironically for its longest-running and flagship character, from its second issue, as the opening Dredd story was not ready for the first issue. Time has passed in the Dredd strip essentially in real time ever since, so a year passes in the comic for each year in real life – the first Dredd story in 1977 was set in 2099 and the present stories in 2015 are set in 2137 (an interesting feature as distinct from many American comic franchises).

 

jd

Unfortunately, American audiences remain somewhat unfamiliar with (or unresponsive to) Judge Dredd, despite his American setting (albeit futuristic) and despite that he is effectively a quintessential American hero in the same vein as Batman – relying on superior discipline, training, experience, equipment and resources, except as a governmental lawman rather than a vigilante billionaire. (They even both effectively remain masked in their public identities, as Dredd never removes his helmet). This is despite his iconic status, particularly in Britain, and despite American audiences being familiar with many of the alumni of 2000 AD, as virtually every British writer (and artist) of note working in American comics started there (and indeed often in the Judge Dredd storyline itself) – Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar and so on.

 

Even more unfortunately, the most substantial introduction of American audiences to Judge Dredd was the 1995 film, although fortunately that particular horror is fading with time. This Hollywood travesty was particularly inexcusable, because the essence of Judge Dredd is ultimately very simple – Judge Dredd is a futuristic Dirty Harry in a dystopian (and post-apocalyptic) SF satire. How hard is that, Hollywood?! On second thoughts, this simple formula is probably too much for Hollywood to handle – when they couldn’t even have Dredd keep his helmet on throughout the film.

 

The recent 2012 film was much more effective in capturing the elements of the original comic (not least in keeping Dredd’s helmet on throughout the film), but not as effective in capturing an audience. In its own way, this is as unfortunate as the first film, particularly at a time when comic book movies are in such vogue (and dystopian or post-apocalyptic movies have always been popular) – because if ever a comic deserved its own cinematic or screen adaptation, it’s Dredd, especially when you consider the dreck (or drokk – Judge Dredd slang in-joke alert) that does get adaptations. Perhaps a television adaptation would have been better, as it suits the more episodic nature as well as longer arcs of the storyline. Whatever the case, here are my ten reasons why Judge Dredd is the galaxy’s greatest comic – and why it deserves its own cinematic or screen universe:

MEGA-CITY LAW – 10 REASONS WHY JUDGE DREDD IS THE GALAXY’S GREATEST COMIC (AND DESERVES ITS OWN SCREEN UNIVERSE):

(1) APOCALYPSE WOW!

(2) SCI FI FANTASY KITCHEN SINK

(3) REAL WORLD SATIRE (OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SEXUAL OLYMPICS)

(4) FUTURISTIC DIRTY HARRY (OR DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?)

(5) MORAL COMPLEXITY (OR JUDGE DREDD DIED FOR YOUR SINS)

(6) THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY AND THE WEIRD

(7) THERE WERE 800 MILLION STORIES IN THE MEGA-CITY

(8) ROGUES GALLERY

(9) DIVERSITY OF GENRE AND TONE (OR HOW THE DAY OF CHAOS TORE MY HEART OUT)

(10) THE TAO OF DREDD (PLATO’S REPUBLIC AND HOBBES’ LEVIATHAN)

 

1704131-dredd

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

Top 10 SF Stories & Works

 

TOP 10 SF STORIES & WORKS

 

Stark After Dark has its Top 10 SF Books, but this still leaves a lacuna in literary SF – for all the SF stories that are shorter than novels, as well as works that aren’t readily categorized as either. Indeed, the influence of such stories and works often rivals those of SF books or novels. These are my top ten SF stories and works – the stories and works that shaped or changed the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

 

(10) JAMES ERWIN – ROME SWEET ROME (2011)

 

I have a long-lasting love for alternate histories, particularly alternate histories through time travel – a love inspired by L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, in which the protagonist Martin Padway finds himself transported to sixth century Rome and sets out to single-handedly stave off the impending Dark Ages.

 

That love is even more so when it is not just individuals but whole groups of people sent back in time with all their modern technology and infrastructure, although typically they face the problem of maintaining or supplying all those modern technological advantages – particular favorites of mine are John Birmingham’s Axis of Time series in which a twenty-first century naval task force is sent back to the Second World War and Eric Flint’s 1633 series, in which the entire Virginian town of Grantsville finds itself in Germany in the Thirty Years War.

 

And so what was not to love about Rome, Sweet Rome, which echoes Lest Darkness Fall – except that it’s a whole United States Marine Corps expeditionary unit that finds itself mysteriously launched from the strange war in Afghanistan to an even stranger war against the Roman Empire at its peak under Augustus? OORAH!

 

Rome, Sweet Rome is a short story – emphasis on the short, more a short treatment – posted by James Erwin online on Reddit under his handle Prufrock451 on 21 August 2011 (and now has its own subreddit under Rome Sweet Rome). It was inspired by a hypothetical question about whether or not a modern US Marine unit could simply wipe out the entire Roman Empire. (Probably not given the ultimate logistical difficulties, but if anyone could do it, the Marines could. OORAH!)

 

Only the first couple of instalments were posted on Reddit (where I read them), corresponding to the first few days of the Marines’ arrival and their confrontation with the Roman Empire, including Augustus himself. That’s all we’ve got to see of it so far, as it went viral and the rights were snapped up by Warner Brothers for a movie adaptation – unfortunately, it has since seemed to languish in development hell, although I am still hopeful for a film (subsequent to which I understand that Erwin has novelization rights).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 3 STARS***

 

 

(9) JANET MORRIS (PERSEID PUBLISHING) HEROES IN HELL (1986 – PRESENT) 

 

Once again, I continue my proud tradition of including posthumous fantasy or fantasy set in the afterlife amongst my science fiction, mainly because I first encountered it by my favorite science fiction writers (and the Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer in particular, although in fairness, the premise is more science fiction there).

 

So what’s not to love about the Heroes in Hell anthology, which is exactly what it says on the tin – made more so as everyone who is anyone ended up in hell? I first encountered it through Robert Silverberg’s contribution to this posthumous fantasy anthology series, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (which he subsequently expanded into in his novel To the Land of the Living). However, in Silverberg’s treatment, everyone who has ever lived or died in human history (and prehistory) finds themselves reborn (again and again) in the afterlife, but it does not seem so much hell (or heaven) as a mysterious and vague limbo. In other contributions to the series, it is definitely hell, with distinct flourishes of Dante about it, but a hell that reinvents itself from time to time. Of course, the primary delight of the series is reinventing favorite personages from history in their posthumous adventures, or rather, misadventures, in hell.

 

The series originally flourished from 1986 to 1989, but has recently risen again (from hell?) with encore volumes by Perseid Publishing, starting with a new anthology in 2011, aptly named (in the style of the series), Lawyers in Hell. After all, where else would they go?

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS*****

 

 

(8) THOMAS DISCH – JOSIE & THE ELEVATOR (1980)

 

I’m still exploring the worlds of Thomas Disch. In particular, I’m intrigued by the concept of his novel The Genocides, as I have a soft spot for alien invasion stories. (SF is still all Martians and Morlocks to me). Typically, spacefaring aliens should have such overwhelming technological advantages over us that the most believable outcome is that the aliens wipe the floor with us – whether or not we were able to mount any resistance or even perceive the invasion – or there is some compelling reason otherwise. In The Genocides, humanity doesn’t even approach anything like resistance as aliens seed Earth with their Plants and humanity is effectively reduced to an inconvenient infestation of pests in the alien crop. (Of course, our best prospects in the event of alien invasion would be as pets not pests – or better yet as a literal petting zoo exhibit with an adult film star as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five).

 

My introduction to Disch was yet another short story in Omni magazine (essentially I was given a stack of old Omni magazines by a spring-cleaning neighbor) – the blackly comic fable, Josie and the Elevator. The titular girl has an argument with the titular magically sentient elevator – and in a fit of pique, the elevator descends into Hell itself to eject her. As in literally Hell – not that you can tell the difference, because it is exactly like our world, except things turn out much more for the worse down there…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(7) HARLAN ELLISON – I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM (1967)

 

“Darkness falls early. From the horizon comes the wail of creatures pretending to be human. The red tide has come in, and shapeless things float toward the shore. He stands before the altar of Art, naked and with fists raised, and he vows: I will not be lied to.
Hello. My name is Harlan Ellison and I am a writer.”

 

Yeah, that pretty much sums up his ethos – Harlan Ellison is “a famously grumpy” writer associated with the so-called New Wave Science Fiction (of which the story in this entry is an example) and who has won numerous literary awards (including lifetime Nebula and Bram Stoker Awards).

 

He also has the most evocative titles for short stories in science fiction. As a title, I have a soft spot for The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, but as far as his stories go, my introduction to Ellison remains my favorite – with an equally evocative title that has lent itself to its own trope (for that fate worse than death from which there is no release, and yes, typically characterized by an inability to even scream).

 

There’s no surprises then that I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream doesn’t have a happy ending, which involves the titular fate worse than death. It doesn’t have a happy beginning (or middle) either – much like The Terminator, it is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity is almost extinct at the hands of the supercomputer it foolishly created to wage war (mainly between the United States, the Soviet Union and China) but instead achieved angry sentience. (Is there any other kind?)

 

Almost extinct, that is, except the five people, including the narrator, that the computer keeps alive – and immortal – as its cosmic chewtoys, using its mysterious reality-warping powers that it acquired subsequent to sentience and which allows it to warp their bodies into shapes of its choosing. Or in other words, making Skynet and its Terminators look like a balanced and benevolent time-travelling stripper-gram by comparison.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(6) DAVID BRIN – THOR MEETS CAPTAIN AMERICA (1986)

 

No – it’s not a comic or film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although the title obviously references the Marvel characters.

 

I fell in love with David Brin’s short story Thor Meets Captain America when I read it in Hitler Victorious, an anthology of alternate history short stories that obviously involved, well, Hitler being victorious – a Nazi German victory in the Second World War.  In his author’s note for the story, Brin noted that he was invited by the collator, Gregory Benford,  to write a story of Nazi victory – but voiced the opinion that he could not conceive of a single event which, if altered, would have let Nazi Germany win the war, particularly as they had required a number of lucky breaks to get as far as they did. (An opinion which coincides with my own, as well as my pet peeve of the myth of German military excellence – as I’ve stated elsewhere, paraphrasing my favorite Second World War history, Germany was very good at fighting but not very good at war.)

 

And so Brin fell back on what is jokingly known in alternate history circles as ‘alien space bats’ – that is, some fantastic or implausible plot device that provides the difference (or what is known as the point of divergence), although typically not actual alien space bats as such. In this case, Nazi Germany essentially won the Second World War because they were able to summon the Norse gods to fight on their side. The fantastic implausibility of the premise is the point – as he noted, this was the most (or only) plausible scenario that Brin could think of that involved Nazi victory, and in fairness, it probably was more plausible than the actual Nazi strategy (and their increasingly desperate ‘wunderwaffen’ or wonder weapons). It also gives some actual strategic sense to the Holocaust (which, in history, was as strategically pointless as it was monstrous) – the murder of millions as part of a mass human sacrifice or necromantic ritual intended to bring the Norse gods into being, which it does in 1944, just in time for D-day. Of course, most of this alternate history is told as backstory to the last desperate Allied attempt years later to destroy the new Valhalla. (And by Allied, we mean American, with a little help from a renegade Loki, since Europe has long been overwhelmed).

 

What’s not to love? Alternate history of the Second World War and Nazi Germany, the Norse gods and comic book superheroes. Actually, the Norse gods in their Nazi guise are distinctly unlovely – just as they needed mass human sacrifice to create them, they also need it to sustain them. God is a hole in the heart of the world and he’s hungry – omnipotent, omniscient, omnivorous. And as for those comic book superheroes – well, that’s also part of the point of the story, as the protagonist dreads what dark and terrible gods the Americans would create with Nazi necromancy…

 

Brin subsequently adapted and expanded the story into comic form as The Life-Eaters, which added some interesting points, perhaps lacked quite the same concise purity of the original story.

 

Brin also scores bonus points for his other stories and works, as well as their humanistic ethos – the latter on best display in his critique of the latent tendency to mystical fascism in fantasy and science fiction, most notably in those two towering modern mythic works, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. (I tend to agree with his critique, at least in part, although I would trace this mystical fascism back further to Plato and his Republic, from the Force to the Forms as it were – and that we’re still fighting the Peloponnesian War against Plato’s Spartanism).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(5) GEORGE R.R. MARTIN – SANDKINGS (1979)

 

Some may have pondered that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the literary source of a television adaptation which you may know as Game of Thrones, is conspicuously absent from my Top 10 Fantasy Books.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I avidly read the books (as well as other stories set in the same world). However…it presently remains something of an unfinished symphony, and not coincidentally, has been eclipsed by its television adaptation (in which Martin also played a hand).

 

More fundamentally, my true love remains where I first encountered Martin, in his short stories. There are his body horror stories (horror in the sense that Eraserhead is horror, disturbing rather than terrifying) – The Pear-Shaped Man and The Monkey Treatment for example. Although it is probably not too surprising to Song of Ice and Fire readers or Game of Thrones fans that Martin is a deft hand at horror. There is also the ongoing shared universe of the Wild Cards series – in which he is editor, influence and occasional writer. If you love comics, you’ll love the Wild Cards – an alternate Earth in which an alien virus gives humanity superpowers. Well, some of humanity, as only some people are infected – of those, 90% die (horribly), 9% mutate (mostly horribly) as so-called Jokers and the lucky 1% become superpowered Aces. (The virus is dubbed the Wild Card virus as it affects every person differently, within those broad parameters).

 

However, my ultimate true love is his first story I read, the Hugo and Nebula Award winning Sandkings, first published in Omni magazine (and indeed I read it in an old Omni magazine anthology collection of short stories).

 

It somewhat belies its SF setting, which is surprisingly suburban as well as again tending towards horror, and indeed could very well be adapted into a suburban horror story. (The story was apparently inspired by just such a suburban setting, with piranhas as pets). The premise of the story involves a planetary playboy with a thing for exotic alien pets, who acquires the titular Sandkings – social ‘insects’ in colonies by color who fight intricate wars with each other. Of course, the protagonist has no patience for that – starving them into fighting each other or pitting them in gladiatorial matches against other animals for the amusement of his party guests. Needless to say, it does not end too well for him.

 

Indeed, Sandkings is a proto-Game of Thrones in metafictional miniature, with the protagonist substituting for Martin himself and the Sandkings for his fictional creations – the Whites as House Lannister with its mad, wounded queen and the Oranges as poor, beleaguered House Stark

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(4) OMNI MAGAZINE (1978 – 1998 AND BEYOND?)

 

O Omni – the iconic magazine of science and science fiction!

 

Omni was founded by Kathy Keeton and her partner Bob Guccione, better known as the publisher of Penthouse magazine, in 1978. Unfortunately, it foundered with Keeton’s death in 1997 and wound up in 1998, having ceased print in 1995 but continued online for a short time.

 

I was introduced to Omni magazine when a spring-cleaning neighbor gave me their old collection of magazines, which also included an anthology Best of Omni Science Fiction – and in turn it introduced my adolescent self (although I am perpetually adolescent) to a variety of SF writers, including a number of writers in my Top 10 SF lists (Robert Silverberg! Robert Sheckley! George R.R. Martin! Thomas Disch!) In its halcyon days, it obviously paid writers well as it was a leading light of SF stories, including genre classics. Its impact wasn’t limited to stories – it also featured leading genre artists (Giger! Foss!) as well as feature articles on science and other recurring features. One of the latter, its Partly Baked Ideas, was the inspiration for my own Bare-Assed and Half-Baked Ideas. (For some reason, I’ve always remembered the one Partly Baked Idea for plant flight. Take certain plants that open and close their leaves with the alternation of day and night, combine them with gradually decreasing artificial light from the natural day cycle to strobe frequency, and you may just have plants that flap their leaves enough to fly…)

 

Anyway, the magazine proved too good for this world and didn’t last, although I continue to explore it online both past (the whole magazine run is presently available on Amazon) and present (a new version has recently been revived online).

 

RATING:  IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(3) JAMES TIPTREE JR – THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION (1977)

 

James Tiptree Jr was actually the pen name for Alice Bradley Sheldon, one of my favorite writers of science fiction stories.

 

She rivals Harlan Ellison for the most evocative titles for short stories in science fiction and exceeds him for the most lyrical:

  • And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side (although technically she borrowed her title from John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci) – one of my favorite Tiptree stories about aliens so s€xy that they turn humanity into hopeless groupies. That’s not quite it as it’s more about how screwed up humanity is but I just like saying it that way – now there’s an alien invasion scenario I’d like to see
  • Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light! – another one of my favorite Tiptree stories about a female courier wandering an apparently gynocratic post-apocalyptic world of Sisters and Mothers. Or is she?
  • Houston, Houston, Do You Read? – one of the most classic Tiptree stories about male astronauts returning through a space-time wormhole to a post-apocalyptic Earth populated by women

 

However, the title of my Tiptree story is not so lyrical – with its prosaic title of The Screwfly Solution – but is as evocative and haunting as any of her more lyrically titled stories. (John Clute of the SF Encyclopedia noted that “it is very rarely that a James Tiptree story does not both deal directly with a death and end with a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the race”).

 

Its subject is also not so lyrical, that recurring SF trope of alien invasion. As I have said elsewhere, SF is still all Morlocks and Martians to me, with the latter evidenced by my soft spot for alien invasion stories. Of course, in the most realistic alien invasion stories, spacefaring aliens would have such technological advantages over us that they would wipe the floor with us, metaphorically speaking – to such extent that we may not even perceive the invasion, as in this story.

 

The title references the sterile insect technique, a technique of eradicating the population of screwflies by the release of sterilized males that compete with fertile males to reduce the population – a reference made clearer by one of its characters, Alan, a scientist working on parasite eradication. However, in this story, we’re the screwflies, but with a much more violent distortion of human sexuality – as an epidemic of murderous male violence against women starts to spread across the globe. Some scientists suspect a biological cause, but their voices are not heard amidst political inaction, or worse, elaborate misogynistic rationalizations for the violence. One such rationalization is a new religious movement that is spreading along with the murders – the Sons of Adam, who believe that all women are evil and that removing them will return the world to paradise, when angels shall return to earth.

 

Alan realizes that the epidemic causes male sexual impulses to instead become violent homicidal impulses and he too is infected. His wife Anne flees to the Canadian wilderness where, in the end, pursued by an entire society bent on femicide, she sees one of the ‘angels’ that will inherit the Earth.

 

The effect of the story is quite chilling – indeed, I’m not sure that we’ll even need an alien invasion for it, as the Sons of Adam look positively tame compared to some of the misogyny on the internet.

 

There is also an annual James Tiptree Jr Award for works of fantasy or science fiction in a similar vein to her stories.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

options

 

(2) ROBERT SHECKLEY – OPTIONS (1975)

 

One of science fiction’s most unsung qualities, particularly to those not familiar with the genre, is the extent to which it can be a profoundly comic or satirical medium, often subversively so – which is ironic given that comic science fiction is perhaps the most accessible to readers outside the genre. My silver medallist is an illustration of this – Robert Sheckley was primarily a humorist of science fiction, typically writing absurdist and satirical comedies with a thin veneer of a science fictional premise or setting. As Brian Aldiss wrote “Sheckley’s heart is with the Unbelievable. His main target is the Incredible. With one swing of his computer, he hacks through the string which suspends our disbelief. It would crash down, were it not for the fact that there is no gravity in Sheckley’s space”.

 

Sheckley’s “numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist and broadly comical”. Sheckley shone through his playful short stories. My personal favorites are his absurdist satires of human mores, typically through the lens of alien observers or human societies on other planets. One such is Pilgrimage to Earth, in which humanity’s home planet, exhausted of its material resources to offer its former space colonies, resorts to space tourism for more intangible commodities – “Earth specializes in impracticalities such as madness, beauty, war, intoxication, purity, horror and the like, and people come from light-years away to sample these wares”. Wares such as romantic love – as a vendor exclaims, other planets have tried it and found it too expensive or unsettling, but Earth specializes in the impractical and makes it pay.

 

"I wuv you". Other planets tried it. Only Earth has it.

“I wuv you”. Other planets tried it. Only Earth has it.

 

However, it is in Sheckley’s longer fiction that we find more extended satires or absurdist comedies from science fiction premises and there are a number from which to choose – Immortality Inc, Journey Beyond Tomorrow, Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. I have a soft spot for one late in his writing career, Minotaur Maze, in which Sheckley plays with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur – a ploy used by Sheckley in other stories, such as The Never-Ending Western Movie and Agamemnon’s Run, in which people find themselves perpetually enacting and reenacting stories.

 

This brings us to my favorite Sheckley novella, albeit not the one I’d recommend to read first (although I did) – the absurdist and anarchic Options, in which Sheckley plays with story itself. It starts off in a reasonably linear narrative, in a comedic play on an classic pulp science fiction premise – ostensibly about the marooned protagonist Tom Mishkin’s attempt to get a spare part for his spaceship stored in a cache on an alien planet. To protect him, he is assigned a Special Purpose Environmental Response or SPER robot. Unfortunately, the robot is programmed for another planet.

 

However, that premise becomes an increasingly loose framing device as the non-linear narrative descends into a mass of diversions, non sequiturs and musings – “a deliberate cosmic shambles, an explosion or disintegration of story logic, a comedy of cliches and crossed lines, and a joke on the very act of story-telling”. In essence, it resembles Sheckley playing with the story idea (and the idea of story), in the manner of improvisational performance pieces. As Spider Robinson reviewed it, Sheckley “deliberately broke most of the rules for successful storytelling” – I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone expecting a sequential or straightforward story, or perhaps any real story at all – and yet somehow it works as pure comic entertainment, at least for me.

 

But as I've said before, this is pretty much how my mind works...

But as I’ve said before, this is pretty much how my mind works…

 

And so I’ll conclude with one of the more extended diversions from it, an advertisement for using phenomena for fun:

“Enjoy a visit to the phenomenal world!

Have a human experience – the most fascinating of all experiences.

Now you, too, can experience carnal love, unjustified rage, bad faith. You, too, can know boredom, ennui, angst, accidie.

Thrill to the experience of your ‘life’ slowly draining away! Feel the inevitable ‘death’ which you ‘know’ to be a plunge into pure ‘nothingness’…

Live the waking sleep of mortality, lit with uneasy flashes of ‘something else’.

Experience the poignancy of wanting a ‘better life’, and striving for it, and never achieving it…

Have convictions, beliefs, likes and dislikes – for no rational reason!

Feel the intoxication of faith. Thrill to the passion of religion. Apply now!

No Angels under the age of 20,000 years will be allowed into the phenomenal world without written permission from God.”

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

martian-chronicles1

 

(1) RAY BRADBURY – MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1950)

 

When I think of Mars, I still dream of the Mars of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (with one or two other fictional exceptions).

 

The Mars of Ray Bradbury is not a scientific Mars – a cold, dead planet – but a mythic Mars, an eternal planet of dreams. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Mars has become a mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears”. Of course, Ray Bradbury identified himself not as a writer of science fiction, but as a writer of fantasy, particularly by reference to The Martian Chronicles – “Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time – because it’s a Greek myth and myths have staying power.”

 

"As your class president, I would demand a science fiction library, featuring an ABC of the overlords of the genre. Asimov! Bester! Clarke!" "What about Ray Bradbury?" "I'm aware of his work"

“As your class president, I would demand a science fiction library, featuring an ABC of the overlords of the genre. Asimov! Bester! Clarke!”
“What about Ray Bradbury?”
“I’m aware of his work”

 

Ray Bradbury had the power to “write lyrically and evocatively of worlds an imagination away”, which he did in short stories and novels, such as the dark urban fantasy Something Wicked This Way Comes, but my first true love will always be the linked stories of The Martian Chronicles. The Martian Chronicles are stories of the human and markedly American colonization of Mars in a manner analogous to the frontier, with the native Martians akin to the native Americans (a parallel that would also be played for laughs in Futurama).

 

Martians

 

Indeed, my very favorite Martian Chronicles stories involved the native Martians – those dark-skinned, golden-eyed Martians, those telepathic and empathic shape-shifting Martians. In Ylla, the titular frustrated Martian wife has telepathic dreams of the incoming astronauts of humanity’s first expedition to Mars. Her jealous husband denies her dreams, but senses her inchoate romantic feelings towards the interlopers and shoots them under pretext of hunting.

 

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By the time of humanity’s third similarly expedition to Mars in The Third Expedition or Mars is Heaven, the Martians have become more hostile than Ylla’s telepathic tryst, perhaps in a telepathic premonition of their own doom at the hands of humanity. The expedition finds an exact replica of a town from Earth, populated by their lost, loved ones – who lure them into the houses and then bury them the following day, shifting between their human and Martian forms. The Martian’s doom had come in any event, as the fourth expedition finds the Martians all dead from chicken pox.

 

And yet the Martians have their ghost dance on Mars. In The Night Meeting, a human colonist encounters a Martian, with both of them seeming to inhabit their own parallel worlds of Mars. Each is translucent to the other and has the appearance of a ghost – the colonist sees only ruins where the Martian sees a thriving Martian city, and the Martian sees only an ocean where the colonist sees his settlement. In The Martian, a sole surviving Martian empathically takes the shape of a colonist couple’s dead son, but is tragically torn apart by contact with more human colonists, exhausted from helplessly shifting shapes to all their hopes and dreams of lost loved ones. And in Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, human colonists are transformed into Martians.

 

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Ultimately, the human colonists have their own ghost dance, as Mars is decolonized by nuclear war on Earth. In There Will Come Soft Rains, an automated house on Earth continues to perform its daily duties, even while the family’s silhouettes are permanently burned into the side of the house. And in Million Years Picnic, the father of a family that has fled the war to Mars shows them the Martians, their own reflections in a canal.

 

And so I will continue to dream my favorite dreams of Mars – nightmares of invading tripods, but also dreams of Ylla and of Dejah Thoris of Barsoom.

 

O yes, I dream of Dejah Thoris...If our first contact is not with aliens like the Red Martians, I will be bitterly disappointed

O yes, I dream of Dejah Thoris…If our first contact is not with aliens like the Red Martians, I will be bitterly disappointed

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 SF Books

Art by beatrizforever on DeviantArt

Art by beatrizforever on DeviantArt

TOP 10 SF BOOKS

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Fantasy is my genre of choice, but my love of fantasy is hopelessly intertwined with my love of science fiction – I tend to regard science fiction as a speculative or technological subspecies of fantasy. These are my top ten books of science fiction. As for my definition of science fiction, just like my definition of fantasy, I tend to play fast and loose with it – which is only fitting, as like fantasy (or indeed other genres), it is notoriously difficult to define as a genre. Of course, hard SF, like high fantasy, tends to be clear enough, but as you move away from this hard core of the genre, the fuzzier and softer things get – the boundaries with fantasy or horror are particularly ambiguous or slippery.

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As a general rule, just as I tend to define fantasy by the presence of magic or the supernatural, I tend to define science fiction by its extrapolation of science, technology or society (so that often includes horror that involves those elements, such as alien body horror or zombie apocalypse). In a more general sense, whereas fantasy is the fiction of meaning, science fiction is the fiction of possibility – or possibilities. The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling famously distinguished fantasy from science fiction – “Science fiction is the improbable made possible. Fantasy is the impossible made probable”. However, I prefer Ray Bradbury, who defined science fiction (while cheekily defining himself as a writer of fantasy) as “the art of the possible” – “It could happen. It has happened”.

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This is further complicated in that I tend to rank books by my favorite writers and I tend to classify writers by the genre in which I first encountered them – which is how I ended up with my top ten SF books that actually includes four entries of posthumous  fantasy or fantasy set in the afterlife, one of my favorite subgenres of fantasy (although the ‘afterlife’ in one of those entries is SF or at least technofantasy).

 

Or better yet before I die, so I can download into the Singularity

Or better yet before I die, so I can download into the Singularity

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As I said, fantasy is my genre of choice. On the other hand, science fiction is society’s genre of necessity. For without it, and all the other dreams of possibility, where would we be? The twentieth century was born from science fiction – and even more the twenty-first century, where new dreams of possibility seem to be born every day. And yes, there may be as many nightmares as there are dreams, perhaps even more as science fiction seems to thrive on the apocalyptic and dystopian. Yet we will not defeat our nightmares by denying their possibility, but by finding new and better dreams.

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Anyway, these are my top ten SF books, judged like their fantasy counterparts by their mythic effect on me – the SF books that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

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(10) RICHARD MORGAN – TAKESHI KOVACS TRILOGY (2002 – 2005)

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The Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies), named for its protagonist, is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk) set five hundred years in the future (in or about the twenty-sixth century) – in which humanity is colonizing the galaxy, and even more fundamentally, has achieved functional immortality. Human consciousness is stored or processed in a cortical ‘stack’, so that it can be ‘re-sleeved’ in a new body.

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However, despite – or because – of this (and other technology), the future still sucks. Earth and its galactic settlements are dystopian, ruled by the somewhat ruthless United Nations Protectorate. Like the best cyberpunk – or science fiction in general – it doles out its world-building in doses, mostly hints and oblique references. The discovery that Mars was part of a wider alien civilization, vanished millennia ago. The various future conflicts, such as the Sharya religious war and the Quellist rebellion. (The protagonist is fond of quoting Quellist literature, including its more profane maxims – “Well, f*ck them. Make it personal”). The protagonist’s home-world, Harlan’s World, settled by Japanese and Slavic colonists (reflected in the protagonist’s name). The Catholic Church reduced to an obscure manic street-preaching sect opposed to ‘re-sleeving’. Virtual reality that can radically extend (or contract) perception of time, allowing for torture in virtual hells.

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And then there is the protagonist himself – a former ‘Envoy’, one of the Protectorate’s elite special forces and shock troops. Since physical training is rendered moot by re-sleeving, the focus of the Envoys training (and reputation) is extreme mental or psychological conditioning or training, including the systematic removal of every natural violence limiting inhibition or instinct. Although advanced drugs (or ‘neurachem’) and technology also help.

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In the words of TV Tropes, the trilogy follows “the Sociopathic Hero Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-Envoy turned criminal/mercenary/bodyguard/detective, who uses his talents for problem solving coupled with insane violence to earn a buck. Takeshi is not without his psychological problems, however, many of them received in service with the Envoys and a fair few picked up afterwards.”

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If you hire him, expect a lot of collateral damage…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(9) PETER F. HAMILTON – NIGHT DAWN TRILOGY (1996-1999)

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I do like my space opera and it doesn’t get more, ah, space operatic than Peter F. Hamilton’s Night Dawn trilogy – a zombie apocalypse IN SPACE! (Or the Evil Dead IN SPACE!). It’s an addictive meld of hard SF space opera with the dark fantasy or horror of a zombie apocalypse, although the latter is presented in SF terms as a poorly understood natural phenomenon (presumably quantum physics – or SF magic?).

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It’s enjoyable just for the world-building (or galaxy-building) of the lush galactic civilization of 27th century humanity linked by faster than light travel through wormholes. Lush, that is, if you’re rich – it sucks to be poor, a recurring characteristic of Peter F. Hamilton’s fiction (albeit arguably art imitating life). Earth especially sucks (except for its body-hopping secret conspiratorial overlords), with its population of 30 billion in cities crammed into arcologies to withstand the hyper-storms of global warming and environmental collapse (although it is now literally the green planet as the seas are green from genetically engineered algae to combat global warming).

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Of course, the joy is heightened by melding this galactic civilization with a zombie apocalypse – when the souls (or energy-forms) of the dead begin forcefully possessing the bodies of the living, because it turns out that the Afterlife also sucks. (In fairness, it’s not the true Afterlife, but rather the Beyond – a kind of cosmic limbo on the way to the true Afterlife or Omega Point). And not just any zombies (or possessees), but reality-warping superpowered zombies (with all their former intelligence and personalities). Holy crap! Needless to say, the galactic civilization has to pull out all the stops to fight it – from nukes to antimatter (and beyond).

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To quote TV Tropes – “This series is so long and far-reaching that it can’t help but run flush up against a million and one SF tropes, in most cases smashing through them, or on the other hand, playing them so straight (and cool) that you’ll wonder why they never worked as well before”.

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And if you enjoy it, you can replay it in Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga, with its lush galactic civilization of 24th century humanity (albeit with immortality through rejuvenation and memory storage, alien space elves, and an independent but friendly machine civilization), where it still sucks to be poor, and which faces its own apocalypse in the form of a sociopathic alien invasion.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS*****

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(8) MICK FARREN – JIM MORRISON’S ADVENTURES IN THE AFTERLIFE (1999)

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The title alone should be enough to tantalize and titillate – even more so, as the subject of the novel is indeed The Doors’ singer Jim Morrison’s adventures in the afterlife. Of course, technically that would make it posthumous fantasy (the first of four such entries in my top ten), although it is effectively a posthumous fantasy replay of Mick Farren’s earlier psychedelic science fiction DNA Cowboys Trilogy. In the latter, reality was plastic as a result of hyper-technology, that can effectively produce almost limitless amounts of anything at will – with the more dominant inhabitants of that reality shaping it to their beliefs or will to power, so that it resembles a shifting fantasy landscape of human imagination, loosely arranged around various city-states (or perhaps more precisely mind-states), eerily evocative of a technofantasy Western (or kung-fu wuxia). In the former, reality is plastic simply as the nature of the afterlife or netherworld, to much the same effect.

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Jim Morrison’s co-adventurer, Doc Holliday (as in Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp), explains to him the nature of the afterlife, or at least that stage of it – “You begin to find that you had the capacity to make this stage of the Afterlife practically anything you wanted it to be…create an environment out of our previous realities and fantasies”. Or for that matter, people can make themselves who they wanted themselves to be, historic or mythic figures – Doc Holliday cheerfully concedes the possibility that both he and Morrison (the latter is still missing memories from the trauma of death and rebirth into the Afterlife from the mysterious Helix) may not be their original selves (although both appear to be authentic). The problem “when you start building an existence” in the afterlife is that “a billion other sons of bitches are trying to do the same thing” – add in supernatural entities (and aliens) and you have a rollercoaster ride of sex and violence through a fantasy landscape of the survival of the fittest, where various (and generally dystopian) fantasy city-states, empires and adventurers strive for supremacy.

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The other half of Jim Morrison’s adventures (or third member of their trinity) is Semple, one of the sexiest female characters in science fiction and one half of former evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, who had split between her two personalities in the Afterlife – Morrison and Semple seek each other out in different dystopias in this disordered plastic reality, including Hell itself, and Jim Morrison the Lizard King “discovers that life beyond the grave is as much of an exploding psychedelic nightmare as any acid vision of his mortal existence”…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(7) LARRY NIVEN & JERRY POURNELLE – INFERNO (1976)

 

For my next three entries we come to my remaining three of four posthumous fantasy entries, that incongruously number amongst my top ten SF books. Of course, the incongruity arises because they were penned by writers I encountered primarily in science fiction, but I have a special soft spot for posthumous fantasy.

 

Niven and Pournelle wrote extensively in science fiction, both separately and in collaboration with each other. Niven is best known for his award-winning Ringworld novel (which subsequently evolved into a series). However, although I enjoy that novel, I prefer his fantasy The Magic Goes Away, which had a whole fantasy trope named after it. Pournelle also wrote science fiction (of which his novel Janissaries is my favorite), but he and Niven were best in collaboration, such as their pulpy apocalyptic thrillers Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall (dealing with a comet hitting the earth and alien invasion respectively).

 

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However, my favorite is their posthumous fantasy, Inferno. Unlike Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife, the afterlife here is not fluid, but rather is fixed in form. It is indeed the Inferno, as in Dante’s Inferno – literally updated in all its infernal glory of its nine circles of hell (and their various subdivisions), from the perspective of SF author John Carpentier (or Carpenter), who dies and finds himself in it, playing the role of Dante uncomfortably close to all its detail. Fortunately, he is somewhat familiar with Dante’s poem from studies at college. Even more fortunately, he has a guide Benito (whose identity is ultimately revealed, if it was not apparent to the reader before then) playing the role of Virgil to his Dante, who is not only familiar with Dante’s Inferno but also with the way out of it to Purgatory.

 

It is, as Norman Spinrad wrote of it, “quite literally a cakewalk through hell”, and one that might well substitute for reading the original version by Dante, given all that poetry and all those references to now obscure Italian figures from the Renaissance. The way out of hell involves a quixotic quest from the outermost Vestibule of Hell (in which Carpenter found himself, or more precisely, Benito found him) to the very deepest frozen circle of Hell reserved for traitors or treachery, past the Devil himself frozen in the very heart of hell – past all the trials and tribulations to be found in Hell. And even the occasional miracle – after all, they’ll need it…

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(6) ROBERT SILVERBERG – TO THE LAND OF THE LIVING (1990)

 

Straight outta the afterlife!

 

My next posthumous fantasy entry similarly deals with escape from the afterlife, not from hell to purgatory as in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, but as its title suggests, back to the land of the living itself.

 

Robert Silverberg is a prolific writer of science fiction, who deserves a top ten list of his own – “multiple winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards, a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall, a Grand Master of SF”. He rose to the challenge of being a professional writer from the outset, initially submitting science fiction stories to magazines, and at his most prolific, writing a million words a year (holy crap!). His short stories alone are worth reading, particularly as they’ve recently been collected into a series of volumes, and his novels are equally as classic.

 

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My favorite Silverberg work is To the Land of the Living, which evolved from his story “Gilgamesh in the Outback”, his contribution to the posthumous fantasy anthology series, Heroes in Hell. Everyone who has ever lived and died throughout humanity’s history – and prehistory – finds themselves reborn in the afterlife, which in Silverberg’s story is akin to a mysterious and vague limbo. It is not unlike terrestrial existence – one can even die in it but is then reborn elsewhere – but more plastic in its reality, as geography and even memory can be unreliable or untrustworthy. For example, one tends not to remember one’s previous deaths in the afterlife. Like limbo, humanity’s main purpose in the afterlife is to find ways to pass eternity, which typically involves replicating the patterns of their former lives. Silverberg’s hero and protagonist, Gilgamesh (of the Sumerian epic) first ruled a replica of his Sumerian kingdom before battling beasts in the shifting ‘outback’ of the afterlife (and the original story title) – although at one time, like other political and military rulers, he gravitated to New Rome, truly an eternal city of political contest. (Julius Caesar tries to entice him back). However, New Rome is not the only afterlife polity – others seek to replicate their former kingdoms or empires, often warring against others, such as King Henry the Eighth’s new English kingdom warring against his daughter Elizabeth’s similar kingdom. The older dead tend to be wary of the new or modern dead streaming in ever larger numbers into the afterlife, with their industrialization and technology. As for Gilgamesh, he sets out on a quest, first to find his former friend Enkidu, and then to find the rumored point of return to the land of the living itself, mirroring the quest of his mythic epic to find eternal life.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

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(5) PHILIP JOSE FARMER – RIVERWORLD (1971)

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Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to my science fiction.

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Actually, Philip Jose Farmer brought the kink to science fiction in general. Before Farmer, science fiction labored under editorial restrictions on taboo subjects, such as sex. In the words of Joe R. Lansdale, Farmer gave science fiction sex – and not just conventional sex, but kinky alien sex, most notably in his Hugo Award-winning 1952 short story “The Lovers”, subsequently expanded into a novel. And religion – literary critic Leslie Fiedler compared Farmer to Ray Bradbury as science fiction writers “that both strain against the limits of the form”, but found Farmer distinctive “in his odd blending of theology, pornography and adventure”. If that’s not a compelling advertisement, I don’t know what is!

 

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(And yes, he did actually bring the kink to my own personal science fiction. My sexual imagination was permanently, well, blown by The Image of the Beast, and its sequel, Blown, in my adolescence. I wouldn’t recommend them for the faint-hearted – they were explicitly written, in every sense of the word explicit, for a publisher of science fiction p0rnography. Mind you, they do have an interesting story, of two warring alien races stranded on Earth, and involve, amongst other things, space travel powered by sex).

 

Farmer gave science fiction any number of brave, new ideas. To quote Lansdale again, “not all of his work has been sterling, but nearly all of it has been brave” – and I would add, all of it has at least some interesting ideas. Jesus on Mars? No, seriously, that’s the title for one of his novels. How about Jesus on the dude ranch in his short story, “J.C. on the Dude Ranch”. King Kong in “After King Kong Fell”? Tarzan in “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod”, in which Farmer imagined Tarzan as written not by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but by beatnik dope fiend William S Burroughs. Or for that matter, Tarzan in a number of novels or stories – as Farmer never lost his love of pulp adventure heroes. Indeed, he created a whole literary crossover family or universe of them, dubbed the Wold Newton Universe, in which a meteorite at Wold Newton in England on 13 December 1975 caused nearly superhuman genetic mutations in the occupants of two passing coaches and their descendants – Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Doc Savage and many others. Farmer was essentially steampunking the genre before steampunk was a thing.

 

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Ultimately however, my favorite Farmer work is his posthumous fantasy series Riverworld – the definitive posthumous fantasy, apart from the original posthumous fantasy by John Kendricks Bangs. If it seems similar to Silverberg’s To The Land of The Living, that’s because it inspired the latter – with the premise that every human (and sapient hominid species) that has ever lived and died in history and prehistory (all thirty billion of them or so), finds themselves resurrected en masse in the mysterious Riverworld, a giant planet apparently designed so that its habitable terrain is effectively one giant river valley. However, as opposed to Silverberg’s afterlife novel, the series has a science fiction rationale as the planet has been engineered (and the souls of humanity themselves are artificial) – the narrative thrust of the series lies in those resurrectees seeking to find the answers behind that engineering and the engineers, assisted by a rogue member of the engineers (or Mysterious Stranger as he is dubbed). The protagonists of the series include Sir Richard Burton (the Victorian explorer) and Mark Twain, amidst a cast of literal billions – or the entirety of humanity. Like Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, its concept was too large for its narrative finish and it falls apart somewhat in the concluding volume, but the journey through Riverworld is unforgettable – and part of me awaits to be resurrected there.

 

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Leslie Fielder applauded Farmer’s approach to storytelling as a “gargantuan lust to swallow down the whole cosmos, past, present and to come, and to spew it out again”. (Is it just me or does anyone else find that as suggestively lewd as I do?). To conclude with a quote from Joe Lansdale:

Farmer’s electric brain is full of ideas and insight. It throws off sparks. When he’s finished with you, your brain will spark as well. It might even be on fire.

Read him.

Be transformed

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(4) CHARLES STROSS – LAUNDRY SERIES (2004-PRESENT)

 

Great Cthulhu in the Cold War!

 

The Cthulhu Mythos surfaces in my top ten SF books, much like Cthulhu himself, rising writhing from R’lyeh. One of my favorite SF short stories is Stross’ A Colder War, which is something of a precursor or spiritual prequel to the Laundry series, albeit in an alternative universe. In it, Stross set out to imagine the outcome for our world in which the Antarctic expedition in H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal At the Mountains of Madness actually happened, and indeed located ancient alien technologies, as well as access to even more formidable extradimensional beings. Nothing good as Stross himself drily observed on one occasion – or a fate worse than global thermonuclear annihilation as he observed on another. In short, what ensues is a Cold War arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, using those same technologies and extradimensional beings, which spooked even the Nazis from using them. The Soviet Union has its ultimate doomsday ace – or rather joker – in the hole in the form of a particular entity based on captured Nazi research into a certain underwater city. This doomsday weapon is unleashed when the cold war turns hot in the 1980’s from a panicked overreaction by the Soviet leadership. The United States has its own contingency plan in the form of 300 megatons of nuclear weapons, and when that fails, a backup contingency plan or insanely desperate last resort, in which it finds out there are worse things than death in the Cthulhu Mythos.

 

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His Laundry series ups the ante on his use of the Lovecraftian horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos. Commencing with the first book (and still my favorite), The Atrocity Archives, extradimensional entities of evil serve as the backdrop of a secret history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, espionage and government bureaucracy – all combined in the British spy agency known as the Laundry. Magic is simply higher mathematics – which applied in certain circumstances can open gates to other dimensions. The protagonist, a computer expert known as Bob Howard, unintentionally did just that and found himself conscripted by the Laundry, Britain’s occult secret service. Unfortunately, incidents like it are becoming increasingly common with the increasing computational power and mathematical applications of the modern world (and of human minds) – indeed, the Laundry anticipates this increase (amongst other things, such as the position of our world in space) will inevitably align or open up our world to other dimensions (“when the stars are right” in the parlance of the Mythos) and has contingency plans for extradimensional invasion, codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. Of course, the Laundry is not exactly optimistic about humanity’s prospects – its usual best case scenario is for repopulation after an extinction event – but it plans to go down swinging. In the meantime, it keeps its British stiff upper lip…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(3) DOUGLAS ADAMS – THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (1981)

 

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave us so many things – not least, the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. 42 to be exact, which of course begs the Question to Life, the Universe and Everything.

 

It gave us the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, one of the most extraordinary ventures in the entire history of catering – built on a ruined planet enclosed in a time bubble and projected forward to the exact moment of the end of the Universe. You can arrive for any sitting you like without reservation as you can book when you return to your one time, visit as many times as you like without any risk of meeting yourself because of the embarrassment this usually causes and pay the fabulous cost of your meal by the compound interest on one penny in a savings account in your own era. All of which its critics claim is impossible – hence its advertising slogan if you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe?

 

It gave us the most important thing in life, which is to have your towel, as well as the only practical advice you’ll ever need, which is written in large and friendly letters on the cover of the titular Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Don’t Panic!

 

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In short, it needs little introduction as a cult classic science fiction comedy. Indeed, it is my top ten entry that I would recommend to non-readers of science fiction, as it is really more absurdist comedy of our world writ large as Galactic civilization, with the science fiction trappings or tropes played for comedy – such as faster than light travel powered by the Improbability Drive or bistromathics (based on the impossible numbers produced by dividing up a restaurant bill).

 

It starts on a Thursday morning with English everyman Arthur Dent attempting to stop his home from being demolished for a highway bypass, lying in front of the bulldozers in his pyjamas and dressing gown. Unfortunately, he – and everyone else – has far bigger problems, as Earth itself is about to be demolished for a hyperspace bypass by the most obnoxious and obstinately bureaucratic species in the galaxy, the Vogons. Fortunately for Arthur (but not everyone else), his friend Ford Prefect is actually an alien researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy marooned on Earth – and is able to get them both off the planet just before its demolition, although Arthur is disconcerted that all Ford’s time on Earth (and now the only thing left of the planet) simply expanded Earth’s entry in the Guide from “harmless” to “mostly harmless”. Of course, the Vogons soon eject them into space, leading to Arthur uttering what soon becomes his catchphrase “so this is it – we’re going to die” – but they are improbably saved by a ship powered by the Improbability Drive (which rendered hyperspace bypasses redundant) and piloted by the fugitive ex-president of the Galaxy (as well as everyone’s favorite chronically depressed paranoid android)

 

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Earth’s planetary tragedy is of course, much bigger than Arthur, or even humanity – which was only the third most intelligent species on the planet. The second most intelligent – dolphins – escaped their planet before its demolition, leaving humanity their last message – “So long and thanks for all the fish!” Earth’s demolition was particularly tragic for its most intelligent species – mice.

 

Mice were “merely the profusion into our dimension of vastly hyperintelligent pandimensional beings” – beings that millions of years previously built the galaxy’s greatest computer to give the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. However, to understand the Answer – 42 – they needed the Question, so that computer built an even greater computer – Earth – to provide it. The Question was destroyed with the Earth – except in Arthur’s brain, part of the vast planetary interlinked organic computer of Earth. That, however, has problems all of its own. Arthur’s brain has to be specially prepared, you see. Treated. Diced…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(2) ROBERT SHEA & ROBERT ANTON WILSON – ILLUMINATUS TRILOGY (1975)

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I can see the fnords!

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The world is divided into two groups of people – those who have read the Illuminatus Trilogy (and have seen the fnords) and those who have not. If you only know the Illuminati from internet ravings or worse, Dan Brown, then you have not truly seen the fnords.

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But if you have read the Illuminati Trilogy – The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan – then you will know the answers to the most important questions of our time:

Who are the Illuminati?

What is the Rule of Five – or the 23 Enigma?

What is the Bavarian Fire Drill?

Why does the portrait of George Washington on the dollar bill look different from other portraits of George Washington – but the same as portraits of Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati?!

How many gunmen were in Dallas to kill Kennedy?!

Just why is the Pentagon that shape – and what is it keeping trapped inside?! (Hint from the book – JESUS MOTHERF*****G CHRIST IT’S ALIVE!)

And most importantly of all, how are they going to Immanentize the Eschaton?!

 

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From Wikipedia – “The Illuminatus Trilogy is a series of three novels written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, first published in 1975. The trilogy is a satirical, postmodern, science fiction-influenced adventure story; a drug-, sex-, and magic-laden trek through a number of conspiracy theories, both historical and imaginary, related to the authors’ version of the Illuminati.”

 

The Illuminatus Trilogy is the conspiracy theory to beat all conspiracy theories – indeed, it’s one big conspiracy kitchen sink, based on the premise that all conspiracy theories are true, no matter how wild or contradictory. (The authors, editors at Playboy magazine, used wild conspiracy theories from letters to the editor). You will be changed after you read it, and you will never read anything like it again – at least until Grant Morrison essentially replayed it as The Invisibles, a comics series with the same conspiracy kitchen sink premise leading up to the millennium. Of course, the Illuminatus Trilogy (and for that matter The Invisibles) is chaotic and crazy read, with postmodern non-linear narrative – switching between multiple first-person and third-person viewpoints, questioning its own (and every) reality and even reviewing itself (negatively).

 

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As for the plot, it can be summarized in the quotation from Ishmael Reed at the start of the book – that history is the warfare of secret societies – with the anarchic Discordians and other secret allies in their battle since the time of Atlantis against the Illuminati, the conspiratorial organization that secretly controls the world. The plot originated with the authors involvement in the actual Discordian Society, a parody religion (or is it the ultimate cosmic truth disguised as a joke?) based on the worship of Eris or Discordia, the Greek goddess of chaos. The authors jokingly created an ‘opposition’ within the Discordian Society, which they called the Bavarian Illuminati, and the Illuminatus Trilogy sprang from the myth they built up of the warfare between the two.

 

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And so the Illuminatus Trilogy is genuinely mythic and comic. It also has Nazi zombies and made them cool. (O who am I kidding? Nazi zombies are always cool). To conclude with the description of it from the New Hackers Dictionary – “an incredible beserko-surrealist rollercoaster of world-girdling conspiracies, intelligent dolphins, the fall of Atlantis, who really killed JFK, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and the Cosmic Giggle Factor”

 

And you too will see the fnords.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) H.G. WELLS – THE TIME MACHINE / THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1895 / 1898)

 

My world of science fiction is still mostly Morlocks and Martians.

 

And so is the world of science fiction in general, due to H. G. Wells. Just as J. R. R. Tolkien defined modern literary fantasy, H. G. Wells defined science fiction – but even more definitively. Whereas one might classify fantasy as Tolkien and pre-Tolkien, it is hard to even identify anything prior to Wells as recognizably science fiction. Similarly to Tolkien for fantasy, he is commonly hailed as the father of science fiction, but more so than Tolkien, as there are few contemporaries or predecessors that can rival this parental title. Some claim Jules Verne as the father of science fiction, but he lacks the same impact for me. Brian Aldiss more justifiably claimed Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, although she still seems more Gothic fantasy to me – particularly without all the, you know, science that we see in the cinematic adaptations. (Shelley was understandably scant on the process of the monster’s creation and does not describe it in her narrative, other than vague references to chemistry experiments – as opposed to the electricity and “it’s alive!” and the rest of the monster’s creation that is the most iconic part of the cinematic adaptations).

 

However, Wells gave science fiction its most archetypal themes and tropes, notably time travel and alien invasion (not to mention steampunk) – and he did so in just two short novels, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Indeed, those two novels are arguably the mythic heart of science fiction – Wells deserves to be looked at in more depth (and I intend to do just that in another feature).

 

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Wells created and even named the concept of a mechanism for controlled and deliberate time travel, the now proverbial time machine, ancestor of every Tardis, DeLorean and Hot Tub Time Machine as well as all those time travel devices they keep pulling out of the Terminator franchise – in the novel of that same name, published in 1895 (more than 120 years ago!). However, he did more than simply conceive the time machine – he also created a mythic vision of the far future that has endured in science fiction.

 

In the novel, the Time Traveler With No Name (a suitable predecessor for Doctor Who) travels to the year 802, 701 – where humanity has evolved into the childlike and docile Eloi, apparently living an idyllic existence provided by advanced technology but lacking any intellect or strength. He soon discovers the twist that humanity has actually evolved into two species from its classes – the Eloi are the descendants of the leisured upper class, while the bestial, subterranean Morlocks are the descendants of the working class and actually maintain all the industry or technology for the Eloi. However, in the future, the revolution will not be televised – the Morlocks also maintain the Eloi as livestock, farming them for food in the ultimate act of eating the rich. (How’s that for letting them eat cake, Marie Antoinette?). The Time Traveler has to battle the Morlocks in their subterranean lair to recover his Time Machine (and travel into the even further far future for even more grimdark hopelessness).

 

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This theme of evolution in The Time Machine (or Morlocks eating Eloi) endures in science fiction, albeit transformed. The scenario of class-based evolution is simplistic, but is made more plausible by technology such as genetic engineering – the film Gattaca in some ways resembles a tale of engineered elite Eloi and non-engineered, proletariat Morlocks, although the protagonist is a Morlock posing as an Eloi. However, the true descendants of Wells’ tale are not so much the products of biological evolution but cybernetic evolution, involving artificial intelligence, robots or other machine Morlocks that rise up against their human Eloi – such as in the Terminator (doubly so for involving time machines) and the Matrix (which actually has the machines farming humanity for energy).

 

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Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, was similar to other works in the genre of British ‘invasion literature’ at that time, but with a fundamental distinguishing feature that made it a definitive work of science fiction – as opposed to invasions by human armies (typically German but also French or Russian), this was a genuinely alien invasion from Mars, as is made clear in its immortal opening line:

 

“Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us”.

 

And so the Martians descend upon Britain (near Woking in Surrey) in their spaceship ‘cylinders’ and attack the heart of the British Empire in their tripods armed with heat rays – although in the actual narrative, the Martian forces are not as strong as one might expect for advanced aliens able to invade other planets through space (and tripods would seem to be even less stable and more useless than Imperial Walkers). After all, Martian tripods are destroyed by nineteenth century artillery and ironclad ship. Pathetic! We’d mop the floor with those Martians with our modern military forces. In the end, however, it is the Martians mopping up Britain, just as the British Empire wiped out the indigenous people of Tasmania, a pointed observation made by Wells. The Martians nourish themselves on human blood like space vampires, matched by their red weed vegetation choking out Earth’s native plant life. Fortunately, the Martians and their vegetation succumb to Earth’s bacteria and viruses, in what must rank as one of the most incredible oversights by an invading alien force although more infinitely more credible than the computer virus in Independence Day.

 

Original War of the Worlds album artwork

 

The War of the Worlds has a large sphere of narrative or thematic influence in science fiction, amongst them the Alien films. For that matter, it (like The Time Machine) has so many adaptations (including parallel or sequel stories) that I’m beginning to think it actually happened. (After all, there is a statue of a Martian tripod in Woking). And in a way it did happen – twice – but by human nations fighting their own war of the world…

 

Lest we forget

Lest we forget

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

Top 10 Fantasy Stories & Works

 

TOP 10 FANTASY STORIES & WORKS

 

Stark After Dark has its Top 10 Fantasy Books, but this still leaves a lacuna in literary fantasy – for all the fantasy stories that are shorter than novels, as well as fantasy works that aren’t readily categorized as either. Indeed, the influence of such fantasy stories and works often rivals those of fantasy books or novels.

 

Of course, my definition of fantasy is the same as that for my Top Ten Fantasy Books, which is to say I play fast and loose with it – although as a general rule I tend to define fantasy by the presence of magic or the supernatural, including dark fantasy or horror with those elements. Anyway, fantasy is my genre of choice and these are my top ten fantasy stories and works, judged by their mythic effect on me – the fantasy stories or works that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

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(10) STUART SLADE – THE SALVATION WAR (2008)

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The Salvation War is a fantasy work in the sense that it is not really literature but an online serial told in a series of posts on an internet forum that grew in the telling and became popular with its fans. Its opening apocalyptic premise was that demonic heralds appear across the world, announcing that Heaven has surrendered Earth to Hell, in what is soon called the Great Betrayal – God has decreed that Earth and everyone on it now belongs to Hell and is to yield to Satan. What’s an abandoned and betrayed humanity to do? What else? Declare war on both heaven and hell – and fight to win! The Salvation War has its moments and is pure pulp fun at its best, although its execution never truly rises to the full potential of its story idea – due amongst other things to the limitations of its medium, its focus on military technology (which in fairness is humanity’s war-winning weapon) and above all that it was effectively a rough-hewn first draft by its very nature. However, I do love a classic example of the trope to Rage Against the Heavens (and the Hells!) and there’s a certain brazen audacity in a story in which humanity invades hell and nukes heaven, even when the latter is combined with a dire pun – “The Sun of Man rose in Heaven”…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS**** (ALBEIT ONE OF THOSE STARS IS FOR PURE PULP FUN)

 

(9) THOMAS LIGOTTI – MY WORK IS NOT YET DONE (2002)

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Thomas Ligotti is an unholy fusion of Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft and his own distinctive literary qualities – or alternatively, of horror and weird fiction (or the so-called New Weird).

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Ligotti tends to deal not in the visceral or body horror of your typical horror splatter film, but in a deeper and ultimately more disturbing philosophical or psychological horror. Indeed, in Ligotti’s work, it is the world itself that tends to be the monster – reality as a blind idiot Lovecraftian entity. Our mundane, modern world becomes a “meaningless and menacing” place (not surprisingly, given Ligotti’s own bleak pessimism, reflecting his life-long affliction of “agoraphobia, panic-anxiety order and severe bipolar disorder”). Ligotti is not an easy read, still less a comfortable one – but he certainly is a vivid one. For me, his work most resembles fevered nightmares in prose of a surreal landscape rising writhing from our world. In some ways, the world of Ligotti is symbolized in his short story The Town Manager – a world of nameless towns administered by the capricious and chaotic agents of “town management”. Or perhaps even more so his Bram Stoker Prize-winning story of The Red Tower, where the eponymous ruined factory used to endlessly pump out bizarre and disgusting organic novelty items. His work resembles nightmares in prose not least because of its tendency towards strange dream logic – it is typically not entirely clear what is happening or what it means. What is the Red Tower? Symbol of the modern consumerist world? Or of a mind or subconscious in breakdown? Hell or purgatory? Life on earth itself, endlessly pumping out lifeforms? For Ligotti, reality itself seems a conspiracy against the human race, the title of his non-fiction treatise of his pessimistic worldview.

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My personal favorite would be My Work is Not Yet Done, his novella in the collection of the same name, aptly subtitled tales of corporate horror. It is somewhat different from his typical cosmic horror story – a supernatural roaring rampage of revenge. The protagonist, Frank Dominio, is a corporate cubicle drone afflicted by obsessive compulsive disorder (indeed, his rampage is more about obsession rather than revenge), but even more so by his abusive management, led by the nefarious Richard – nicknamed “The Doctor” (never a good title in a Ligotti story) for having driven three of his previous employees to suicide. My only disappointment was that it was not the omnipresent soulless corporation of other Ligotti stories, the Quine Organization. Richard and the other six managers (Barry, Harry, Perry, Mary, Kerrie and Sherrie – no kidding!) conspire against Dominio so that he can be sacked and they can steal his design for a new product.

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Well that's unsettling...

Well that’s unsettling…

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Dominio mysteriously acquires reality-warping supernatural powers through some dark force, and uses them to exact his increasingly gruesome revenge. It’s…not pretty. The novella retains something of the strange dream logic of his other stories – what exactly is happening and what is this dark force? However, his adversary Richard proves surprisingly adept in resisting him – and of course, there is a price to be paid to the dark force that empowered him…

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 4 STARS ****

 

 

(8) ELLEN DATLOW – BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR (2009-PRESENT)

 

Ellen Datlow has been a prolific anthologist and editor, although my familiarity with her in this role has previously been her editorial tenure in the golden age of Omni magazine. Until now, that is, as I have just started exploring her best-horror-of-the-year anthologies, starting with its inaugural volume in 2009.

 

In the words of its Booklist review, it “casts a wide net over the genre’s many outlets, from magazines and single-author collections to webzines and literary journals” and includes “Datlow’s own comprehensive overview of genre highlights and trends” (as well as the prizes awarded in the genre).

 

As such, the annual anthology offers a taste sampler in the literary genre of horror. One probably won’t like all the dishes on offer or can argue over whether they all are indeed the best horror of the year. Undoubtedly, however, there will be something to like in each volume, potentially to explore elsewhere – whether it is a work by a favorite writer that you have not found elsewhere (as with William Browning Spencer’s story Penguins of the Apocalypse in the first volume for me) or an introduction to an undiscovered writer, not to mention an introduction to Ellen Datlow’s own award-winning editorial or themed anthologies elsewhere.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(7) RICHARD MATHESON – BORN OF MAN AND WOMAN (1950)

 

And now we come to a giant of the genre – Richard Matheson. I use the word genre loosely, as he transcended the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres (as well as writing and screenwriting – of the latter, I always recall Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, adapted from his own story of that name). No less than the King – Stephen King – has identified Matheson as an influence, and King is hardly alone in that. His influence on the genre(s) is perhaps best attested by the novel for which he is best known, I am Legend (which despite three cinematic adaptations has never quite been successfully adapted in my opinion) – in which he effectively originated the zombie apocalypse, albeit as a vampire apocalypse (with a twist).

 

However, it is his short stories that I particularly enjoyed, and which well deserve a top ten of their own. Of course, a writer as prolific as Matheson over such a long period necessarily means some of his stories are not as good as others or are somewhat dated, but there are still enough enduring classics for their own top ten. In his collected stories, Matheson summed up his overarching theme for his stories as paranoia, on a cosmic as well as personal level.

 

Strangely enough, my favorite remains his first published story, Born of Man and Woman – one of his shorter stories, written in an experimental style of broken English matching its protagonist, a monstrous child locked in the proverbial attic (or more precisely basement) by his parents. And yet its brevity and simplicity is what makes it an enduring classic as well as a personal favorite.

 

History never repeats but sometimes it rhymes – Matheson would subsequently write a thematically similar female version (albeit fey rather than monstrous) in A Dress of White Silk, another classic and personal favorite. (And perhaps if you gather enough fey girls, you get something like Witch War, another favorite of mine – although it is somewhat different from the suburban horror of the other stories)

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) SHIRLEY JACKSON – THE LOTTERY (1948)

 

Like the Awards named after her, Shirley Jackson is known for stories of psychological suspense, horror and dark fantasy, ever so subtly bubbling to the surface of our world. This is amply demonstrated by her most famous story The Lottery, and indeed, in her collection of stories, named for it – The Lottery and Other Stories.

 

One might consider the nature of her stories as fantasy to be arguable, but as I said, the fantasy in her stories is a subtle intrusion into our world – maybe mundane, maybe magical. The Lottery and Other Stories bore the subtitle The Adventures of James Harris, for a recurring figure in the stories of that collection, who may or may not be supernatural – he certainly seems to be a daemon lover or Dionysian force, complete with his retinue of maenads (who can then take over people’s apartments by sheer force of persuasion).

 

As for the Lottery, it has an ambience of dark fantasy to it – set, it seems, in an alternative United States. One in which small American towns casually celebrate an annual festival in much the same way as any other annual event – a lottery which the winner does not seem eager for the prize (and indeed vociferously protests its unfairness), but which the townsfolk insists on giving to her. Because, you know, the crops and harvest depend on it. Cue the stones…or in the words of John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn – “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?”

 

Of course, the story’s power is in its symbolism, resonant of so many images of the dark underbelly of American society, or the American Dream. After all, it doesn’t take too much to imagine something like the Lottery – perhaps not so blunt of course, but still, you know…

 

As newscaster Kent Brockman referred to it in an episode of The Simpsons, it is a chilling tale of social conformity – and not, much to Homer’s disappointment on checking it out of the library, a guide to winning the lottery.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE: 4 STARS****

 

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(5) DIANA WYNNE JONES – THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND (1996)

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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (a play on the Rough Guide travel books that used to be in circulation) poses as a parodic tour guide in dictionary form to the generic fantasyland that is the setting of, well, most of the modern fantasy genre (not least The Lord of the Rings itself) – on the basis that it is the same or universal Fantasyland for every story. To quote TV Tropes, “this piece of Meta Fiction by Diana Wynne Jones pretends that pretty much all of the fantasy stories ever told — well, most modern genre fantasies, anyway — took place in a place called “Fantasyland”.

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In doing so, it humorously skewers all the clichés, conventions and tropes in the modern fantasy genre. Again in the words of TV Tropes – “the whole point of the book is to list and deconstruct as many fantasy tropes as the author could identify…and, pretty much to a one, subverted and lampshaded”.

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Let’s just say it playfully exposes some pretty big holes in the setting or world-building of modern fantasy- “why there are Dark Lords but no Dark Ladies, why casual sex in Fantasyland almost never results in pregnancy, and why male virginity is useless whereas female virginity is highly prized”.

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The ecology and economy is full of holes – the lack of industry and technology are particularly noticeable in the latter. The icons of fantasy are equally problematic. Swords are dangerous, not simply because they are pointy and sharp, but because they are dangerously magical – swords that shine in the presence of enemies (like Sting in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) being particularly useless to avoiding detection by those same enemies (in case you want to hide from or ambush them). Rings are as dangerously magical as swords – cursed rings in particular be returned whence they came, preferably at over a thousand degrees Centigrade, and the Curse means you won’t want to do this”.

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And then there is one of my favorite rants about elves (and I am fond of rants about elves, so it has some stiff competition) – “Elves appear to have deteriorated generally since the coming of humans. If you meet Elves, expect to have to listen for hours while they tell you about this – many Elves are great bores on the subject – and about what glories there were in ancient days. They will intersperse their account with nostalgic ditties (songs of aching beauty) and conclude by telling you how great numbers of Elves have become so wearied with the thinning of the old golden wonders that they have all departed, departed into the West. This is correct, provided you take it with the understanding that Elves do not say anything quite straight. Many Elves have indeed gone west, to Minnesota and thence to California, and finally to Arizona, where they have great fun wearing punk clothes and riding motorbikes”.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(4) JOSEPH FINK & JEFFREY CRANOR – WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE (2012 – PRESENT)

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“A friendly desert community, where the Sun is hot, the Moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”

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Welcome to Night Vale is a surreal humor or horror podcast styled as a community radio broadcaster in an American desert town and has been ongoing since 2012 – hence its inclusion within my Top 10 Fantasy Stories and Works, although creators Fink and Cranor did publish their debut novel in 2015, which served as my introduction to the Night Vale setting.

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The creators conceived of Night Vale as a desert town where all conspiracy theories are real – as well as other urban myths and other surreal fantasies. And so Night Vale is an eldritch location, a Fantasy and Conspiracy Kitchen Sink setting, where the laws of time and space and nature in general don’t apply, or at apply only spasmodically. The citizens of Night Value simply roll with it, accepting surreal fantasy side by side with mundane reality.

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The show has been described as “the news from Lake Wobegon as seen through the eyes of Stephen King” – or perhaps the Illuminatus Trilogy and the Invisibles filtered through H.P. Lovecraft and crammed into one desert town. Or the surreal dream logic of David Lynch on crack or in acid flashback (or both). The focus of the podcast is the Night Vale radio station, narrated in deadpan fashion by its host Cecil Palmer (as assisted by the Voice of Night Vale’s notoriously short-lived interns).

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Cecil’s broadcasts are peppered throughout the 2015 novel as intermissions, but the main characters of the novel’s narrative are apparently minor, even trivial, characters from the podcast – Jackie, the perpetually nineteen-year old owner of Night Vale’s mystical pawnshop, and Diane, treasurer of the town’s PTA. The plot is driven by their quests to solve intertwined mysteries. Jackie’s pawnshop routine is disrupted when the mysterious Man in the Tan Jacket hands her a piece of paper marked KING CITY – unfortunately, this piece of paper is indestructible (and indeed constantly returns to her hand) and has a tendency to overwhelm other thoughts (when it is not audibly announcing its own contents). Diane’s shape-changing son Josh wants to know more about his missing father, which is complicated as Diane is now seeing him everywhere, while she investigates her own missing co-worker whom no one else remembers.

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And if the plot wasn’t surreal enough, it takes us through the geography and population of Night Vale from the podcast – the Sheriff’s Secret Police along with all the other government surveillance agencies and spy satellites, Old Woman Josie surrounded by angelic beings all named Erika (and whom it is forbidden by law to acknowledge as angels), the Glow Cloud (all hail the Glow Cloud!) and plastic pink flamingos that warp time and space.

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And then you have the really dangerous entities and eldritch abominations – the car salesman loping like wolves through their yards, the mysterious hooded figures in the town’s forbidden dog park, the City Council (in the council building draped nightly in black velvet) and worst of all, the Library and its most dangerous part, the fiction section filled with lies…

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“As they ducked and ran down a parallel aisle, Diane saw, through the gaps between the books, the librarian emerge from the shadows. She saw, exactly and in full, what a librarian looked like. Her stomach lurched. She would not forget the sight, recurring in dreams and panic attacks, until the moment she died, at which point she would forget it. Eventually, on the day she finally died, one of the things that ran through her mind was: Well, at least I won’t have to remember that anymore. It made her happy and she died smiling. But that was much later.”

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

 

(3) GARY GYGAX – DUNGEONS & DRAGONS  (1974 – PRESENT)

 

My bronze medalist, Dungeons and Dragons, earns its place not so much for any narrative story but as arguably the definitive work of modern fantasy. Indeed, it is the most systematic or comprehensive codification of the genre of fantasy, perhaps not surprisingly given that its purpose is to do so for obsessive-compulsive rules-lawyering geeks to play as a game.

 

I mean, dear God, do the rules of chance need so many sides?!

 

And indeed, it has extended beyond the genre of fantasy to codify many general tropes of literary or other fiction, as well as many tropes of role-playing games. In the words of TV Tropes – “Dungeons & Dragons is one of the Trope Codifiers of the modern era, having single-handedly mashed swords and sorcery and epic high fantasy into the fantasy genre as we know it today, and having been the source of more than a few of the Roleplaying Game Terms and RPG Elements that the influential computer RPG genre was founded on”.

 

For my entry, I have attributed Dungeons and Dragons to its foremost creator, Gary Gygax (one of my saints of pagan catholicism if ever there was one), although of course he collaborated with others to create and develop the game, which has further evolved since his creation of it.

 

Of course, this work of modern fantasy has sprawled over a plethora of rulebooks and materials for an equally diverse number of different game editions and settings – which in turn has spawned a multimedia franchise, albeit of variable quality (as in the films). Essentially, there is no fantasy trope that is not reflected somewhere within Dungeons and Dragons – and increasingly few that have not been influenced by it to some degree. In short, it is a veritable encyclopedia of fantasy. I have previously written of its schools of magic, but every aspect of fantasy can be found in one of its game mechanics or another – most notably classes (and races) of fantasy character (as well as alignment)

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS***** (YEAH, ONE OF THOSE STARS IS FOR ITS CLASSIC CODIFICATION OF THE GENRE)

 

Cthulhu

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(2) H. P. LOVECRAFT – THE CALL OF CTHULHU (1926 – PRESENT)

 

My silver medalist needs no introduction – H. P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos (albeit named as such by his successor August Derleth – Lovecraft himself named his budding mythology Yog-Sothothery, a much less catchy nomenclature)

 

However, it may need some clarification – H. P. Lovecraft earns his five stars not so much on the quality of his writing (or his, ah, less then progressive social views), but on his cosmic horror themes and even more so the mythos he left to his successors. In his own words, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In the words of TV Tropes, “he almost single-handedly invented a new cosmology, but instead of being one based on science and progress, it was instead full of otherworldly horror and blind, raving deities”.

 

Lovecraft created his Mythos in a number of stories and works, which well deserve their own Top 10, and vied to claim the title for this entry. “At the Mountains of Madness”, with its alien civilization and shoggoths in Antarctica came very close – particularly for the influence it had on some of my favorite cinematic science fiction (or horror), the Alien franchise and The Thing. “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” also came close, but ultimately I went with the titular character of the Cthulhu Mythos and “The Call of Cthulhu”.

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Cthulhu is iconic or representative of the fantasy mythos named after him. At the core of the Mythos is the pantheon of Great Old Ones or Outer Gods, extra-dimensional beings beyond time and space, beings of cosmic horror and eldritch abomination, beings of seemingly infinite power and cruelty, beings so far beyond human comprehension and senses that to behold them is to drive one insane – beings that would easily overwhelm our planet and everything on it, if they bothered to notice it, or more ominously, when “the stars are right”.

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Cthulhu, to the extent that he can be comprehended or perceived without insanity, is depicted as a giant winged squid-like humanoid. Worse, he is on our planet, submerged in the sunken Pacific city of R’lyeh (or in some extradimensional space connected to it) – fortunately in eons-long deep dreaming slumber until his return (when “the stars are right”). Even in his slumber, the telepathic emanations are enough to power psychic disturbances and cults in his name – and be “the source of constant anxiety for mankind at a subconscious level”. It is a joke in the role-playing game Call of Cthulhu, named for the story, that whereas in most games monsters inflict 1d6 damage in any given turn (damage measure by one roll of a normal die), Cthulhu KILLS 1d6 characters (or “investigators”) in any given turn (although he is susceptible to a ship to the head) Needless to say, Call of Cthulhu characters tend to have short mortality, not to mention sanity.

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It is somewhat ironic that Cthulhu has become the namesake character for the Mythos, given that he only featured in a couple of Lovecraft’s stories, notably The Call of Cthulhu itself. What’s more, Cthulhu is actually small fry compared to the other more powerful beings (such that the Cthulhu Mythos deserves a top ten all of its own):

 

The blind idiot god Azathoth, potentially the supreme being of the Cthulhu Mythos or the gibbering…thing at the center or the universe

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Nyarlathotep, the malevolent messenger of the Mythos

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Nyarlthotep

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Shub-Niggurath or “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young” (not that it resembles a goat – it more resembles…o god, let me just pluck out my eyes!)

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Yog-Sothoth, potentially the other supreme being of the Cthulhu Mythos

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TV Tropes has a whole collection for dealing with Cthulhu, including the impossible feat of punching him out.

 

The Cthulhu Mythos – and Cthulhu himself – have proved enduring, directly or indirectly adapted across all media – from the cosmic horror Story that use the themes of the Mythos (and occasionally the Mythos itself) to Lovecraft Lite or works that take Lovecraft and the Mythos less seriously. Indeed, the Cthulhu Mythos rises up in my Top 10 Fantasy Books (Resume with Monsters by William Browning Spencer), my Top 10 SF Books (the Laundry series by Charles Stross) and my Top 10 Comics (Zenith by Grant Morrison) – as well as its influence in my Top 10 Fantasy & SF Films (Alien, The Thing, Cloverfield).

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“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming” – or if you want to win at Scrabble, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS***** (YEAH, ONE OR TWO OF THOSE STARS ARE FOR HIS COSMIC HORROR THEMES AND MYTHOS)

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(1) FRITZ LEIBER – THE GIRL WITH THE HUNGRY EYES (1949)

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If you read fantasy, you must read Fritz Leiber. He was one of the writers who defined modern fantasy, as recognized by his Lifetime Achievement World Fantasy Award in 1976 (as well as a plethora of award and titles in fantasy, science fiction and horror), and he deserves to be in wider circulation. He was instrumental in creating the sub-genre of ‘sword and sorcery’ fantasy, indeed creating the term itself, and arguably even more so, contemporary or urban fantasy. He also was one of the largest influences on the game of Dungeons and Dragons (receiving royalties from it in his later years).

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Read Fritz Leiber!

Read Fritz Leiber!

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Indeed, he deserves a top ten list of his own, although of course he did have his lesser works and can be somewhat dated at times to the modern reader, albeit no more so than his contemporaries. His most famous work is perhaps his Swords or Lankhmar series, which he christened as “sword and sorcery” (a phrase that lent itself to the sub-genre of heroic fantasy) – a playful fantasy with his duo of heroic rogues, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

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The former is a seven foot tall Nordic-style barbarian warrior and the latter is a five-foot tall swordsman, thief and former wizard’s apprentice (loosely modelled respectively on Leiber himself and his friend Harry Fischer). Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series might recognize the influence of the city of Lankhmar in Discworld’s greatest city, Ankh-Morpork (and indeed, Leiber’s duo make cameo appearances in the first book as Bravd and the Weasel).

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There are also his longer works of contemporary or urban fantasy, Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness. The latter might well be argued to be the urban fantasy par excellence, in that cities (in this particular case, Leiber’s home city of San Francisco) are the source of magic, or dark art of megalopisomancy. I prefer Conjure Wife, which is more playful and better paced – in which college professor discovers his wife is a witch and persuades her to desist from her “superstition” to their mutual misfortune, as his wife is but one of many witches regularly using magic for and against one another and their husbands.

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My favorite longer Leiber work marked his return to writing after a hiatus, albeit to science fiction rather than fantasy (although it is on such a cosmic scale that it resembles fantasy) – The Big Time. The Big Time takes place against the backdrop (and I particularly use that term as it is very theatrical in nature – it would make an interesting play) of the Change War, between rival forces known as the Spiders and the Snakes, which recruit human soldiers from different eras (as well as more exotic beings from space and time) to manipulate and change history itself. The ultimate adversaries and the war itself remain mysterious – although the background is truly cosmic in scale, the setting is a small bubble outside space and time housing an entertainment troupe (of so-called ghost girls and others) for soldiers from the Spiders. (On a side note, this novel most clearly demonstrates Leiber as one of my apostles of the goddess. Leiber was greatly influenced by Robert Graves and the latter’s White Goddess. One of the soldiers is a Cretan or Minoan Amazon, Kabysia Labrys, who fights for her Triple Goddess – or as one of the other characters remarks, the birther, bride and burier of men).

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However, it is Leiber’s shorter fiction that is my true favorite, as well as the more elusive in circulation and the more exemplary of his contemporary or urban fantasy, updating fantasy or horror concepts to a contemporary urban setting. Smoke Ghost is one such, taking the translucent and ethereal ghost of fantasy and transforming it into an altogether more grimy and smoggy being more emblematic of the modern city.

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My particular favorite is his modern vampire story, The Girl With The Hungry Eyes. The protagonist photographer narrates his encounter with The Girl as he calls her, a glamor model who mesmerizes millions of Americans from magazines and billboards, particularly with her eyes that speak of desire, longing and “a hunger that’s all sex and something more than sex”. She is his model, insisting upon working one-on-one in person – somewhat thin and waiflike, but for her magical eyes, her preternatural senses and the occasional dizzy flashes the protagonist feels in her presence.

 

He begins to be fascinated by her, to follow her after shoots, until one day…(SPOILER ALERT FROM 1949), he takes her by the arm and walks with her, as she takes him into a deserted park to sate her hunger, not for blood, but for all of his life, in its entire sweep of emotions and experience – “She’s the smile that tricks you into throwing away your money and your life. She’s the eyes that lead you on and on, and then show you death. She’s the creature you give everything you’ve got and gives nothing in return. When you yearn towards her face on the billboards, remember that. She’s the lure. She’s the bait. She’s the Girl”.

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The protagonist flees from her temptation, forewarned by having linked her previous victims to news of mysterious deaths, and perhaps fired by the youth of his author. Yet, I can’t help but feel The Girl continued to haunt Leiber, into his older years of alcoholism, financial strain and world-weary widowhood – so that when he effectively reincarnated her in his story Horrible Imaginings, his protagonist, so similar to Leiber himself, instead embraced her as a beautiful death.

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And I just can’t resist adding as runner up my other particular favorite, which almost presents as a whimsical fable rather than fantasy or science fiction (and with a hint of The Girl or the Triple Goddess as our ultimate destiny) – The Man Who Never Grew Young. The protagonist lives in a world reversed from our own, and yet strangely outside the universal process where people age in reverse (which has been termed by other works of fantasy or science fiction, Merlin sickness, after the Merlin of T. H. White’s Once and Future King). Time itself, and human history, is also in reverse (perhaps the effect of some experimental weapon or outcome of the Cold War). The protagonist has lived through this reversal (but perceived it as moving forwards like our perception of time) from the twentieth century to the looming end of human history, which is of course its beginning from our perspective – the ‘last’ civilization, Egypt, having endured for millennia, has now faded away (“I, who have seen king Cheops’ men take down the Great Pyramid block by block and return it to the hills), leaving only a dwindling population on the Nile as more and more leave it into Africa. The reversal of history proves surprisingly poetic – even more so, human life as aging in reverse. The protagonist observed one such birth – a period of grief followed by disinterment of a body, to which life returns, “an old man with a long life before him”. What follows is life growing younger – “the sloughing of wisdom and responsibility, the plunge into a period of lovemaking and breathless excitement, the carefree years before the end” – and ultimately, the return to the mother – “And we grow new and forget and blindly seek a mother”.

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As the protagonist muses of his partner (who is growing younger) – “All too soon, we will exchange our last and sweetest kiss and she will prattle to me childishly and I will look after her until we find her mother. Or perhaps some day…her mother will find her”. There is a part of me that wishes that life was really lived this way – and to apostles of the Goddess, perhaps it is.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

Top 10 Fantasy Books

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TOP 10 FANTASY BOOKS

 

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I tend to play fast and loose with my definition of fantasy – which is only fitting, as like many genres, it is notoriously difficult to define. Sure, the core of the genre or so-called ‘high fantasy’, like its SF equivalent ‘hard SF’, tends to be clear enough. However, there is no succinct definition that encompasses it all – and the boundaries with science fiction or horror are particularly ambiguous or slippery.

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As a general rule, I tend to define fantasy by the presence of magic or the supernatural (although there are exceptions), so that also tends to include dark fantasy or horror that involves those elements.

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However, you define it, fantasy is my genre of choice. Indeed, it’s my reality of choice. Frankly, I feel it is everyone’s reality of choice – that none of us live entirely in reality as such (if there is a reality as such), but our fantasy (or fantasies) of it. Do any of us know truly where fantasy ends and reality begins – or vice versa? To quote the movie Harvey – “Well. I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it!”

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That's big talk for a man whose best friend is a giant rabbit (or pooka)

That’s big talk for a man whose best friend is a giant rabbit (or pooka)

 

Anyway, these are my top ten favorite books – the fantasy books that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.

 

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(10) ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY – SHADOWS OF THE APT (2008 – 2014)

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Damn you, Adrian Tchaikovsky!

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I have always been fascinated by insects, so accordingly one of my (unwritten) story ideas involved high fantasy with insect-people. They were essentially human, but with the skin or hair coloring of their insect species, as well as other physical attributes that did not radically alter their otherwise human appearance – wings for example (in the style of the butterfly or other insect wings occasionally depicted on fairies), perhaps antennae and so on. I imagined the insect-people as essentially divided up into realms according to the three great species of social insects – bees, ants and wasps, although there would be different realms of each (corresponding to different sub-species or types). Each of these realms would also include other thematically similar insect-peoples – for example, bee-kingdoms (or more precisely, bee-queendoms) would include other pollinating insects, such as butterflies. As for antagonists, one was spoilt for choice – flies or locusts as marauding hordes (the Locust Horde!), various parasitic insects (fleas, mosquitoes and so on) as blood-sucking bandits or brigands, arachnids such as spiders or scorpions as monstrous figures. However, I imagined the most dangerous and recurring antagonists as the fourth great species of social insects – termites.

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In fairness, I didn’t get much beyond imagining the various insect-people societies, although I did imagine my main protagonist as a mantis warrior.

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And then I found Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadow of the Apt series, which effectively does just that – a high fantasy set in a world of insect-‘kinden’, humans who have adopted some of the characteristics of their insect-types (or arachnid-types) through their magical Art from the dangerous and giant fantasy insects (or arachnids) of this world. Ant and beetle kinden dominate the so-called Lowlands (not surprisingly, given the sheer prevalence of those insect species in our world). Even more intriguingly, it is a world in which magic is being replaced by science – an industrial revolution by the technologically Apt peoples of the title, matched by a political revolution, in which the more mundane but Apt ants and beetles have ousted the more magically-minded moths and mantises (although mantis warriors are still legendary). However, the antagonists are not termites, but the growing and ruthless Wasp Empire. Of course, Tchaikovsky is a little too fond of spiders for my liking – a fondness that extends across his works, not just the spider-kinden in this series.

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So – damn you, Adrian Tchaikovsky, for conceiving and executing your story idea first, in an epic series. It’s not quite how I imagined my story idea, but it’s close enough that I love it anyway.

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(9) GARTH NIX – THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM (2003 – 2010)

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As a fantasy fan, I have a secret to confess – I don’t particularly like Harry Potter. I don’t particularly dislike it either. It’s…okay.

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It’s just that it pales in comparison to some of the other children’s or young adult fantasy out there, some of which are wild rides indeed. My favorite is that by Australian writer Garth Nix (a name made for fantasy!) – whose works make Hogwarts look like, well, any other old English boarding school.

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There is his Old Kingdom or Abhorsen series – and this would certainly be the place to start for those looking for similarities to Harry Potter. Its primary setting is divided between the scientific nation of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, a mysterious realm of magic, particularly necromancy, although the highest necromancer in the kingdom is the Abhorsen, its guardian – “”I am a necromancer, but not of the common kind. Where others of the art raise the Dead, I lay them back to rest. And those that will not rest, I bind. Or try to. I am Abhorsen.”  Of course, that’s easier said than done…

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I, however, prefer his cosmic trip, the seven-book Keys to the Kingdom series (a series somewhat similar in concept to one of my favorite webcomics, Kill Six Billion Demons). In it, Creation is coming undone – not just the universe, but the entire multiverse, is slowly falling apart into Nothing in the absence of its Creator, the Architect. The primary setting or axis mundi of the multiverse, the cosmic structure called The House, itself divided up into seven domains (akin to worlds) by its seven most powerful denizens (in the absence of the Architect, of course), the Morrow Days. This is essentially the root of the cosmic decay – those seven beings elected not to appoint a mortal from the so-called Secondary Realms as the Rightful Heir in accordance with the Will of the Architect, but instead to break up and imprison the Will into seven parts, keeping power for themselves in the titular Keys to the Kingdom.

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However, the Will has, ah, a will of its own and part of it escapes, tricking the lowest Morrow Day into handing over part of his key to a mortal Rightful Heir, the aptly named Arthur Penhaglion. And so Arthur, faced firstly with his own destruction (by the Morrow Day seeking to reclaim the key) and subsequently with the fate of the multiverse itself, finds himself with no choice but to ascend the House to reclaim the Will and the Keys to the Kingdom, successively fighting each Morrow Day (each embodying one of the Seven Deadly Sins) as reflected by the titles of the books – Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday and Lord Sunday. Fortunately, Arthur does find allies within the denizens of the House. including one of my favorite female fantasy characters, Suzy Turquoise Blue, as well as other free agents within the House such as the Mariner and the Piper – all the while being slowly transformed by the House into a cosmic being himself…

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(8) SIMON GREEN – NIGHTSIDE (2003-2012)

 

“The Nightside. That square mile of Hell in the middle of the city, where it’s always three AM. Where you can walk beside myths and drink with monsters. Where nothing is what it seems and everything is possible.”

 

Simon R. Green is the author of one of my favorite of the ‘trenchcoat brigade’ of occult detectives following in the footsteps of Hellblazer’s John Constantine – John Taylor of the Nightside. The Nightside itself is an eldritch and extra-dimensional suburb of London, except of course that it is not so much a suburb as a hidden world inside London. And in it is all manner of beings, gods (mostly in the Street of the Gods) and eldritch abominations.

 

As for John Taylor, he has a magical gift or ‘inner eye’ for finding anything, or would if it generally didn’t find him trouble first – or worse, allow trouble to find him.

 

What I particularly enjoy about the Green’s writing in general and the Nightside series in particular is that it has the tongue-in-cheek sensibility of writing in comics – indeed, the Nightside series often feels like a prose comic, particularly in its vivid characters with matching names or titles. Protagonist John Taylor is of course somewhat nondescript in his name, but then there’s his colleagues like Shotgun Suzie, Razor Eddie, Sinner (and Pretty Poison), Madman, Dead Boy and the Oblivion brothers. Not to mention antagonists or abominations like the Harrowing, the Lamentation and Kid Cthulhu.

 

The highpoint of the series is the first half of it, with its longer story arc through the individual books in which John Taylor confronts the mystery of his mother – a mystery which was best left unsolved, particularly as it involves his apparent destiny in ushering in the Apocalypse (and the source of the Harrowing which pursues him), a destiny even more disturbing because he has seen it for himself in the future…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(7) CHRISTOPHER MOORE – THE ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN (1997)

 

Christopher Moore is a writer of comic contemporary fantasy, who has combined the narrative voice (and Californian geography) of John Steinbeck and the comic absurdist fantasy of Kurt Vonnegut.

 

Like other writers, Moore has constructed his own storyverse (or Verse in TV Tropes lingo), with its focus in California (Moore himself lives in San Francisco) and particularly the sleepy town of Pine Cove. Sleepy that is, until invaded by demons and their weary summoners (Practical Demonkeeping), Godzilla (the fantastically named Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove) or near-miss zombie apocalypses (The Stupidest Angels).

 

“Moore’s novels typically involve everyman characters struggling through supernatural or extraordinary circumstances”. As for which Moore novel is my personal favorite and accordingly takes its place in my top ten, there’s some tight competition – such as the Bloodsucking Fiends vampire love trilogy set in San Francisco or psychopomp thriller A Dirty Job also set in San Francisco (which crosses over with Bloodsucking Fiends).

 

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However, my personal favorite is yet another fantastically titled novel, The Island of the Sequined Love Nun. In this novel, Moore steps outside the main Californian venue of his storyverse to the Micronesian island of the title of the Shark People. Protagonist pilot Tucker Case is fleeing the literal and metaphorical debris of an unfortunate incident involving alcohol, sex and a plane crash. Blacklisted as a pilot in the United States and pursued by the goons of Mary Jean Cosmetics for the destruction of their pink plane, he takes the only job opportunity available to him – flying between a tiny Micronesian island and Japan for “an unscrupulous medical missionary” and “his beautiful but amoral wife”. The latter is the eponymous sexy blonde high priestess, impersonating the pinup girl on the sacred Second World War bomber of the island’s cargo cult, exploiting the Shark People for a sinister purpose. However, bomber pilot Captain Vincent Bennidetti may be deceased but has also ascended by the power of belief to present-day deity of the Shark People – and he is not about to abandon his flock without some supernatural intervention (and a talking fruit bat named Roberto). That is, when he’s not playing poker with his fellow deities – and losing to Jesus…

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

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(6) WILLIAM BROWNING SPENCER – RESUME WITH MONSTERS (1995)

 

Great Cthulhu in a cubicle!

 

For this entry, we move to light fantasy evocation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. (Lovecraft himself does not rank in my top ten fantasy books, but instead ranks as an iconic special mention – but his Mythos will recur throughout my various top tens, as other writers use it).

 

William Browning Spencer is an undeservedly overlooked writer, notwithstanding a name worthy of a romantic poet. He delightfully combines a playful comedic style and observational humor to fantasy themes. This is particularly so in this entry (and winner of the International Horror Critics Guild Award for Best Novel in 1995), Resume with Monsters, which combines the Cthulhu Mythos with satire of the corporate cubicle drone workplace. It has a special resonance for those, like myself, who have always suspected a connection – nay unholy collusion! – between the soul-destroying corporate workplace and the soul-destroying dark entities of the Cthulhu Mythos.

 

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In Resume with Monsters, Philip Kenan may not be the most reliable narrator of his experience as a worker in dead-end office cubicle drone jobs – between bouts of therapy and his unrequited quest to win back his ex-girlfriend Amelia, although he saved her (and quite possibly the world) from some…thing at their mutual previous employment (narrated as the Doom That Came to MicroMeg). Now he is routinely alert to signs of otherworldly incursions at his workplace, “signs of Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth or his dread messenger Nylarlathotep – checking bathrooms for “hideous, disorientating graffiti from mad Alhrazed’s Necronomicon” evoking those entities. And he is particularly alert to signs of altered states in his fellow employees, obvious signs that they had been changed into crypto-zombies, tools of management to open our world up to otherworldly invasion.

 

A model employee

A model employee

 

Or perhaps he is simply lapsing into mental breakdown or outright insanity, symptoms of his obsession with H.P.Lovecraft’s “monsters”, as both his therapist and his ex-girlfriend term them – his therapist noting that Lovecraft “was not in the pink of mental health”. An obsession that was born of his father’s own obsessive narration to him of the stories of Lovecraft, identifying it with the ‘System’ – “Don’t let the System eat your soul”. An obsession that Philip Kenan tries to keep at bay by the equally obsessive emotional talisman of his own Lovecraftian novel, The Despicable Quest, which he has been constantly rewriting over twenty years until it has swollen to two thousand pages.

 

Or perhaps both. Perhaps this madness is what allows him to see the things beyond this world but which still hunger for it – or it is a product of seeing things that the mind was never meant to see (or again perhaps both). As Kenan himself ruefully observes – “in the meantime, of course, he would have to hang on to his own reason…once you have gazed on the baleful visage of Yog-Sothoth, your own thoughts are forever suspect”…

 

As I said, this novel had a special resonance for me from my own experience as a corporate cubicle drone, where I suspected that the mind-numbingly boring files simply could not exist for their own purpose but had to have a more substantial and sinister purpose in inducing a receptive state or lack of resistance to otherworldly invasion. After all, the business partners milked us for everything else – why not our very souls? Of course, I was too smart for them, as I simply didn’t do my files…

 

The face of evil - "Um, yeah, I'm going to need you to work Sunday as well as Saturday"

The face of evil – “Um, yeah, I’m going to need you to work Sunday as well as Saturday”

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS***

 

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(5) JAMES MORROW – GODHEAD TRILOGY (1994 – 1999)

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James Morrow is a writer of religious and philosophical satire clothed in absurdist Vonnegutian fantasy – particularly of the abstract philosophical or religious concept made flesh in the form of absurdist fantasy (and indeed as the source of much of the absurdism in that fantasy). This is never more so than in his Godhead trilogy, where he takes the Nietzschean theme that God is dead and makes it flesh, literally in the form of a two mile long corpse – or Corpus Dei – in the Atlantic Ocean.

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This is the premise of the trilogy as a whole – and the opening of the first novel, Towing Jehovah. “God is dead” say the archangels, dying themselves of terminal empathy with their Creator, as they charge a chosen few with one last divine mission (with feathers from their glowing wings as tokens) – “died and fell into the sea”. The Vatican charges Captain Anthony Van Horne to tow the Corpus Dei with a supertanker to the Arctic Circle, to preserve it from decomposition, for possible resuscitation or at least for time to ponder the problems of the Deity’s death (not least the theological question posed by the Deity’s death). Captain Van Horne sees it as his opportunity for redemption from his responsibility for the world’s largest oil spill, his dreams haunted by hordes of oil-soaked animals – and he has his work cut out for him, as sabotage and perils, natural and spiritual, threaten the tight timeline calculated by the Vatican supercomputer to avoid irreversible brain deterioration for the Corpus Dei. It was nominated for a number of awards (including Hugo and Nebula) – and won the 1995 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

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However, my favorite is the second of the trilogy, Blameless in Abaddon, where theodicy is made flesh – theodicy being the theological study of the problem of evil,  “reconciling God’s goodness with the world’s evil”, or at least explaining His apparent indifference to suffering. In the manner of the biblical Book of Job, small town and small time magistrate Martin Candle – widowed and afflicted with prostate cancer – seeks to have the Corpus Dei towed to the World Court and prosecuted for the problem of evil or suffering of the world. (The trial itself is funded by G.F.Lovett, a children’s book author based on C.S.Lewis – on the condition that Candle prosecutes it and Lovett argues the defence). The trial itself is preceded by Candle exploring the original form of Creation in God’s mind (or spelunking the infinite), where everything exists in its ideal Form – God, it seems, was a Platonist – including, touchingly, the ideal Form of Candle’s deceased wife (and for that matter, himself). And of course, this novel of the problem of evil is narrated by none other than Satan, resident in God’s mind.

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In the third book, The Eternal Footman, the last remnant of the Corpus Dei, God’s grinning skull or Cranium Dei, is in geosynchronous orbit over Times Square. Western civilization is collapsing as a plague of ‘death awareness’ overtakes it in the aftermath of God’s death – its victims are considered ‘Nietzsche positive’ with the first appearance of their ‘fetch’, their dark supernatural double that is also the literal embodiment of their death at a time of the fetch’s choosing. Nora Burkhart sets out to save her only son from his fetch in a picaresque quest across the United States in the throes of a death plague, not unlike Europe during the Black Plague – ultimately to a new religion in Mexico that offers deliverance. Or does it?

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By this trilogy, Morrow has added himself to the ranks of the great fantasy satirists, while retaining a genuine sense of the beauty and sorrow of the world.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 4 STARS****

 

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(4) RICHARD KADREY – SANDMAN SLIM (2009 – 2017)

 

How could I resist a hero – or anti-hero named Stark? No simple revenant clawing his way out of the grave – James Stark or the eponymous Sandman Slim of the series by Richard Kadrey, is a revenant who claws his way like a badass out of hell. The first book (and series) had me at hell – I have a soft spot for heroes back from the dead, or even better, gone to hell and back. Stark is a naturally talented magician (not wizard, because wizarding is for wimps like Harry Potter) in the secret magical underworld of Los Angeles and falls afoul of one of his colleagues, who sends him straight to hell.

 

Stark survives the literal gladiatorial arena of the abyss and rises to serve as hitman for the demon lord Azazel in the infernal internecine power struggles, before stealing the keys to the universe to return to our world (after eleven years in hell) for revenge on those who dealt out his damnation and his girlfriend’s death. And that’s just where the first book starts!

 

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The other books in the series up the ante even more – Stark faces vampires and a zombie apocalypse (while serving as Lucifer’s bodyguard when Lucifer comes to Los Angeles to film his life story) in the second book (Kill the Dead), before going back to hell (which of course resembles Los Angeles, although there’s a magical reason for it) because a former mortal enemy has staged an infernal coup d’état in the third book (Aloha from Hell), and…well, you get the idea. Anything more would spoil the deliciously devilled fun!

 

The series might well be described as dark fantasy noir (or in the occult detective school), sharply written with an engaging cast of characters, not least Sandman Slim himself (whom I can’t help but picture as author Richard Kadrey) – Harry Dresden on steroids (or in the words of TV Tropes, Harry Dresden minus any sense of morality and on permanent god mode – wait, what’s higher than god mode?). If you read contemporary fantasy, you must read Sandman Slim. Where in hell is the movie – or at least the television series?…

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(3) STEPHEN KING – IT (1986)

 

You didn’t think I was going to have a top 10 fantasy books without the King, did you? Of course not.

 

Hail to the King! Stephen King, that is. Stephen King needs no introduction – he is one of the most iconic and prolific writers of our time. Lines and scenes from his work reverberate throughout popular culture, albeit particularly driven by cinematic or screen adaptations. His prose is vivid and visceral – indeed, the only books that have given me bad dreams, something which generally only occurs from the direct visualization of movies. In short, I am that Constant Reader to which King addresses his Author’s Notes.

 

But which Stephen King book to choose? I could so readily (and will) compile a top ten (or more) just of King. Arguably, he shows his finest craft of story or narrative in his shorter novels. In these, the narrative is kept taut and tight by the shorter length, which is why they have tended to be the best screen adaptations. Let’s not forget King’s shorter fiction, even more taut and tight than his novels, but which ironically tends to be too short to sustain cinematic adaptations (with notable exceptions such as “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). I’ve been a fan of King’s short stories from my original trifecta of “The Mangler”, “Gray Matter” and “The Boogeyman” in his Night Shift collection through all his varied stories, including those under King’s own pseudonym of Richard Bachman (which inspired The Dark Half), such as personal favorite “The Long Walk” (as well as the novel Thinner).

 

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However, it is King’s longer work that has the more truly mythic impact, as it tends to have its own individual mythos, as well as being fundamental building blocks of the overarching mythos throughout King’s work, the Kingverse as it were, with its focus on Maine. But which longer work? There’s his Dark Tower series, which King considered his magnum opus – his Weird West multiverse of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Yet as much as I enjoyed being part of King’s ka-tet through its seven progressively larger volumes, the narrative extended too wide (including into his other books in an act of canon welding to rival Michael Moorcock, and for that matter to include himself in it), and it fell apart somewhat anticlimactically at the end (although I didn’t mind the ending for which he apologized in the book itself as it seemed apt).

 

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Ultimately however, if there is a book that not only has its own individual mythos and is an important part of King’s overarching mythos, but also encapsulates and symbolizes King’s mythology in itself, it is, well, It. It traces its shapeshifting eldritch entity of evil in its favorite shape of Pennywise the Clown, as well as its lair and hunting ground, the town of Derry in Maine, and its opponents, the Losers’ Club through multiple and overlapping layers (even if it has some narrative missteps – and if you’ve read It, you know which particular scene looms largest in this respect). As the saying goes, you don’t know how deep It goes – but then, you’ll all float down here…

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

(2) NEIL GAIMAN – AMERICAN GODS (2001)

 

Neil Gaiman may simply be the greatest living writer of fantasy, the literary (and suitably English) heir to J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (both of whom were substantial influences on him). He may not be as iconic or prolific (or cinematic) as Stephen King, but the King himself has praised Gaiman as “a treasure house of story” and added that “we are lucky to have him in any medium”. And indeed we are. He is the fantasy writer that I would recommend to non-fantasy readers, because of his lyrical prose, his power of story and his sensibility of fantasy as ultimately the layers of story within our world.

 

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His most mythic work – indeed, the core of Gaiman’s mythos – would be his comics series of The Sandman. It is of course within the genre of fantasy, with an episode even winning the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Fiction (prompting the awards administration thereafter to revise – or remember – the rules of that award to exclude comics or graphic novels). Indeed, it “falls within the dark fantasy genre, albeit in a more contemporary or modern setting”, but transcends genre – and audience appeal, attracting fans who weren’t traditionally seen as readers of comics or fantasy – into urban fantasy, epic fantasy, historical drama, superheroes, mythology and more. Its mythos, and even more so its mythic themes of the power of belief and the power of story, recur throughout Gaiman’s writing.

 

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My favorite Gaiman novel is the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning American Gods, in some ways a reenactment of The Sandman mythos in the microcosm of a single novel, as well as its central themes of the power of belief and power of story. It has one of my favorite protagonists of fantasy, Shadow Moon – who wants nothing more than to return to his wife and a job with his best friend after release from prison. However, he finds himself at a loose end after his wife and best friend are killed in a car accident – in a compromising position with each other – and accepts a job offer as a ‘bodyguard’ for a mysterious benefactor, Wednesday. This job takes him into a world of gods and mythological creatures, that exist because people believe in them. (The identity of Wednesday, revealed soon in the novel, is of course immediately apparent from his appearance and name for those familiar with the particular mythology). However, existence is hard for the old gods, such as the Norse gods and the Egyptian gods, originally brought to America by their believers, but now surviving on the leftover flotsam and jetsam of belief. As one old god gripes about a successful Jesus – “There’s a lucky son of a virgin”.

 

I particularly have a soft spot for the Egyptian gods in American Gods – Anubis or Mr Jacquel, Thoth or Mr Ibis, and Bast. Sadly, hawk-headed Horus has gone mad and is living off roadkill in the desert. Although where are the Olympian gods?!

 

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Wednesday himself survives as a magical conman and grifter. However, he has a plan for a showdown with the rising new gods, the power-hungry gods of media and technology, and Shadow is part of that plan. Shadow is helped by his revenant wife, mistakenly brought back (partly) from the dead by a magic piece of gold from the fairy hoard (thrown into her grave by Shadow) – who, in turn, only wants Shadow to help her be either truly alive or truly dead. And so Shadow sets out on various quests, including the hero’s mythic night journey into the underworld – ultimately to find out more about himself, his deeper connection to the old gods and how to be truly alive.

 

And of course there are Gaiman’s lyrical invocations of gods and goddesses, the latter such that I have canonized Gaiman as one of my saints of pagan catholicism and apostles of the goddess

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) J. R. R. TOLKIEN – THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1954)

 

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One book to rule them all!

 

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings defined modern literary fantasy, just as its cinematic adaptation arguably defined modern cinematic fantasy. Fantasy could well be classified as pre-Tolkien and post-Tolkien. In the words of TV Tropes, The Lord of the Rings is “the most recent addition to the canon of Western epic literature and is the epic which set the stage for the entire high fantasy genre that followed in its wake”. Such was its impact and influence, that Tolkien has been identified as the father of modern fantasy literature or high fantasy, although of course there were many other writers of fantasy before (and apart from) Tolkien – perhaps most notably Robert E. Howard, writer of Conan. I particularly note Robert E. Howard, because I understand that Tolkien read and enjoyed the Conan stories – and because I couldn’t resist including George R. R. Martin, who came to The Lord of The Rings from those very different Conan stories:

“Robert E. Howard’s stories usually opened with a giant serpent slithering by or an axe cleaving someone’s head in two. Tolkien opened his with a birthday party…Conan would hack a bloody path right through the Shire, end to end, I remembered thinking…Yet I kept on reading. I almost gave up at Tom Bombadil, when people started going Hey! Come derry do! Tom Bombadillo!”. Things got more interesting in the barrow downs, though, and even more so in Bree, where Strider strode onto the scene. By the time we got to Weathertop, Tolkien had me…A chill went through me, such as Conan and Kull have never evoked”

On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two...

On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two…

 

Indeed, just as A. H. Whitehead stated that the western philosophical tradition could most safely be generalized as being footnotes to Plato, so too might modern fantasy literature be generalized as sequels or epilogues to Tolkien – and Stephen King has done just that in his non-fiction study of horror Danse Macabre, attributing modern fantasy to a hunger for more stories about hobbits.

 

Much of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings is the depth of its world-building, or what Tolkien identified as his legendarium of Middle Earth. On the other hand, this can present as a flaw to more modern readers as a potential lack of pacing, or where world-building takes precedence to story. However, this is not surprising since the world-building was essentially Tolkien’s life hobby, from which the story revolved in recitations and into which Tolkien was not above shoehorning other ideas – the aforementioned Tom Bombadil for example, or The Hobbit itself to some extent, or as Hugo Dyson infamously exclaimed during one of Tolkien’s recitations, “Not another f…g elf!” (The same might have been said of yet another poem, song or verse).

 

Perhaps another sexy elf...?

Perhaps another sexy elf…?

 

However, I prefer the reaction of C. S. Lewis – “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart”. Indeed, there are and it is. For me, I loved the depth of Tolkien’s world, one of the few fictional worlds I regard as real as our own (canonically, it is meant to be a mythic precursor of our own world) – or indeed, perhaps more real. Again, as George R. R. Martin wrote – “The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real…They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth”.

 

As for the story, like George R. R. Martin, I was enchanted and entranced – but unlike George R. R. Martin, from the very start in the Shire. The story itself should be well known to any reader (or viewer) of fantasy, and in any event is too complex to discuss in depth here, but can be summarized as the Quest to destroy the One Ring, the source of the Adversary or Dark Lord Sauron’s power. Its themes are the themes of humanity in any world – life and mortality, the corruption or addiction of power, courage and compassion, triumph against adversity and at the same time the sense of loss for those things lost in battle or passing from the world.

 

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE (WITH SOME RANTING, MAINLY ABOUT ELVES)! 5 STARS*****