“The Eye of Infinity”

Since it’s relevant to an upcoming review, here’s a retro review of mine that originally appeared on the Innsmouth Free Press website on December 1, 2011. Conyers has been busying putting out collections of his Harrison Peel stories on Kindle, so this one is, or soon will be, easily available.

By Randy Stafford

Conyers, David. The Eye of Infinity. Perilous Press (2011). 84 pp. USD $12.00. ISBN 978-0-9704000-4-8.

As Cody Goodfellow suggests in his introduction to this novella, the modern writer of Lovecraftian horror isn’t content to populate his stories with wimpy students of folklore and mathematics, hapless college professors and genealogists. The new version of the Lovecraftian hero is as comfortable wielding a Glock as reading a grimoire. Some versions are even government employees and battling cosmic horrors is in their position descriptions. They don’t wade through erudite analyses of occult tomes and abstruse dimension-rupturing mathematics. They’ve got people and supercomputers for that. Thus, we have the Lovecraftian espionage tale as most famously practiced in Charles Stross’ Laundry series. Goodfellow doesn’t see this as some sort of post-modern genre mashup but merely continuing the Weird Tales tradition of “blending genres to wring unique new surprises out of familiar pulp tropes”.

I have to admit, though, I haven’t read enough of any author’s “tradecraft meets Lovecraft” stories (to borrow Tim Powers’ description of his novel Declare) to fairly compare them with Conyers’ work in that area. I haven’t even read the prequel to this story, The Spiraling Worm co-authored by John Sunseri with Conyers.

That book introduced Harrison Peel, an Australian soldier on loan to America’s National Security Agency. In that book, Peel traveled the universe via an alien wormhole system; encountered shoggoths; partnered up with fellow spy Jack Dixon, an ex-Illinois cop; and fell in love with Nicola Mulvany during some nasty events in Nevada.

This story starts with the hideous looking corpse of a radio astronomer in New Mexico, a dead man who now has too many eyes and too many mouths. Dixon and Peel quickly discover a trail that leads to a secret U.S. government project, INFINITE EYE. It uses the wormhole network of the Pentapods, aliens that built a city in the Antarctic millions of years ago, Conyers’ obvious updating of Lovecraft’s Old Ones from At the Mountains of Madness. With a six trillion dollar budget, it’s obviously something important, so Peel goes on a jaunt, guided by an ex-mountaineer and NASA employee, across several worlds and light years to see what lies at the end of this covert network.

Conyers’ story works as a spy thriller – with Peel and even his NSA superiors locked out of the secrets of INFINITE EYE and somebody suborning or murdering members of the project – and as Lovecraftian horror justified by quantum physics and sudden, violent assaults on Peel and others. Indeed, it becomes clear INFINITE EYE may threaten humanity.

Peel isn’t a supersoldier physically or emotionally, and I liked that. He’s beginning to feel the erosion of his psyche from all the horrors he’s seen, and Nicola has given him an ultimatum: either quit after his next mission, marry her and start a family or let her join him and use her training as an ex-counter intelligence agent with the FBI.

There were some problems, though. Yes, Agent Peel, modern ammunition will, in fact, fire in a vacuum. The gunpowder has its own oxidizers. That technical error took me out of the story and wasn’t even justified as being crucial to Conyers’ plot. The dialogue between Peel and Nicola was sometimes flat and sounded like bald character exposition mixed with some training script for police crisis counselors. Conyers’ avoids falling into some logic potholes only by sheer speed of narration.

Still, though, I liked the story enough that I’m going to pick up The Spiraling Worm and will follow Peel’s future adventures.

And, lest you think $12 is a mite steep for a novella, this one comes with some nice black and white drawings by Nickolas Gucker. His work nicely illustrates dramatic points of the story – whether they’re alien landscapes or sudden and gruesome deaths.

“The Sadness of the Executioner”

And so, on the occasion of the Weird Tradition taking up discussion of this story, I return – reluctantly – to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

As it turns out, I go a long way back with this story. It was in the book that exposed me to sword-and-sorcery, Flashing Swords #1. I didn’t feel any need to immediately follow up with any of the authors in that book, though, later I did become a fan of Poul Anderson. Now, Flashing Swords #2 . . . I immediately sought out Michael Moorcock’s Elric series after coming across it there.

Review: “The Sadness of the Executioner”, Fritz Leiber, 1973.

I admit I didn’t mind this one so much. 

It’s fairly short and about Death at the heart of Shadowland. But even Death has his masters, and he’s got a quota of people whose expiration date has arrived in the city of Nerewhon:

“one hundred sixty peasants and savages, twenty nomads, ten warriors, two beggars, a whore, a merchant, a priest, an aristocrat, a craftsman, a king, and two heroes.”

Mostly easy, but things are running close. He’s got 12 heartbeats to dispatch the last 12 people.

And, so, he turns attention to two heroes or, at least, Fafhrd and Mouser. Sure, they had “served him well and in vastly more varied fashion than the Mad Duke” whom he just killed. But even pawns that get promoted have to be taken off the board eventually.

And so Death moves another piece to make the strike: Esafem, one time harem-girl, now mutilated and depiliated and on a second career as a blacksmith, scantily clad in metal breast cups from which poisoned – if alluring – needles jut.

(Spoilers ahead)

Of course, our two heroes manage to beat their fate.

Death is sort of a stand-in for an author. He likes to use the material at hand to make his deaths believeable, but, if pressed for time (as happens when Fafhrd and the Mouser evade their deaths) he’ll resort to deus ex machina as he does by killing two paragons of chivalry – which Fafhrd and the Mouser definitely aren’t.  It’s interesting that even Death has his masters and will eventually die.

Walpurgis III

We’re back to the point where I occasionally dig into archive to post reviews of a sort from the past.

This one was inspired by Bookstooge’s recent mention of Mike Resnick’s Widowmaker series.

This is the one and only novel I’ve read by Resnick and is set in the Birthright Universe as are the Widowmaker books.

Raw Feed (1992): Walpurgis III, Mike Resnick, 1982. 

I’ve enjoyed Mike Resnick’s alternate history short stories but expected this to be a schlocky, if fun, adventure novel. But it turned out to be surprisingly thoughtful – a rumination on the question of evil and its degrees – as well as a fast-moving, well-told action tale. (Though some details of assassin Jericho’s exploits – like how he dispatches so many troops at once in the final confrontation with Conrad Bland – are left vague but Resnick covers this weakness skillfully). 

Conrad Bland is a mass murderer of the political variety who has taken refuge on the world Walpurgis III, a planet of Satanists. He is capable of any evil act as the narrative shows, and aphorisms from him at the beginning of each chapter reveal the sick mind behind the monstrosities. In a sly bit of satire, Resnick has the Satanists of Walpurgis III talking a good show about worshipping evil and committing it, but, with the exception of the areas under Bland’s control, not fully living up to their principles. It’s as if Resnick is saying that no society can actually allow such evil to be committed. It literally self-destructs if it does. 

Against this ultimate monster is dispatched the ultimate assassin – Jericho. This story details his hunt, a ruthless hunt in which he kills several innocents, even his own fellow agents. Policeman John Sable has to decide which is worse: the compulsive evil of Bland or the ultimately more dangerous evil of Jericho (more dangerous because he slips past Bland’s defenses, his cordon sanitaire of death, to kill him), an evil of calculation and ruthlessness.

Sable takes the only rational, pragmatic, and moral choice: he lets Jericho kill Bland and then arrests him.

Medi-Evil 2

Well, I promised myself more of Paul Finch’s Medi-Evil anthologies. And, having to spend the evening of my birthday in a hotel room in Fargo on a busines trip during winter, surely I deserved it.

Behind the scenes, this is something of a big day for the MarzAat blog. I’ve at last eliminated the backlog of read books to review.

Review: Medi-Evil 2: Tales of Historical Horror and Fantasy, Paul Finch, 2011.

It’s 1070 in England, and the Harrying of the North is still underway by William the Conqueror four years after he took England. He called it suppressing rebellion. Some modern historians call it genocide. “Twilight in the Orm-Garth” starts with Eric, a destitute man, making his way to Wilbury Castle. It’s the home of the Dagoberts, a family that came over with William, and on a strategic and anciently fortified site on the eastern shore of England.

It turns out Eric isn’t a nobody. Or, at least, he wasn’t always. He’s the third son of Count Dagobert. The reunion is not a joyous affair, and his father and older brothers Rolf and Anselm want to know why he is no longer the knight he was when he left the castle to join Hugh the Red, William’s chief lieutenant in the Harrying.

Normans, of course, followed the law of primogeniture. The oldest brother, here Rolf, will inherit everything when the count dies. The other brothers must make their own way in the world. Anselm became a bishop. And Eric, once betrothed to Ella, a woman of noble Saxon birth whom he loved, is in no position to marry.

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“Tainaron: Mail from Another City”

The topic of a recent discussion over at the Weird Tradition group at LibraryThing.

Review: “Tainaron: Mail from Another City”, Leena Krohn, trans. Hilda Hawkins, 2005. 

This story is long enough that the anthology’s introdctory blurb calls it a short novel. It is narrated, seemingly, by a woman given that we have a dream with a rapist and mention of a dress she wishes she had. 

The 30 letters of varying lengths are addressed to someone, seemingly in Europe, who never answers back. They seem to be to an old lover. 

The story is long on strange elements and short on dialogue and a conventional plot except in the sequence of events mentioned in the letters.

Tianaron is a city full of what seems like a variety of sentient, insectoid life. No explanation is given as to how it came to be. Indeed, the narrator reached it by ship though she can’t remember exactly how. There is no mention of the city being on another planet other than on Earth. 

There are many oddities the narrator, sometimes accompanieed by local native guide Longhorn, encounters. 

The dead of the city are taken to subterranean rooms where they are consumed, except for some part of their body taken as a token by loved ones, by what seems the young of the city, beetles basically.

There is a prince long ignored who know who sees no one for years on end. 

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1816: The Year Without Summer

This is one of the rare books I got through a Kickstarter offering.

Review: 1816: The Year Without Summer, ed. Dickon Springate, 2019.

Cover by Mihail Bila

No, it’s not a non-fiction book about the climatic, political, social, and economic effects of Mount Tambora exploding in 1815. It’s something more unique. While there have certainly been other historically themed Lovecraftian horror anthologies, none have been this tightly focused. There’s one story set in each month of 1816. (The cover is incorrect. There are actually 13 stories here.)

There are a few things to note. First, not all of these stories are Cthulhu Mythos stories. Second, not every story strikes me as even Lovecraftian. Third, while there aren’t any bad stories here, the anthology does get off to a slow start.

David Southwell’s “Foreword” tells us how the book came to be and seems to see this as a collection of alternate histories about the hidden role of Lovecraftian entities in altering history’s trajectory.. I’d argue they are more secret histories.

Editor Springate’s “Prologue” sets up the book’s conceit that the events leading to Tambora’s eruption actually started about a 1,000 years ago in Newfoundland.,

And Newfoundland is where G. Groff’s “The Sepulchred Conflagration” takes us. In the wake of a Viking raid on the local skraelings, we meet a shaman who failed to stop their desecration of a local shrine to Katkannalu (seemingly the local name for Cthulhu). We then shift over to Tambora and then St. Johns, Newfoundland and get an explanation for that town’s long history of devastating fires. While the opening was certainly unusual for a Mythos story, the story struck me as a bit awkward because of its bridging the story’s opening premise and the year 1816.

The anthology settles into to its rhythm with C. K. Meeder’s “Documentation of Varied Scientific Endeavours”, and chemist Sir Humphrey Davy is the first of many historical figures we’ll come across in the book. It’s January 1816, and his journal relates how he visited a coal mine in the north of England to test out his new safety lamp. But he’ll find something weird and disturbing there.

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“I, the Vampire”

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of the weekly weird fiction reviews. I’ll offer no reasons or excuses but just get to the review.

Review: “I, the Vampire”, Henry Kuttner, 1937.

Cover by Bruce Timm

This is one of  those formula stories where you pretty much know almost all the plot twists ahead of time.

The title, after all, tips you off. Then there’s editor Fransworth Wright’s blurb:

“Dark horror settled down like a fog on Hollywood, the world’s film capital, as an evil thing preyed on the celebrated stars of filmdom – an odd and curious story.”

On the first page, there’s mention of the “vampire man” – that would be Chevalier Futaine, an import from Paris who, it is hoped, will be the next Hollywood horror star after Boris Karloff. Yes, he does, indeed, turn out to be a real vampire.

And we can spot, right away, Futaine’s past and future victims.

The only surprising thing is that Chevailer Funtaine decides, after setting his sights on the narrator’s fiance, Jean (who Futaine believes is the reincarnation of a past love of his, Sonya), not to turn Jean into a vampire because he regrets doing that with Sonya. The woman Sonya he loved was not the same as Sonya the vampire.

(Spoilers ahead) 

We don’t actually know if the narrator ends up killing Futaine, but the latter gives him the key to his otherwise impregnable crypt so he can kill him during the day. 

Besides the surprising ending, the Hollywood details are interesting. Marijuana use is mentioned as is the downward trajectory of many actors via alcoholism. That’s exemplified by Hess Deming who the narrator, an assistant director, suspects will end up getting fewer and fewer jobs and eventually gassing himself to death in some cheap apartment. There is a Hollywood fixer of sort (he does “delicate jobs for studios”) in the man who tries to break into Futaine’s crypt at the request of the narrator.

Kuttner also updates the vampire myth a bit by showing how vampires can’t be clearly photographed – which leads to a cameraman being murdered by Futaine to keep his secret.

We Who Survived (The Fifth Ice Age)

It’s been as while since we’ve had any good ol’ ‘Merican science fiction. This author is best known for his novel I Killed Stalin.

A few months back, daytime subzero (that’s subzero Fahrenheit) temperatures descended on my part of the world for a week. That means, as per my personal tradition, it’s time to read something appropriately frosty. However, the personal library had no ice age catastrophe novels or polar exploration works I hadn’t read, so, after a few minutes research online, I came up with this novel which I had never heard of before.

Review: We Who Survived (The Fifth Ice Age), Sterling Noel, 1959, 2012. 

This is different than any other future ice age disaster novels I’ve read. 

First, it compresses the action. There is no slow buildup and figuring out the cause of the ice age.  The book – and the snow – begins on a Saturday in September 2203, and the cause has been figured out by Gabe Harrow, a world expert in climate: earth will pass through the debris of a nova. Reduced solar radiation will result in snow falling for a 72-year long period. Already, by the book’s opening, it’s been 27 days of rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.

Secondly, most of the usual expected scenes of mass death and chaos are restricted (but still dramatically rendered) to summaries of radio and tv broadcasts. That is particularly true of the massive storms that are predicted to begin the newest glaciation of Earth and to last about a year and devastate coastal areas. 

The story is presented as an account by narrator Victor Savage, formerly a missileman assigned to an orbital platform, with some notes from Harrow. The Harrow Group is formed to shelter in place at a farm near Fallon, Kansans and, after the storms die down, travel to the Atlantic Coast and, eventually, to the equatorial regions. Harrow’s prediction of a very long-term glaciation is ignored by the government. (I suspect, like the ENLAV in Fenton Wood’s Nightland Racer, it was inspired by the “legendary” design of a proposed Antarctic Snow Cruiser.) 

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The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Fiction

While I don’t have that much interest in French fantasy literature, I am interested in French weird fiction and supernatural horror.

Review: The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Fiction, Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier, 2022.

Cover by Nathalie Lial

The origins of this book, its organization, and even the deficiencies of its index are similar to The Handbook of French Science Fiction. Both books cover works produced in French by non-French writers, and, in fact, that’s much truer of this book since it concentrates on the rich tradition of Belgium fantasy and horror written in French. In fact, the only writer to get his own section in this volume is Belgium Jean Ray. (Coverage of him was one of the main reasons I bought this book.)

The origins of French fantasy are what you might expect: medieval romances and ballads and poetry and religious dramas. But it received its own unique stamp from several other things: some of the first publications of famous fairy tales, the Tales of the Fey often produced under pseudonym by female aristocrats, and occult and esoteric texts. The latter are so important that the Lofficiers carry coverage of them throughout the whole book, and French works of that sort (like the ones that inspired The Da Vinci Code and Jacques Bergier’s and Louis Pauwels’ The Morning of the Magicians) have become international bestsellers.

The Age of French Proto-Fantasy moves into fantasy literature as we know it today with the nineteenth century, a period which would see several notable authors like Honoré Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Anatole France dabble in the genre. It also was influenced by foreigners, especially the English Gothic which became the roman noir in France. John Polidori’s The Vampyre, translated into French in 1819, kicked off a major enthusiasm for works centering on that supernatural entity.  It was at this time a distinction would arise between two sub-genres — fantastique populaire and fantastique littéraire. Some of the authors here, like Alexandre Dumas and Paul Féval, made their reputation as writers of feutilleton, serialized novels published in newspapers.

Starting in the 1820s, under the influence of E. T. A. Hoffman, a fantastique romantique movement developed. Under the influence of Edgar Allan Poe, a fantastique réaliste emerged. Less tied to metaphysics than Hoffmanesque works and emphasizing math and science, it was more respectable for the literati. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, decadent fantasies, also known as fantastique symboliste, started appearing.

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Weird Fiction in France

Low Res Scan: Weird Fiction in France: A Showcase Anthology of Its Origins and Development, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2020.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

This anthology is mostly composed of stories three to four pages long though there is one novel and a novella. The “showcase” designation means it serves as sort of a sampler of Black Coat Press offerings since most of these works were previously published by them.

“Introduction”, Brian Stableford — Stableford traces the development of weird fiction in France, dubbed contes fantastiques, back to the manifestations of the Romantic movement there. Romanticism, in opposition to the Age of Enlightenment, emphasized mystery and emotion. Romanticism started in Germany but had different manifestations there. There was also an English version of the movement. French Romanticism was influenced by fey stories written by aristocrats as well as medieval romances and folklore, and France had a deeper tradition of fantastic fiction to draw on than England and the German states.

But there was some cross influences. French Romantics admired E. T. A. Hoffmann, Ann Radcliffe’s gothics, and Lord Byron. But it was Byron’s one-time doctor, John Polidori, that had the biggest influence. His The Vampyre was adapted into a stage play, and vampires were prominent much earlier in French literature than English. French Romantic works tended to be more frivilous and playful than their earnest and gloomy German counterparts. 

In 1830, Charles Nodier published a famous essay, “The Fantastic in Literature”, which explained why, after the Ages  of Reason and Enlightement, supernatural stories would be popular: 

When religions . . . shaken in their foundations, no longer speak to the imagination, or only bring confused notions to is, obscured . . . by an anxious skepticism, it is necessary that the faculty of producing the marvelous with which nature has endowed it is exercised in a more vulgar genre of creation, more appropriate to the needs of a materialized intelligence . . . The apparition of fables recommences at the moment when the empire ends of the real or conventional verities that lend a residue of soul to the wornout mechanism of civilization. 

In an 1832 essay, Nodier proposed three types of weird story: intrusions of the fantastic into everyday life, strange events that can’t be explained, and stories where the weirdness can be rationally explained or can be supernatural. The third type was by far the most common in French weird fiction and in this book. That theme was also aided by some pecularities of France:  the widespread interest in Mesmerism, the examination of mental illness by several doctors who wrote about their findings (thus leading to the popular “asylum novel”), and the romanticism of French writers around the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

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