World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Napus

This was intended to just wind up my look at pre-World War Two French science fiction featuring disasters and apocalypses, but, like many such stories, it also turned out to be another French work bearing the marks of World War One.

Essay: The Napus: The Great Plague of the Year 2227, Léon Daudet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012. 

Readers in the know will notice that this work isn’t from Stableford’s usual outlet for translated French science fiction, Black Coat Press. He was told

’Léon Daudet was not a nice man’ – a principle which, if universally applied, would slim down the literary tradition considerably.   

However, the Lofficiers, owners of Black Coat Press, do briefly mention this novel and two other works by Daudet in their The Handbook of French Science Fiction.

Why was Daudet a bad man? Well, he was a noted right-wing author in France. Wikipedia refers to him as a Catholic integralist, a man who rejected the idea of church and state being separated. He ran for office in 1927, the year this novel was published. He also spent some time in jail after being convicted of libel when he accused the government of being involved in the shooting death of his son.

Stableford’s “Introduction” says this is the most farcical of all French future war novels. Daudet was very skeptical of the idea that no weapon was so terrible that it wouldn’t be used. He was also unusual in his depiction of a  

future in which scientific knowledge has continued to progress, takes it for granted that much of that science will be intellectually bankrupt, and that the fraction that is not will be largely deleterious to the quality of human life . . . that much contemporary theoretical knowledge is seriously mistaken, and that the theories that replace contemporary ones will be just as arbitrary and liable to supersession. 

He concludes by stating this novel is a “twisted classic of sorts”, “provocatively uncomfortable rather than soothingly soporific”.

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Here’s this week’s subject of discussion over by The Weird Tradition group at LibraryThing.

Review: “Caterpillars”, E. F. Benson, 1912.

The story starts with the narrator telling us that there are different kinds of ghosts and that he will never, for all the money in the world, return to the Villa Cascana on the Italian Riveria. 

He’s invited there by some friends, the Stanleys. There’s also a painter at the place, Arthur Inglis. 

He tells us about the layout of the place and that he had, unusually for him, trouble sleeping that night because he had a premonition, as soon as he entered the house, that something was off about the place. 

His premonition was strengthened by the Stanleys notably keeping one room on the first floor vacant and assigning rooms to him and Inglis elsewhere. Another significant event is Inglis, when the conversation turns to ghosts at dinner that night, stating anyone who believes in them is an ass. 

That night, the narrator wakes up and goes down stairs and sees the vacant room. On its bed is a mound of strange looking, very long, and very fast caterpillars. They also have little pincers like crabs. 

The next day, Inglis presents him with a box with a smaller version of one of the caterpillars he saw. Inglis gives it to the narrator since he’s interested in natural history. Inglis notices the pincers, and the narrator dubs the creature “Cancer Inglisensis”. Then, recalling his “dream” of the previous night, he tosses the box and caterpillar out the window. It lands in a fountain. Inglis mockingly says that students of the occult “don’t like solid facts”. 

Later, the two come across the caterpillar which has escaped the water and is crawling towards Inglis. Declaring that it seems to like him best – but he doesn’t like it, Inglis crushes it under foot. 

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“In Dark New England Days”

Like last week’s piece of weird fiction I discussed, Thomas Hardy’s “The Withered Arm”, this is another story of rural women, misfortune, and a curse.

Review: “In Dark New England Days”, Sarah Orne Jewett, 1890. 

We begin with the hours after a funeral. We’re in the home of the Knowles sisters, Betsey and her younger sister Hannah. After a decline of two years, their once vigorous and skinflint father, the Captain, is dead.

The only person left in the house after the funeral besides the sisters is one “officious Mrs. Peter Downs” who is nosy and hopes the sisters will reveal something now they’re finally out from under the thumb of their father. But she is thanked and sent on her way. They aren’t, they say, going to make a late night of it.

Mrs. Down isn’t happy about this as she walks the short distance to her home. She’s sure that Hannah would have told her something if Betsey weren’t around. While she thinks this ungrateful, Mrs. Downs admits to herself that the main reason for her helping the sisters in the last two days is to be “taken into the sisters’ confidence”. 

On the road home, she meets her husband. He figured it was so late she was going to stay over and decided he was going to visit the sisters himself. Mrs. Downs expresses her disappointment but admits the sisters no doubt want to be alone to see what they had. He calls the sisters “hoggish” and wants to know if they said anything about their “situation”. They didn’t, his wife replies.

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“The Withered Arm”

I’m a bit late looking at this week’s subject of weird fiction discussion over at LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition, but here it is.

Review: “The Withered Arm”, Thomas Hardy, 1888.

The story opens with a bunch of milkmaids at work on land rented from one Farmer Lodge. 

The news gets out that Lodge is bringing home his new wife. Two of the milkmaids are wondering how old she is and what she looks like – at least according to rumor. One murmurs to another, regarding the third milkmaid who isn’t participating in the conversation, “’Tis hard for she.” The other one says Lodge hasn’t spoke to that milkmaid, Rhoda, for years. 

Rhoda returns to her very modest home and 12-year-old son is. She tells him his father is bringing his wife home from Anglebury. She instructs him to go to the road they will take and report on what the woman looks like. How tall is she? Is she dark or fair? Does it look like she’s a lady or has she worked for a living?

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The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters

In my recent look pre-World War Two French science fiction stories of disaster and apocalypse, I missed a couple of stories. This book has the first, “The Death of Earth”, but I’ll be reviewing, as usual, the whole book.

Review: The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters, J.-H. Rosny Aîné, trans Brian Stableford, 2010.

Cover by Vincent Laik

Given that Rosny vies with Jules Verne among scholars of French science as being its most important writer and that this is the first of eight Rosny volumes put out by Black Coat Press (excluding Rosny’s widely available Quest for Fire), Stableford’s “Introduction” is long, 60 pages. Stableford doesn’t go so far as saying French science fiction didn’t exist before Rosny, but he does says that his characteristic themes and conjectures were unprecedented before and since.

Rosny was born in Belgium in 1856 and christened Joseph-Henri-Honoré Boëx. He had an early interest in science and technology, spent some year as an adult in London where he entered a troubled marriage. When he moved to Paris to establish himself as a writer, he became involved several literary disputes. Even his friends acknowledged he was very pugnacious and disputatious man. He did spend some years trying to inherit writer Edmond de Goncourt’s literary and actual estate.

He didn’t start out writing science fiction, and Stableford talks about his many straightforward literary works which were acclaimed but didn’t sell that well. His collaborations with his brother, J.-H. Rosny Jeune (aka the Younger) produced no science fiction work and only lasted about ten years. Not many of his contemporaries appreciated his science fiction except Maurice Renard who also wrote it. The market for French science fiction greatly contracted after World War One. Rosny persisted in writing it, but Renard didn’t.

There’s a fairly long quote from René Doumic, a hostile critic of Rosny’s work who, nonetheless, offered a perceptive analysis of it. Rosny’s work tended to be episodic with little connecting rational between its elements. In his “Afterword”, Stableford says Rosny’s enduring problem in writing science fiction was that he was immediately struck by an intriguing idea or image and didn’t think through, before he started writing, their implications and consequences. Rosny’s “patchwork” compositions were the price we pay for his striking ideas because he could never have written them if he waited to fully develop them.

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The Miscellaneous Writings of Clark Ashton Smith

It seems to be a time of wrapping up reading projects. With this, I’ve read – if not reviewed – all of Clark Ashton Smith’s fiction except for his juvenile novel The Black Diamonds.

Review: The Miscellaneous Writings of Clark Ashton Smith, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2011.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

Obviously, with a title like that, you’re not going to get a lot of top of the line Clark Ashton Smith fiction here. For that, you need to get Night Shade Books’ five volume set of his stories. (I’ve reviewed volumes 1, 2, 4, and 5.) But, if you’re a Smith completist or even just a fan like me, you will want this book. Not only does it have reprints of rare Smith items, but it also prints, for the first time, several of his works.

Editors Scott Connors and Ron Hilger’s able “Foreword” has several surprises.  It seems “The Abominations of Yondo” in 1925 was not Smith’s first published fiction or even his first fantastic fiction. It also gives a reason why Smith stopped submitting stories to Weird Tales magazine. It changed ownership in 1938, and, in an interview, the new owner, William J. Delaney, said he didn’t want “nasty” stories that left a “sickish feeling in the reader”, and no more stories where characters spent a lot of time talking in “French, German, Latin, etc”. Now, he may have been thinking of Smith for the “nasty” stories (the interviewer thinks Delaney was thinking of Smith’s “The Coming of the White Worm”), but I’m pretty sure it was Smith he was thinking of in the third banned category: “stories wherein the reader must constantly consult an unabridged dictionary”.

It seems that Smith eventually entered into a partnership with E. Hoffman Price. Smith would provide one of his unpublished manuscripts, and Price would modify it, and they would split the sales proceeds with Price taking two-thirds.

Donald Sidney-Fryer is the closest thing we have to a literary biographer of Smith as well as compiling bibliographies on Smith. He actually met Smith in 1958 and remained Smith’s friend until his death in 1961. His “Introduction: The Sorcerer Departs” was written in 1963 since Sidney-Fryer was worried Smith would be forgotten. This is the third reprinting of it since then.

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“Laura Silver Bells”

We’re still in the 19th century with this week’s story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition on a cyclical basis.

Review: “Laura Silver Bells”, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1871.

This one is not set in Ireland but the “five Northumbrian counties” of England, specifically Dardale Moss moor. It’s a deserted area with trees encroaching in parts. In it is a very small house with, significantly, no rowan trees around it nor horseshoe above the door for this house is said to be, perhaps wrongly, the home of a witch, Mall Carke. She used to be a sage femme (a midwife) but has retired and now tells fortunes. 

Returning at sunset from Willarden where she was selling socks, a man approaches her on the path. She doesn’t fear robbery because the area is so deserted that robbers don’t bother with it. He is a

gaunt, sombre, bony, dirty, and dressed in a black suit which a beggar would hardly care to pick out of the dust.

As he steps out of the nearby woods and onto the path, Mall says she doesn’t know him. He nods. She empathically says she’s never seen him anywhere. Yet he bids her a good evening by name and offers her some snuff. She takes a step back and tells him she has nothing to say to him whoever he is. He asks if she knows Laura Silver Bells. Her name (the dialect is a bit incomprehensible here and rendered phonetically), Mall says, is Laura Lew. One name is as good as another for someone who isn’t baptized he, says. 

And here we get the reason for Mall’s coldness towards the man: 

’How know ye that?’ she asked grimly; for it is a received opinion in that part of the world that the fairies have power over those who have never been baptised. 

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After the Zap; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

While I’m off reading things for the next post, I give you this Raw Feed of a book The Books That Time Forgot covered recently.

Raw Feed (1988): After the Zap, Michael Armstrong, 1987. 

Cover by Les Edwards

Admittedly this book might have been more humorous, engaging, and entertaining if I’d read it in big chunks instead of gnawing at it for over two weeks. 

I found it to be overly complicated and the description at times awkward and/or overdone and tedious. 

I found the last part of the book the best when Armstrong was most obviously constructing a political commentary/allegory. If he would have infused the rest of the story with that character, it would have been a better novel. 

Armstrong, like Dick, seems to have a good grasp of dialogue. He also pays homage to Dick with the references to The Man in the High Castle, and the final revelation of the narrator being the creator of the Zap bomb smacks of the Dick story I seem to remember reading about in which a robot discovers an A-bomb in his chest. 

Alfred Bester crops in with the Nukers proclaiming their desire to put everyone in charge of their destiny via personal possession of a nuke. This sounds like Gully Foyle giving PyRe to the masses. The Order of the Atom sounds van Vogtian.

“The Black Cat”

I’ve read all of Poe’s fiction and poetry and novels (both completed and aborted) and a great many of his articles, but I’ve reviewed few of them. Since The Weird Tradition group over at LibraryThing is discussing this story, it gives me a chance to write up a review of this one.

Review: “The Black Cat”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1842. 

In several ways, this story is similar to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. That’s understandable. Both stories are from 1842, and this one was written after that tale.

Both stories are first person accounts of murderers who tried to conceal their victim’s bodies. Both those bodies are discovered by aberrant events. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator hears the old man’s beating heart beneath the floorboards. Here, the body of the narrator’s wife is walled up and revealed by the shrieks, which are definitely heard by the police investigating his wife’s disappearance, of a cat. Both victims are not enemies of the narrator. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator tells us he loved the old man. Here the narrator frequently remarks on his wife’s kind and gentle nature. Both narrators are keen to point out they are not mad. 

This narrator says he doesn’t expect to be believed. He just wants to report the events that terrified and tortured him. He’s not going to explain them. He wants someone to examine these events more objectively than he can. 

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“The Oram County Whoosit”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at The Weird Tradition group on LibraryThing.

Review: “The Oram County Whoosit”, Steve Duffy, 2008.

Cover by Obrotowy

I liked this story. Not only does Duffy provide two well done narrative voices but some evocative historical details and also a bit of a rumination on the myth of the American West.

The story starts out on a rainy day in Oram, West Virginia, a coal mining town.

The narrator is Fenwick, a newspaper photographer, waiting for the arrival – along with the town’s dignitaries — for Horton Keith, a famous writer who will become even more famous in the intervening years between 1924, when this story takes place, and the 1980s when Fenwick is telling it. 

Keith has come to town to investigate a report of a something found in a lump of coal from the mine. After meeting Fenwick and finding him suitable company, the ambitious Keith points out the local miners trudging off to work and then briefly mentions his days as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco and, on the quest for adventure, how he joined the Klondike gold rush. He juxtaposes the joy the prospectors approached their work, even though neither he nor many others found significant amounts of gold, with the attitude of men who will see pay, however small, for their work. The prospectors were dreamers like him, and they sensed, with the closing of the American West, this was their last chance for adventure. 

Discussion then returns to the reports of the “toad in a hole” as Fenwick calls it. He’s skeptical of such reports and attributes them to either fraud of the Fiji Mermaid variety or newspapers desperate for stories. 

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