Briefing, Scolding, Questioning

Cheap Science Fiction Reference Books

More than a few of the bloggers I read and regular visitors to this site (sometimes the same crowd) like old science fiction and might find old reference books on science fiction interesting. I’m talking about books from publishers like Greenwood Press — expensive and really only intended for libraries.

Well, enough time has passed that libraries are starting to get rid of them. Their loss might be your gain.

In the past year, I’ve picked up all but one of John J. Pierce’s critical works. (He’s still working on the subject and posts infrequently on his blog.)

And, when I was in the bookstore selling off a seven volume history of the Prussian Empire, I came across another: Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, ed. E. F. Bleiler from Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. It was all of $10.

There are articles on various authors from a variety of scholars. Some are expected: John Clute, Peter Nichols, Brian W. Aldiss, Malcolm Edwards, and Bleiler himself. Brian M. Stableford has several, but I have many of his lit-crit collections from Wildside Press, so many of these are not new to me.

Other names I either didn’t expect in this context or are new to me: John Scarborough, James L. Campbell, Sr, John R. Pfeiffer, Willis E. McNelly, Robert E. Myers, Charles L. Elkins, Ronald D. Tweet, L. David Allen, Chris Morgan, Gardner Dozois, John B. Ower, Richard Finholt, John Carr, L. David Allen, Marilyn J. Holt, and Susan Wood. Colin Wilson shows up not only with the expected essay on H. P. Lovecraft but also A. E. van Vogt.

As for subjects, all are defensible and familiar except for the name Luis Philip Senarens covered by Bleiler. Favorites of mine omitted are James Gunn and Charles Harness, but I think that’s defensible.

Fritz Leiber

Speaking of Bleiler, the modern incarnation of his old employer, Dover Books, has started a series called “Doomsday Classics“. One of the reprints is Fritz Leiber’s The Night of the Long Knives.

And There Arose a Generation Which Did Not Know …

Over at the Coode Street Podcast awhile back, Kristine Kathryn Rusch talked about an upcoming anthology, Women in Futures Past. Motivated by bizarre claims she would hear from writing students about women (or the lack thereof) in science fiction history, she has undertaken an educational mission.

But why does she have to? Why does this kind of ignorance exist among the most connected people in the world?

Back in the 1970s, when I started reading science fiction as a poor student in a backwater town in South Dakota, I knew about these authors — even if I couldn’t get my hands on their books. My high school library had The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In the post Star Wars years, I managed to pick up a cheap, but new, copy of Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by Robert Holdstock. It also mentioned women science fiction writers besides Ursula K. Le Guin. So did Baird Searles’ paperback A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. So did James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction series.

I seldom, if ever mention, “diversity” issues. But even I bought, in the 1990s, three landmark anthologies on women in science fiction: Jean Stine and Janrae Frank’s New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow and Pamela Sargent’s two-volume Women of Wonder anthology.

Bought them and read them.

So why does the generation that grew up with huge amounts of data available with the twitch of fingers on the keyboard as opposed to a drive to the library or weeks long wait for loaned or purchased books know so little about this subject? Is the internet age or modern education destroying their curiosity?

The ignorance Rusch cites is among self-professed fans, neigh would-be writers.

I wish Rusch well on her project. If she has enough new material I don’t already have, I’ll probably buy the book.

I’m genuinely puzzled why it’s needed though. The digital age reducing the mental habitat of Arthur Koestler’s “library angels“? Overbooked schedules allowing less time for casual curiosity? Shortened attention spans? Still, we are talking about the age of the hyperlink.

I guess, as Merlin remarked in John Boorman’s Excalibur, “For it is the doom of man that they forget.”

Reading Bitter Bierce: Second Thoughts on Bleiler and Bierce

I favorably mentioned, in the first installment of this series, E. F. Bleiler’s introduction to the collection Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce.

It seems that Don Swaim, proprietor of the justly titled Ambrose Bierce Site, has some unkind opinions on Bleiler’s opinions of Bierce. While he “might accept some of Bleiler’s pungent but snarky literary analysis”, he regards Bleiler’s statement’s on Bierce’s life and character as flat out wrong.Bierce

He says Bleiler relied too much on two Bierce biographies: Adolphe de Castro’s Portrait of Ambrose Bierce and Walter Neale’s Life of Ambrose Bierce.

Since I have read no Bierce biographies, I have no opinion on the matter. I will say that I have heard a fan of Bierce the man and his work recommend both.

Reading Bitter Bierce: Was He a Proto-Fortean?

Bierce, as mentioned in the first installment in this series, is a Fortean phenomena — not for his art so much as his mysterious death. (I recently learned that science fiction and mystery author Fredric Brown wrote an entire novel on the idea of an “Ambrose Collector”.)

But was Bierce a proto-Fortean, a man who collected oddities?

He did do serious, non-fiction pieces on mysterious matters. Continue reading

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 8

Before I end my discussion of Bierce’s weird stories, I wanted to note a couple resources in case you don’t want to use the two main sources I did: S. T. Joshi’s Ambrose Bierce’s: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs and E. F. Bleiler’s Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce.

The first is the grandly titled The Ambrose Bierce Project. It has online copies of all the works I’ve mentioned though I don’t know if the texts are identical to those in Joshi’s volume which uses Bierce’s last revisions.

While it doesn’t look like the Ambrose Bierce Project’s webpage has been updated for awhile, Don Swain seems to keep his Bierce page current.

“The Ways of Ghosts”

In his Can Such Things Be?, Bierce has a section, “The Ways of Ghosts”, with four short, fairly unexceptional ghost stories. His introduction to the section is actually more interesting than the stories. Continue reading

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Lovecraft Connection

As explained in a Terence E. Hanley posting on Bierce, Bierce’s influence on H. P. Lovecraft seems to be by way of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

Specifically, two Bierce stories are explicitly referenced to in the Chambers book: “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “Haita the Shepard”.

Both these stories deviate from Bierce’s usual style described, in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, as “obviously mechanical, and marred by a jaunty and commonplacely artificial style derived from journalistic models”. E. F. Bleiler, in his introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, says there is some merit in the description of Bierce’s stories as “too contrived, mechanical and artificial to be effective” though he does think they have other merits.Bierce LOA

Being more removed from the journalism of the 19th century than Lovecraft, I can’t comment on the standard journalistic matters of the time. I would say that most of Bierce’s horror stories are journalistic in the sense that they specify dates and locations. What Lovecraft calls jaunty and artificial seems to me more Bierce’s wit and cynicism requiring sentences that only seem jaunty on the surface but snag the reader with irony. Bierce is not an anodyne author one reads quickly.

Journalistic specificity is not the case with the two stories that Chambers used. Both are set in vague times and place. Continue reading

Reading Bitter Bierce: Life After the Civil War

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After mustering out of the Union Army in 1865, Ambrose Bierce took a job as a US Treasury Agent charged with collecting “captured and abandoned property”.

He wrote about the experience in his autobiographical essay “‘Way Down in Alabam'”. I found this a very entertaining essay partly because I’ve done some time in the tax collecting business myself, though never with as much danger as Bierce faced, and partly because it fleshes out that time covered under the generic heading “Reconstruction” in American history books. Continue reading

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

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“Killed at Recasa” (with Spoilers)

S. T. Joshi, in an interview regarding his Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirsclaims that all his work — essays, poems, journalism, and fiction — was written “under the satirical impulse”.

The target of this story is the cult of bravery under fire, specifically bravery to impress a woman. Continue reading

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

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Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce was most appreciated in his lifetime by the United States Army.

The American Civil War gave Bierce the chance to escape what his family represented: “religion, morality, thrift, and responsibility” as E. F. Bleiler put it. He signed up a week after the beginning of the war. His courage, intelligence, and decisiveness stood him in good stead. Entering a private, he left in 1865 as a captain. The paperwork, though, mistakenly said “Major Bierce” and that was the title he insisted others use the rest of his life.

He saw a lot of action at the Battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain. It was at the last, in 1864, he was shot, his head, as he put it, “broken like a walnut”. It was that wound which his older brother, Albert (all 13 of the Bierce children had names beginning with “A”), blamed for changing Ambrose’s personality. Albert may have been the sibling closest to Ambrose but that didn’t stop him from sending Albert, shortly before he left on his fateful Mexican trip, a letter said to have hastened Albert’s death due to its sheer fury.

Bierce returned to combat three months later, was briefly captured but escaped, and went on to participate in the Battle of Franklin.

For his Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, S. T. Joshi has included several fiction and autobiographical sketches that came out of that war experience.

This isn’t a review of that volume since I didn’t read it cover to cover, so I’ll not cover every story.

Bierce divided his wartime stories into two camps: soldiers and civilians. In an interview about the collection, Joshi says Bierce insisted on that distinction because civilians could never really understand the experience of the soldier.

Of the soldier tales, many regard “What I Saw of Shiloh” as the best, indeed the best thing Bierce ever wrote. In his 1963 introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, E. F. Bleiler states that Bierce’s Civil War stories appealed to the readers of the 1950s and 1960s better than the readers of the 1890s.

Perhaps so, but I will note that Ken Burns’ documentary series The Civil War, probably the most popular history of the war, does not, to my recollection, quote Bierce once in all the memoirs and speeches and letters and newspaper articles it uses. Nor is Bierce listed in Geoffrey C. Ward’s The Civil War, the companion volume to the series. Continue reading

Reading Bitter Bierce

Bierce LOABierceMilne

In preparation for attending Arcana 44, a convention on the “dark fantasy”, later this month, I’ve been reading Ambrose Bierce. He will be discussed as “a classic horror writer … Civil War veteran, crusading journalist, and champion cynic.”

I suspect it’s timed to coincide with the approximate centennial of his death. I say approximate because no one is exactly sure when, where, or how Bierce died.

S. T. Joshi’s chronology of Bierce’s life in Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs says the last word from Bierce was a December 26, 2013 letter from Chihuahua, Mexico that concluded, “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” It was perhaps that line that led Joe Nickell in Ambrose Bierce Is Missing: And Other Historical Mysteries to speculate the 71 year-old Bierce staged his disappearance with a suicide somewhere around the Grand Canyon. Mysterious disappearances, we will see, were an artistic concern of Bierce.

E. F. Bleiler’s long and useful introduction to Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce cites other possibilities: death in a battle of the Mexican Revolution or execution after insulting Pancho Villa. (Bleiler, incidentally, was an important early scholar of early science fiction and weird fiction. He read thousands of books and wrote short summaries and critiques of them. In his capacity as editor at Dover Books, he helped bring out cheap editions of old and obscure works.)

That collector of oddities, Charles Fort, mentioned him more than once, but perhaps his most idiosyncratic, most Fortean mention was in 1932’s Wild Talents:

Before I looked into the case of Ambrose Small, I was attracted to it by another seeming coincidence. That there could be any meaning in it seemed so preposterous that, as influenced by much experience, I gave it serious thought. About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose, in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses? There was in these questions an appearance of childishness that attracted my respectful attention.

But I’m not going to talk about Bierce’s disappearance. Continue reading