Tuesday, February 6, 2018

1975 stories from Fantastic: L. Sprague de Camp & Lin Carter and Juanita Coulson

I don't own a copy of the February 1975 issue of Fantastic Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, but after reading the first three installments in L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's Conan of Aquilonia series and liking ech one more than the one before it, I could hardly fail to read the final episode!  So it was off to internet archive to witness Conan's final confrontation with Thoth-Amon!

I'm a fan of Stephen Fabian's work, but I have to say the cover he provides here is kind of weak; I don't like the colors, I don't like the composition (the relationships between the figures is unclear and there is a lot of negative space), the poses of the figures are strange, etc.  They can't all be winners, I guess.

In his editorial, editor Ted White talks about the 1974 World Science Fiction Convention.  He says he has no complaints about the event, and then proceeds to enumerate his complaints.  For example, he points out that the hotel food was bad and overpriced.  More interesting to us SF gossip hounds, he relates that the toastmaster at the Awards Banquet was terrible: his "rambling monologues lacked either wit or punchlines  and seemed to go on forever..." until Harlan Ellison reined him in. Ted doesn't name this long-winded individual, but wikipedia informs us that the toastmaster was none other than Andrew J. Offutt!  Another facet in the portrait of that unusual character!  Hmmm... did Offutt ever appear in Fantastic or Amazing?  I don't think he did...maybe Ted didn't like Offutt's work or didn't like him as a person; whatever the case he is not shy here about alienating a potential contributor to his magazines.

Ted is also unhappy that Kelly Freas keeps winning the Hugo for best artist, that his having "sewn up" the award reduces the award's meaning.  He also suggests that the Hugo voting may have more to do with name recognition and ability to get exposure than with serious assessments of the quality of a writer or artist's work.  Is Ted one of those snobs who has contempt for the voting masses?  And wasn't this "problem" with the Hugos "solved" back in in the 1960s with the introduction of the Nebulas, which are awarded by professional writers? 

Ted apologizes because he has been unable to produce a promised in-depth review of Marvel Comics' Conan comics.  He describes the many obstacles he faced in writing this review; one of the cool things about Ted's editorials and his responses to people's letters is the insight it gives you into the actual life of a person making his living in the pop culture industry.

Ted finishes up the editorial by expressing his outrage at Gerald Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon,  suggesting that his outrage is shared by such a significant number of the people that something terrible may happen.

"Shadows in the Skull" by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter

"Shadows in the Skull," the conclusion to the Conan of Aquilonia sequence, is the first story in the magazine.  It is accompanied by a trippy illustration by Michael Nally that seems better suited to a story about pot-smoking bikers at a strip bar than a story about a usurper king hunting down an evil wizard.  When I saw it, the first thing I thought of was Alex and his droogs at the Korova Milk Bar!  A bizarre choice by Ted or the publisher or whoever was responsible.  (Ron Miller, all is forgiven!)

"Shadows in the Skull" picks up not long after where "Red Moon of Zimbabwei" left off.  With Conan's help, Mbega has abolished the Zimbabwean tradition of having priest-elected twins serve as co-kings and founded a unitary monarchy, with himself as monarch.  Conan is eager to go after Thoth-Amon, and one of Mbega's soothsayers goes into a trance and tells the Cimmerian where to find the evil sorcerer.  The Aquilonian army is depleted and fatigued from the fighting and jungle illnesses, so Mbega assigns some of his spearmen and some of his wyvern-riders to serve Conan on his mission.  They are joined by a company of black Amazons from a nearby tribe who were visiting to celebrate Mbega's coronation.  It is suggested that the leader of these Amazons, Princess Nzinga, is Conan's daughter (years ago he spent some quality time with the Queen of that tribe.)

Here's an edition of Conan of
Aquilonia from our escargot-eating
friends that I should have used
to illustrate my blog post on
"Black Sphinx of Nebthu"
King Conan and Prince Conn lead the force south for weeks, the infantry marching through the difficult terrain, the leaders scouting ahead on the wyverns.  When the airborne troops spot the place the soothsayer described--a mountain that looks like a skull--the wyverns suddenly get sick and the adventurers are forced to land.  Down on the surface they find the barren skull mountain is gone, replaced by an elaborate palace surrounded by flowers!  Conan realizes that an illusion is at work, but which was the illusion, the desolate skull mountain or this sophisticated and beautiful estate?  When a bunch of beautiful women emerge from the palace Conan, and all his comrades, put the matter aside and embark on three days of relaxation and partying!  (This is the subject of Nally's illo.)

Conn, when he is just about to have sex with a dancing girl, sees her reflection, which shows her true form--she, like all the women in the illusory palace, is a snake person!  The skull mountain is the last redoubt of the  reptile race that ruled the Earth before the rise of mankind!  With Thoth-Amon's help they hope to reconquer the Earth!

At the same time Conn narrowly escapes death, Conan, drunk and asleep, has a narrow escape of his own; the queen of the snake people is about to stab him while he is helpless when suddenly daughter Nzinga appears and kills the snake queen with a thrown spear.

While the battle between the blacks and the snake people consumes Skull Mountain, Thoth-Amon, using some kind of invisibility spell, drags off the unconscious Conan unseen, to a beach where he plans to sacrifice him to Set.  The Cimmerian wakes up and he and Thoth-Amon engage in a mystical battle of wills--Thoth-Amon calls upon all his magical power and it looks like Conan is going to lose the psychic battle, but then Conn arrives and stabs Thoth-Amon to death.

"Shadows in the Skull" is disappointing; it uses the same structure and devices we just saw in the last three stories.  Conan falls into a trap (and this trap is the goofiest yet,) like he has in all of these stories.  Conan's army appears just in time to pull his fat out of the fire, as it did in two of the other stories.  In "Red Moon over Zambabwei" Conan was in a battle of wills with Set, and was about to expire just when Conn stabbed the wizard who had summoned Set, and almost the same thing happens here.  I've got to grade this one as merely acceptable.

I recognize that de Camp and Carter had busy careers, but it feels like they were just phoning in these Conan of Aquilonia stories.  In their defense, de Camp and Carter do try to bring something new to the Conan game by portraying Conan as a parent; I think all four stories include scenes in which Conan embraces his son Conn, and there is a lot of talk of Conan worrying about Conn and considering the best ways to raise him to be a good king when he takes Conan's place on the throne and so forth, but is Conan: Family Man really what we want when we pick up a Conan story?

The Conan of Aquilonia stories are not terrible, but they are not very good, either, a pedestrian addition to the sword and sorcery canon.

"The Dragon of Tor-Nali" by Juanita Coulson

The February 1975 issue of Fantastic seems to have a high proportion of surreal stories and joke stories (“The Return of Captain Nucleus” is apparently a parody of Edmond Hamilton-style adventure capers that was inspired by a joke in a reader’s letter), so I’m skipping most of the fiction in this issue. But I’m still in a sword and sorcery mood so I’ve decided to give Juanita Coulson, whose work I have never read before, a try.

Immediately, I was impressed by Coulson’s writing style and her efforts to get into the psychology and personality of her main character, and the way she integrated a description of his people's culture with a sort of stream of consciousness narrative, showing how much a product of that culture he was and giving us some exposition in an organic, unobtrusive way.  This is a marked contrast to de Camp and Carter's style, which is quite unambitious and just barely serviceable.  "The Dragon of Tor-Nali" may be vulnerable to the charge that it is overwritten for a story about violence in a fantasy world of sword-fighting pirates, vengeful witches, and fearsome deities, that the style slows down the pace of action scenes and the progression of the plot, but Coulson’s story is about human relationships as much as it is about bloody battles and perilous journeys.

The plot: Two veteran soldiers, the noble officer Branra and a scout from what I took to be a fantasy version of Plains Indians, Danaer, are among the fighting men on a transport ship, on their way to yet another battle in a long war against invaders from across the ocean, when it sinks in a storm. They are rescued by a pirate ship captained by a man named Nadil-Zaa who doesn't give a damn about the war. Another pirate ship is spotted—this one captained by a beautiful woman, Ama. The pirate ships eagerly join battle against each other, and Branra and Danear snatch up swords and fight alongside Nadil-Zaa's crew.  Nadil-Zaa’s men are triumphant, and the pirate captain disarms Ama and rapes her in front of everybody, then has her chained up on his vessel.

In the second half of the story we learn that Nadil-Zaa and Ama were once lovers, and Nadil-Zaa would like to rekindle their relationship.  We also discover that since their breakup Ama has made some sort of pact with wizards—the very foreign wizards Branra and Danaer’s army has been at war with.  In the climax, Ama vengefully summons a monstrous sea dragon (calling it her child) to attack the ship; the dragon threatens to sink them but flees when Nadil-Zaa kills Ama.  As the story ends Nadil-Zaa weeps over Ama's body and we are lead to believe that the pirate will now vengefully join the war on the foreign wizards who, at least as he sees it, took his love from him.

"The Dragon of Tor-Nali" is ripe for some kind of feminist analysis, and not only because of Ama's Medea-like story arc.  Danaer makes repeated references to his people’s goddess and thinks often about his wife (or girlfriend?) back home and a contrast is drawn between religion and sexual relationships among his people and the people he has found himself among.  Coulson includes still more female characters, crew and captives on Nadil-Zaa's ship of different social classes, and charts their reactions to Ama and that witch's radical actions and dreadful fate.  The wisdom and morality of every character in the story is ambiguous, open to interpretation by the reader.

A good story, better than any of the Conan of Aquilonia stories I’ve been reading; it shares the same kind of setting and plot elements used by de Camp and Carter, but Coulson does something more complex and more human with them, and she has a much better writing style.  "The Dragon of Tor-Nali" doesn't seem to have ever been printed elsewhere.


Charles Moll's cover for The Return of
includes a "quote" from Alphonse
Mucha's poster for Lorenzaccio
In his book review column Fritz Leiber heaps praise on four books.  First he gushes over Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga (take that Lester G. Boutillier!)  Then Andre Norton's The Crystal Gryphone.  Then, to my surprise, The Return of Kavin, by David Mason.  This is the sequel to Kavin's World, which I read in 2016 and declared "merely adequate."  Fritz reviewed Kavin's World back in 1970, and I found that review and read it--Fritz asserts that Kavin's World is "a damn good sword-and-sorcery story."  Fritz is a softie!  In this 1975 review, Fritz mostly talks about David Mason the person, his many unusual life experiences, rather than the book.  And he spent half the 1970 review of Kavin's World quoting some other guy's poem.  (In contrast, when he talks about the Anderson and Norton books he discusses their style and content with great specificity.  I have a feeling Fritz is being kind to his friend Mason in putting out these positive but content-lite reviews of his acceptable but unspectacular novels.)

Finally, Fritz discusses Ursula K. LeGuin's essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," apparently an examination of style in fantasy writing.  It sounds like LeGuin's main point is that the language a fantasy story is written in should sound like the language of a fantasy world, not like the language of the 20th century.  LeGuin praises Tolkien, E. R. Eddison, and a writer I'm not familiar with, Kenneth Morris, and denounces people Leiber does not name, but a little googling indicates Katherine Kurtz was one prominent target.  Leiber calls "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" "the best essay I know of on the language of modern fantasy" and uses the opportunity it presents to talk about writers like Robert Graves and Lord Dunsany, as well as Tolkien and Eddison.

In a sort of postscript, Leiber recommends strongly the small press Lovecraftian magazine Whispers.

Ted knows it, I know it, and you know it: sometimes the most fun part of Fantastic is the letters, and the February '75 issue produces a fertile crop of correspondence!

The writer of the first letter offers a long list of criticisms and suggestions for Fantastic and Amazing.  Most humorous criticism: Brian Aldiss's highly praised Frankenstein Unbound is a "rancid little bit of trivia...hastily written in a vein that smacks of A. E. Van Vogt at his least logical."  Ouch!  Most humorous suggestion: if "Conan" in huge type on the cover increases sales, why not include Lovecraftian material and put "Cthulhu" in huge type on the cover?  Ted ignores both of these chestnuts in his response, but does manage to work in a quote from Barry Malzberg praising Fantastic as "the best s-f magazine today."

Writer Darrell Schweitzer (remember we liked his novel The Shattered Goddess?) writes in to talk about the fiction of William Morris, one of the towering cultural figures of the Victorian era (my wife and I love his wallpaper designs.)  This is a response to an article in Fantastic about Morris by L. Sprague de Camp.  Another SF writer, R. Faraday Nelson, writes in to criticize some aspects of de Camp's essay, namely his characterization of the Pre-Raphaelites (I love the Pre-Raphaelites) and of Morris's socialism (well, here's something I don't love.)  Nelson wisely points out that one of the reasons that creative types are attracted to socialism is that they see the people's lives as a medium, just like their canvases and brushes, and society as an appropriate subject to be molded in the hands of the self-appointed superior intellect.

William Morris's wreath wallpaper and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Veronica Veronese
(R. A. Lafferty memorably satirized Morris's socialism in his 1973 story, "The World as Will and Wallpaper."  Joachim Boaz and I wrote about it with love in our hearts at his blog in 2011, and the inimitable tarbandu in 2013 compared it to Thomas Pynchon and dismissed it as "contrived."  Spurred by the William Morris talk in Fantastic, I reread "The World as Will and Wallpaper" today and fell in love all over again!  Five out of five severed heads!)

A woman writes in who agrees with me that M. John Harrison's The Pastel City is overrated, and who (like me) likes Jack Vance, but I have to part ways with her when she says she doesn't like Barry Malzberg!  (Sigh...we almost had a love connection there!)  The letters wrap up with still more Star Trek letters, these about the cartoon version of the voyages of the USS Enterprise.  Somebody calls Ted the "founding member of STING--Star Trek Is No Good."

The last page is the classifieds, with an offer all of you aspiring writers will find irresistible!

Specify type of story!
Well, that's four blog posts about Fantastic and nine posts about sword and sorcery stories.  The MPorcius Fiction Log staff is demanding a break from square-cut manes, flashing swords and the iron grip of massive thews, so no Fantastic and no sword and sorcery for a little while.  But don't think we are done with Ted White!  We'll be reading a piece of White's fiction in our next episode! 

1 comment:

  1. Love the advertisement for "vetted plots" - the business of fiction on full display, and only three bucks a pop! Hilarious. I wonder how much of the same is happening in today's market... "And the aliens are attacking Earth, which our hero - let's make it a woman, gotta be a woman in today's market - defends against by taking matters into her own hands by..."

    Regarding the Le Guin essay, it's short and worth seeking out. I would guess you can find it on the web, somewhere.