Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Cirque by Terry Carr

"Everybody in Cirque believes....Whether or not they come to services here or somewhere else, they all believe.  They all tune in to the broadcasts; they're all part of Cirque.  We're really all one people, aren't we?  Because of the monitors."
My copy of the 1978 paperback
Joachim Boaz, via twitter, recently noted Terry Carr's birthday.  In September of last year, in the Lone Star State, I purchased a copy of Terry Carr's 1977 novel Cirque along with some other off-the-beaten-path SF books, and Joachim's tweet inspired me to read it this week. Joachim blogged about Cirque back in 2016; check out his assessment before or after reading mine, as while we basically agree on how good the book is, we discuss different aspects of it and come at it from different angles (his blog post is also far less spoily than mine.)

It is the far future, and the Earth is almost unrecognizable to us 20th-century types; Earth's mineral wealth has long been exhausted, for example.  The most prominent river on Earth, the River Fundament, empties into a chasm almost ten kilometers wide, the Abyss.  The Abyss has been there so long that nobody really knows how it came to be.  Built around the Abyss is Earth's most prominent city, Cirque.  The people of Cirque benefit from all kinds of super advanced technology, but their culture is religious and spiritual, their city home to innumerable different sects and site of a profusion of churches and temples, most of which have the Abyss at the center of their theology.   

Carr's novel chronicles a pivotal day in the history of Cirque, a day on which its citizens must confront two outsiders and the revelations about Cirque they present.  One of these outsiders is a visitor from outer space, a three-meter-long millipede from the Aldebaran system; Earth may be a backwater at the time depicted in the novel, but in the past Earth was the center of a galactic civilization built with human technology, humans being the most entrepreneurial and technologically innovative race in the galaxy, and a half dozen or so aliens still come to visit Earth each year.  The other outsider is the colony of tentacled creatures that is discovered living among fungus and vines at the bottom of the Abyss--to the astonishment of everybody, the Abyss is not, as has been assumed for centuries, a barren shaft that extends to the molten planet core.  The hideous creatures have been living on the garbage the citizens have been throwing down into the Abyss for as long as anyone can remember, and, some religious leaders immediately conclude, on the sins thrown down the Abyss by the faithful at confession.  One of the novel's many characters, the head priestess at The Cathedral of the Five Elements, a woman named Salamander, believes this creature is "the Beast" of her religion's lore.

Another of Carr's many characters is a powerful psyker known as the monitor, who fills the role in Cirque played in our own times by the mass media.  The monitor simultaneously reads the minds of every person in the city and sifts through these people's experiences to select the most compelling for transmission to every other person in Cirque; citizens can generally choose to receive or ignore ("tune in" or "tune out") these transmissions.  The initial arrival of the benign Aldebarranean millipede, and the first sighting of the terrifying Beast, are thus experienced by thousands of people, who share not only the sights and sounds experienced by those who first encounter these outsiders, but their very thoughts and feelings.  (Carr mostly ignores the privacy implications of living in such a surveillance society, though it is clear that Cirque suffers almost no crime and the police have little to do.)

1977 Hardcover first edition
Full of the personalities of others, a monitor has almost no personality or life of his or her own, and lives like an idiot or even a vegetable, fed and bathed by servants.  The current monitor is a fifteen-year-old girl, Annalie, and the senior of her assistants and next in line to become monitor, Lily, another female psychic, only ten, doesn't even remember Annalie's name.  Monitors never live out their teenage years, and so Lily has reason to believe she will soon be graduating into Annalie's place.  The shock of the Beast's arrival jars Annalie back into an individual, and she loses all her psychic powers--Lily is expected to take over Annalie's role, but Annalie's first spoken words as an individual are to warn Lily to flee this grim destiny and preserve her freedom. 

The monitor and her role in binding together Cirque with a common culture and shared experiences is one iteration of a major theme of Cirque, how individuals can contain multiple identities, and how multiple individuals can form a single, collective identity.  "The Beast" is seen by religious people as a single entity born of the sins of the people of Cirque, while the secular-minded believe it to be an ecosystem that has battened on Cirque's cast off garbage.  Of course, any city is a sort of collective identity, a sum composed of diverse individuals who pursue their individual, often conflicting, interests, and Carr presents us with many characters, painting a portrait of Cirque made up of views from a number of angles.

Another of Carr's characters, Nikki, takes drugs every day to induce what we might call multiple personality disorder but which the people of Cirque would more charitably call a liberation of the various facets of her personality.  She awakes as Nikki One, her "normal" personality--shy and depressed, suffering low self-esteem from being short and fat--but lives part of the day as uninhibited pleasure-seeking Nikki Two, and another as aggressive (she might insist "assertive,") bitter, manipulative and cynical Nikki Three.  Nikki Three meets the millipede, and insinuates herself into its company and acts as its self-appointed tour guide.  The alien, however, turns out to be as much a guide for Nikki as she is for it, as Aldebarraneans can see the future, and the visitor already knows all about the rise of The Beast and has in fact come to witness this event.  During this adventure, Nikki's personality shifts into that of the rarely seen Nikki Four, who is generous and joyful, loving all and beloved by all.  Nikki Four does not see the giant tentacled creatures that climb out of the Abyss as evil monsters that must be destroyed, as the religious and temporal authorities initially do, but as beautiful, graceful beings.

For their 1979 edition, our friends in
the Netherlands reused Paul Lehr's
cover for Jack Williamson's
The Power of Blackness
There are a lot of women in authority in Cirque; the head of the police force is a woman, Gloriana, and she directs the investigation of the Abyss's unexpected inhabitants and the efforts to destroy them with poison sprayed from an aircraft brought in from the provinces, where it is usually used to dust crops.  But don't expect Cirque to be championed by the feminist community--all the women in the novel seem to find authority unfulfilling, and/or to have taken up power to compensate for their failures to build a good relationship with a man.

The big day, and the 223-page novel, end in Salamander's Cathedral of the Five Elements, where congregate at a major ritual all the characters, including one of the elephant-sized tentacle monsters which has escaped Gloriana's poison sprays; the monster is attracted to the building's warmth as the cold of night approaches.  The blind monster makes its way through the cathedral towards the ceremonial Fire, in the process killing several people (all you Bernie bros out there will be relieved to hear that it is rich people who get killed, and most of them are actually killed by the inaccurate proton fire of Gloriana's keystone kops, who are trying to stop the monster.)  Annalie's psychic powers return, but now she can control them ("Her talent had come back, but now it was her tool instead of her master") and she sees the monster through Nikki's eyes; Nikki finds the monster beautiful, and Annalie transmits Nikki's vision to everybody in the city, and in response, the monster transforms into a lump of clover covered in flowers--the Beast really is a projection of people's thoughts, and if everybody sees it as nice, it will be nice.  Oy, welcome to hippyville.

Except for those dead rich people, everybody gets a happy ending and nobody has to make any sacrifices to get that happy ending.  Gloriana and Salamander and Nikki all get good boyfriends, and Salamander's and Gloriana's careers become more fulfilling (though there is a case to be made that they didn't really do a very good job during the crisis and perhaps should be sacked.)  Annalie quits her job as monitor, and in true have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too style she still has her psychic powers.  Lily takes Annalie's place, but it is implied that monitors will no longer be worked to death as they have for centuries, but instead learn what Annalie has learned and transition back to an ordinary life after serving the community for a few years.  The Aldebarranean is revealed to be the prophet of the religion of the miracle of the monster that turned into flowers; because he could see into the future he has already written his holy book of verses, and now that the events it describes have occurred it can be published and his gospel spread.  Cirque will soon become rich from the tourist trade as the destination of pilgrims from throughout the galaxy.

I like the look of this 1979
British edition, but it is hard
to find a decent image of it online
Cirque's flower power happy ending is a little hard to take, and, befitting a novel in which one of the characters can see the inevitable future, the plot happens to the characters rather than the characters driving the plot with their decisions, but it is not a bad novel.  Carr is a competent writer, and the book has numerous good SF devices and ideas, and only a few pages (of religious ritual) are actually boring; for the most part I was curious to see what was going to happen next.  The novel's use of religion is a little ambiguous and equivocal, which is probably more interesting than a blanket denunciation of religion or a passionate endorsement of religion.  The environmentalist angle is similarly grey rather than black and white: the Aldebarranean says that the intelligent races of the galaxy are grateful for all the brilliant technological advances humans have shared with them, but that since humans can't see into the future, some of their technology threatens the environment.

I think Cirque deserves a mild recommendation.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

"The Tomb," "The Tree," "The Temple," "The Moon-Bog," and "The Hound" by H. P. Lovecraft


Let's read five stories from my hardcover copy of the Corrected Ninth Printing of Arkham House's Dagon and Other Macabre Tales by H. P. Lovecraft.  In his introduction to the volume, T. E. D. Klein tells us that the pieces presented in Dagon have been considered "secondary" and "minor," and I certainly thought 1922's "The Lurking Fear," which I just read here in Dagon, a weaker than average spot of work on HPL's part.  But let's hold out hope that at least some of today's selections, all of them written before "The Lurking Fear," will be worthwhile.  I chose these fivew because I don't think I've read them before, while specifically avoiding "Dream Cycle" stories, which I plan to read some other time.

"The Tomb" (1922)

I am told this was written in 1917, but first published in 1922 in The Vagrant, an amateur press publication; it would appear in Weird Tales in 1926.

In the first paragraph of the ten-page story our narrator, a wealthy young man named Jervas Dudley, reports that he writes from within an insane asylum.  This tale is the story of his solitary and strange life.  Ever since he was a little boy he has been able to sense things, see and hear things, that others cannot, and, unconstrained by work or school, has spent a lot of time in the woods near his home, apparently watching and communicating with such spirits as "dryads."  This manuscript focuses on a padlocked mausoleum in those woods, where are buried the Hydes, an almost extinct family whose only surviving member is twenty-something Jervas himself, who is descended from the Hydes on his mother's side.  Jervas is fascinated by this tomb and the nearby ruins of the Hyde house, which was destroyed in a fire caused by a lightning bolt back in the 18th century.  Jervas spends long hours lying before the padlocked door to the tomb, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake, and begins acquiring the knowledge and even personality of an 18th-century gentleman, surprising his family by speaking with the diction and wit of a free-thinking sophisticate of almost 200 years ago.  Lovecraft even includes in the story a sort of libertine 18th-century-style poem about drinking and wenching.  (This brought to mind Brian Lumley's first Necroscope novel, in which a guy can speak to the dead and uses that ability to gather material for his historical fiction.)

Jervas aspires to be buried in the Hyde tomb when he dies, and even gains access to the mausoleum and reclines in an empty coffin within, though it is unclear whether Jervas has physically entered the tomb after his ghost-acquired knowledge has guided him to the location of the padlock's key, or if his long visits within the tomb are in fact out-of-body experiences.  Jervas's father, worried about his son's odd behavior at the tomb entrance and the ruined Hyde house, sets a spy to watching him, and when Jervas throws a sort of fit at the ruin (in his mind he is reliving the night of the party at which the house was burned down) the young man is seized and put into the mad house.

This is a good creepy story that also, I suspect, represents a sort of wish-fulfillment tale for Lovecraft, who thought the 18th century the height of civilization and who was himself, like the narrator, unsuited for (or unwilling to take on) the work of a real job or the pursuit of a college degree.  Also interesting is the reference to Plutarch's Life of Theseus.  Thumbs up for "The Tomb!"

Fun 1960s Panther editions of H. P. Lovecraft stories; The Lurking Fear and Other Stories
includes "The Moon-Bog" and "The Hound."
"The Tree" (1921)

"The Tree" first appeared in the amateur press publication The Tryout, and was reprinted in Weird Tales in 1938.

Like "The Tomb," with its reference to Plutarch, "The Tree" reflects an interest in the classical world, being set in ancient Greece, with "The Tyrant of Syracuse" as a pivotal character.  Two sculptors, residents of Arcadia, are our main characters;  they are best friends, as famous for their steadfast brotherly affection as for their artistic ability.  While they are devoted to each other, these two pals have very different personalities, Musides being a guy who loves to party at night while Kalos prefers to meditate in the solitude of an olive grove, where he, perhaps, communes with dryads (not unlike the guy in "The Tomb.")

The Tyrant of Syracuse wants a colossal statue of Tyche, and asks the two buddies to each build one, in hopes the friendly competition will inspire them to new heights of artistic excellence that will bring glory to Syracuse.  But Kalos falls ill and dies before the competition is barely begun.  Musides builds Kalos a beautiful tomb, and, as Kalos asked him to, buries close to his friend's head twigs from particular olive trees.  As the years go by and Kalos toils on his statue of Tyche, a preternaturally huge and twisted olive tree grows next to Kalos's tomb, near where the dead sculptor's head rests--the tree's roots actually extend into and under the sepulchre.  When finally the statue of Tyche is finished, and a Syracusan delegation comes to collect it, there is a storm and the over-sized olive tree falls, killing Musides and demolishing the statue.

I have to admit I'm not quite grokking what is going on here.  Are we to think that Kalos didn't really love Musides so much and was in fact envious that his friend was going to "win" the competition once he had cleared the field by dying?  How much are we supposed to blame the dryads for coming between the two friends--did the dryads manipulate Kalos against Musides, or did Kalos seek their help in making sure his reputation as an artist was not eclipsed by Musides?  One of the things that makes the story hard to unravel is that Musides is a good friend to Kalos--Kalos has no rational reason to resent this man, who is sincerely brokenhearted upon his friend's death.  As I read the story, Musides is an innocent victim of Kalos and/or the dryads.

Acceptable; I wish Lovecraft had made Kalos's and/or the dryads' motives a little more clear.

1969 and 1985 Panther editions of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales
"The Temple" (1925)

"The Tree" may be the story of an innocent man unjustly suffering a terrible betrayal, but "The Temple" is just the opposite, a morality tale in which sinners suffer poetic justice; it is also a spirited piece of anti-German propaganda.

The text of "The Temple" is a manuscript penned by a U-boat commander, discovered in a bottle on the eastern coast of Mexico.  The narrator relates how he accepted the surrender of a British merchant vessel's crew and then murdered them; one of the German officers looted the corpse of one of the British sailors, finding a handsome ivory carving of a young man's head, crowned with laurel.  After this war crime the U-boat is plagued with ill luck which includes mechanical failures and trouble among the men, many of whom fear they are cursed, some even claiming to see the ghosts of their victims through the portholes--some of the sailors even go violently insane.  The narrator's response to these problems is to torture and execute his subordinates, until, after an actual mutiny, only he and the officer with the looted classical head are left alive on the disabled boat as it drifts southward, gradually sinking.

The ocean floor comes within sight, and the officer, claiming he is being called by some unnamed being, leaves the submarine, even though he can only expect to be crushed by the pressure at this depth.  The commander is thus alone when the submarine lands on the sea bottom in the middle of the marble ruins of Atlantis!

Many Lovecraft stories feature a dude exploring an ancient and/or alien city, and "The Temple" is one of them.  After carefully observing the "buildings, arches, statues, and bridges" of Atlantis with a search light from within the safety of the submarine, which apparently has enough air and electricity to stay submerged for weeks (don't use HPL as a source for your school reports on WWI technology, kids), the U-boat commander puts on a deep-sea diving suit and explores the city on foot.  The style of sculptures in the city match the now lost ivory head.

As his electricity finally begins to run out he finds himself plagued by dreams of drowning men, including the British sailor who had the classical head, and irresistibly drawn to a huge temple; after he finishes his manuscript he will go to this temple, where he will no doubt die.  We don't know what he will find in the temple, but there are clues that suggest that within its confines he will suffer a terrible punishment for his crimes.

Not bad.  "The Temple" might be considered an interesting artifact of American attitudes about Germany after The Great War: Lovecraft indulges in a vehement satire of the German elite in this story, putting into the Prussian submarine commander's mouth loads of bombastic nationalism: "...all things are noble which serve the German state;" "Boatswain Muller, an elderly man who would have known better had he not been a superstitious Alsatian swine;" "...His mind was not Prussian, but given to imaginings and speculations which have no value....He was a German, but only a Rhinelander and a commoner...."  It is perhaps ironic to find Lovecraft, whose letters and stories testify to his own racism and bigotry, spoofing a Prussian's prejudice against Rhinelanders and Alsatians. 

My copy of Dagon suggests "The Temple" was written in 1920 but was not published until 1925, when it made its debut in Weird Tales.


"The Moon-Bog" (1926)

This one was apparently written in 1921 but not printed until 1926 when it appeared in Weird Tales.

Denys Barry made a pile of money in America, and then returned to his ancestral homeland, the Emerald Isle, and the remote village of Kilderry, where his ancestors were lords who lived in a now decrepit castle.  Barry purchased the castle and started repairing it; at first the local peasants were thrilled to have this big spender around, but when they learned he wanted to drain the local bog, which was reputed to be haunted, the villagers up and left!  Barry had to import from the north servants to work in the castle and laborers to do that bog-draining which he was committed to, despite the protests of the superstitious peasants; after all, he wanted to put that land to good use, and he was an amateur archaeologist, and sought to investigate the ruins that were strongly suspected to lie under the bog.

Lonely, Barry summoned one of his American friends to come visit--this friend is our narrator.  We know from paragraph one that Barry and a bunch of other people have vanished, and this eight-page story relates how they disappeared.  In short, through vivid dreams and bizarre sights witnessed through the window of his room in the castle late at night, the narrator realizes that Kilderry was colonized by Greeks in ancient times, but their city was flooded and the population killed; the Greek ghosts haunt the bog, and they do not want their buried bodies and ruined city disturbed.  The superstitious locals recognized this, but Barry and the workers from the north do not, and one night, as the narrator watches, ghostly naiads, to the accompaniment of weird flute music and sinister lights, draw the northern laborers and domestics, and Barry himself, into the bog where they are drowned...or, perhaps, turned into frogs!

Not bad. 

Michel Parry included "The Hound" in his 1974 anthology of stories about man's best friend
"The Hound" (1924)

"The Hound," which my copy of Dagon suggests was written in 1922, two years before it made its debut in Weird Tales, is categorized at isfdb as part of the Cthulhu Mythos and is probably the most famous and most reprinted of the five stories we are talking about today.  You can even hear beloved star of CleopatraPlanet of the Apes and The Black Hole, Roddy McDowell, read "The Hound" at youtube!

In the first paragraph of "The Hound" we learn that our narrator is about to commit suicide!  He is going to blow his own brains out in order to avoid the fate suffered by his friend St. John, who is a gruesomely mangled corpse!

In the first part of the story the narrator explains that he and St. John were artists, jaded and decadent Englishmen always seeking some new thrill to ease their ennui.  They took up the hobby of grave robbing, and even outfitted a secret museum full of the skulls of famous men, stolen grave markers, the corpses of beautiful women taxidermied such that they appeared to be alive, the heads of recently buried babies, books with covers of tanned human skin, etc.  Their final grave robbing adventure was in Holland, the looting of the coffin of a man dead 500 years, a man himself infamous in his day for being a grave robber.   In the casket with the centuries-old corpse they found a jade amulet carved in the form of a winged dog, an image they recognize from the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, the symbol of an Asian cult of cannibals!

The second part of the story (which in its entirety is only eight pages here in Dagon) describes how the narrator and St. John were haunted by various fleeting sights and dimly heard sounds (most prominently the baying of a hound) after returning home to rural England to install the jade amulet in a prominent niche of their subterranean museum, how St. John was mauled by some mysterious creature, and how the narrator, desperate, returned to the Dutch cemetery in hopes of returning the jade figure to its rightful resting place and thus earning a reprieve from the uncanny forces tormenting him.  This mission was a failure, serving merely to reveal to the narrator the true nature of the creature that killed St. John and would no doubt soon destroy him!  Better to shoot yourself than be torn to pieces by such a monster!

Quite good; I can endorse this one with some enthusiasm--thumbs up for "The Hound."

"The Hound" was included by James Dickie in his 1971 anthology The Undead,
published in the Netherlands in 1972 as Vampier!

**********

I was pretty disappointed in "The Lurking Fear," perhaps more than I let on in my last blog post, and am pleased that every one of these five tales is superior to that mess in style, economy, structure, and basic premise.  My faith in H. P. Lovecraft is restored!

More weird fiction in the near future, but first, in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log, we tackle a 1970s science fiction novel.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"The Lurking Fear" by H. P. Lovecraft and "The Red Brain" by Donald Wandrei

isfdb image of jacket of
Mysteries of Time and Spirit
Via interlibrary loan I borrowed 2002's Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei, a 400+ page volume edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, and have been desultorily sampling bits and pieces of it.  The letters are full of interest and entertainment as the foremost of the Weird Tales gang and one of his young disciples pass judgement on fantastic literature (in a January 11, 1927 letter Lovecraft calls Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" "most insidiously potent" and declares that M. P. Shiel's "The House of Sounds" is "the only first-rate story Shiel ever wrote") and architecture (Lovecraft in an April 12, 1927 letter laments that both the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and the Massachusetts State House have "been spoiled by wings") and America's cities; in a February 10, 1927 letter Lovecraft briefly tells Wandrei that he found Washington "delightful" but fills multiple pages with denunciations of New York, where HPL lived for over two years and where he says that "all life"
...is purely artificial & affected--values are forced & arbitrary, mental fashions are capricious, pathological, or commercial rather than authentic, & literary activity & conversation are motivated by a shallow pose, a sophistical concealment of ignorance, & a morbidly charlatanic egotism & cheap assertiveness far removed from the solid aesthetic intensity which ought to underlie a life of art & letters...the "aesthetes" of New York are less interested in art & beauty than in themselves...a case of inferior people trying to be conspicuous somehow, & choosing art as a form of ballyhoo more convenient & inexpensive than business or evangelism or sword-swallowing.
I find this sort of vitriol exciting and amusing, even when directed at my beloved New York City.  (I have to admit, however, that Lovecraft's dismissals of one of this blog's heroes, his fellow Weird Tales writer Edmond Hamilton, had me smh, as the kids tweet.)  Wandrei, in a March 21, 1927 letter, expresses his own appreciation for Lovecraft's "pricking of the New York bubble," suggesting that people around the country think NYC is getting too big for its britches but are too afraid to openly criticize The Big Apple!

In their letters Lovecraft and Wandrei talk quite a bit about Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear" and Wandrei's "The Twilight of Time," published as "The Red Brain," spurring me to read these two stories, which I had never read before.

"The Lurking Fear" by H. P. Lovecraft (1923)

In the February 10, 1927 letter already quoted above, Lovecraft tells Wandrei that "'The Lurking Fear' was done to order for a wretchedly sensational magazine four years ago...."  Lovecraft refers to Home Brew, a humor magazine that described itself as "peppy," "piquant" and "zippy" and "America's Greatest Pocket Magazine;" opinions will differ, I suppose--in a December 11, 1926 letter our man HPL went so far as to celebrate the demise of the "abysmally wretched" Home Brew.  "The Lurking Fear" was serialized across four issues in 1923, and would later appear entire in the June 1928 issue of Weird Tales before going on to be reprinted in many books.  I read the version appearing in my 2001 printing of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, which, S. T. Joshi tells us in the introduction to that volume, is based on Lovecraft's typescript.

(You can actually read Lovecraft's typescript of "The Lurking Fear" yourself, which has been scanned and put up on the Brown University website, along with a pile of other documents related to HPL, like a postcard Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long sent to Wandrei from a whaling museum in New Bedford, Connecticut in August of 1929; Lovecraft jokes that he and Long are "seriously considering" becoming sailors.)

Atop Tempest Mountain in the Catskills sits the abandoned Martense mansion.  The mansion, long ago the site of a murder, is considered the sinister haunt of some kind of monster by the hillbillies who live in the area--the monster is connected, they believe, with the violent thunderstorms endemic to the area.  (Lovecraft never calls them "hillbillies," instead labeling them "squatters," "witless shanty-dwellers," and even "mountain mongrels," the last of which I found pretty funny.)  When a lightning bolt somehow causes a cave in that wrecks a hillbilly village--destroying many "shanties" and killing over two score of that village's inhabitants--the hillbillies insist the monster at the mansion is to blame, but a search of the mansion turns up no clues.

A 1947 anthology with "The
Lurking Fear" as the title story
Our narrator is a wealthy guy fascinated by the macabre ("I am a connoisseur in horrors") and, a few weeks after the disaster, when most of the state police and members of the mainstream media have left the area, their investigations having yielded nothing, he launches his own investigation, bringing with him to the Catskills two muscular he-men armed with automatic pistols.  The narrator decides that the first step of his investigation will be to spend a stormy night in the room of the decrepit mansion once inhabited by Jan Martense, who was apparently murdered by his family in the middle of the 18th century.  The three men are to take turns keeping watch, so that one of them is always awake, his gun at the ready.  However, when the narrator is aroused in the middle of the night and witnesses a lightning strike that shakes the entire mountain and casts a hideous shadow against the fireplace, he finds that his two bodyguards have vanished, never to be seen again!

Thus ends the first of "The Lurking Fear"'s four parts.  (Here in Dagon each part is five pages long.)  In Part II the narrator joins forces with a journalist and the pair spend weeks interviewing hillbillies and searching the mansion, countryside and surrounding villages in order to learn as much about the Martense family and the monster as possible.   Then one day comes another powerful storm, and a lightning strike that causes a landslide.  While the narrator isn't looking, his journalist friend is killed--our hero finds the reporter's corpse  standing by an open window, through which some creature has chewed off his face.

In Part III the narrator lays on us all the information he and his now late friend (whom he buries secretly in the wilderness, opting to tell the authorities this guy just disappeared) uncovered, and we get a history of the Martense family and their mansion.  For reasons I couldn't quite pin down, and perhaps simply because he is going insane, the narrator has come to believe the monster is the ghost of Jan Martense, and decides to dig up Jan Martense's grave.  During this fruitless excavation he blunders upon a narrow tunnel and crawls around in it, meeting a monster he can barely see--"The eyes approached, yet of the thing that bore them I could distinguish only a claw.  But what a claw!"  Yet another of the lightning bolts that figure so prominently in this story starts yet another cave in, killing the monster and ejecting the narrator onto the surface.  The narrator later learns that at the same time he was confronting a monster in a tunnel, some hillbillies twenty miles away were attacked by another monster--the country folk had the presence of mind to trap the monster in a shack and set the shack on fire, thus slaying the creature.

You see, one of the "surprises" of "The Lurking Fear" is that for centuries people thought there was one solitary monster when in fact there is an entire population of monsters, hundreds or even thousands, all of them descended from the Martense family and living in a vast network of underground tunnels that radiate from the mansion.  The Martenses, Anglophobic Dutchmen, cut themselves off from society after the British took over New Amsterdam (they murdered the wayward Jan because he traitorously became accustomed to English ways while serving in the colonial forces during the Seven Years War) and over the succeeding centuries degenerated into simian beasts (and multiplied into a teeming army that has somehow kept itself secret.)  All this, hinted at before, is revealed starkly in Part IV when the narrator searches the mansion for the umpteenth time and finds a tunnel entrance at the base of the chimney and later hides behind a bush during a thunderstorm and watches an army of the monsters, short deformed white apes, stream out of the mansion and into the countryside.  He shoots down a straggler with his pistol and recognizes the distinctive eyes of the Martense clan in its monkey-like visage.  Then he hires some people to blow up the mansion and mountain and seal the tunnels, presumably ending the Martense reign of terror, but his experiences have damaged his mind and he can't stop worrying that some of these monkey people may have escaped, or that elsewhere in the world similar degenerates may exist.  "...why cannot the doctors give me something to make me sleep, or calm my brain when it thunders?" 

Lovecraft fans will recognize elements of "The Lurking Fear," like a family living in isolation from society and degenerating, and a climactic parade of semi-human monsters, that would reappear in "The Shadow over Innsmouth."  Such elements are used to much greater effect in that masterpiece; here, unfortunately, they are much less convincing and are embedded in a story we can only charitably call a mediocrity.  "The Lurking Fear" is not good, suffering many flaws and lacking compensating virtues.

The structure and pacing are bad--the story doesn't flow in a logical or satisfying way, Lovecraft failing to link causes with effects in a convincing chain with the result that characters' decisions don't make a lot of sense.  The narrator seems to know all about the mansion and Jan Martense's murder in Part I (he knows what room Jan Martense was killed in, for example) and yet Lovecraft makes a big deal out of all the research into Jan Martense's life and death in Parts II and III; at the same time the narrator pursues courses based on his knowledge of the Martense history, like sitting in the murder room and digging up the grave of the murder victim, that feel arbitrary and yield results only by chance.  Wouldn't a better story structure have the narrator discover clues that logically lead him step by step to a single climactic exploration of the mansion in the tale's finale?  As the story stands he investigates the mansion again and again and these explorations do little to advance the plot.

Characters appear simply to be killed but Lovecraft doesn't bother to give these victims any personality or relationship to narrator so we don't care that they have been killed.  Monsters are defeated in anticlimactic ways.  The monsters' relationship to thunder and lightning is unclear and thematically equivocal--sometimes it helps them, sometimes it hurts them, it seems to summon them to the surface and/or drive them crazy, etc.  The multiplication of the Martense family and the way lightning is always causing landslides and cave ins just feels too unbelievable.

In their letters, Lovecraft and Wandrei blame the weaknesses of "The Lurking Fear" on the need to conform to the format prescribed by Home Brew, and I guess there is something to that; the killings of the two bodyguards and the journalist serve as shock endings of Parts I and II, and if Lovecraft had ever revised the story as he suggests he might have in that February 10, 1927 letter ("Some day I may re-write it decently as a continuous unit") maybe he could have eliminated those three characters altogether as part of tightening up the piece.  Wandrei, like a good friend, on March 21, 1927 encouraged HPL to revise the tale, expressing great confidence in the possibility of improvement:
...I should like to see "The Lurking Fear" rewritten sometime with all traces and insidious reminders of "Home Brew" taken out....a few changes, I think, are all that are necessary....it seems to me that it might be made into one of your better or best stories.  
It doesn't seem that such revisions were ever made, and I have to give "The Lurking Fear" as it appears in Dagon a thumbs down; this is a component of the Lovecraft oeuvre that can be safely skipped by casual fans.

(Above I noted that opinions will differ, and SF historian Sam Moskowitz, who acquired some of Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright's records, reports in his 1983 article "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940" that "The Lurking Fear" was best received of all the stories in the issue of Weird Tales in which it appeared.)

"The Red Brain" by Donald Wandrei (1927)

In 1926, Wandrei's "The Twilight of Time" was rejected by Weird Tales (see Wandrei's letter to Lovecraft dated February 28, 1927), but it was later read by Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long and Clark Ashton Smith, all of whom praised the story.  Lovecraft wrote to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, recommending Wandrei's work (see Lovecraft's January 29, 1927 letter to Wandrei for this and the encomiums from FBL and CAS) and in short order Wright purchased "The Twilight of Time" and printed it under the title "The Red Brain" in October, 1927; Moskowitz reports that "The Red Brain" was the most popular piece in that October issue.  "The Red Brain" was reprinted in Weird Tales in 1936, and Lovecraft in a May 14, 1936 letter reports to Wandrei on Robert Bloch's appreciation of the tale.  Obviously this is a story embraced by the weird community which I should read.

In a September 8, 1927 letter Wandrei complains that the version of "The Red Brain" appearing in Weird Tales has had 26 lines removed "from various places by some incomprehensible method of deletion" and in the May 14, '36 letter Lovecraft suggests that the reprint was equally deficient.  Hoping to get the best possible text of "The Red Brain," I spent seven bucks on an electronic copy of the 2017 volume edited by S. T. Joshi, The Red Brain: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

"The Red Brain" is the tale of the people of the Antares star system, billions of years in the future, when all of the other stars in the universe have gone dim and even collapsed into dust, along with their planets, so that the universe is a vast ocean of lifeless, lightless dust.  Antares, the largest star in the universe, is the last to die, and the civilization on its planet is the last to rise.

By the time of this story the people of Antares have evolved into sexless shape-shifting blobs that are all brain!  Because they don't have to waste time on erotic and familial relationships, they have plenty of time to develop super science, and have covered their planet with a dome that keeps out the dust and keeps in the atmosphere, have made for themselves immortal blob bodies, have abandoned any belief in religion and the supernatural, and so on.  But one thing they have been unable to do, despite working on the problem for millions of years, is figure out a way to prevent the death of Antares and reverse the spread of the dust and revive the universe which once glittered with burning stars and teemed with vibrant life.

But wait!  A new brain has been developed, a brain more powerful than all its predecessors, distinguished by the fact that it isn't a black blob like all the rest, but a blob of a unique red hue!  The Red Brain announces that it knows how to defeat the dust!  All the other brains open their minds to the Red Brain's message of salvation, only to be destroyed when a psychic explosion of hate erupts from the Red Brain--the Red Brain, the last living thing in the entire universe, is insane! 

This is a fun story, with its bizarre images and momentous tone and inconceivably vast scale and over the top downer of an ending.  Thumbs up!

**********

I'm not ready to put my copy of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales back on the shelf yet; more Lovecraft in our next episode.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

"Best" stories by James White, Bob Shaw and Brian Aldiss

Let's pull a volume off the paperback anthology shelf of the MPorcius Library and read three SF stories by British authors that appear in editor Mike Ashley's 1977 book The Best of British SF 2.  The Best of British SF 2 contains 14 stories over its 378 pages, and I have already read and blogged about two of them, Arthur C. Clarke's 1971 "Transit of Earth," and John Wyndham's "The Emptiness of Space," AKA "The Asteroids, 2194."  That leaves a dozen tales new to me; let's start with three authors of whom I already have a good opinion: James White, Bob Shaw, and Brian Aldiss.  The stories in The Best of British SF 2 by White, Shaw, and Aldiss were selected by the authors themselves and represent personal favorites, and each is preceded by an intro by Ashley that includes a long quote from the author himself which discusses such topics as narrative strategies and recurring themes in his work--these intros, along with Ashley's intro to the volume which discusses the work of British SF writers who do not have stories in the anthology, make The Best of British SF 2 particularly valuable to the student of SF from the UK.


"Tableau" by James White (1958)

I don't think I've read anything by White since I started this blog, but, in that prehistoric era when I read SF and kept my opinions about it to myself, I enjoyed White's novel All Judgement Fled (check out Joachim Boaz's review of it) and his stories "Grapeliner" and "The Lights Outside the Windows;"
those two stories, I felt, had interesting and unusual takes on space travel.

isfdb lists "Tableau" as one of the earliest-written stories in White's famous and long-running Sector General stories, which, I think, are about doctors in space dealing with alien patients, or something like that.  I generally find medical stuff boring, so I have sort of avoided these stories, but today I dip my toe in the Sector General water and read this piece, which was a cover story at New Worlds during the period that periodical was edited by John Carnell and was later selected by Michael Moorcock for 1965's The Best of New Worlds.

"Tableau" starts with an italicized prologue describing an anti-war war memorial on planet Orligia, what appears to be a sculpture of the meeting of an Orligian and a human on the deck of a wrecked spacecraft; the human's guts are falling out of a wound he has suffered during a space naval battle against the alien's ship.  Then we get a narrative of the dogfight which led to the scene depicted by the memorial, and the meeting itself.  Integrated into the description of the battle and the meeting of the two pilots after their crippled ships crash land on a planet is the revelation of how the war began years ago.  The Orligians look like teddy bears, inspiring the first human to meet to be overly friendly to them, because they were so damn adorable!  This premature familiarity backfired, because we humans look like a species of carnivore that haunts Orligia and uses guile to prey on immature teddy-bear people!  In reflexive, almost involuntary,  response to the human's invading the aliens' personal space, the teddy bears killed him and his crew thus starting the war.  (This is a little like Poul Anderson's 1954 "Butch," which we just read in January, in which an alien's instincts led it to kill humans who were actually no threat to it.  "Butch" appeared in New Worlds three years before "Tableau."  Hmmm...come to think of it, Anderson, in collaboration with Gordon R. Dickson, wrote some stories of his own in the early '50s about aliens who look like teddy bears....)

"Tableau" is an anti-war story with a happy ending.  Since the start of the war, the Orligians have developed a telepathy device, and the two crash-landed pilots use one to communicate--they overcome their prejudices, and start the peace process.  "Tableau" also has a twist ending.  That memorial in the prologue is not a work of art, but the two pilots and part of a ship frozen in time by a special device; when medical science has advanced enough the pilots will be unfrozen and the human's mortal wound healed.  White explicitly stresses that these two pilots are true heroes who deserve to be celebrated because they ended the war, and the last line of the story is a reminder that "there was nothing great or noble or beautiful about war."

This story is cleverly constructed, has interesting elements (the weapons and tactics used in the space battle are quite good) and is competently written, but somehow it didn't really excite me.  The teddy-bear business is a little silly, the "this-war-has-no-villains-it-is-all-just-a-misunderstanding" business felt a little contrived, and I thought that the scenes of the telepathic discussions at the end dragged a little.  White tries to inspire in the reader a revulsion at war with his descriptions of the physical and psychological wounds suffered by the servicemen of both Earth and Orligia, but this stuff failed to move me.  I'm judging "Tableau" marginally good, though maybe my own coldness and cynicism are leading me to rate it lower than other people might.

"A Full Member of the Club" by Bob Shaw (1974)

In 2018 I read an entire book of Bob Shaw short stories, and one of them was an affectionate homage to A. E. van Vogt.  (Wikipedia suggests that Shaw's first exposure to SF was reading a story by van Vogt he found in Astounding.)  Well, here in "A Full Member of the Club" we have another story that is reminiscent of a van Vogt tale and is perhaps itself an homage to the Canadian Grandmaster.  In van Vogt's 1943 story "The Search" (later integrated in a somewhat different form into the 1970 fix-up novel Quest for the Future) a guy meets a woman who has some very high tech consumer products, including a super pen, and his investigation into these items gets him mixed up with competing factions of people from the future.*  Well, in "A Full Member of the Club" a guy notices that his girlfriend has a super efficient cigarette lighter on the same day she dumps him, and his investigation of this lighter (and other supergadgets to which she has access, including a super pen) leads him to get mixed up with space aliens!

Basically, the story is about how a bold and persistent businessman who is willing to bend or flout the rules to achieve his goals (he breaks into a mansion in one scene, for example), after discovering the existence of the super consumer goods (better tasting tobacco and coffee and more sharp TVs, as well as the super efficient lighter and other devices) obsessively leaves no stone unturned until he has figured out where the items have come from.  He finds out that aliens are teleporting the items to Earth and renting them to the very rich in exchange for Earth paintings and sculptures.  The aliens consider seizing him and sending him to outer space, but our hero is such a smooth talker and such a talented man of business that he convinces them to let him join their firm, and his contributions make their operations much more efficient and profitable. 

Shaw adds a layer of interest, and I guess what you could call satire, to the story by having the two main human characters expose themselves as shallow nouveau riche types--they care more about accessing the consumer goods and the status they represent than about love and human companionship or high culture.

For some reason (perhaps because the characters in the story are materialistic status-seekers and that is how Shaw--and maybe British people in general--see us Americans) Shaw, born in Northern Ireland and resident in England when The Best of British SF 2 was published (as noted by editor Mike Ashley in the intro to the story) set "A Full Member of the Club" in the northeast United States--Trenton, New Jersey and Philadelphia, PA and their environs--and the story includes what appear to be little mistakes, like having an American say "differently to" instead of "differently from."  Curious, I looked at the version of the story that appeared in Galaxy (you can read it at the link earlier in this blog post) and found in that version the proper Yankee lingo, "differently from."  Did Ashley or somebody else at Orbit simply fail to notice the error fixed by somebody more familiar with US English at Galaxy, or make a conscious decision to retain British usage because an accurate portrayal of US speech (which of course would be appropriate given Shaw's chosen setting and characters) might throw UK readers?   

A good story; the pacing is good, the gadgets are fun, the style engaging.  I prefer the more subtle commentary on materialism and bourgeois striving Shaw employs here to White's in-your-face "war is terrible--look, this guy's guts are falling out!" approach in "Tableau."  Similarly, in Shaw's story here, the rational way the human and alien characters go about their business feels more like how things work in real life than White's wacky "they look like teddy bears to us but we look like ghouls to them so we all act irrationally" premise.

"A Full Member of the Club" has been well received not only by me, but the wider professional SF community, Donald Wollheim including it in the 1975 edition of World's Best SF and Ellen Datlow in 2003 in her 2000-2005 webzine Sci Fiction.

*I read the magazine version of "The Search" at the internet archive today after reading "A Full Member of the Club," and found a reference to Nazis that dated the story had been altered to something more vague in the version of "The Search" that appears in my 1964 copy of Destination: Universe!  

"Manuscript Found in a Police State" by Brian Aldiss (1972)

Aldiss has a large and diverse body of work, including nonfiction and mainstream fiction as well as SF that ranges from the pretty traditional to the very experimental and New Wavey.  I have been unimpressed by some of his more pretentious or boring "literary" SF, but "Manuscript Found in a Police State," first published in the eighteenth volume of Winter's Tales, a yearly anthology of short stories edited by A. D. Maclean and published from the '50s to the early '80s, is a success.

Despite the title, this is not a first person narrative, though it does focus on one character and his thoughts and psychological state.  Axel Mathers is one among a group of people being imprisoned in Khrenabhar Mountain, in one of several thousand cells embedded in the perimeter of a colossal wheel buried deep inside the mountain.  This miles-wide wheel rotates on a huge axle when the prisoners during the daily three-hour work period all pull on chains.  It takes ten years for the wheel to make one revolution, and thus each prisoner's sentence is ten years.  Presumably this is all an allegory for life and for society, the environment in which we are all trapped, truly alone, forced to work for individual survival and destined to work together, either voluntarily or at the behest of oft inscrutable and arbitrary authorities, if any progress is to be achieved, though said progress may very well be illusory.

Aldiss describes the various ways the people about to be imprisoned respond to the prospect of their ten-year sentence, their delusions and coping mechanisms, and the impact upon their minds of solitary confinement.  We follow Mathers as he explores his cell and learns the ways of Khrenabhar Mountain and faces unforeseen circumstances, like faults in the tremendous and ancient mechanism that provide access to dangerous creatures and hold out the slim possibility of escape or at least some kind of psychological relief.  We also gradually learn about the origin of the centuries-old prison and the myth-shrouded history of Mathers's world, apparently a planet colonized by humans many generations ago who displaced a native race of primitives and set up the tyrannical state of the title, which is in a perpetual state of civil war.

As I have said on this blog before, I always enjoy the portions of adventure stories in which some guy is confined in a cell and studies the graffiti on the walls and tries to contact the other prisoners and undergoes all kinds of psychological trauma and all that, and I certainly enjoyed "Manuscript Found in a Police State."  This is no adventure story--one of the "literary" aspects of the tale is that there is no plot resolution, Mather's ultimate fate and even the true nature of the planet he lives on being quite ambiguous--but while things like self-delusion and the questions of free will are the meat of the story's themes, Aldiss includes plenty of the horror and violence and strange technology we expect in our genre fiction.  I can heartily recommend this one.

Besides here in The Best of British SF 2, "Manuscript Found in a Police State" has been reprinted in Betty Owen's 1974 Nine Strange Stories.

**********

Three stories worth reading, each supported by insightful ancillary matter--I'm glad I picked up The Best of British SF 2 and hopefully I'll have time to return to it in the future.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Exile's Quest by "Richard Meade"

"This region is a hellhole beyond the Swamp of Kushh, and no man knows what dangers, aye what horrors lie in wait there.  The King will risk no loyal subject on an errand of such peril; he sends only an army of the condemned--aye, the damned.  And I--damned as well--to lead it."
Warning: There is no archer girl in this
book, and no giant snake
Come, my friends, it is time to return to the Gray Lands, the setting of Ben Haas's 1968 novel, The Sword of Morning Star, the subject of the last episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.  I have no doubt that burned into your memories is the plot of The Sword of Morning Star, which saw Helmut, son of the murdered King of Boorn and Emperor of the Gray Lands, deposing the usurper who killed his father and took Dad's throne and putting his own seat in that throne, thus saving the post apocalyptic future from a fate worse than death--rule by a marginalized population of wolfmen in league with undocumented immigrants AKA cattle-riding barbarians!  I had assumed that the novel we will examine today, 1970's Exile's Quest, would take place after Helmut's ascension to the throne, but I was wrong--Exile's Quest is a prequel that is set before Helmut's birth, during his father Sigrieth's benevolent rule.

Exile's Quest is the story of Baron Gallt.  "Who is Baron Gallt?" you ask?  He is the twenty-three-year-old feudal ruler of the Barony of the Iron Mountains, which lies on the edge of the Empire, far from Boorn.  Gallt owes fealty to King Sigrieth, and is at court in the Kingdom of Boorn to participate in the tourney; Gallt is one of those giant musclemen with "upper arms...as large as most men's thighs" whom we so often find in sword and sorcery stories and so naturally he was the victor of the tourney.  But Gallt has problems.  Problem number one is his drinking problem: he's been hitting the sauce ever since his father died not long ago.  Problem number two is a problem with the ladies: while he has been at court a sexy raven-haired woman, Kierena, whom we knew in The Sword of Morning Star as the evil sorceress who could turn herself into a wolf and was called by her detractors "The Black Bitch," has been coming on to him, even when her husband is right there with them!  As the novel begins Kierena proves herself one dangerous character when she instigates a sword fight between a drunk Gallt and her husband by throwing herself into Gallt's arms to inflame hubby's jealousy.  Gallt tries to just disarm and overpower Kierena's wronged husband, but Kierena pushes this poor sap from behind during the fight so that he gets impaled on Gallt's sword.  As her husband falls dead Kierena tells Gallt they should get married, but Gallt spurns her and hurries to the King to confess.

For their crimes, Kierena and Gallt are exiled and Gallt loses his barony.  To my disappointment Kierena disappears from the narrative--after taking the radical step of murdering her husband to get her hands on Gallt you'd think she wouldn't just abandon her pursuit of the Gray Land's hunkiest slab of beefcake, and all through the rest of the book's 190 pages I kept hoping that she would reappear to add some sexual tension and some evil sorcery, but Kierena never resurfaced--she was never even mentioned again!  A lost opportunity for some primo femme fatale action!

The King thinks Gallt is a good guy, just a little immature when it comes to the booze and the babes (and we've all been there, right?), so he offers him a chance to get his lands back.  All Gallt has to do is lead an expedition to the "Unknown Lands" on the other side of an almost impassable swamp.  This place is reputed to be full of monsters, and the last expedition the King sent there has never been heard from again, but His Majesty still holds out hope that the Unknown Lands would be a worthy addition to his Empire.  Because he doesn't want to risk any more good men on this scheme, King Sigrieth empties his dungeon of thieves, rapists and murderers and puts Gallt at the head of a company of "the scum of the kingdom--all expendable!"

(This will remind moviegoers of  1957's The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, a personal favorite of mine, and 1967's The Dirty Dozen.)

You might wonder, "Why the hell does the Emperor give a rat's ass about what is on the other side of some god damned swamp?"  Well, in a secret meeting in his book-lined library, the King tells Gallt why: the Unknown Lands are said to be the current location of "the Power Stone," the cursed talisman that warped the minds of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler and gave them the wherewithal to commit their mass-scale crimes against humanity!  The King doesn't want this dangerous artifact falling into just anybody's hands, and hopes Gallt and his company of ne'er-do-wells can find it and bring it back.

(You'll remember that one of my beefs with The Sword of Morning Star was that it limited Helmut's agency--a lot of Helmut's accomplishments are the product of his being manipulated into doing them or being fated to do them.  In general, an adventure story is better if the protagonist (and the villain!) is driven by his own passions and achieves or fails to achieve his goals because of his own decisions and abilities, says I.  So I find the idea that Alexander, Caesar, Boney and Hitler's monstrous atrocities were a result not of their psychologies and choices, but because of a rock, and that their initial successes were a result not of their talents and skills as politicians and fighting men, but because of a rock, to be pretty damn lame.)

One of the best things in the novel is the development of Gallt's relationship with his army of criminals, represented by their leader, the biggest and strongest of the convicts, Gomon.  Gomon stayed in shape in the dungeon by bullying all the other prisoners and stealing their food; they are all wasted but he is still muscles all over.  Gomon hates the aristocracy, and before this brute chooses to follow Gallt to the Unknown Lands instead of making a one-way trip to the chopping block, the former-Baron of the Iron Mountains has to prove to Gomon that he is no mamby pamby pencil neck pantywaist dandified fop, but as rough and tough a fighting man as Gomon himself!  Our man Gallt takes this in stride--he wants Gomon in his company because Gomon has a lot of military experience and he thinks Gomon is just the man to maintain discipline among his army of killers and thieves.

The company rides into barbarian territory and through the swamp, and Gallt and his force have to deal with cattle-riding barbarians, quicksand, a village of degenerate inbred fishermen, a friendly race of people who are half-human and half-frog, giant leeches, mutiny, and so forth.  All this is entertaining; Haas does a good job with the landscape and obstacles and Gallt's methods of dealing with everything.  Halfway through the book our heroes reach the Unknown Lands, but instead of the hellhole of horrors promised us, Gallt finds an idyllic forest inhabited by beautiful blue-eyed blondes who wear no clothes and live in harmony with nature.  These hippies don't even eat--they are part plant, and absorb sustenance directly from trees by hugging them.  Oh, brother!

As we so often find in SF stories, this lost race of weirdos is ruled by a beautiful purestrain human woman, Queen Thayna, the daughter of a wizard whom King Sigrieth sent into exile (exiling people is one of the Emperor's go-to methods of maintaining order in his Empire.)  Thayna is even more beautiful than the plant people, but she wears clothes and eats food just like you and me.  (You wear clothes, right?)

Paradise is in trouble, Gallt learns.  The guy who lead the last expedition from Boorn, a dude named Barrt, the cousin of Albrecht, the villain of The Sword of Morning Star, overthrew Thayna and her pacifistic plant peeps and is now in charge of the Unknown Lands.  Barrt has recruited the local bat-people, the "Weer," and snake-people, the "Slyth," to be his army (whoa, somebody should talk to Barrt about that coronavirus that is all over the news), and is exploiting the local gold mine with the idea of marching back to Boorn and taking over the world.  The hippies and Thayna are on the run, and Barrt is going so far as to burn down whole tracts of the forest in his hunt for them.

You may recall that in The Sword of Morning Star the daughter of a noble who fell in love with Helmut gave a whole speech about how women are nurturers who love life, unlike men who are violent killers.  Haas presents the same theme here in Exile's Quest.  Thayna knows where the Power Stone is hidden, and when Barrt started taking over, she tells Gallt, she tried to use it to fight him, but it only works for men!  (Who do you report Title IX violations to in the post-apocalyptic future full of wolfmen and snakemen?)  You might also notice how Haas here reuses The Sword of Morning Star's theme of a bunch of defenseless goody goodies who know a better way of life who need the protection of our he-man protagonist from a bunch of half-human creepos lead by the fully human creepo.  Recycling!     

Gallt and Thayna fall in love almost at once and pledge to cooperate in the overthrow of Barrt, but before they can make whoopee or make war they are captured by snakemen and batmen and dragged before Barrt, who has Thayna thrown in the dungeon under the castle Thayna used to liver in and Gallt and his men thrown in the mines!  Barrt tries to get Thayna to tell him where the Power Stone is by threatening to exterminate the defenseless hippie plant people if she won't fess up.  When she keeps mum he and his army of mutants marches off to do some hippie bashing.  Luckily, before Barrt can kill the tree huggers, Gallt, with the help of members of Barrt's original force who have stayed loyal to Borrn, and of Thayna's wizard father, who returns briefly to pitch in with some magical weather control which grounds the Weer air force, leads a slave rebellion and takes over the castle in Barrt's absence.  Barrt hurries back to the castle at the head of his army, but by this time Thayna has given Gallt the Power Stone, which renders Gallt a military genius and his men invulnerable.  Gallt's tiny force easily wipes out Barrt's massive army of scaly infantry and furry flyers, and Gallt becomes addicted to the Stone.  Thayna spares the world the Galltonionic Wars by withholding sex and then threatening to commit suicide, by these womanly strategies convincing Gallt to give back the Power Stone so she can hide it from us bloodthirsty men.

In the last chapter of the novel the King notes that Gallt's adventures have matured him and we see Gallt and Thayna head off to the Iron Mountains to live happily ever after.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Exile's Quest.  The journey through the swamp is quite good, and I liked the snake-men and the bat-men, and the role the Power Stone plays in the story is interesting (I just wish Haas had skipped the sensationalistic references to Hitler, Bonaparte, et al.)  The love story element--Thayna's relationship with Gallt-- is lame, and the utopian plant people are just silly.  Thayna and the tree huggers are mostly superfluous; Gallt already has a reason to fight Barrt and his snake- and batpeople--Barrt is going to try to overthrow the King of Borrn, to whom Gallt owes allegiance and who seems like a good guy, a man worthy of Gallt's dedication.  Instead of including childishly perfect hippies and a bland perfect girlfriend, Haas could have used those pages to develop a love triangle in which the evil Barrt pursued Kierena while evil Kierena pursued Gallt and to depict Gallt's efforts resist being corrupted by those two charismatic traitors.  Well, I guess Haas was looking to give Exile's Quest a happier ending than my own ideas would have permitted.

Despite my reservations, I enjoyed Exile's Quest; it is probably a little superior to The Sword of Morning Star.  Worth my time.