Month: November 2017

Book Recommendation: Incursion by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past four years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published yet another new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here (not the first time we’ve used these words–he had published one called Siege late last year!)!

Incursion by Gustavo Bondoni - Cover

It was supposed to be a desperate suicide mission, a holding action designed to delay a deadly enemy bent on destroying humanity: five starships sent to their doom, thousands of men and women knowingly laying down their lives to buy time for the besieged human race.

And then things got really hairy.

Tristan, a highly trained shock marine, wakes up after the trip to find that nothing works: not his equipment, not his ship, not even his body…

He joins the race against time to bring their equipment back up to fighting trim and begin to understand what has happened to them and to unravel the layers of confusion and betrayal.

But the enemy waiting for them doesn’t care about any of that. They just want to destroy the human incursion as quickly as possible.

Despite having been launched recently, this one already has at least a few good reviews,and you can buy it from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Fairy Thefts

Fairies and Jewelry

Richard H. Fay is back to the occult this week for his final occult post in this series (but check back next week for a post on a different subject!).  The darker side of fairy lore is something that most people don’t think about…  But he sets the record straight.   You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Fairies seem to have a confusingly contradictory nature when it comes to their interactions with mankind. Even though the Fair Folk frown upon mortals prying into their secret affairs and may take drastic action when angered by interfering humans, they also display a strange dependence upon the race of Adam. Fairies have been known to rely upon humanity for certain goods, services, and even spouses. Possessing a moral code paradoxical to human minds, the Good Neighbours don’t always exhibit neighbourly attitudes toward mortal rights of ownership. Sometimes they borrow, while at other times they steal, what they want or need. Those that steal may pilfer foodstuff and livestock. They may rob the goodness, or “foyson”, from victuals and cattle. They may even abduct human children and adults. Although selfish individuals are most susceptible to visits from fairy robbers, all mortal kind should be aware of the fairy proclivity for thievery and take the proper precautions.

Members of the often light-fingered other crowd have no qualms about lifting mortal provender needed to sustain their own existence. Fairies will filch a portion of a farmer’s crop and carry off sheaves of corn one straw at a time. On occasion, they make off with milled meal instead of unprocessed grain. Invisible sprites scrape smidgens of butter from pats being sold in the market place. Brownies magically ingest ill-gotten junket under the very noses of dishonest servants. Buttery spirits and abbey lubbers devour the food and drink of shady taverners and self-indulgent monks. At times, the Little People lure mortal-owned cattle into their knolls to be milked, bred, or butchered for a feast. At other times, they steal milk right from dairy cows browsing the meadow or sequestered in the barn.

More often than thieving the items themselves, fairies may simply remove the goodness, or “foyson”, from desired food and livestock. What is left behind looks solid enough, but it lacks true substance or nourishment. Cheese thus denatured floats in water like a cork. Bannocks so altered appear hearty enough, but they never fill a man’s stomach no matter how many are eaten. Cows whose spirits have been whisked away to Fairyland may continue to wander farmer’s fields, but they produce no milk. An elf-taken ox sickens and dies, and upon its death will prove to be merely an alder wood simulacrum of the actual animal. Land with its goodness stolen by the Gentry yields a slender harvest and produces fodder empty of sustenance.

Midsummer Night's Dream

Far worse than the theft of goods or the removal of the substance from such goods, the fairies also steal away mortal children and adults. The Fairy Queen’s dark butler, the far dorocha, fetches men desired by his mistress. The Gentry in general nab nursing mothers so they can suckle fairy infants. Midwives carried off are expected to perform their duties in Fairyland. Young craftsmen beguiled into service become fairy bond-slaves. Handsome lads and pretty lasses captured by the Fay are paired with fair spouses to replenish the dwindling fairy strain. Golden-haired babes and children looked on with envy are especially vulnerable to abduction by the Wee Folk. The youngest of mortals taken beneath the fairy hills either grow into full members of fairy society, or find themselves offered as part of the Teind, the septennial tithe the fairies pay to Hell.

As with stolen cattle, the Good Neighbours may leave behind a substitute for the kidnapped human. This substitute is called a changeling. In the case of abducted adults, the fairies frequently replace the mortal with a replica body, or stock. In the case of snatched children, the changeling may be a cantankerous old fairy well past his prime, or a sickly fairy child, or a wooden stock roughly formed to look like a human babe and imbued with glamour to simulate life for a short while. In almost all cases, if the truth of the changeling’s identity is not soon revealed, it eventually appears to wither and die.

According to some, fairies only take from miserly mortals or humans who grumble about that which they do not deserve to have, but this may not always be the case. However, laziness or carelessness definitely makes one more likely to be a victim of fairy theft, especially if one ignores certain precautionary measures. The mark of the Cross on the first bannock stops the Fair Folk from sapping the nourishment of the whole batch. Bells, spells, or rowan and red thread protect cattle. Daisy chains worn by small children drive off potential fairy abductors. An open pair of scissors hung above an infant’s cradle, or steel pins stuck crosswise in the babe’s clothes, keeps the child safe from being switched with a changeling. An iron horseshoe hung over the threshold protects the whole house.

Food seemingly devoured by mundane pests may have actually been pilfered by the Fay. Disappearing livestock or missing persons might now be residing in Elfame. Greed or an unappreciative nature can make humans more vulnerable to attention from light-fingered fairies, but all men who neglect traditional protections risk the theft of food, cattle, or even the abduction of their wives and children. After all, as the old saying goes, it’s better being safe than sorry, and those who’ve become victims of the thieving Wee Folk may be sorry indeed.

 

Sources:

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee

A Field Guide to Irish Fairies by Bob Curran

A History of Irish Fairies by Carolyn White

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies by Anna Franklin

The Vanishing People by Katharine Briggs

Writing Ideas Come from the Strangest Places

Today’s post is written by writer Gustavo Bondoni, who also happens to be our Editor-in-Chief. He speaks a little to that age-old question about where writers get their ideas.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey Cover

To be brutally honest, I thought that my reading of Thomas De Quincey’s best known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was going to be another of those things that I would simply have to file away under “I read it because it was supposed to be a classic, but it’s not really all that enthralling.”

This isn’t to say that the book wasn’t memorable. The subject matter, and the first person perspective combined to ensure that it is a deeply visceral work.  The main problem with it is that it manages, somehow, to be dry and overwritten at the same time.  The fact that it became a best seller was due more to the controversial nature of the work than the writing.  Both the subject matter itself and the fact that De Quincey seemed to harp upon the pleasures of laudanum and downplay the pains both contributed to a good number of books sold.

When I finished it, I was happy to have read it and thought about it for a bit, but did not feel that it would be among those books that would influence me when writing my own work.

The above just proves how much I know.

A year after finishing Opium Eater, I found myself writing a noir novel set in Buenos Aires during WWII.   Argentina was neutral in the conflict, and the cabarets of the city were likewise unaffiliated, catering to Axis, Allies, rich and poor alike.  And I found that laudanum and the opium it was made from played a key role not just in the recreational activities of the characters, but also in the political background.

Bottle of Laudanum

Now, I don’t know if the drug would have been there or not if I hadn’t read De Quincey’s book.  After all, there were fewer recreational drugs available back then, and there was a war on, which meant that some products–especially those from Asia–presented more interesting logistical and political ramifications than, say, cocaine, which is from the Americas.  So it’s possible that opium would have been present anyway.  But one thing that I’m certain of is that the image of how addicts behaved, the shape of  that particular situation in my mind, certainly wouldn’t have been the same.

So, of the dozens of books I read in a year, one that I expected to pass unnoticed had contributed significantly to one of my novels.  I certainly didn’t see that coming, but those things happen.  I had Incursion under contract by that time, so I wrote that book, which has no sign of opium in it at all.  Normality, it seemed, had been reestablished.

After incursion, I decided to writer a sort of elegy for the life of pre WWI Italy.  My next novel took place in the late spring and early summer of 1914.  It was a book that I initially intended to be a tale in the vein of Brideshead Revisited, with a sort of misty, soft-focus nostalgia made infinitely more poignant by the fact that we all know what happened after that summer, and we know all about the waste and suffering of the Great War.

But as I began to write, the characters decided that they had their own ideas about how they should act and what the book would be about (other writers will know what I mean), and the edge that was supposed to be delivered by the reader’s own knowledge of events began to make its way onto the pages.  Suddenly this wasn’t a comment on that last glorious summer of the traditional European aristocracies, but became a comment on both the good and the bad of their way of life.  Sex crept in (much more copiously than I’d planned–this one is by far the raunchiest of my books), as did the abuse of power relationships.  And drugs.  You can’t have a good post-fin-de-siécle blowout without a drug or two.

And which drug played the most prominent role?  Why, laudanum, of course.  And De Quincey is back once again.

I’d never list the man as one of my major influences.  I still feel he hasn’t contributed much to my style or my subjects.  But he seems to have delivered my particular drug of choice–at least for my mainstream novels set in the past century…

It just goes to show that you never can tell.

Food Scares in the 21st Century – and the misguided, albeit well-meaning people who propagate them

Monsanto.

For a certain kind of activist, and for many people who get their news through social media (and worse, believe what they read on other people’s feeds), this is possibly the dirtiest word on the planet.

frankenfood propaganda 2

But Monsanto is actually just a symbol.  An easy-to-point-to enemy that represents the terrible evil that is the genetically modified food industry.  There are many other companies, and more than one government behind the scenes, involved in the same debate.

The anti GMO activists are well organized and have learned to use powerful words such as Frankenfood to use consumers’ ignorance and fear against them.  This isn’t really the fault of consumers, of course.  Most people won’t have the time–or, let’s be honest, the interest–to do any kind of research around genetically modified foods, so if someone says that Frankenfoods are bad for you, they will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Another thing working in the activists favor is that eco-groups such as Greenpeace are getting more and more respectable every day among intellectuals and postmodernist thinkers.  A statement from one of these groups creates a feeling of legitimacy behind a claim of GMO food being bad for consumers, wildlife, biodiversity, or the planet as a whole.  But mostly, and smartly, they focus their attentions on people’s self-interest and insist that GMO foods are bad for you and your family.  It’s a smart strategy because while people might be concerned about biodiversity, they won’t change their behavioral patterns because of it… but tell them they will die if they eat Frankenfoods, and they’ll go out and buy organic.

Finally, there’s the perception that GMOs are mainly used by big farming consortiums.  And everyone knows that big business is Evil (note capital “E”).  More reason to avoid them.

So the case against GMOs is pretty clear.  The question, one supposes, is what works in favor of GMOs?

Reality, mostly.

Let’s take this from the least important point first and work our way up to why people who know what they’re talking about will calmly and happily eat any GMO product you put in front of them, and feed them to their families, too.

The myth that farming corporations use GMOs and local farmers don’t is silly.  Local farmers are mostly using the same seed suppliers, but even if they are actually trying to avoid the corporate seed conglomerates, there’s no way to avoid genetically modified crops.  You see, human beings have been modifying crops and livestock through selective breeding for thousands of years.  The most basic non-GMO seed available on the planet is… not even remotely non-GMO.  So one can have one’s mind at ease regarding that particular point.

The second point that doesn’t hold up at all well is that environmentalist groups are against GMOs.  That must count for something, right?  Well… While these groups do excellent work to create conscience around important environmental issues, they are equally often overcome by the enthusiasm of extreme factions within and will often take action before the science is completely understood… simply on general principles or because they feel it is an important issue.  While one must admire their courage, this simply isn’t the right way to go about things.  Greenpeace’s stance on GMO potatoes in Mexico in the late 90s and early 2000s was a clear indication of enthusiasm overruling science.

(We take the time to point out a conspiracy theory question here.  We have no proof, so we present it for you to reach your own conclusions.  Is it just coincidence that the European Union, many of whose governments support Greenpeace, is way behind on GMO use when compared to places like the US and Latin America?  We don’t know, but tend to think it isn’t).

frankenfood propaganda

Finally, there is the science itself.  Many different disciplines argue that GMOs are one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but let’s choose just two.

Mathematics is the first.  And we don’t even need to go much further than the four basic operations.  It’s not in doubt that crop yields have grown thanks to the modification of seed stock, and losses to parasites have been driven down.  At the same time the population of the planet has also been growing steadily.  If you do the math, you will be able to conclude that without GMO, a good chunk of the world is now starving.  Not in countries that export food, perhaps, but how would you like to be in England without GMOs and with a new-age, enlightened and postcolonial population who won’t let you simply invade the nearest third world country and steal their crops?

For the second, let’s choose medicine.  After exhaustive research, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to humans.  This article from the Alliance for Science gives an overview.  Interestingly all the people who think otherwise, including Greenpeace, were invited to give testimony.  The conclusions were unshakable.

So, in this solemn act, we hereby officially demote GMO-bashing to the level of pseudo-science.  Welcome home!  Take your place alongside astrology, homeopathic medicine and pop psychology!

The Darker Side of Fairy Lore

Richard H. Fay is back to the occult this week.  The darker side of fairy lore is something that most people don’t think about…  But he sets the record straight.   You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Many people today think of fairies as rainbow-winged pixies prancing about in a sylvan wonderland. However, traditional tales about the denizens of the fairy realm spoke of beings and practices that were far from benign. In the minds and hearts of country folk across Europe, fairies posed a real and dangerous threat to life and well-being.

Although many fairies held an ambivalent attitude towards mortals, some maintained an undying hatred of all humankind. The Scottish called the various types of malevolent fairy the Unseelie Court. This unsavoury collection of malignant entities contained the evil trooping fairies known as the Host or Sluagh, as well as a variety of solitary miscreants.

dover fairy and frog talking

The unsanctified dead banded together during the darkest hours of the night in the roving host known as the Sluagh. These wretches flew in clouds above the Earth and captured unprotected mortals. Those unlucky enough to fall into their clutches would be dragged along, beaten, and made to fling paralysing elf-shot at cattle and other humans.

Shod in heavy iron boots, Redcap haunted ruined peel towers on the Scottish Border. This fiery-eyed goblin carried a pikestaff in his left hand and periodically re-dyed his crimson hat in human blood. Impervious to ordinary weapons, this vicious fiend could only be routed by Holy Scripture or the sight of a cross.

Duergars, the black dwarfs of northern England, hated mankind with a bitter passion. These taciturn beings clad in lambskin coats, moleskin trousers, and moss caps would use illusion to fool any unwary traveller into taking a fatal misstep. Only those wise in their ways could avoid the wrath of the duergars.

Female beings of a decidedly malicious nature lurked beneath the waters of various English rivers. Peg Powler resided in the Tees, while Jenny Greenteeth inhabited Lancashire streams. Grindylow and Nelly Long-Arms were similar water-demons found in other waterways across the English landscape. All delighted in drowning and even devouring naughty children who strayed too close to the water’s edge.

Monstrous trolls troubled the people of western Scandinavia. These hirsute beasts dwelt in mountain caves and preyed upon humans. They were only seen during the hours between dusk and dawn, for the light of the sun would turn then to stone.

Goblin

Underground spirits known as kobolds plagued German mines. They harassed miners as they worked, frustrating human attempts to find precious metals by stealing tools, meals, and water, and replacing silver ore with that of nickel or arsenical cobalt. However, there were times when kobolds could be unexpectedly helpful.

Bogies, bogles, and bug-a-boos delighted in causing mischief. Some merely played annoying pranks, while others attempted to inflict grievous harm through their malicious tricks. Many, such as the Hedely Kow, possessed the ability to change shape. This trait was often used to torment unsuspecting mortals.

Even those fairies with a kindlier disposition towards humanity still posed a hazard to mankind. Beneficial brownies could become troublesome boggarts if their work was taken for granted by ungrateful farmers. Prying into the secrets of the fair folk was dangerous business, often rewarded with bruises, blights, blindness, or other ills. A mortal partaking of fairy food while visiting their enchanted realm risked eternal entrapment. The fair folk were also responsible for a variety of thefts, including the theft of mortal children.

A coveted child, especially one that lacked the protection provided by Holy charms or cold iron, was at risk of being whisked away by the fay. A changeling would be left in the babe’s stead. This replacement may have been a wooden stock imbued with fairy glamour to look alive, a deformed fairy child abandoned by its own mother, or a cantankerous senile fairy disguised as a youngster. In any case, the changeling drained away all of the good fortune of the human household until it was driven from the home, usually through the use of fire or heat. Then the mortal child would be returned unharmed.

Any encounter with the fair folk, “good” or “bad”, could be perilous, given their alien morality and emotions. Mortals had to tread with care through a countryside inhabited by a wide variety of potentially dangerous beings. Those that ignored the proper respect toward the “good neighbours”, or who didn’t protect themselves from their powers, faced possible injury or death. Humans that sought to learn fairy secrets faced savage retribution. Perhaps the best advice regarding the fay came from the Fairy Queen herself, in what she told William Butler Yeats:

“Be careful, and do not seek to know too much about us”.

 

Further Reading

An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine Briggs.

Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee.

A Field Guide to Irish Fairies by Bob Curran.

The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats.

 

 

(Originally published in Doorways Magazine, Killer Holiday Issue, Issue 4, January 2008.)

Too Late to Really Kill It

The Killers movie poster

One has to feel for the producers of 1946 film The Killers.  While it’s true that not many films can claim to be the single adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway story that the great author truly liked, and it was also a commercial and critical success, one can’t help but feel that it is just another noir film in a decade full of them… and while The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and their ilk are revered today, The Killers is all but forgotten by casual cinephiles.

This is too bad because it’s a pretty good movie.  Some of the plot points that weren’t lifted from the Hemingway story are at the far end of plausible suspension of disbelief but, other than that, this one is a winner.

Essentially, the plot isn’t about the killers of the title at all, but revolves around their victim and why he was killed.  It does so with all the noir elements you could ever want.  Untrustworthy dame?  Check.  Two-bit hoods?  Present.  Heart-wrenching betrayal?  Yep.  It flows well, with the big reveal at the end coming as something of a surprise, but not too big a shock.

It’s a good film.

And yet, other than fanatics like the Classically Educated crew that watches the 1001 movies obsessively in order, few people you might encounter will ever have heard of it.  I guess that’s what happens when you arrive just that tiny bit too late.

maltese falcon original statue

Interesting things about this film are that it gave Burt Lancaster his first big break (even though his role was as the victim of the killing).  But better still is that another actor in the film, William Conrad, was a) the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle and B) the owner for quite some time of one of the two Maltese Falcons ever made.  It’s nice to see that someone involved in the film was linked to The Maltese Falcon, anyway.

The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…

No.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.

Hmmm…

Speculative Poetry: Past, Present, and Future

Über-polymath Richard H. Fay is back this week.  Over the past few weeks, he’s shown his deep knowledge of occult subjects, but this week gives us a beautifully-researched glimpse into the world of speculative poetry, from Gilgamesh to today.   You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Gilgamesh Tablet

Occasionally shoved into a dark, stuffy corner of the literary attic by its critics, speculative poetry actually possesses a heritage and current potential at least as rich and exciting as that claimed by its mainstream kin. Dealing with the fantastic as opposed to the mundane, speculative poetry travels winding roads leading to wondrous worlds, regions never traversed by mainstream verse. It mines the same creative vein as speculative fiction, using verse instead of prose to delve into the limitless depths of human imagination. With roots planted firmly in the mythic and folkloric epics and ballads of yore, and branches reaching high into the endless skies of modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror, speculative poetry is a historic and vital poetic genre.

Speculative poetry of one form or another has been with us a very long time. Ancient myths and legends presented in verse form were merely speculative poems cloaked in the shroud of belief. Even though these tales may have been accepted as fact at the time of their telling in the courts of ancient kings or before ancient hearths, their fantastic natures firmly planted them in the realm of the speculative.

One of the earliest literary works, the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, was also an important antecedent of all later heroic epics. Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, the poem described the incredible adventures of Gilgamesh, the King-God of Uruk. The strongest super-human that ever lived, Gilgamesh was two-thirds god and one-third human. After besting Enkidu in a furious wrestling match, Gilgamesh befriended the hairy wild man. The hero king and his hirsute companion then battled Humbaba the Terrible, the demonic guardian of the great Cedar Forest, and slew the mighty Bull of Heaven. Enkidu’s eventual death sent Gilgamesh on a futile quest for immortality. All of these elements would feel right at home nestled within the pages of a modern fantasy work.

The Ancient Greeks continued the tradition of including speculative elements in their own versified myths. Homer’s Odyssey, one of the foundational works of Western literature, recounted the tale of Odysseus’ long journey home from the Trojan War. Along the way, the Ithacan hero encountered many fantastic creatures and situations. He blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus, resisted the shape-shifting spell cast by the sorceress Circe, sought counsel from the dead, avoided the fatal allure of the Sirens’ song, navigated past the double-threat of Scylla and Charybdis, and ended up a captive of the amorous nymph Calypso. With aid from the gods, Odysseus finally made it back to Ithaca after a ten-year odyssey. All the trials and tribulations faced by Odysseus during his long voyage home influenced later journey tales.

No less imaginative than their ancient predecessors, medieval bards and balladeers wove fantastic threads into the tapestry of their own mythic, legendary, and folkloric works. In the Old English epic Beowulf, the eponymous main character battled the monstrous Grendel, Grendel’s ogress mother, and a deadly dragon. Another Old English poem, “The Dream of the Rood”, told the tale of the Crucifixion as witnessed by the tree that became the Holy Cross, an unusual viewpoint reminiscent of the inhuman perspectives found in some modern speculative verse. In the Middle English chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the enchanted Green Knight lost his head without apparent ill effect. Some medieval ballads such as “Thomas Rhymer”, “The Unquiet Grave”, and “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” drew on supernatural themes, featuring fairies, ghosts, dragons, and other fantastical beings and beasts.

Spenser Faerie Queene

Although the veil of belief may have slowly lifted from the Renaissance on, poets still continued to incorporate elements of the fantastic into their works. The Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser set his allegorical epic The Faerie Queene in a “Faerie Land” populated by chivalrous knights, noble ladies, deceitful witches, shape-shifting sorcerers, heroic satyrs, and terrible dragons.

At times, the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare penned scenes containing fantastical characters and situations. Some of his dramatic verse delved into the realm of fairies, witches, ghosts, and sorcerers. Shakespeare featured fair folk meddling in the love lives of mortals in his romantic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Scheming witches foretold the future with ominous results in Macbeth. The ghost of the murdered Danish king haunted Elsinore castle as well as the prince’s troubled mind in Hamlet. Served by the airy spirit Ariel, the sorcerer Prospero conjured up a storm in The Tempest.

A proponent of the Sturm und Drang and later Weimar Classicism movements, the German poet, novelist, playwright and natural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe echoed folk themes about malevolent forest spirits in his poem “Der Erlkönig“. Composed in 1782, this chilling ballad followed the haunting ride of a father and his doomed son through the Erl-King’s wood. Invisible to adult eyes just like any modern bogeyman or monster-in-the-closet, the increasingly aggressive Erl-King eventually took the boy by force. At the end of the journey, the father was left holding a corpse.

Several Romantic-era poets must be included among the predecessors of modern speculative poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Queen Mab” may have been a revolutionary philosophical poem, but much of the imagery involving the Fairy Queen and her chariot’s flight through time and space was fantastical in nature. John Keats’ “Lamia” drew heavily from the well of ancient mythology, but also contained a drop or two of fairy folklore. The macabre and occult poems of the American Romantic writer Edgar Allan Poe could be considered the grand-sires of some of the more horror-tinged verse composed by today’s dark speculative poets.

Later Victorian and Edwardian poets also created works that contained the fantastic, poetry that could be considered speculative in nature. “Goblin Market” by the Victorian English poet Christina Rossetti told the tale of two sisters and their experience with the deliciously evil fruit of goblin men. One fell into temptation and ate their fruit, then the other braved the goblins’ wrath to rescue her sister from a pining death. Alfred, Lord Tennyson created The Faerie Queene of his age when he penned the Arthurian cycle Idylls of the King, a work based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the medieval Welsh collection of tales called the Mabinogion. Merlin’s magic and miraculous visions mingled with the chivalrous exploits of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table within the pages of Tennyson’s masterpiece. Rudyard Kipling explored mythic and fantastical themes, often as allegories of his own experiences, in some of his poetic works such as “The Centaurs” and “Pan in Vermont”.

William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet who bridged the gap between the Victorian and the Modernist and was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, found inspiration in Celtic myths, legends, and folklore, as well as personal mystical encounters. “The Wanderings of Oisin”, one of Yeats’ earliest works, presented the mythic story of Oisin’s adventures in the isles of Faerie as told through his dialogue with Saint Patrick. Niamh called seductively as the fair folk rode out from Knocknarea in “The Hosting of the Sidhe”. The poem’s narrator tells of his imaginative vision of a sphinx, a Buddha, and a girl who danced herself to death in “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”.

Some well-known authors responsible for the creation and popularity of modern fantasy literature also penned fantasy poetry. Robert E. Howard, father of the sword-and-sorcery genre, wrote poems such as “Cimmeria”, a work about the gloomy homeland of Conan the Barbarian. J.R.R. Tolkien, a writer often considered to be the father of high-fantasy and one whose works sparked a resurgence of interest in fantastical literature, interspersed song and poetry throughout his wondrous prose tales. He also wrote a collection of poems, ostensibly taken from the Hobbit manuscript the Red Book of Westmarch, entitled “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”.

With the advent of science fiction as a literary genre, poets soon found ways to put the genre’s varied wondrous subjects and themes to verse. Just as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells pioneered the writing of science fiction in prose, a handful of far-sighted poets pioneered the writing of science fiction in verse. Ray Bradbury, one of the masters of the science fiction or science fantasy genre, also wrote speculative poetry. In 2008 he was named the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s latest Grand Master. Several magazines devoted to publishing science fiction in prose, such as Asimov’s, also published science fiction poetry. Some journals such as Star*Line focused on publishing poetry of a speculative nature.

In the recent past, science fiction poets, or genre poets in general, have experimented with different poetic forms. One such form adopted by speculative poets is the haiku, a minimalist poem of Japanese origin. In 1995 Tom Brink laid out the rules for scifaiku in The Scifaiku Manifesto, but science fiction haiku had been around at least since the publication of Karen Anderson’s “Six Haiku” in 1962. Speculative haiku need not be inspired by science fiction alone; they may also utilize fantasy and horror themes, with horror-themed examples often called “horrorku”. Scifaikuest, a Sam’s Dot magazine published in both print and on-line versions, specializes in the publication of scifaiku and horrorku, as well as other Japanese-inspired forms like tanka and haibun (haiku combined with a prose paragraph). All these forms continue to be a valid method of poetic expression for speculative writers, and can be a great exercise in word economy.

As ancient poetry often presented fantastical myths, legends, and lore in verse form, modern speculative poets use verse so their readers can experience wonder, weirdness, and horror. Many of today’s genre writers and poets practice the art of speculative poetry composition, including Bruce Boston, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Kendall Evans, Deborah P. Kolodji, and Mike Allen. Many magazines and journals such as those mentioned above continue to publish works by speculative poets. Many venues, both print and on-line, offer opportunities for rising poetic talents, giving them a chance to let their imaginative voices be heard. With a potential limited only by the poet’s imagination, speculative poetry possesses the capability to grow far beyond its parent genres.

To muddy the waters just a bit, actual individual definitions of speculative poetry may vary almost as much as individual definitions of poetry in general. Some see speculative poetry in broad terms, covering all verse containing elements of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Others take a narrower view, claiming that speculative poetry is a special kind of genre verse, moving beyond the literal and into the suggestive and allusive. However you look at it, broad or narrow, speculative poetry is the poetry of the fantastic, poetry of the wondrous, poetry of the “what if?”. And such poetry should appeal to all fans of genre literature, whether they think they like poetry or not. After all, the family tree of speculative fiction has poetry at its roots.

 

(Article originally published in the on-line version of Abandoned Towers, January 2009, and also published in Issue 17 of the print zine Illumen, Autumn 2012.)

 

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– Carnahan, Timothy R. “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. Academy for Ancient Texts. (2001). http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/.
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– Homer (translated by Andrew Lang and S. H. Butcher). Harvard Classics Vol. 22: The Odyssey. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company (1909-1914). New York: Bartleby.com. (2001). http://www.bartleby.com/22/.
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– Kipling, Rudyard. “The Centaurs” & “Pan in Vermont”. A Complete Collection of Poems by Rudyard Kipling: Edward Bovner’s Poet Lovers’ Page. (2006). http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/kipling_ind.html.
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Millennium and the Weirdness of Other Cultures – Especially Ones We Think We Know

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Cover

A lot of people on the planet have read the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books so I won’t do a blow-by-blow report regarding my thoughts on the first two books in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Suffice to say that they both center around a young woman named Lisbeth Salander who has enjoyed a truly messed up childhood and emerged scarred and socially inept but brilliant from her trial by fire.  Despite being unable to trust anyone, she manages to team up with the editor of an activist magazine and make life miserable for any number of bad guys.  Her lack of compassion for people she hates makes everything all the more compelling.

The stories themselves are well-paced and good enough to stand on their own (as attested to by their sales numbers), but the truly fascinating stuff is on the fringes.

As I read, I found myself stopping at small, unimportant points in the narrative to shake my head and say “oh, those crazy Swedes.”  In everything from the way people view property, to the way the police act, to the sexual mores of some of the characters (what is considered perfectly normal vs. what causes outrage is interesting), you are reminded that this is not an Anglo-centric worldview, despite being from a Western country not so different from most other Western countries.

There are no truly exotic behaviors in this one, and that’s the fun of the whole thing: the sense that something is just slightly askew from one’s own everyday experience is much richer, in my opinion, than simply reading about the customs of the population of eighteenth century Shanghai (or anywhere else in the eighteenth century, come to think of it!).

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson Cover

We all know that Scandinavian socialism permeates every aspect of life, but perhaps we don’t understand just how deep it runs until you see someone thinking about buying a house or interacting with the police in a Larsson novel–at least I didn’t.

Another interesting thing is that the very center of the series, Millennium magazine, could only really be relevant in a place like Sweden.  Other countries have activist magazines… and they run exposés.  The hard truth of it, however, is that except for the editorial staff and the writers and perhaps their couple of dozen readers (all of whom earnestly believe that what they are doing is both important and relevant), no one cares.  An exposé like the ones Millennium is so good at would basically be shrugged at by the population at large.

It makes for a fun ride, even though, at times, one finds oneself saying “man, am I glad I don’t live in Sweden.”  But then, If you’re honest with yourself, you probably wouldn’t want to live in most fictional worlds (especially Westeros.  That’s just plain unhealthy).

The kicker, though is that the translators seem to have toned down a bunch of things (as I can’t read Swedish, I can’t attest to that except by secondhand reporting). They definitely changed the titles (the title of the first book was Men Who Hate Women) and also made the dragon tattoo much smaller (in the original it covered Lisbeth’s entire back as opposed to a small item on a shoulder) in order to make it more palatable to Anglicized taste.  I wonder what other fascinating small things they also left out.

So I’d recommend this to Classically Educated readers.  Most of you won’t find yourselves able to generate the moral indignation that someone from Larsson’s background might over the central issues (one of the pillars on which Larsson builds his stories is that corporate greed is something that we should spend all our days in horror of, and that the men behind it are the true monsters of our age…  which seems an odd and trivial thing to get worked up about) but you will still be able to enjoy the stories generated in this world and enjoy the slight moments of “what?  Why?” that pop up out of the blue.

But unless someone can tell me otherwise, I’d recommend against the continuation books.  Those were probably written with the English-speaking population in mind (even though their author is a Swede with a similar background to Larsson), and probably have the quirks dialed back to nearly nothing… killing a good chunk of the fun.

 

Book Recommendation: Outside by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past few years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published a new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here (not the first time we’ve used these words–he had published one called Siege late last year!)!

Gustavo Bondoni  - Outside - Cover

Outside is a novel of Interstellar Contact, Virtual Worlds, and the Essence of Humanity.

Earth is empty of humans. This surprising observation stymies Rome and his shipmates, crew of the starship come to re-establish contact from the colonies. What could have happened in the 500-years of the non-interference treaty to vanish everyone?

Meanwhile, on Earth, Emily is living her computer-simulated life, along with the rest of Earth’s residents: bodies stored in vast underground chambers, minds living without disease, poverty, or pain. But dramatic change is coming to their carefully regulated virtual world. Impenetrable black walls suddenly cut off cities. Monsters appear, destroying all they touch. Emily’s expertise has her on the front line of the investigation, trying to understand these frightening developments.

When Rome and Emily meet, it seems they’ve found the answers to each other’s mysteries. But as the colonists and Earth engage in tense diplomacy, suppressed histories are revealed, and a tyrant with frightening powers rises. Together, Rome and Emily discover the terrifying secret buried deep underground that threatens the existence of everyone on Earth.

 

Outside can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.