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The House on the Borderland

23 Jul

The House on the Borderland (1908) is a supernatural horror novel by British fantasist William Hope Hodgson. The novel is a hallucinatory account of a recluse’s stay at a remote house, and his experiences of supernatural creatures and otherworldly dimensions. A manuscript is found: filled with small, precise writing and smelling of pit-water, it tells the story of an old recluse and his strange home – and its even stranger, jade-green double, seen by the recluse on an otherworldly plain where gigantic gods and monsters roam. Soon his more earthly home is no less terrible than this bizarre vision, as swine-like creatures boil from a cavern beneath the ground and besiege it. But a still greater horror will face the recluse – more inexorable, merciless and awful than any creature that can be fought or killed. The book was a milestone that signalled a radical departure from the typical Gothic fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson created a newer more realistic/scientific cosmic horror that left a marked impression on those who would become the great writers of the weird tales of the middle of the 20th century, particularly Clark Ashton Smith, and H P Lovecraft. Lovecraft listed The House on the Borderland and other works by Hodgson among his greatest influences, and Terry Pratchett has called the novel “the Big Bang in my private universe as a science fiction and fantasy reader and, later, writer.”

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H G Wells, The Time Traveller

21 May

At the end of the 19th century people felt excited over the new discoveries of science, which seemed to promise so much for the future. No English writer expressed this feeling so well as Herbert George Wells (1866-1946). He was born at Bromley in Kent and grew up in poverty and hardship. He struggled to educate himself by winning scholarships, and studied biology under T H Huxley. He used his knowledge of science as the starting point for a series of exciting and fantastic stories, such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Some of their most startling ideas have since come true. As a novelist, he is best remembered for his science fiction novels, but his literary output was vast and extremely varied. Before he became a successful novelist, Wells worked as a draper’s apprentice, a chemist’s assistant and a teacher. He knew about the problems of ordinary people, and wrote about their ambitions and disappointments in novels such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly, which are full of life and humour. Wells became a socialist and wrote many books about history and science so that people would be able to understand the important ideas of the modern world. These works include The Shape of Things to Come, The Science of Life and a popular history book, The Outline of History.

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The Extraordinary Journeys of Jules Verne

19 Mar

Jules Verne (1828-1905) is sometimes called the ‘father of science fiction’. He was born in Nantes in France, and studied law before turning to writing both plays and stories. In 1863 he published in a magazine the first of his Voyages Extraordinaires (literally ‘Extraordinary Voyages’ or ‘Extraordinary Journeys’), a sequence of fifty-four novels, originally published between 1863 and 1905. Entitled (in English) Five Weeks in a Balloon, this was an immediate success, so he decided to write more exciting stories of speculative fiction. Although his stories had fantastic settings, Jules Verne was careful to put in a good deal of realistic detail, so making the story more convincing. He had a remarkable imagination. In Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea he wrote about submarines and aqualungs (neither of which had then been invented), and in From the Earth to the Moon he predicted the birth of space travel – long before the first aeroplane had even taken to the air. His other books include A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. First published as a serial, this tells how an Englishman called Phileas Fogg attempts a round-the-world journey to win a bet. Jules Verne remains to this day the most translated science fiction author in the world as well as one of the most continually reprinted and widely read French authors. Though often scientifically outdated, his Voyages still retain their sense of wonder that appealed to readers of his time, and still provoke an interest in the sciences among the young.

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The Man in the High Castle

28 Feb

The Man in the High Castle (1963) is an alternative history novel by American writer Philip K Dick depicting a nightmare world divided by Germany and Japan, winners of the second World War in an alternate timeline from our own. Set in 1962, fifteen years after an alternative ending to World War II, the novel concerns intrigues between the victorious Axis Powers as they rule over the former United States, as well as daily life under the resulting totalitarian rule. The story features a “novel within the novel” comprising an alternate history within this alternate history wherein the Allies defeat the Axis (though in a manner distinct from the actual historical outcome). A hypothetical Axis victory in World War II is a common concept of alternate history, the second World War being one of the two most popular points of divergence for the English language alternative history fiction genre (the other being the American Civil War). As such, The Man in the High Castle (which has recently been adapted into a popular and critically acclaimed series by Amazon) has much in common with other fictional alternative histories, such as Swastika Night, Fatherland and Dominion.

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The Light Fantastic

11 Oct

This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.

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The Inn at the Edge of the World

17 Jan

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Click to get the January 2015 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly and read my short story The Inn at the Edge of the World.

Winter’s Tale

14 Dec

A sad tale’s best for winter… or so they say. I thought I’d round off the year with a post about one of my favourite seasonal fantasy novels, and the one that I almost invariably read at this time of year, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. In case you wondered, yes, this is the same story that was adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell a couple of years ago but the movie really does have very little to do with this unforgettable book. Helprin’s novel has a variety of inspirations, not least among them William Shakespeare’s 1623 play of the same name. Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York City, the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. Although ostensibly set at the turn of the last century, in reality the setting of Winter’s Tale bears little resemblance to any time or place that our world has ever known. Magical horses, roguish heroes and enchantment abound in this, the perfect fantasy tale for the festive season.

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James P Blaylock – Steampunk Legend

14 Mar

James P Blaylock is one of the finest writers of ‘American magical realism’ (a genre which he virtually invented single-handedly), and is noted for a distinctive, humorous style, as well as being one of the pioneers of the steampunk sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. The diversity of his writing is impressive, as I’ll go on to hopefully illustrate, but the best words to use to describe a typical Blaylock novel include ‘thoughtful’, ‘moving’, ‘unsettling’ and, of course, ‘unique’. Blaylock lives in California, which provides the setting for much of his work – including the fine novels Land of Dreams, The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, Night Relics, The Rainy Season and Winter Tides – all highly recommended. Notwithstanding the title of this post, although he is the author of several steampunk novels, Blaylock’s output is by no means limited to this sub-genre and he has also written straight fantasy, children’s fiction and short stories published in a variety of magazines and small press editions. As mentioned above, many of Blaylock’s books can specifically be termed magic realism – a genre where magical elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. He and his friends, fellow steampunk luminaries Tim Powers and K W Jeter were mentored by none other than Philip K Dick himself and it is arguable that Blaylock has already left behind a body of work that is comparable to Dick’s in its quality and influence.

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Kristine Kathryn Rusch

2 Dec

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an award-winning author who has written fiction in many genres – including science fiction, horror, romance and mystery as well as what she is best known for, fantasy. As if that weren’t enough, she has also found time to edit a number of genre magazines. With all of this on her plate, it constantly surprises me to see that she is able to produce original, inventive and thought-provoking short stories and novels. Take one of her most famous efforts, Hitler’s Angel, which tells the story of Annie, a young American student in the 1970s investigating the death of Hitler’s niece Geli Raubal, who was famously found dead of a gunshot wound in 1931. Although at the time Geli’s death was ruled suicide, the suspicion of murder has always remained and Annie finds and interviews the retired detective in Munich who led the original investigation in the 1930s. Slowly but surely, in a tale often told in flashback by the detective, layer upon layer of mystery surrounding Geli’s death is lifted and the horrifying truth is revealed. I’ve often thought that Hitler’s Angel might make a terrific film, not least because of Rusch’s startling ability to create pictures with her prose and this is a common feature of much of her writing. Continue reading

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