Saturday, 3 February 2018
Why I love old books (and 10 recommendations)
If someone were to ask me what my literary jam was, I'd answer pre-1970s horror, sci-fi and fantasy. More specifically, that sweet spot between the late 1800s and mid 1900s - the pulps.
For me this was the pinnacle of high adventure and horror experimentation, where science had not yet uncovered the atmosphere on Venus, so authors were free to set their stories on these alien worlds. These were the days of giants known and unknown at their time - Burroughs, Lovecraft, Howard, Machen, Poe, Carter, James, Ashton-Smith, Dunsany, Chambers, Hodgson. These authors became the cornerstones of genre fiction, paving the way towards the pop culture of today - from Sherlock to Star Wars, Alien to True Detective. The weight of these texts altered the future, in only ways the most significant creatives can do.
While I do read more contemporary authors, I always find myself cleansing the palette with the short stories of Algernon Blackwood, or the sublime Jack Vance. When I'm down I lose myself in The Tower of the Elephant, or cross the Mountains of Madness themselves to pick myself back up. The escapism older stories offer is something quite special and only achieved irregularly in contemporary fiction (Philip Pullman is a modern master of escapism - I highly recommend his latest book, La Belle Sauvage).
This isn't to say that I don't recognize the problematic aspects of these stories. Female characters with agency are few and far between, most of them relegated to list interests or not in the picture at all. Races other than Caucasian are usually treated either harshly or with novelty, with some authors being more xenophobic than others (looking at you, Lovecraft). This all makes some stories difficult to swallow and can taint an otherwise thrilling read. I don't suggest that any reader ignore these problems, nor do I think we should cast them out wholesale because of these issues as they can force us to reflect on our own values. It's good to be critical of otherwise fine work.
This brings me to the final part - recommendations. This isn't a definitive list, but instead I've noted some of my favourite authors and stories to keep you entertained.
The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe
Those who may not have read Poe beyond The Raven might believe him to be a 'safe' horror writer. After all, how can stories written so long ago still strike fear into our hearts a century later? But Poe is a master of terror and his work is every bit as fresh and frightening as it was back in the day. The Pit and the Pendulum is a claustrophobic tale that stuck in my gut long after reading it. In this story of a Spanish Inquisition torture victim, Poe manipulates the senses to evoke a horrific scenario - so much so that you'll feel like you're right there in the dark with him.
The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers
Chambers is my favourite writer of weird fiction and it's a shame he didn't stick with it. The King in Yellow is a collection of short stories, four of which are tied to what we now call the Carcosa mythos. The common thread running through these stories is a play called The King in Yellow, which, after reading the second act, breaks people's minds. The universe Chambers creates with the sinister yellow signs, the dim city of Carcosa, lake Hali and the titular monarch, is cruel and terrifying, and a big influence on Lovecraft. Essential reading for those interested in weird horror. Read them all.
The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth by Lord Dunsany
Without Dunsany we may have never had Tolkien, that's how important he was to the fantasy genre. Dunsany's prose are lush and musical, making his melancholic dreamlike stories of fantasy a joy to read. The Fortress Unvanquishable is arguably the first sword and sorcery story ever. In it, a young hero must face trials, defeat an iron dragon to forge a sword to face down an evil wizard in his tower to stop nightmares from plaguing his village. Absolutely stunning.
The Tower of the Elephant by Robert E Howard
If Dunsany started the sword and sorcery genre, Howard perfected it and The Tower of the Elephant is a masterclass. Conan has discovered that hidden away in the tower of an evil sorceror is a jewel called the Heart of the Elephant, so he decides to steal it. This is heart-pounding adventure at its best, with giant spiders, a prince of thieves, lions, and a pretty great ending.
The Willows by Algernon Blackwood
Even Lovecraft himself said that in The Willows Blackwood had crafted the perfect weird fiction story and I have to agree. This is plodding, creeping terror at its best. Two travellers canoe up the Danube and find themselves in the heart of a tale of cosmic terror where the trees themselves create an oppressive atmosphere and where strange things are occurring. Unsettling and unforgettable - one of the greatest horror stories ever told.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
At last, a female author! Published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper is a psychological horror story about the wife of a physician who, after a hysterical episode, is forbidden from working. They rent a mansion, where she spends her time in a room with bars on the window, covered in yellow wallpaper. After lack of stimulation she begins to lose her mind, believing there is a woman living in the wallpaper. This culminates is a creepy as hell ending.
Dagon by H.P Lovecraft
This is the shortest story on the list and one readers will probably have already read, but for me this is distilled Lovecraft. A sailor finds himself on a once-sunken island containing an obelisk that tells a tale of strange fish people and their awful god. Then the massive creature emerges and scares the shit out of him. The ending, after awaking in hospital is one of my favourites from Lovecraft.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Knowing my readers, I'd imagine a fair few have already read this, but as the pinnacle in sword and planet stories, it's worth a re-read. John Carter, a soldier in the civil war, finds himself wounded in a cave and is visited by a mysterious creature and transported to Mars (or Barsoom), which hosts a semi-medieval feudal society of warring aliens. It's a story of fast-paced action - gladiatorial combat, treachery, battling white apes, romance - this has it all. So much better than the Disney flick.
The Novel of the Black Seal by Arthur Machen
Tentacles. Check. Ancient forgotten creatures. Check. A strange child who isn't what he seems. Check. Those might sound like the themes behind a Lovecraft story, but Machen did it all first with The Novel of the Black Seal. Deep in the Welsh hills hides a race of strange creatures with their own language and the story sees the protagonist slowly uncovering the nature of these beings as well as a strange boy. Lovecraft borrowed heavily from this story, particularly with The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror and At the Mountains of Madness.
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
I can't choose a single story from The Dying Earth, so read them all. Each story revolves around our world thousands of years in the future where the sun is at the end of its lifespan. Stories are loosely connected, revolving around magic (yep, this is where Vancian magic comes from in D&D). The plots and characters are nuts, dealing with miniature wizards and people with names like Chun the Unavoidable. But seriously, these stories are awesome, especially for roleplaying fans.