Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #6 | Jeremiah Tolbert

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Dreamers of Alamoi by Jeremiah Tolbert

“Dante was the first to conceive of Hell as a planned space,” Dr Bedelia Du Maurier tells an assembled audience in the 10th episode of the third season of Hannibal, “an urban environment.” Before Dante, Bedelia continues, we spoke not of the gates of Hell but simply the mouth of Hell — a shapeless, devouring pit with no real modus operandi.

I feel that Lovecraft’s structuring of his own ‘Dreamlands’ plays to a similar dynamic and that certainly, the author is also to be lauded for — quite literally — mapping out what may otherwise have been vague repository of images and half-formed notions of geographical space. But I also find it a blessing that Lovecraft never quite went the Tolkien route with his world-building either, and that the Dreamlands were allowed to accumulate in the author and reader’s mind in gradual drops throughout various loosely connected stories.

The Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft by Jason Thompson (2011). Find out more about it

‘The Dreamlands of HP Lovecraft’ by Jason Thompson (2011). Find out more about it

In this way, I think Lovecraft remains true to the psychology behind why we keep chasing after these spaces. It’s a comforting notion, to be able to travel to a place where the laws and conventions that dominate our daily life have been suspended in favour of some kind of sublime bliss; even if — to go with the original, Kantian notion of the sublime — this does not mean that what we would see and experience in these places is necessarily pleasant, or even safe.

With Lovecraft the concept gets a keener edge of poignancy, I think, because for all the implied eldritch horror of the Dreamlands, it feels as if he’d rather go there than face the realities of the modern world — a tic in his character that also speaks to the oft-discussed and deeply problematic ideological underpinnings of a lot of his work (to say nothing of how his public proclamations to this effect continue to be something of a blot on his reputation). It’s form of ‘negative escapism’, I think — not the idyll of Tolkien’s Shire, but an alienating and alluring space populated by strange, mushrooming presences, and whose geographical confines expand and contract to the whims of an ‘idiot god’.

Jeremiah Tolbert’s story develops on this motif in Lovecraft’s work — a motif that Lovecraft himself likely cribbed from his perennial source of inspiration, Lord Dunsany (who was, in turn, also an influence on Tolkien).

Tolbert gets the notes of desire and fascination right and, indeed, establishes an urban environment that despite its otherworldly nature still insists on carving out a concrete space, with the very architecture serving as an ominous, jarring construct — an element certainly in line with Lovecraft’s own stories in this vein.

“At first, he thought it only another hallucination that the two towers seemed to bend toward one another at their peak, but the vision did not waver. Realization arrived late: these were not two towers, but instead the opposing sides of an arch. Closer now, he could make out the ropes and pulleys lifting an enormous keystone into the heavens. It inched upwards as he watched.

“The dreaming construct would soon be complete. What would happen then was a great mystery, but not one Garen was eager to solve.”

Garen, our erstwhile protagonist, explores the contours of the Dreamlands with the hungry and often thwarted desire of a junkie. Strait-laced as Lovecraft may have been, he wouldn’t have been inclined to confront this aspect of his stories head-on. But it’s an evident element of the desire (with a capital D?) we have for these spaces… just as its erotic counterpoint is never too far behind, either.

‘Fantasy’ is a broad term — something we often forget, conditioned as we are to view literary genres in strict categories — and ‘dreams’ are even more vast in their potential.

But though Lovecraft and Tolkien may have stopped short of exploring the more R-rated elements of this universal trait, Tolbert — like Catherynne Valente and Clive Barker before him — isn’t shy of teasing the limits between reverie and obsession.

Read previous: John Langan

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #5 | John Langan

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Savage Angela in: The Beast in its Tunnels by John Langan

Langan’s story opens the collection, and in some ways it’s a no-brainer because it appears to have the swashbuckling swords-and-sorcery spirit of the works of Fritz Leiber (who comes highly recommended in Tanzer and Bullington’s backmatter).

But as befits my own introduction to Langan’s rich and satisfying short fiction his contribution here plays with the expected references to the beat of his own drum, getting mileage both from the immersive, ‘innocent’ elements of the genre while simultaneously playing a postmodern game with them.

Our protagonist, Angela, needs to slay a beast and she sets about doing so with the help of her talking sword — the significantly monikered Deus Ex Machina. With an archetypal-as-can be premise, it’s becomes clear from early on that Langan is more concerned with exploring just why the swords-and-sorcery genre continues to interest us, instead of simply replicating its tropes.

Like other stories in the collection, there’s a whiff of the coming-of-age narrative to Langan’s tale too, with Angela being a novice who’s only just learning to make the best use of her powerful weapon. A prevalent meme, to be sure.

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel -- Game of Thrones, Season 1

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel — Game of Thrones, Season 1

But more importantly, the schematic set-up of the story — coupled with the fact that it’s all baldly archetypal: the monster serving the role of Minotaur — reminded me of how ‘mapped out’ fantasy narratives often are.

This is why Dungeons & Dragons is such an important touchstone for both fans and practitioners of the genre. In a similar way to writers who are conscious of the formal and historical make-up of fantastic literature in all its forms — here I’m thinking of the likes of Italo Calvino — Langan reminds us that the rules exist for a reason.

One reason being that we will always rationalise what we don’t understand, and that the mechanics of slaying/solving the monsters that emerge from the abyss of uncertainty will always make for compelling reading. Because we are hungry for answers, even those we know will never be forthcoming.

Read previous: Remy Nakamura

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #4 | Remy Nakamura

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

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The Dan no Uchi Horror by Remy Nakamura

Much to the chagrin — though more likely the disinterested bemusement — of the bulk of my geeky friends growing up, I was never quite taken with anime and manga in the same way as the zeitgeist appeared to demand.

And it was further alienating by the fact that Malta, where I was based-and-raised, got a healthy dose of the stuff funnelled into the brains of unsuspecting kids through the easily accessible Italian channels.

(The legacy of this broadcasting arrangement yielded wonderful fruit in Italian cinemas earlier this year.)

I’m not entirely sure why I never felt attracted to Japanese animation — though I ‘appreciate’ some of its classics from a distance — and it’s even more baffling because the sheer variety within the stories, and their ‘outre’ style, otherwise jibes very nicely with my tastes.

But with all this in mind, a visit to an exhibition in Paris last December gave me a more immediate appreciation of the genre’s appeal — through the work of one of its precursors.

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger Utagawa by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Yoko protecting his father from a tiger by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Observing the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi up close — yes, I made sure to exit through the gift shop and buy the coffee table book along the way — made me appreciate a clear and timeless dynamism of the style. This will of course speak to my wider ignorance of the woodcut tradition — to say nothing of my inadvertent but real western bias — but apart from anime, the thick outlines and sensitivity to what squeezes the most ‘action’ out of a still image reminded me of the likes of Jack Kirby.

Remy Nakamura’s story, I think, moves with the same scintillating immediacy. Packed with high drama, higher degrees of violence and a rhapsodic prose style, it also has its tongue firmly in cheek; checking off ‘Honor’ early on as a knee-jerk cultural expectation so as to highjack any inherent melodrama and cliche.

I was hooked from the first sentence, and the family saga that’s at the core of the story was wended into the kinetic narrative, instead of being a baggy burden. There’s hacking and slashing, there’s faith and inevitability. There’s sentences like: ‘The devils stank like a battlefield in the sun’.

This is Cthulhu in oozing, living colour, and it moves like the quickest of rapids.

Read previous: L. Lark