Happy (belated) blogiversary to me! August 14th was the 3rd year anniversary of this blog, a milestone that I missed yet again in the hubbub of daily life. Nevertheless, an anniversary is a good time for reflection, and one thing I wanted to look back upon is all of the fiction that I’ve read over the past 3 years.
I started “Skulls in the Stars” with a dual goal of increasing my reading and enthusiasm for both science and weird fiction. These goals have been met and then some, but I’ve been particularly delighted by the amount of truly classic yet obscure weird fiction that I’ve come across that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
With that in mind, I thought it would be nice to go back and share my favorite reads over the past 3 years, with a brief explanation of why I think they’re great! Most of these books are currently in print, thanks to the valiant efforts of a number of dedicated publishers. These are not only some of the best books that I’ve read over the past 3 years, but now some of my favorite novels of all time.
The list is presented in no particular order, though I save the best — my favorites of my favorites — for last!
1. The Night Land (1912), by William Hope Hodgson (original entry). Hodgson was a true master of weird fiction who died an untimely and early death during World War I. Nevertheless, he was an extremely prolific author who produced a number of classic tales and inspired many others, including H.P. Lovecraft.
The Night Land is the weirdest of Hodgson’s weird writing, and a novel that is nearly unclassifiable. It is set in an impossibly distant future, in which the Sun and all the stars in the sky have burned out and the universe is in unending darkness. Incredibly, humanity lingers on, thanks to a mystical source of energy known as the Earth Current. The remnants of the species live in a colossal pyramid of a million inhabitants known as The Great Redoubt, which protects them from… the others that exist outside.
In the new night land, mysterious, monstrous and alien creatures have thrived, and only the energy of the Earth Current keeps them from destroying humanity. These creatures — which come in forms man-size and titanic, physical and spiritual — make the world outside The Great Redoubt incredibly deadly. In fact, human beings never venture beyond the barrier of the Earth Current for long, and those who do never survive.
As the novel begins, the narrator and hero, a record-keeper of the Redoubt, makes telepathic contact with a woman in a previously unknown, lesser, Redoubt that lies far away across the toxic surface of the Earth. The hero gradually falls in love with his psychic counterpart in the Lesser Redoubt, and when he learns that their Earth Current is rapidly failing, he ventures out into the hostile wilds to rescue her.
The Night Land is part romance novel, part adventure novel, part horror novel — and all weird! Hodgson’s vision of a world long past its prime, harboring the fading remnants of humanity and beset by overwhelming evil, is utterly unique and haunting (even if the science is quite implausible). The story is not perfect — it drags significantly after the hero reaches his love, and is marred by the obnoxiously sexist treatment he gives her.
In spite of these flaws, Hodgson’s novel is a truly magnificent and compelling tale, and an utterly unique setting.
2. Black God’s Kiss (1934), by C.L. Moore (original entry). Catherine Lucille Moore was a frequent contributor to the pulp magazines of the 1930s, though she wrote under a pseudonym of sorts, C.L. Moore, leaving the impression that she was a male author. The incredible author Henry Kuttner wrote her a fan letter under this mistaken impression, but once the confusion was cleared the two married, producing some of the most awesome science fiction stories of the era in collaboration. Moore was an outstanding author in her own right, however, as Black God’s Kiss amply demonstrates.
The volume collects Moore’s series of sword-and-sorcery stories about the warrior heroine Jirel of Joiry. Many male authors before Moore had introduced “warrior women” as characters, but Moore was the first to emphasize the “woman” part of the character. Jirel is undeniably a powerful warrior, but also has a feminine side, and shows a depth of character that is rarely seen in the sword-and-sorcery of the era. She is also very human, making mistakes and facing doubt and regret. In the first Jirel of Joiry tale, Black God’s Kiss itself, Joiry is conquered by the brutish warrior Guillaume, and Jirel plumbs into the depths of her castle, and into another dimension entirely, to search for a weapon to make Guillaume pay for his actions. In the second tale, however, Black God’s Shadow, Jirel must return to this other dimension to attempt to undo the unforeseen consequences of her actions.
Beyond the character of Jirel, the stories of Black God’s Kiss are amazing because of Moore’s literary style. Her descriptions, particularly of demon-haunted otherworldly dimensions, are beautiful and compelling. She wrote only six stories about Jirel of Joiry, but each of them is wonderfully told.
3. The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948), by Dennis Wheatley (original entry). Toby Jugg has a major problem. Every evening, during the nights of the full moon, a thing of unspeakable evil and unnatural provenance lurks outside of his window, seeking to claim him. He cannot flee, because he was wounded in the Battle of Britain and is now bedridden, paralyzed from the waist down, living in a country house managed by his late father’s estate. He cannot ask anyone for help, because he would seem to be a madman. The force at the window preys on his nerves and saps his will, threatening his very soul. What follows is a tense battle of wits and wills, making Dennis Wheatley’s The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948 ) a compelling tale of supernatural horror.
Dennis Wheatley was an extremely popular and prolific author, making him the “Stephen King of his time”. I’ve discussed a number of his books on this blog, and have many more to read. HTJ starts somewhat slowly with a lot of seemingly insignificant details, but it quickly picks up speed and its twists and turns make it nearly impossible to put down. The climax of the novel brings together a number of seemingly disparate elements of the story in a manner that is spectacular, unexpected, and yet entirely appropriate.
I’m always fascinated by stories that I refer to as “limited venue stories”: tales that take place almost entirely within a limited, confined space. Examples of this specialized genre include the movies Panic Room and Phone Booth and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. HTJ is also of limited venue, focusing on a man who is paralyzed and almost entirely confined to his bedroom, but the story never gets dull or tedious.
4. Pegana (1905), by Lord Dunsany (original post). Many of my favorite works of fiction are those that defy ready classification. Lord Dunsany’s Pegana is one of those: it is a collection of parables and myths focusing on the gods and men of the fictional world of Pegana, a rather primitive world of polytheistic tendencies. These tales describe the creation of the world and the gods who preside over it, as well as the interactions between gods and men and the consequences of those interactions.
Parables are meant to tell a moral or religious story, and Dunsany doesn’t disappoint; however, he was himself a man of atheistic leanings, so the lessons to be learned are quite different from those of the “real” religious texts of the world. It is no small feat to write stories that give the same feel of ancient literature, and ostensibly preach the same morals, but simultaneously cast a very critical eye on the morals to be learned. Dunsany not only pulls off this feat, but does it so well that I count at least one of his stories, “The Men of Yarnith”, to be one of the most beautiful and inspiring works I’ve ever read (I include the complete text in my post on Pegana) — I got chills just thinking about it right now! “The Men of Yarnith” is, in my opinion, a nearly perfect example of what is known as “positive atheism”.
Their morals aside, the parables of Pegana are chilling in their depiction of a world filled with capricious, uncaring deities. It is small wonder that they were a huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft’s own cosmology of alien gods and monsters.
5. The Joss (1901), by Richard Marsh (original post). Just as Dennis Wheatley was the Stephen King of his era, so was Richard Marsh the Stephen King of his own era. Marsh’s novels were hugely successful, and his breakthrough novel The Beetle (1897) even outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) for a time. Marsh wrote mystery, adventure and horror novels, and mixed the trio of genres with ease. Until recently, however, The Beetle was the only of Marsh’s novels that was in print.
The Joss starts out as a seeming “haunted house” story. Initial narrator Mary Blythe inherits a house and a sizable fortune from a deceased uncle, but the bequest comes with strange conditions: Mary is allowed only a single female companion in the home, is not allowed any male visitors, and must stay at home for certain specified hours every day. When she does venture outside, she finds that a number of unusual competing parties have taken an unhealthy interest in her activities, and are willing to do her and her friends harm to get what they want. At the center of the mystery is a strange Polynesian-style idol that is passed to Mary early on and seems to follow her around on its own power. By the end of the novel, which follows several narrators during its course, we are treated to a shocking scene of human sacrifice and a secret that is ghastly enough to make any modern reader cringe, much less an original Victorian reader!
The Joss shows Richard Marsh at the top of his game, able to weave a tale of mystery and horror that hasn’t lost its ability to enthrall and shock to this day. This novel also holds a special place in my heart as the first book that I acquired from the excellent publisher Valancourt Books!
6. Tengu (1983), by Graham Masterton (original post). “When Sherry Cantor’s alarm clock woke her at 7:27 on the morning of August 9 she had twenty-three minutes to live.” With those words starts one of the most intriguing stories of violence and revenge that I have ever read. As foretold, Sherry is murdered in an exceedingly brutal manner, setting in motion a chain of events that will have devastating consequences. The murder brings together a disparate collection of people who learn of the threat piece by piece and race against time to stop it. At the center of the story is the Tengu, a Japanese demon of brutality and power that has been harnessed by a twisted and wealthy man to achieve vengeance for an old perceived injustice.
As I’ve noted in a “horror masters” post, the prevailing theme of Graham Masterton’s writing is the price of past sins. He explored this in his very first novel, The Manitou, in which a reincarnated and vengeful Native American shaman threatens to destroy the United States in retaliation for the treatment of his people. In Tengu, however, Masterton approaches the topic with much more depth, and explores how acts of revenge inevitably stray widely off their target.
The violence in the novel is shocking, and it is not for the faint of heart. The story is intense and leads up to a conclusion that will haunt the reader for long afterward.
7. The Metal Monster (1920), by A. Merritt (original post). Abe Merritt was another author who was widely successful in his time but relatively unknown today. Most of his novels are, to my mind, rather conventional (but enjoyable) pulp adventure tales; with The Metal Monster, however, we get something else entirely — a tale of cosmic horror utterly unique and unrivaled in its vision!
The tale is narrated by one Dr. Goodwin, who recounts his experiences exploring the wild mountainous regions of Tibet. During his adventure, he encounters three Americans, and the group comes across what appears to be the footprint of a titanic creature of unspecified origin. If that isn’t weird enough, the quartet are soon after attacked by a lost tribe of ancient Persian warriors and forced to beat a hasty retreat through the hills. Just as it looks as if they will be overwhelmed, another force enters the fray: a metal monster, built of an independently moving collection of geometrical shapes, and their seeming master, the barely-human woman Norhala. The “metal monster” is in fact a completely new species on the planet, a collective of geometric metal creatures that can move in unison and draw their energy directly from the nuclear chaos in the Sun. The explorers are taken to the subterranean home of the metal creatures as Norhala’s pet, and it rapidly dawns on them that humanity is in imminent danger of being supplanted as the dominant species on the planet.
I really have run out of superlatives in talking about The Metal Monster. It is a story of limitless imagination and astounding cosmic beauty, and the scenes of violence and power associated with the metal monster are awe-inspiring. Merritt manages to capture the feeling of alienness almost perfectly, and the new race of metal beings are wonderfully characterized and described. This is a story whose twists and turns are impossible to predict, and it captured my interest from the first page to the last.
8. The Sign of the Spider (1896), by Bertram Mitford (original post). Even before I had finished The Sign of the Spider, I knew that I had found one of my favorite novels of all time: it is a wonder that it has been forgotten and neglected for so long. Mitford was a writer of adventure novels set in Africa, very much like the well-known H. Rider Haggard; Mitford, however, may be said to be Haggard’s darker half. Mitford’s adventure novels are always set under the shadow of moral ambiguity and desperate measures; his characters often must make difficult, even reprehensible, choices to survive.
The protagonist of TSS, Laurence Stanninghame, is in fact an anti-hero; having fled an intolerable marriage in England, he heads to Africa to make money speculating on the burgeoning gold market. When the market collapses and leaves him penniless, Stanninghame seriously contemplates suicide but instead ends up working for a slaver named “Pirate” Hazon, helping the man collect new slaves in the African wilderness.
Stanninghame’s journey is comparable in many ways to Dante’s journey into the Inferno and, more aptly, Willard’s pursuit of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Stanninghame travels deeper into the wilds of Africa, and loses himself more and more in the process, making decisions that are genuinely reprehensible. His voyage draws him closer and closer to an encounter with the fearsome and mysterious Ba-gcatya tribe and their monstrous spider god. Will Stanninghame redeem himself before it is too late? Will he survive his encounter with the Ba-gcatya tribe? And what is the secret of the sign of the spider?
The Sign of the Spider is a magnificent novel, with a main character of significant depth, plot twists and turns that keep the reader guessing, and a tragic and ironic storyline worthy of being placed among the great works of fantasy, horror and adventure fiction.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this recap of my favorite fiction of the past 3 years! Though I spent a lot of time mulling over the great books I’ve read, I’m sure I’ve left a few out of the list that deserve to be here. There are plenty more to be reviewed, too — I’ve got bookshelves filled with other forgotten and fun weird fiction novels. Keep following this blog to see what I uncover over the next three years!