Anathemas Or Apologies?

Black Library continues their output of Warhammer Horror short story anthologies with Anathemas, the follow-up to Maledictions and Invocations. Whereas Maledictions had 11 stories split between 4 Age of Sigmar tales and 7 Warhammer 40,000 stories, Invocations flipped the proportions somewhat, providing 12 stories with a 5 Warhammer 40,000/7 Age of Sigmar split.

The pendulum swings back in Anathemas, and if anything it swings further: of its 14 stories, 5 are Age of Sigmar pieces and 9 are Warhammer 40,000, which only further cements my view that Warhammer 40,000, since its baseline axioms are darker and less prone to epic heroism than Age of Sigmar, is a bit of a more natural home for horror than Age of Sigmar – at the very least, it seems like the creative juices are flowing a bit more freely on the Warhammer 40,000 side of the equation.

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Regarding the Dawn

Odds are that any modern text you look at which purports to unpack “ceremonial magic” or the “Western esoteric tradition” will, on some level, owe a certain debt to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and whilst there might be a few people these days ploughing that furrow who don’t owe a certain debt to Israel Regardie’s original The Golden Dawn, they’re certainly making their lives harder if they are ignoring this particular source text.

As the most famous organisation of Victorian occultists out there, the Golden Dawn have had their material riffed on for over a century now. Founded by William Westcott, MacGregor Mathers, and William Woodman, working on the basis of some cipher manuscripts of dubious provenance and charter purported to be obtained from “Anna Sprengel”, a German noblewoman who almost certainly didn’t exist, the Golden Dawn purported to be a branch of the worldwide Rosicrucian order, the selfsame secret society which had inspired imitators ever since the Rosicrucian manifestos of the early 17th Centuries slipped out and purported to a history much older than that.

Riffing on ideas from the then-popular Theosophical movement, the Golden Dawn founders claimed that the true leaders of the Rosicrucian Order – the so-called Secret Chiefs – were immortal entities who might not exist on the Earthly plane at all, but who Anna Sprengel (and, later, Mathers himself) was in direct contact with, and who had prompted Anna to help Mathers, Westcott, and Woodman establish this new magical order.

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Blake’s 7: Third Front

The story so far: show creator Terry Nation and his loyal script editor sidekick Chris Boucher had managed to shepherd Blake’s 7 through its first season, by the skin of their teeth – Nation having unexpectedly being landed with the task of writing all the episodes, and getting through the deadlines largely by passing his first drafts to Boucher and relying on the latter to punch them up to shape. This resulted in a season which, at its best, has some actually incredible moments, and a few extremely strong episodes. The Way Back, the debut episode, has seared itself into my brain with how powerful it really is, and the season did a great job of establishing its cast (and has the best version of Travis). At the same time, at its worst season 1 Blake’s 7 is clearly struggling to find itself and work out how to do the sort of show it wants to be.

It was good enough to snag a second season for the show, at which point a broader range of writers were drafted in and the overall quality improved. Yes, season 2 has the crap Travis – but it also has the show finding its feet properly, adjusting as it went to cast members’ departures as it went. With everyone’s contracts up for renewal at the end of the season and some cast members intending to leave – including Sally Knyvette, who was finding that she didn’t have that much to do as Jenna, and Gareth Thomas – AKA Blake himself.

Not knowing who’d come back, who’d depart but leave the door open for a potential return, and who would leave forever, Nation crafted the end of the second season around an alien invasion from Andromeda – an invasion with the avowed end of total human extinction. This prompts the Liberator crew to gallantly interpose themselves between the Andromedans and their point of attack – Star One, the Federation’s isolated computer centre – in order to give the Federation time to muster a response, because despite their hated of the Federation the Andromedans were clearly an even bigger threat.

The season ended mere seconds before the eruption of an almighty space battle, which of course was a situation where any character could plausibly end up killed or separated from the others to cover for their actors’ exits. The battle would also allow for an adjustment to the status quo of the series to be made – arguably necessary, if you were going to continue the show without its title character. Would they pull it off? Let’s take a look at season 3 and find out…

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A House of Hidden Depths

On the backwater world of Ceocan, a suspicious shuttle crash has claimed the life of the governor and his eldest son. As a result, Ashielle Matkosen, Governor Ruprekt’s daughter and eldest surviving child, finds herself in at least nominal control of the planet. However, Governor Ashielle is not secure in her post: she knows that whoever arranged the assassination of her father and brother is still out there, and will want her to either play ball or suffer the same fate, and she’s near certain that the ultimate culprit is the Vaneisen family, whose matriarch Esilia serves in a sort of second-in-command role in the planetary government and who stand to take the Governorship should the Matkosen line perish.

This puts Ashielle in great danger – for her younger brother Hanrik, by virtue of having entered the service of the Adeptus Arbites (the Imperium’s interstellar police force), has disqualified himself from the succession. As a result, the only thing between the Vaneisens and the Governorship is Ashielle’s heartbeat – which the sadistic Tanzeg, eldest son of the Vaneisens, wastes little time in attempting to silence. As Ashielle flees an audacious assassination attempt, she discovers a hidden vault beneath her ancestral home of Darcarden, in which a sinister entity has been kept bound. For aeons, the rulers of Ceocan have had the right to command this entity, as a result of an ancient covenant – should they choose to exercise that power.

Ashielle isn’t stupid – she knows that to use this power would be considered heresy and anathema, and see her destroyed by the Imperium should any of its bodies discover she has used this gift. But with her life on the line and her world on the edge of falling into the hands of a family of sadistic criminals, can she afford not to call on the old covenants?

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Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 2

A recap: some time after I did my original overview of the work of Clark Ashton Smith, I replaced my copies of his Arkham House volumes with Night Shade Books’ expansive collection of his fiction, arranged in chronological order over five volumes. A little while back I had a look at the first volumeThe End of the Story, now I am looking at the second, The Door to Saturn.

The first book in this series contained material spanning from 1925 to 1930. By comparison, the stories here all hail from between July 1930 and April 1931, so we are truly in the midst of an incredible burst of creative energy. Smith’s fiction output was spurred in part by his artistic development taking him in that direction (he was also a prolific poet, sculptor, and artist), in part because it was a fun hobby to share with his pen pal H.P. Lovecraft, but largely out of necessity – cranking out material for the pulps allowed Smith to get a modest income to help support his ailing parents.

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Mini-Review: World of the Unknown – UFOs

I was taken enough with Usborne’s reprint of their World of the Unknown – Ghosts book that when I got the chance to pick up the UFO volume in the series for cheap came up, I jumped at it.

The impressive thing about these books is just how much material they pack in. Over the course of some 32 pages, extensively illustrated, the book offers readers very basic introductions to touchstones such as Kenneth Arnold’s original 1947 sightings that began the modern UFO flap, Chariots of the Gods-esque theories about ancient alien visitations, Project Blue Book, artificial Moon theories, experimental aircraft, the Betty and Barney Hill abductions, the Kentucky Goblins, and hoax techniques.

Of course, it doesn’t do a deep dive on any of those subjects – but in terms of giving a very brief overview of the subject, it’s useful for readers of any age. Don’t break the bank hunting it down, but if you see a cheap second-hand copy and fancy a nice slim book on the subject (or a bit of nostalgia if, like me, you read this as a child), it’s not a terrible idea.

Mini-Review: The Hardboiled Old Boy’s Club

Pulp Fiction: the Crimefighters is a compilation of hardboiled detective stories, overwhelmingly from the 1930s and almost all from the classic Black Mask magazine which in retrospect is considered the most important magazine in the genre, much as Weird Tales is regarded in the sword and sorcery and cosmic horror fields these days. Compiled by Otto Penzler, it’s pitched as an introduction to the genre – if not the first stop you make, perhaps the first thing you look into after you’ve covered the obvious bases (say, a Raymond Chandler collection and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon).

The anthology leads off with One, Two, Three by Paul Cain, which showcases most of the salient features of hardboiled detective fiction – from the classic first-person narrative packed with terse witticisms to the tawdry view of human nature, in which few people are innocent and nobody is infallible. It’s the flawed fallibility of hardboiled detective fiction protagonists which in some respects have saved stories like this from aging even more poorly than they already have. Sure, the protagonist doesn’t meet a significant woman in the story who isn’t working an angle – but the same is true of the men he interacts with. Sure, he uses a now-dated racial term at one point, but it’s easier to accept this as part of the characterisation of a flawed man in a realistic depiction of the seedier side of the era. Racism lazily ported into fantasy or science fiction is galling in part because it suggests that the author cannot imagine a world without it. A contemporary depiction of the 1930s which did not include some racism or misogyny on the part of characters is engaged in whitewashing.

That said, seeing pulp-era authors calling out the era’s own racism is endearing. A collection like this wouldn’t be complete without a pinch of Dashiell Hammett, and the chosen story is The Creeping Siamese. That title might put you in mind of a racist narrative steeped in orientalist nonsense, but it isn’t – it’s a story of how someone who’s too used to clichéd crime plots of the era tries to spin such a story for the Continental Op, only for the Op to see through their shit. (As far as the other big name of the hardboiled era, Ray Chandler goes, he’s represented here by Red Wind – but that’s in The Simple Art of Murder, and if you’re exploring pulp crime fiction you’ve probably already read that.)

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