Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 1

Sure, Clark Ashton Smith’s stories are readily available online, it’s still nice to have hard copies of his works. When I originally read them it was in the Panther reprints of his Arkham House collections, which retain some tampering and revisions and censoring by various hands. When William Burns tipped me off on my previous article that Night Shade Books’ Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith series had presented the definitive versions of his short stories, restored as closely as possible to his intended texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, I decided to retire my Panther paperbacks – which by now are a bit tatty – and pick up the new line to reintroduce myself to Smith in a whole new way.

Connors and Hilger arrange the anthologies in as close to chronological order of composition of the stories as they can attain. This is a bit of a break from previous attempts to anthologise Smith, which have tended to collect the stories from his various fictional settings like Hyperborea and Zothique into little clumps, but it does mean that we get to see Smith’s writing evolve over the span of time presented.

It’s not exactly amateurish to begin with, mind. Connors and Hilger don’t include Smith’s juvenilia in the main run of the series – what was available at the time was collected in Miscellaneous Writings, a companion volume, and other early prose fiction from Smith has been rediscovered and reprinted by Hippocampus Press. Instead, volume one – The End of the Story, picks things up in 1925, when Smith – encouraged by his pen pal H.P. “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft – decided to try his hand at it.

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Mini-Review: Just Say No To the Greater Good, Kids!

Cavan Scott’s Warhammer Adventures: Warped Galaxies series of Warhammer 40,000 novels for kids continues with its third episode, Secrets of the Tau. The kids have finally managed to get off the freezing, Genestealer-infested world they were stuck on since the closing sections of Attack of the Necron, having hitched a lift with Amity, a mysterious Rogue Trader who is very keen to avoid questions about why she has no crew left beyond the servitor Grunt.

Zelia, Talen, Mekki and their jokaero friend Fleapit still don’t really have a plan for what to do with themselves beyond rendezvousing with Zelia’s mother at the mysterious “Emperor’s Seat” – and checking Amity’s star charts revealed that in the course of their adventures they’ve ended up inadvertently flung to the other side of the galaxy entirely from where they started out, more’s the pity. Taking pity on them – and perhaps taking into account the potential archaeotech reward from Zelia’s collector mother – Amity takes them to Hinterland, an independent space station where humans and xenos rub shoulders in an uneasy truce, and where a cartographer friend of Amity’s just might have the information on where the Emperor’s Seat is…

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Unearthed Texts From the Old World and Far Future

Black Library’s extensive bibliography of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fiction, for the most part, consists of conventional novels and short stories, but from time to time they’ve produced texts of a different nature – books which are written entirely in-character, presented as artifacts from the settings in question. In recent years, Black Library’s produced some welcome reprints of some such books which they’d allowed to fall out of print a while back – one from the far future of Warhammer 40,000, and one bridging its setting and that of the Old World of Warhammer.

The Imperial Infantryman’s Handbook

This is a reprint of two books previously printed separately – the Imperial Munitorum Manual (by Graham McNeill) and the Imperial Infantryman’s Uplifting Primer (by Matt Ralphs). Both of these are internal documents from the Imperial Guard of Warhammer 40,000; the Munitorum Manual is a guide to its internal bureaucracy, logistical processes, equipment, medals, procedures and so on, whilst the Primer represents the sort of propaganda that its frontline troopers are bombarded with as a matter of course.

Presented as a convenient little pocketbook – and including a delightful section at the end providing a selection of prayers to the God-Emperor, modelled on the sort of condensed hymnals produced for the front line in the British Army, the Handbook – much like the constituent books that make it up – is an amusing read by itself, given that it highlights the dysfunction of the Imperium and the utter lies offered to its fighting forces via the disparity between the statements offered in there and the facts which the reader knows from other sources to be true.

In addition to this, it’s a nice prop for anyone into the 40K tabletop RPGs, or who plays LARPs inspired by the setting. One of my fondest experiences of the Death Unto Darkness LARP was playing an Ecclesiarchy priest leading the PCs in a stirring morning prayer, using the prayer section in the Uplifting Primer for fodder.

Liber Chaotica

First published as four separate books – Liber KhorneLiber SlaaneshLiber Nurgle and Liber Tzeentch – before being reprinted with a new Liber Undivided section of additional material at the end under the Liber Chaotica title, this is presented as a compilation of research on the nature of Chaos by Richter Kless, a scholar given special dispensation by the Grand Theogonist of the Church of Sigmar to plumb the Empire’s archives in search of forbidden knowledge. (The actual authors were Marijan von Staufer, for the Khorne and Slaanesh books, and Richard Williams for the remainder.)

What this actually amounts to is a gorgeous coffee table book of artwork, sketches, and little essays on Chaos, with flavourful scribblings in the margin and the like. In principle, this is a reprint of a reprint – the original combined Liber Chaotica having fallen out of print years ago – and part of me wonders whether some of the edges of the pages have been missed off here, given that some of the text spills off there. In addition, some of the random scribblings are incredibly hard to read, and being unable to check against the original I am not sure whether this was a deliberate aspect of the original books or an error that has worked its way in through the reprint process.

Still, nonetheless the book is here more for eye candy and the occasional little story than for any other purpose, and in that light it’s pretty neat. Whilst focused on the Old World of Warhammer (the setting which was blown up to make way for Age of Sigmar), there’s occasional insights into the Warhammer 40,000 universe via the medium of Kless utterly tripping balls. For Warhammer Fantasy Role Play purposes, this is a nice source of ideas for adventures, or a book you can just dump on the player characters and let them damn themselves with the information therein; there’s a few references to the End Times metaplot which brought an end to the setting, but not overwhelmingly so, and it doesn’t feel too out of place in the WFRP interpretation of the setting (which has a somewhat different focus from the wargame).

Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

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Mini-Review: A Bit of a Fixer-Upper…

Gene Wolfe didn’t spend much time in the here and now in his novels. A clear majority of them are set in other worlds or other time periods, and if you asked a Wolfe cultist to recommend you some of his work they’d probably cite Latro In the Mist, The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of Cerberus (and maybe The Wizard Knight) over any of his rare modern-day books, with the possible exception of his early career highlight Peace. The present didn’t really seem to be one of his interests; until The Sorcerer’s House, he hadn’t set a novel in the current era since 1990’s Pandora By Holly Hollander, and most of his modern-day novels were published in short breaks between major projects.

Just such a break presented itself in 2010, a point when Wolfe had completed The Wizard Knight and tacked another volume onto the Latro series, and sure enough he’s paid a brief visit to the present day in the form of The Sorcerer’s House, which has the worst cover I’ve ever seen on a Wolfe novel but might be the best novel he’s ever done in a contemporary setting since Peace.

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Gems of Criticism

Of all the incidents in Aleister Crowley’s extensive history of shit-stirring in the occult subculture of the early 20th Century, The Equinox is the one which left behind the most material for later generations to pick over. The Equinox was Crowley’s journal of esoteric philosophy and practice; with the motto of “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”, it had an initial run from 1909 to 1913, then returned briefly for a bumper issue in 1919 (the so-called “Blue Equinox”), and then for all intents and purposes that was that. (Such subsequent volumes as issued during Crowley’s lifetime were basically self-contained books on a single subject, rather than journals with articles on varied topics; in the case of books issued during World War II, this was a wheeze intended to take advantage of the fact that magazines were under different paper rationing restrictions from books.)

For its brief run, the original Equinox was supposed to be the teaching organ of the A∴A∴, a splinter group of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn founded by Crowley and some of his allies. Crowley’s eclectic approach to spirituality doesn’t quite hide the fact that, overall, the entire shebang is basically a sort of repackaged Theravada Buddhism, the magical goal of communication and union with one’s Holy Guardian Angel being part of the process of attaining the enlightenment of ego-death.

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Taking a Note, Taking a Dive

The general public has a short memory. Many are under the impression that a substantial number of professional wrestling fans still believe the artform to represent genuine competition, rather than being an entertainment medium consisting of matches with predetermined outcomes. This isn’t the case – aside from small children who might believe in Roman Reigns the way they believe in Father Christmas, fans generally accept that the matches are worked, and derive a whole secondary level of enjoyment from analysing and debating the storytelling decisions behind match outcomes and the backstage gossip that might have fed into them.

Even among wrestling fans, there’s something of a myth that kayfabe – the pretence that it’s a real contest – was rigorously maintained until the early 1990s, when Vince McMahon famously said that WWF was in the “sport entertainment” business and promotions like ECW or WCW ran angles based largely on breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging kayfabe (usually as an attempt to persuade the viewer that things had gone “off-script” and were therefore real). In fact, major breaches of kayfabe and exposes of the business go way back, with one of the most famous such examples being Marcus Griffin’s 1937 book Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce.

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