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Worlds Without End Blog

Month of Horrors: End of Month Wrap-Up Posted at 6:19 AM by Jonathan McDonald

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Today isn’t just Halloween, it’s also the closing day of WWEnd’s Month of Horrors, our 31-day celebration of the Horror genre in conjunction with adding this genre to the site. We’ve decided to wrap up the festivities with a dialogue between Rico and me about the genre. We may not be the biggest Horror aficionados in the world, but we both love literature, and I think we are both curious to see how it fits in the pantheon of genres, and especially how it relates to Science Fiction and Fantasy, the long-time staples of the WWEnd site.

Jonathan: Ward Shelley in his infographic links genre fiction back into the primal emotions of Fear and Wonder. Arguably the Horror genre is far more about Fear than Wonder, though it often has its fair share of both. H. P. Lovecraft, of all people, occasionally wrote lyrically beautiful stories like “The White Ship” which were filled with wonder. But despite its primal roots, I don’t know of any previous body of literature that has focused so intently on the emotion of fear. In some ways, it reminds me of amusement park rides, which are built almost entirely to give the riders a thrill or a scare, the false feeling that their lives are in imminent physical danger even though everything is perfectly under control. I’ve often wondered if the thrill of fear is the primary draw for horror readers, if they are wanting to feel a “safe danger” like that of the amusement park ride. In other cases I suspect that the genre is a way of dramatically expounding on a philosophical or theological belief about the nature of the universe, the human condition, and the relationship between humanity and whatever cosmic powers might be. Do you have any thoughts on the genre from this perspective? Certainly I doubt that we will be able to fully unravel the mystery of any genre’s attraction—even Science Fiction is often more confounding than captivating to me—but I admire it if only as an outsider.

Rico: Horror does seem to have older roots than other genres. Whether it’s Odysseus trapped between the monster (Scylla) and a gaping nothingness (Charybdis), Hercules battling a hydra, or Jason facing the harpies, even the ancient Greeks felt the need for monstrous yarns. Lovecraft said this was because fear is our oldest emotion, especially fear of the unknown. In a lot of ways, it sort of drives us to find out what it is that scares us, so we can conquer it. Fear, then, is not so different from wonder.

As to why horror is so attractive, however, we need a different explanation. Maybe one clue can be found in physiology. Sartre once observed that the symptoms of fear (dilation of the pupils, elevated heart rate, perspiration) also happen to occur when one falls in love. Two completely different conditions elicit the same bodily reactions. Because fear is so primal, it might be easier to frighten a reader than to make him/her fall in love. If the trill of a good scare gets me flushed in a way that is so love-like, why wouldn’t I enjoy it?

Jonathan: You mentioned both the Lovecraft and the ancient Greeks, but there’s a world of difference between the way each would approach a horrific tale. The Greeks had stories of monsters like Medusa and Typhon which, on the surface, are very similar to monsters like Lovecraft’s Cthulu, but while the Greek monsters might eat the occasional passerby and even level a mountain or two, Olympus could never truly lose the world to these monsters. Cthulu, on the other hand, will inevitably rise from the watery deeps to darken the sky and devour mankind. There’s the horror that is finite and destructible, like the Chimera and the Hydra, and then there’s the horror that devours not only people but hope. A classical tale of horror might end badly for some people, but it will also end with the sun still shining and regular people living their lives. A modern horror tale will often end with the emotional and psychological devastation of the protagonist, whose beliefs about the stability of the world have been crushed.

So while there is a kind of pleasurable (even love-like) thrill that can come from a frightening story, I don’t know that the Lovecraftian sort of total despair offers the same pleasure. David Hume once wrote about the stage tragedies of his day: “What [can be] so disagreeable as the dismal, gloomy, disastrous stories with which melancholy people entertain their companions? The uneasy passion being there raised alone, unaccompanied with any spirit, genius, or eloquence, conveys a pure uneasiness, and is attended with nothing that can soften it into pleasure or satisfaction.” Do you think that modern horror perhaps offers the taste of that thrill without the pleasure, or am I being too harsh on it?

Rico: I agree that there is a difference between the Greek stories and Lovecraft, but Lovecraft doesn’t define the genre. The world is still intact when the tell-tale heart stops beating, when the vampire finally gets staked, and when the last alien is flushed into space by Sigourney Weaver. Lovecraftian horror, it seems to me, is a special extremist sub genre. Of course, even it doesn’t find the world in tatters (there’d be no story if Hastur or Cthulu ever crossed over). It’s the threat of obliteration that makes the story exciting. In that sense, the Lovecraftian world really does share something in common with Odysseus and his men hovering on the brink of Charybdis, yet not quite falling in.

Also, although it’s true that the Olympic gods may not lose the world (well, there is one time, in the Iliad, when the Fates tell Zeus that he may defy them to save Troy, but that the cosmos would fall into chaos as a result), but humans certainly can lose their world. I’m thinking of Hecuba, for whom there can be no solace. Niobi (“all tears”) comes to mind. As in Lovecraft’s world, the gods take away everything.

Perhaps a better ancient analogue to Cthulu is Vishnu, the Hindu god whom Oppenheimer quoted as he reflected upon the nuclear horror he helped to create: “Now, I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Jonathan: Fair enough. In addition to the classical and modern horror narratives, it’s educational to look at the Medieval/Christian stories that most closely match the genre. Medieval poets loved singing about bizarrely chimeric beasts in addition to the demons and occult practitioners who frequently tormented the innocent. Meanwhile, Dante’s Inferno explored the greatest horror imaginable: everlasting damnation and torment. It’s a particularly interesting sort of horror, though, in that the one experiencing its pains has brought them upon himself. (Those in Dante’s version of Hell who are there by no vice of their own, like the unbaptized infants and the virtuous pagans, suffer no external pains.) When Dante tours the underworld, he is not witnessing the caprices of a cruel god, but the wasted lives of those who refused to do good and now suffer the consequences. The Medieval vision of Hell managed to combine the classical vision of celestial permanence and beauty with the all-consuming despair of a Lovecraftian apocalypse, as it’s inscribed on Hell’s doors: “Justice caused my high Architect to move… / The highest Wisdom, and the primal Love … / Abandon all hope you who enter here” (trans. Anthony Esolen).

To my mind, the best of the Horror genre is that which manages to keep both aspects of reality in play. When the balance tips entirely towards Tragedy (so to speak) or entirely in favor of Comedy, one feels that the poet or novelist isn’t being entirely honest about the way things are. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a magnificently-written novel, but it is arguably stuck in an emotional rut of bleak despair. As a counterpoint, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga is a work which manages to drink the cup of futility to its last drop, without losing hope.

Rich: That, it seems, is very much in keeping with Hallowe’en, which is a sort of twilight between the despair of loss (death) and the joy of All Saints Day (and All Souls Day, on November 2). The fact that today is an ’eve (and not the day itself) suggests a sort of lack of completion. We go out begging (trick or treating), perhaps because we lack something we want. All Hallows Evening is a darker anticipation of something miraculous, the feast day of every saint that ever was. There is, nay, there must be some sort of hope at the end of despair.

Jonathan: I’ll close simply by noting a small handful of Horror books I still plan to read, since I still feel inadequately-read in the genre. The Monk, The Castle of Otranto, and Melmoth the Wanderer are all at the top of my list as Gothic subgenre works; despite my recent bad experience with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s attempt at Gothic fiction, I still want to give it a try. I might also crack open some children’s horror with Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Joe Hill’s Horns is on the list, but a little further down.

What say you, Rico?

Rico: I’m likely to be more behind in my reading than you. It seems that much of the horror tradition is American, and may have roots not just in the English Gothic Novel, but also in the constant low-grade terror of North America’s indigenous population. Jung believed that tales of demonic possession waned in the American mind as rationalism took hold, and was replaced by stories of Indian abductions (and that those stories, in the 20th century turned into alien abductions!). This gets back to your idea of the unknown, and it makes me want to read all three kinds of "abduction" stories. The stories of Captain John Smith may sound more like a good old adventure story than horror, but it was a source of much anxiety to its readers in early America, who were more than familiar with the gruesome legacy of Roanoke. I also have an interest in the more recent accounts of body snatching: One such story is The Exorcist, which William Peter Blatty did not intend to be a horror novel at all. Another is I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, which has inspired how many movies? If Jung were writing today, he might say that zombies are the latest incarnation of the abduction myth, and boy is it having its heyday, today.

So that wraps up our Worlds Without End Month of Horrors! We hope you’ve all enjoyed our exploration of the Horror genre during the month of October. Cheery chills, and safe trick-or-treating!

2011 World Fantasy Award Winner: Who Fears Death Posted at 6:18 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Who Fears Death

The 2011 World Fantasy Awards winners have been announced during a ceremony at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, California this afternoon. The winner for best novel is:

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW).

Congratulations to Nnedi Okorafor and all the best novel nominees.

You can see the complete list of winners in all categories at SF Signal.

What do you think of this result? Has anyone read Who Fears Death? WWEnd member, Allie, posted a nice review of it here and on her blog Tethyan Books that you should check out.

 

 

 

 

Philip K. Dickathon: Martian Time-Slip Posted at 5:40 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell

charlesdee

Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd and we’ve invited him to contribute to our blog. This is the latest in Dee’s series of Philip K. Dick reviews that he started on his blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com. We’ll be posting one every week until he runs out of reviews or gets tired of Philip K. Dick books.


Martian Time-SlipPhilip K. Dick just couldn’t be bothered by some of the standard verities of science fiction. He knew SF should often take place in outer space, but whereas other novelists placed their narratives in the 2200’s, 2300’s, or some unimaginable distant future, in the novels Dick wrote in the 1950′s and 1960′s, he thought that 40 or so years was plenty of time for man to start populating the universe. He also didn’t pay much attention to the news coming out from astrophysicists that the weather on other planets seemed to be uniformly bad. Martian Time-Slip takes place in 1994. Mars has scattered settlements and townships, mostly sponsored by national groups from Earth. The exception, and the most powerful group of all, is a Plumbers Union. I assume Dick had had some unpleasantness involving plumbers when he sat down to write this book.

But plumbers are essential to the workings of the settlements. The weather is bearable if a little dry. One good trade-off is that you only weigh about fifty pounds, and housewives slip into halter-tops and Capri pants to visit neighbors. But water is in short supply and closely rationed. Arnie Kott, the vulgarian union boss, is one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet, although that may change. Rumor has it that the U.N. is planning to develop the FDR Mountains, drilling deep water wells and creating self-sustaining luxury living complexes. The land grab is on.

Wikipedia has a coherent synopsis of the book, and I congratulate whoever wrote it. Topics touched on include: schizophrenia (which is almost epidemic), black marketing, adultery, extensive drinking and drug ingestion, pesky neighbors — in other words, it is Dick’s Northern California neighborhood transfered to Mars. Much of the plot hinges on Manfred, an autistic child who becomes a test subject for the main character’s experiments with extrasensory communication and ultimately time travel.

And let’s not forget the Beakmen, the remnants of the Martian race who are now reduced to wandering the deserts or working in the homes of wealthy earthlings. Dick always presents himself as progressive in terms of race and social policies in general, but his portrait of the Beakmen is among his strangest concoctions. Just as he didn’t care much for astrophysics, Dick also didn’t seem to keep up with physical anthropology. The Beakmen are described as "Negroid" and descended from the same source as earthly Africans. (Phil, all homo sapiens come from common stock, long predating any division into races. And so unless you are saying some Central African natives somehow found their way to Mars 30,000 years ago, you are really off on this one.) Also, this is a novel written in the early sixties, and Dick was certainly aware of the Civil Rights movement. So what does it mean that Mars has a society somewhat reflecting the Antebellum South? The word slave is never used, but wealthy settlers have "tame" Beakmen working for them, refer to them as niggers, and enjoy giving them such high-falutin’ names as Heliogabalus. But of course, the Beakmen have deep, secret knowledge. Where was Dick going with this?

This is one of Dick’s enjoyable train wrecks of a novel. I don’t want to slip into biographical criticism, but it reads like a combination of Dick’s marital problems, his extensive experience with psychiatrists, a general dislike of land speculators and plumbers, and some cock-eyed ideas about autism. And as nutty as the whole thing is, the conclusion is not only satisfying on many levels but genuinely strange as well.

Month of Horrors: Phantom Posted at 11:18 PM by Allie McCarn

allie

Month of Horrors

Guest Blogger, Allie McCarn, reviews science fiction and fantasy books on her blog Tethyan Books which we featured in a previous post: Five SF/F Book Blogs Worth Reading. She has already contributed many great book reviews to WWEnd and has generously volunteered to write some periodic reviews for our blog. Be sure to check out her site and let her know you found her here.


PhantomPhantom by Thomas Tessier
Published: Atheneum, 1982

The Book:

“Ned has known about phantoms since he was very young. You have to hide from them, under your bed covers. You can’t peek, because then you’ll see that they’re real. Then there’s no taking it back.

When Ned is almost ten, his parents move him from the city to a small town called Lynnhaven. Lynnhaven has its own ghosts—stories of people long gone and a ruined, abandoned spa that still remains. Ned seems to adapt well, befriending several local old-timers and spending his days fishing and playing. However, he slowly becomes aware that there is something dark waiting for him, and he associates it with the decrepit spa. He knows that sooner or later he will have to face his phantom…” ~Allie

Phantom, a novel on the Horror Writers Association Reading List, is my second review for WWEnd’s Month of Horrors. Phantom, which represents a very different style of horror than Conjure Wife, is a quieter, slower-paced story that focuses more on the kinds of fear that are probably familiar to everyone.

My Thoughts:

One of the strengths of Phantom as a horror story was the way it was built upon a foundation of realistic fear. First, it featured the (possibly) baseless terror children often experience while alone at night. I remember being an overly imaginative child, spending nights where every little sound or shifting shadow filled me with an irrational sense of doom. The actual events of Phantom moved well beyond usual childhood fright, but its basis in this kind of common fear made Ned’s situation much more relatable. The other, more serious, kinds of fear at the heart of the story were of the rational adult variety—fear of death or of losing someone you love. While childish fear certainly drove some of the creepier scenes, the mature fears were the ones that truly lent the story weight and made it memorable.

Thomas TessierDespite the fact that the story involved both terror and phantoms, it was incredibly slow-paced. Most of the story involved Ned and his family getting settled in Lynnhaven. His mother and father both tried to help Ned adjust, in their own ways. For his part, Ned coped with the move by forging a friendship with two elderly men, Peeler and Cloudy. The relationship between Ned and the two men was absolutely adorable. Peeler and Cloudy took him along to fish or catch bait, and Ned eagerly listened to their old stories about former Lynnhaven residents. The development of Peeler and Cloudy’s peaceful friendship with Ned, or “Mr. Tadpole” as they called him, and Ned’s relationships with his parents filled a large part of the novel.

I enjoyed the focus on the characters and their relationships, but I was surprised at how much more emphasis was placed on everyday life than on frightening deviations from it. If you’re reading the story solely for thrills, I think it might become frustrating. The breaks between the more disturbing events are filled with pages of parental worries and conversations with Peeler and Cloudy. I don’t mean to say that exciting, creepy things don’t happen—Ned’s experiences with the spa are one example—but the thrills definitely take a back seat to character study and contemplative scenes of daily life.

The writing itself was concise and effective, but I was a little put off by the style of narration. The story is told from a third person omniscient point of view, and the thoughts and feelings of each person are generally described in every scene. The narration would hop from the mind of one person to the next between paragraphs, a style that I find personally jarring. It was never unclear whose thoughts were being related, but I felt that constantly moving from one person’s mind to another disturbed the flow of the story.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Phantom seems very much what I would expect from traditional horror, except for its slow, contemplative pace. It has a lot to say on the subject of fear, both the kinds of fears that plague small children and the inevitable fear of mortality with which I think most people eventually struggle. Rather than focusing on supernatural interference, the story focused more on the roots of a person’s fear and how it affects their lives. The thrilling, spine-tingling scenes were few and far between, but the bulk of the novel studied the relationships between Ned, his parents, and the elderly townsfolk Peeler and Cloudy. While it may not be packed full with action and suspense, the story of Ned and his phantom portrays many varieties of fear that will resonate with its readers.

Month of Horrors: The House of the Seven Gables Posted at 11:05 PM by Jonathan McDonald

jynnantonnyx

Month of Horrors

My introduction to the genre of Gothic Fiction was actually made not by a novel or short story, but by a graphic novel. Unlike the films, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series is a dark and moody walk through crumbled castles and vine-ridden monasteries, albeit with the occasional gun fight and mad Nazi scientist. Reading it got me in the mood for more of the same, and after some research I discovered that Mignola was playing with a genre that’s been around for quite some time. The addition of the Guardian List brought with it a large selection of Gothic fiction to the WWEnd site, including one novel by an author I was already familiar with, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Nathaniel HawthorneBy the time Hawthorne wrote his very popular House of the Seven Gables, he was working within an established genre whose shape and borders had already been established by such writers as Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Matthew Lewis, Charles Maturin, and Edgar Allan Poe. Hawthorne doesn’t disappoint any reader who comes to his novel expecting the same as what these earlier writers provided: ancient aristocratic homes, tyrannous judges, estranged relatives, unspeakable crimes from long ago, one-sided depictions of ancient religious communities, and of course a good haunting. While his book was and is well loved, I’m not sure that I agree with those who love it.

But the fault isn’t, I think, with the genre itself. Even though this is probably the only novel I’ve read that accurately conforms to the classical tropes of the Gothic genre—authors like Bram Stoker and of H.P. Lovecraft wrote books similar to the Gothic, but were developing their own ideas—I still have a strong draw to its peculiar atmosphere. Hawthorne, though, is something of a hack writer, and that harms the novel. The House of the Seven GablesNever content to allow a metaphor to remain implicit, he often spends multiple pages explicating an image he just inserted into the narrative, as though afraid its meaning might possibly pass a reader by. His prose is hardly bad in and of itself, but he can’t stop himself from pointing out his own cleverness. Adding to this weakness is his proclivity for digression, in which he interrupts an ongoing part of the narrative to talk about a character’s or object’s history, or to wax so poetic about something or other that the wax starts dripping all over the place. But for all his literary gurning, Hawthorne leaves a hugely important occurrence at the end of the narrative unexplained even after so much else is revealed. Sometimes one wishes he would shut up and tell the story.

Here’s part of Hawthorne’s description of the eponymous house:

All, as they approached, looked upward at the imposing edifice, which was henceforth to assume its rank among the habitations of mankind. There it rose, a little withdrawn from the line of the street, but in pride, not modesty. Its whole visible exterior was ornamented with quaint figures, conceived in the grotesqueness of a Gothic fancy, and drawn or stamped in the glittering plaster, composed of lime, pebbles, and bits of glass, with which the woodwork of the walls was overspread. On every side the seven gables pointed sharply towards the sky, and presented the aspect of a whole sisterhood of edifices, breathing through the spiracles of one great chimney. The many lattices, with their small, diamond-shaped panes, admitted the sunlight into hall and chamber, while, nevertheless, the second story, projecting far over the base, and itself retiring beneath the third, threw a shadowy and thoughtful gloom into the lower rooms. Carved globes of wood were affixed under the jutting stories. Little spiral rods of iron beautified each of the seven peaks.

Although The House of the Seven Gables is probably not the best example of Gothic fiction, its influence, especially on American horror, cannot be denied. Hawthorne himself is something of an acquired taste, but I know many people who think he’s one of the finest literary figures from early America. Maybe someday I’ll come around to their way of thinking, but it might be a while.

Easton Press Masterpieces of Science Fiction Posted at 8:47 AM by Dave Post

Dave Post

Today we added a new book list to WWEnd: Easton Press Masterpieces of Science Fiction. From the Easton Press website:

Masterpieces of Science Fiction spans the entire history of the genre and encompasses an extraordinary range of work… from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and more.

Easton Press puts out those amazing leather-bound books you’ve probably lusted over at one time or another. I’ve got a few in my collection and I’m always on the lookout for more – if the price is right. I shudder to think what the whole set must cost!

While we don’t have the actual Easton Press cover images for the list the 139 books on it represent some of the best in genre fiction under any cover.

Take a look and let us know what you think. How many of these have you read? How do you think it compares to some of our other Book Lists?

Philip K. Dickathon: The Man in the High Castle Posted at 6:42 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell

charlesdee

Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd and we’ve invited him to contribute to our blog. This is the latest in Dee’s series of Philip K. Dick reviews that he started on his blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com. We’ll be posting one every week until he runs out of reviews or gets tired of Philip K. Dick books.


I’ve never been big on Alternate History novels. Never been tempted by those Harry Turtledove books that show spacecraft flying Confederate flags or Doughboys crouching behind armor-plated dinosaurs. But this is Dickian alternative history, and The Man in the High Castle is the novel that won him the Hugo award. He claims in a letter from the mid-sixties that he was not that crazy about this book. Maybe like Henry James he craved success but then tended to look down on works that brought him the most attention. In James’ case it was Washington Square, Daisy Miller, and The Turn of the Screw. And that is the only comparison I would ever think to make between Philip K. Dick and Henry James.

The Allies have lost WWII. The United States is now officially only those states on the Eastern seaboard, and they are under Reich Rule. No one has shown much interest in the Midwest, and, although still part of a conquered empire, it exists as a marginally freer buffer zone. The Japanese control the Pacific States of America, and the bulk of the novel takes place in San Francisco. In the PSA, most Americans have made their peace with the Japanese occupation. No Patrick Swayze has risen to the fore and led a group of teenagers, strangely proficient in advanced military weaponry, to stage a Red Dawn style insurgency. Most San Franciscans are working profitably with, or for, the Japanese, but in alliances that are marked with crippling levels of anxiety. This is, after all, a Philip K. Dick novel.

Dick establishes a dozen or so characters, several of whom are even who they claim to be, and sets things rolling so that paths seemed destined to cross in disastrous ways. But in fact things run rather smoothly with the exception of a couple of spectacular outbreaks of violence. This is a novel of anxiety, not action. It’s a story where anxiety can arise from the excruciating decision of what will be the proper gift to "graft" in a given situation, or by the discovery that the Nazi’s are planning a massive nuclear holocaust. Linked characters are scattered across the continent, and I was worried that somehow everything was going to tie together neatly as in one of the machines-for-winning-Academy-Awards like Crash. But the stories run parallel more often than they cross. One character does save another’s life, but he never meets the man and acts because he is pissed off and wants to exert some authority.

And then there is "the man in the high castle," the reclusive author Hawthorn Abendsen — how does Dick think up these names? Abendsen is the author of the controversial and absurdly titled novel The Grasshoper Lies Heavy. This is an alternative history in which the allies win the war, and although banned by the Nazis, Japanese and American readers are snatching it up. The final question in Dick’s novel centers on the possibility that Abendsen’s novel is not fiction. The Allies did win the war. History is not a progression of events but an infinite play of possibilities. But still a play where some people get killed, some go insane, and some plan to blow the whole thing up.

Month of Horrors: Conjure Wife Posted at 11:21 AM by Allie McCarn

allie

Month of Horrors

Guest Blogger, Allie McCarn, reviews science fiction and fantasy books on her blog Tethyan Books which we featured in a previous post: Five SF/F Book Blogs Worth Reading. She has already contributed many great book reviews to WWEnd and has generously volunteered to write some periodic reviews for our blog. Be sure to check out her site and let her know you found her here.


Conjure WifeConjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
Published: Berkley Publishing Group, 1952
(originally in “Unknown Worlds”, 1943)

The Book:

“Life is going pretty well for Norman Saylor, Professor of Ethnology at the small College of Hempnell. His career is on the rise, and he knows that a large part of his success is due to the faithful, loving support of his wife, Tansy. One day, when he innocently pokes his nose into Tansy’s dressing room, he learns that she’s been using much more than her secretarial skills to make his life run more smoothly—she’s been using witchcraft.

Norman believes his studies of cultural superstitions have given rise to her ‘little witchcraft complex’, and he convinces her to stop it completely. However, after burning her protective charms, things begin to go wrong. Old and new enemies crop up, and his daily life begins to be plagued by many trivial—and some serious—difficulties. Is it all coincidence, or are there other magical forces at work, much more malevolent than Tansy’s protective charms? Will Norman continue to cling to his rational world, or will he be able to bring himself to trust in his wife before it is too late?” ~Allie

This is my first post for WWEnd’s Month of Horrors, which is welcoming the addition of the horror genre to the site! Conjure Wife is a selection from the Horror Writers Association Reading List, and it tells a story that is both creepy and full of suspense. This horror classic has been an inspiration for film multiple times over the decades (Weird Woman in 1944, Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn! in 1962, and Witches Brew/Which Witch is Which? in 1988), and I think it well deserves its lasting fame.

My Thoughts:

Some elements of the society of Conjure Wife are firmly set in the 1940s, but the story itself is one that would work well in any era. In fact, with its juxtaposition of magic and mysticism with modern university life, it could be seen as a precursor to modern dark urban fantasy. The manipulation of tension in the story is masterful, and there were times when it was almost impossible to put the book down.

The magical and realistic elements of the story were woven together in a way that was suitably disturbing while rarely moving towards the absurd. Rather than going for Bewitched-style magic, the witchcraft of Conjure Wife seemed to be based more on actual practices, specifically the Hoodoo folk magic of the southern United States. Tansy’s main form of magic is the protective charms, which she calls ‘hands’, various objects ritually wrapped in flannel. The physicality of the magic and the references to (I assume) actual traditional practices lend weight and mystery to scenes featuring witchcraft.

Fritz LeiberWhile some of the dated elements of the story, such as the Norman’s references to psychoanalysis, were amusing, I was initially afraid that I would be turned off by the treatment of women and African Americans in the novel. Women’s rights, as well as the rights of African Americans, were not doing quite as well in the 1940s as they are today, and Conjure Wife is a product of its time. African Americans are only mentioned in reference to Hoodoo practices, which, I think, kind of plays into a popular fictional stereotype. The story also often discusses the fact that men are ‘naturally rational’, while women are ‘naturally intuitional’, and thus more likely to fall prey to superstition. However, when taken in the context of the society and the events of the story, these elements did not really come across as offensive. One interesting similarity to modern day is the contemporary attitudes toward universities. Norman notes that many people see large universities as “hotbeds of Communism and free love”. If you update the vocabulary (to left-wing politics and casual sex), then I imagine it would be quite easy to find a lot of people who would still make that claim.

Incidentally, Norman and Tansy Saylor want nothing more than to get back to one of those hotbeds. They are not nearly the respectable, staid couple that their career would seem to imply, though they are putting on a good show of it for the small, conservative college of Hempnell. They’re more accustomed to raucous drinking parties with their theatrical friends, but they’re currently resigned to playing bridge with the other faculty couples. Norman can’t quite give up some of his controversial ideas, such as his thoughts on premarital sex, despite how much it scandalizes the trustees.

For her part, Tansy is an intelligent and capable character, and a very powerful witch. She only practices protective magic, and she is remarkably selfless. Even when she’s in need of rescuing, she never completely loses her agency. The antagonists, on the other hand, are only very lightly developed as characters. Their motivations are clear and reasonable, but none of them have much depth. In general, I didn’t mind the weaker characterization of the antagonists, since I felt that the heart of this story was Norman, Tansy, and their relationship.

My Rating: 4.5/5

I was delighted with how well Conjure Wife still worked as a smoothly entertaining story, despite being written over half a century ago. Some aspects of social attitudes and setting were very clearly out of date, but others were still surprisingly relevant. I think the deciding factors in my enjoyment of the story were the characters of Norman and Tansy and the strength of the portrayal of their relationship. There’s clearly a reason that Conjure Wife has had such lasting fame, and I would fully recommend it to anyone looking for a suspenseful, magic-filled tale this Halloween season!

WWEnd BookTrackr™ Update: Stats at a Glance Posted at 12:18 PM by Dave Post

Dave Post

You may have noticed a few changes around WWEnd lately. We’ve been hard at work pushing out new updates as fast as we can. We just finished a major push to update our Horror coverage with the addition of The Bram Stoker Award and the HWA Reading List. That’s a couple hundred more of the best books to pick from my friends!

American GodsAnd since finding the best books is what this site is all about we’ve just added a new feature to our BookTrackr™ that we think you’re really gonna like. You’ve probably already noticed the new numbered icons that appear on the book covers in the awards pages and elsewhere on the site. These new info icons are designed to help you identify the most celebrated books, at a glance, from amongst the thousands of books in our database. The red icon represents the number of award nominations that book has received, across the 11 awards we cover, while the black icon represents the number of Book Lists that the book appears on.

In the example above, which happens to show the nominees for the 2002 Hugo Award, you can see that all 5 books received multiple nominations but China Mieville‘s Perdido Street Station has a whopping 7 nominations and is included in 3 out of our 14 book lists! The yellow highlight indicates that it’s on my reading list. Can you guess why? The book that won the Hugo in 2002, Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods, boasts a 7/4 and is one of my favorite fantasy books.

These numbers do more than just show nominations and lists, however. They reveal all kinds of interesting and useful information that you can use to find the books you want to read. For example, if you’re wanting to try Vernor Vinge you would find A Fire Upon the Deep at a 4/4 to be pretty tempting.

A Fire Upon the DeepYou can even see which years an author was hottest. Take a look at Gene Wolfe to see what I mean. He’s been hugely popular for many years but was absolutely killing it in the early 80′s in particular. Stephen King has nominations for 25 of the 29 of his books in our database which is a pretty clear indication of his consistent quality.

Say you want to try a cyberpunk novel but you don’t know where to start. You can go to our sub-genres page, click on cyberpunk to get a list of all the books that have been tagged as cyberpunk. Now you can look for the books with the highest number of award nominations and list appearances. Neuromancer at a 5/7 looks like a pretty safe bet. Of course, an 8 1/2 rating from 131 member votes will further that impression too.

Some other indicators that have become apparent are that higher award noms tends to indicate a more recent book. There are more awards now than there were in the past so there’s a better chance of getting multiple nominations. The converse of that is that the books with a higer number of book list appearances tend to be older works because they have been more widely read over the years. They’ve stood the test of time as it were. Frank Herbert‘s classic, Dune, is a great example. It has only 2 award nominations, from a time when there were only 2 awards, but that’s offset by 7 book list appearances! They don’t call it a classic for nuttin’!

These numbers can be found on all the awards lists, the author and publisher pages as well as the search page right now. We’ll be adding them to the book lists pages and the members lists next so stand by for that update in the next few days. Take a look at this new feature and let us know what you think. What other useful information can you glean from these numbers? How do your favorite books stack up in noms and lists?

Month of Horrors: The Road Posted at 12:00 AM by Jonathan McDonald

jynnantonnyx

Month of Horrors

Cormac McCarthyCormac McCarthy’s novel The Road made some big waves when it was promoted through Oprah’s book club back in 2007. This led to an awkward interview on her talk show—McCarthy is notorious for avoiding any and all interviews—but it did wonders for his book sales. It’s fascinating that such a dark tale would be promoted in what can accurately be described as a pop venue, but I’m sure Cormac got some laughs knowing that his story of a man and his son desperately trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland would be read by housewives around the country.

This drearily violent tale follows an unnamed man who is traveling to the ocean with his son (called only “the boy” by the author) across a land wasted by some unspecified disaster. At one point it’s suggested that this is a nuclear winter, but McCarthy leaves the cause of the earth’s death throes as unnamed as his protagonists. Realizing that they will not survive another winter at their current latitude, the father believes that moving south toward the ocean will bring some relief, and possibly better company than the roving gangs of thieves and cannibals they currently have to deal with at every turn.

The RoadMcCarthy doubles down on the horror first by taking a hard, long look at the devastation that’s been brought down on the earth. There is little to no greenery left, nor any wildlife, and ash falls from the sky intermixed with snow. Just about the only food left is what can be scavenged from canned food stores, which leads to the second aspect of The Road’s horror, the cannibals. Those who are not strong enough to physically protect themselves are often taken alive to be eaten gradually, or else are used to, shall we say, generate more food.

The man and the boy wind their way through one horror after another in search of their goal, each horror more emotionally scarring than the last. At one point they are walking down a stretch of the road that had been melted by surrounding forest fires during the first days of the earth’s scorching. “The blacktop underneath had buckled in the heat and then set back again,” as McCarthy describes it. He goes on,

Boxes and bags. Everything melted and black. Old plastic suitcases curled shapeless in the heat. Here and there the imprint of things wrested out of the tar by scavengers. A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Take my hand, he said. I dont think you should see this.
     What you put in your head is there forever?
     Yes.
     It’s okay Papa.
     It’s okay?
     They’re already there.
     I dont want you to look.
     They’ll still be there.
     He stopped and leaned on the cart. He looked down the road and he looked at the boy. So strangely untroubled.
     Why dont we just go on, the boy said.
     Yes. Okay.
     They were trying to get away werent they Papa?
     Yes. They were.
     Why didnt they leave the road?
     They couldnt. Everything was on fire.
     They picked their way among the mummied figures. The black skin stretched upon their bones and their faces split and shrunken on their skulls. Like victims of some ghastly envacuuming. Passing them in silence down that silent corridor through the drifting ash where they struggled forever in the road’s cold coagulate.

I didn’t sleep well the night after finishing this novel.

(Image from stock.xchng, by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo.)