Sunday, April 24, 2011

C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner - A Perfect Union

When Gary Gygax put together his Appendix N for the first edition AD&D DM Guide, there was no way he could have been all inclusive. However, there are some names that are shockingly not on it, such as Clark Ashton Smith. Two other names that often come up in discussions of missing authors are C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner.

Pictured to the left are Catherine Moore and Henry "Hank" Kuttner. It is nearly impossible to discuss one with out the other. The story has been passed down that the two started a relationship when Hank sent a fan letter to the gender ambiguous author C.L. Moore. Catherine Moore was using the gender-non-specific pen name in order to help her boost her sales in a then almost entirely male dominated pulp world.

A friendship began which turned into a marriage. Their marriage was more then just a civil union, it was the union of two talents as well. More then one person that knew the two would often remark that they worked so well together, that when one left the typewriter, the other would sit down, scan what was done then launch right back into the story. Thus it is often hard to say what stories are pure Moore or pure Kuttner or an amalgamation of the two.

I became enamored with their writing when I discovered them through my Planet Stories Subscription through Pazio Publishing. I read Moore's works offered from the Planet Stories line several months ago, and I read Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis around the same time. It was not until recently when I took account of how far behind I had fallen in reading my Planet Stories subscription that I finally read Kuttner's Dark World and Robots Have no Tails.

This offering by Pazio Publishing collects all of the Northwest Smith stories, most of which appeared in Weird Tales beginning in 1933. The biggest negative criticism I have towards the collection is that the character of Northwest Smith has been advertised as a precursor to Han Solo. This is what I expected when I read these stories, but that is not what was delivered. Now I should state that this is not a negative comment towards Moore and her creation; rather, it is a statement that the blurbs are misleading. I was expecting stories of space smugglers out running the law in space ships and a hero blasting away the bad guys. In short, I was expecting Space Opera.

In truth, the Northwest Smith stories are more in the key of H.P. Lovecraft then Star Wars style space opera. This makes sense as both Moore and Kuttner were part of the Lovecraft Circle of the pulp era. Moore offers up stories of creeping doom, often in the guise of alien women that hint towards being the catalyst of mythological creatures such as the Medusa (read Moore's short story "Shambleau" and you will know what I am talking about).

There are no battles in space, I think there may have been one space ship in the entire collection, and the appearance of "blasters" is slim and infrequent. Many of the stories take place on Mars, and this is the Mars of the pulp era that is assumed to have always been habitable. It is a future in an undetermined time in which space travel is frequent and common, even though there is a definite lack of said space travel.

In other reviews, I have read several accounts of readers being disappointed with the definite lack of "space opera-ness". Again, this is not a fault of Moore's but rather it is bad marketing. Moore's Northwest Smith stories are engaging and a worth while read; however, the reader should know what he is getting into.

It would be easy enough to place these same stories not on Mars, but instead on Earth or an earth like world. The space ships which are mentioned could be left out, and the few blasters that appear could be replaced with swords. If these things were done, then these would be Sword and Sorcery tales albeit somber ones with a great amount of creeping horror but short on sword swinging action.

If this were done, then I think some of the charm of the Northwest Smith stories would be lost. As they are written they are good stories, some great. They are not Space Opera. They are more Sword and Planet, without the "swords"; perhaps even the sub genre of Planetary Romance could apply.

Pictured to the left is an illustration of the alien from "Shambleau"(this illustration is not included in the Planet Stories volume, I should point out) . It is the first story in the Planet Stories collection and the first published Northwest Smith story. They appear in the volume by publication date, and nearly half of them appeared not in Weird Tales but in fanzines.

"Shambleau" is a strong story. Upon reading it, I was immediately sucked into the book as a whole; however, I quickly realized after reading three more stories in succession that Moore was writing this with an eye towards publication. She had a definite formula she was following and she did so stringently with the intent of publishing and putting food on the table. This was a common practice in the hey day of pulp weird/science/fantasy fiction. Many of the authors were full time writers and at only a few cents per word, they were forced to create regularly and publish as much as possible. This meant going with what sold. Moore knew she had a winner with Northwest Smith, so she stuck to the formula. Unfortunately, when the Northwest Smith stories are read in succession, this leads to predictability. They are worth reading, but do yourself a favor and do not read them all in succession. Take your time with this book. Read a story, set it down and read another the following week or month.

I did not have the same experience when I read Moore's Black God's Kiss. Perhaps this was due to the fact that there are only six of them. There was a formula to these stories as well, not too different from the formula used with her Northwest Smith stories.

These stories are strongly influenced by Lovecraftian style horror as well, but while the Northwest Smith stories may be difficult to place in a genre, her Jirel of Joiry stories are not. They are Sword  and Sorcery, and it is obvious that Moore was hoping to ride on the coat tails of the success of Robert E. Howard with these stories. That isn't to say she wrote Conan pastiche with a red-haired woman in place of the sullen eyed barbarian. No, the Jirel of Joiry stories are unique to themselves.

What I found enjoyable about them is while the Northwest Smith stories were episodic, the Jirel of Joiry tales taken as a whole read almost like a novel. Each successive story references the former and Jirel's actions in previous stories have consequences that she must face. This may be why I didn't notice the formulaic nature of them when read successively.

I believe most fans are attracted to Moore's Northwest Smith stories, but for me her Jirel of Joiry tales are what sucked me in. I found Jirel more of an early ancestor of Roy Thomas and Barry Windor-Smith's Marvel Comics character Red Sonja. The ancestor's normally attributed to Red Sonja are either Howard's Red Sonya of Rogatino ("The Shadow of the Vulture) and/or another Howard character Dark Agnes de Chastillon, a swords-woman of 16th century France.

It was Howard who inspired the creation of Jirel of Joiry for Moore was very taken with the first Dark Agnes story, "Sword Woman". I have not had the pleasure of reading "The Shadow of the Vulture" nor have I read any Dark Agnes stories (of which there are only two complete stories and a third draft) beyond last month's offering in Dark Horse's Robert E. Howard's Savage Sword #1, but instinct speaks to me and says that Moore was just as much responsible for the birth of Red Sonja as Howard himself was.

I shall move onto Henry Kuttner, but I would like to point out that the story "Quest of the Starstone" appears in both Northwest of Earth and Black God's Kiss. It is interesting to read because it was written with Henry Kuttner. It is a meeting of Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry, kind of an early "Marvel Team-up"; unfortunately, it is the weakest story of both volumes, and I felt cheated having it appear in both books.

I read Henry Kuttner's Elak of Atlantis prior to any of Moore's stories. I found this book in a used book store. I knew of the Planet Stories books, but had not bothered to investigate them. My decision to subscribe was based upon the strength of this book.

Consequently, I only picked it up for I am always interested in potential Clonan characters, and Elak seemed to fit the bill. I was wrong. Elak of Atlantis is not a Clonan. He and his sidekick Lycon have more in common with Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser then Conan.

Don't get me wrong, all of the tropes of Sword & Sorcery are there and it would be naive to say that Howard's success in the field didn't have anything to do with Hank Kuttner creating the Elak stories; however, they stand on their own, in the spirit of Howard, but not simple pastiche (and not to get off on a rant here, but even though I use the words "simple pastiche" I have no hang ups with Howard Pastiche stories -- many Howard fans do, I'm not one of them; not to mention, there has been some good pastiche written, particularly by Karl Edward Wagner).

It is a shame that there were only four Elak stories written. I read these over a year ago, and while I remember enjoying them, the particulars all ready fade from memory, but I enjoyed them enough that I know this book will warrant future re-readings to pass a lazy warm Sunday afternoon. Included in this volume are two Prince Raynor stories, inferior to the Elak stories, but still good stories on their own merit.

The Dark World was a great read and stands out as a reason that Ray Bradbury calls Kuttner a "neglected master". Just as I did with Leigh Brackett's Skaith books, I found my hungry DM mind filling up with great world building concepts born of this short novel.

Kuttner presents an intriguing world, a parallel universe to our own in which magic is real, but is perhaps the result of super-science unexplored within our own realm. Vampires, werewolves and gorgons exist, but they are mutations.

The Dark World is Sword & Sorcery, and it is very good Sword & Sorcery. Piers Anthony, in his introduction to the book, points out that Kuttner makes many rookie mistakes with writing, and it is true that he does, but as Anthony points out, the story is strong enough that you do not notice.

I have been toying with the idea for some time now of presenting to my players a fantasy world that they are sucked into from our own world, although, maybe not from our time period.

The initial idea was generated while reading Edgar Rice Burrough's "Pellucidar" stories, and sprouted while reading Brackett's Skaith books. The Dark World just might be the rain that cements it all together for me.

That is the best part of reading selections from Gygax's Appendix N (and authors that were not included, but should have been such as Moore and Kuttner). Each book I have read has given me something, at least a kernel of an idea. Ideas are germinating, and that is what Gary Gygax was hoping he could do for fellow gamers by offering them Appendix N. The experiment was successful.

Galloway Gallegher, the protagonist of the stories collected in Robots Have No Tails was familiar with successful experiments, but only when he was loaded.

The five stories collected in this book were too short, and I regret that there only will ever be five. They are not perfect and the science in the science fiction aspect is suspect. Kuttner may not have been big on research, but he was big on fun.

Fun is what is promised in this book and fun is what is delivered. Each story was short to read and was a joy. I didn't gleam many ideas from these; however, I can easily see a drunken genius gnome inventor named after Galloway Gallegher making an appearance in my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game soon.

An introduction by C.L. Moore (written in 1952) is included in the Planet Stories edition. The author name given for these stories was originally "Lewis Padgett". Lewis Padgett is a pseudonym created from both their mothers' maiden names.

Moore insists in her introduction that these were Kuttner's stories, written by him with no help from her, but he use of the joint pseudonym (one of several that the two used) suggests that the opposite is true.

Personally, I like to think that Moore did help write these. I have no proof that such is the case, but I like the idea of it. I like imagining the two chuckling. One looking over the other's shoulder then saying "move over, I have an idea". That sounds perfect to me.

I will end this post with an enlargement from the cover art from the first printing of the book, for no other reason then I like it.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Appendix N: Leigh Brackett III

I have a lot of blogging to catch up on, so the final three volumes in the Planet Stories series reprinting classic Leigh Brackett stories are going to get the short treatment.

The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith complete Brackett's John Erik Stark trilogy begun with The Ginger Star and introduced in The Secret of Sinharat. In my last exploration of Brackett's work, I mentioned that her writing generates world building ideas for me. That statement remains true with both of these continuations.

Brackett's writing is ripe with several world building concepts for the hungry DM's mind. I'm still fighting the temptation to scrap my own world of "the Dark Ways" and base my world upon Skaith. No doubt, several ideas will emerge that are steeped in her writing.

I don't want to give away particulars of the story itself, but I do wish to mention that I feared there would not be a satisfactory ending to the trilogy. In my opinion, The Reavers of Skaith does conclude nicely. I can not say it does so without the use of deus ex machina.

The Sword of Rhiannon delivers just as well as her Stark stories; perhaps even a bit better. As much as I enjoyed the Stark works, I enjoyed Rhiannon even more so. It is a well told, fast paced, action packed work that has just as much imagination as her other works.

In D&D terms, the actual Sword of Rhiannon of the stories name sake serves as an excellent example of how an artifact can be used well to form an excellent story. Other then that, I saw no direct examples of tropes from the game that were obviously influenced by Brackett's works. No doubt, the level of action and adventure were what the games designers were shooting for. In that way, there is a direct influence.

I have a tendency when reading works written around the same time period as Tolkien to see if the old scholar had any influence upon the author. In Brackett's case, it is easy to say no he did not. While there are parallels with Edgar Rice Burrough's works, there is a definite lack of High Fantasy Tolkienism. "High Fantasy" as a sub genre does not apply to her either.

Her stories that I have read would most likely be classified as Sword and Planet; for this reason, Edgar Rice Burrough's name shall always be tagged to her. I believe that to classify her as a Burrough's mimic is a naive assumption. Yes, she does work with the tropes first made popular by ERB, but her writing is too original for her to be called an imitator.

Overall, I have enjoyed Brackett's writing immensely. Of the Appendix N writers I reviewed for this series thus far, I've enjoyed her writing the most, with Poul Anderson being a very close second.

I do have to state a criticism towards Planet Stories itself. The typos continued through all three of these books. Please Pazio, hire better copy editors.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Game On!

There has been a long silence on the gaming front for me, at least as far as my face to face group goes. I've been away from home for two weeks, but tonight is the night. It is time for some more Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Gaming has continued for me. I've done a bit of solo delving into Tunnels and Trolls: City of Terror, which I need to do an update post or two for. More exciting then that is I have joined an play by post game, and more to come on that as well.

Come to think of it, I have lots of posting to do. So little time, so many dice.