The return of Rab Foster

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

I’ve always loved the idea of high fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction.  The two are slightly different, though overlapping, things – for the former, think Lord of the Rings (1954-55), for the latter, think the Conan the Barbarian stories (1932-36).

 

Therefore, I’m talking about literature set in imaginary kingdoms in medieval worlds with a total absence of modern science and technology.  Its pages are populated by kings, queens, princes, princesses, warriors, knights, witches, warlocks, elves, goblins, trolls, dragons and any number of other supernatural and mythical creatures and monsters.  Its landscapes are dotted with castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, walled towns, thatched cottages, riotous taverns, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes and foreboding mountain passes.  And its plots are animated by the casting of spells, the summoning of demons and suchlike magical shenanigans, by epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, by Machiavellian court intrigue set against backgrounds of rebellions, invasions, sieges and battles, and generally by non-stop swordplay, chases, rescues, derring-do and bloodshed.

 

Oh, and maps.  The opening pages of any high or heroic fantasy book have got to contain a map:

 

© Gnome Press / David Kyle

 

The trouble is, there hasn’t been a great deal of this literature that I’ve read and actually liked.  Much of it I’ve found either drearily pompous (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson) or badly written (e.g. Lin Carter).  I quite like some of the Conan the Barbarian tales written by Robert E. Howard, somebody who knew how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the titular barbarian’s swaggering sexism and the undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

But there are a few items that I’ve unreservedly liked.  There’s the Jirel of Joiry stories, a heroic fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (C. L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes, Howard’s Conan stories.  There’s the Earthsea books (1968-2001) by another woman, Ursula K. Le Guin.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rips the piss out of the genre.  And there’s the Kane novels and short stories (1970-1985) written by the underrated Karl Edward Wagner, which feature an immortal and immoral swordsman roaming a fantasy world, selling his fighting services to mortal but equally-immoral humans and getting involved in all sorts of violent skulduggery.

 

I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books (1996-present) by George R. R. Martin or watched the TV show based on them, but from what I’ve heard about their cynical and nihilistic tone I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin had been influenced by Karl Edward Wagner’s work in his younger days.

 

Over the years I’ve tried my hand at writing high and heroic fantasy short stories, but there never seemed to be many outlets for getting them published.  I got one into the pages of a hard-copy British magazine called Legend in the early 2000s, but that publication, alas, was short-lived; and later another of my stories appeared in an American webzine called Sorcerous Signals, which is no longer on the go, either.  Meanwhile, a folder on my computer hard-drive titled ‘Fantasy Stories’ gradually turned into the literary equivalent of a breaker’s yard, filled with unpublished stories rather than decommissioned ships.

 

Happily, I have managed to dust down one of those fantasy stories, The Trap Master, and get it published this month in the webzine Aphelion.  Although this year already Aphelion has published two stories that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, The Trap Master sports a different pen-name: Rab Foster, the name I’ve put on my published fantasy output, meagre though it is.  For the next few weeks, the October 2018 edition of Aphelion should be accessible here and the story itself accessible here.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Although it belongs to the tradition of high and heroic fantasy, don’t expect The Trap Master to be about royalty or members of the nobility, or indeed, about muscular superhuman swordsmen.  I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to be an ordinary, unremarkable blue-collar worker in one of these fantasy worlds, and the characters in The Trap Master are representative of that economic sector.

 

Incidentally, the story is inspired too by my interest in mythological and folkloric creatures, something I suspect comes from the Sinbad-the-Sailor movies I watched as an impressionable kid: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).  These films were devised as unashamed showcases for legendary special-effects man Ray Harryhausen and his artistry with stop-motion-animation puppets, which still looks impressive today and, unlike slick modern CGI technology, possesses a dreamy unreal charm.

 

Cheerfully ignoring the fact that the literary Sinbad came from Bagdad during the reign of the 8th / 9th century AD Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Harryhausen had the movie version of him dodging creatures drawn from Greek mythology, prehistory and elsewhere: cyclopes, centaurs, dragons, homunculi, minotaurs, sabre-tooth tigers, troglodytes and even a six-armed statue of the Hindu Goddess Kali that’d come to life.

 

At the end of the 1990s, I got a chance to briefly speak to Harryhausen while he was visiting Edinburgh and just after he’d given a talk at the city’s (now sadly defunct) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  I mentioned that I was a fan of the Sinbad movies.  He looked me in the eye, chuckled and commented, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

Made my year, that did…

 

From godzilla.wiki.com

 

Ursula departs

 

© The Washington Post

 

Following the tributes paid in the last few days to the legendary science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away on January 22nd, I feel a little embarrassed to admit that I have only read one work by her.

 

This was a collection of her first three Earthsea novels (1968-72), set in an imaginary archipelago where magic, wizards and dragons are all prominent.  I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realised I’d got its title completely wrong.  The front cover of the book bore the name The Earthsea Trilogy, but ‘Earthsea’ was inscribed in such ornate medieval lettering (especially the ‘E’ and the ‘h’) that I misread it as The Fartisea Trilogy, which would have been pronounced as the flatulent-sounding Farty-Sea Trilogy.  Thus, while I read, I kept wondering when the characters were going to pack their bags, leave Earthsea and move to the obviously-more-important Fartisea of the title.  D’uh!

 

Anyhow, the Earthsea stories really impressed me.  It was a revelation at that age to read a work of serious epic fantasy that gradually built a whole fantastical world around its characters but did so in clear, unpretentious prose.  The quality of the writing especially struck me because a little while earlier I’d tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), the first of ten volumes of Tolkein-esque fantasy written by Stephen Donaldson and known collectively as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  But I’d soon given up, defeated by Donaldson’s pompous, overwrought prose-style.

 

Other things that I liked about Earthsea are neatly encapsulated in this tribute that the American science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote about Le Guin in the Los Angeles Times the other day: “This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer – the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who walk through it.”

 

Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading a collection of short stories called The Dream Archipelago (1999) by Christopher Priest, which like Earthsea are set on an imaginary group of islands that have fantastical properties.  One story, The Negation, is about a young, naïve man called Dik who aspires to be a writer but who gets drafted into the military and assigned to a bleak snowbound frontier-town when war breaks out between his country and a neighbour.  He discovers that as a propaganda stunt / cultural morale booster, the government is sending a writer called Moylita Kaine to live in and write about the town for a period; and, because Kaine wrote the novel that first fuelled Dik’s writerly ambitions, he arranges to meet her.  He subsequently gets into trouble when Kaine decides to involve her trusting young admirer in an act of subversion.  I hadn’t realised that The Negation was autobiographical, but on his blog the other day, whilst paying his respects to Le Guin, Priest described the story as “a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her.”  He’d known her while she and her husband were living in London in the mid-1970s.

 

Knowing this, it’s easy to imagine Le Guin (who was then in her 40s) as the enigmatic Kaine, brusque but self-effacing, “sometimes… deliberately vague”, her eyes sparkling “in the snowy light from the window”; and the younger Priest as the story’s shy, unsure-of-himself hero.

 

One thing’s for sure.  I need to track down and read copies of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) soon.

 

© Penguin Books