Category Archives: Classics You’ve Never Read

In 2018: Going Long, Working Backwards

{this space left blank to allow time to roll your eyes at another New Year’s Resolution post}

 

{All good? We continue}

National politics aside, I think it was a very good year. Pessimists, you’re excused from reading the rest of this. I’m becoming a bit less tolerant of you anyway… but at my day-job I showed some progress (some, let’s not get carried away) highlighted by issuing more documents at the head of a small team of co-workers (an activity we refer to as “herding cats”, a slight exaggeration) and by a return trip to South Africa (about which enough could never be said).

With the family, it was twelve more months of enjoying Genna’s progress as a musician on both flute and voice, while my lovely wife “gave as good as she got” in her fight for full health. I still have not written about the incredible trip to Germany we were gifted by a woman who has to rank as the best friend I hadn’t yet met last July. This is not the blog post in which you will be reading about that.

Oh yes, and I completed my fantasy series Shards of Light, getting the third installment out by Independence Day and shipping the finale earlier this month, publishing ASAP. That final book was a pretty big psychological moment for me, wrapping up the threads of an adventure that first saw the world back in 2011 and has been burning in my mind far, far longer than that.

It’s been a year for  long trips and tales.
Come 2018, I start new ones.

Going Long

First in other people’s business, I plan to issue reviews of four long-ago epics, supposedly big influences on LoTR and predating Tolkien’s work. Two are done and dusted as of today, and this is part of what I mean by Going Long. I believe it’s rare for anyone to immerse in such huge stories anymore, which augurs grimly for my own ambitions as an author! Shards of Light was my first effort to bypass that problem, with four serialized tales under the single saga. The first two installments are “bite-sized” to any epic author or reader. But by the time I’m through with you, the story is longer than any other single cover I’ve put out. Try the first one, see if you like where it’s going. Just remember, it’s really going somewhere.

I’ll put my reviews of The Worm Ouroboros and The Well at the World’s End here on the site soon as I can wrap my head around what’s just happened to my soul (each around 300 pages). I’ll try to list arguments why you as a writer or reader would want to do the same (while admitting the reasons you could give it a miss instead). These are both important books in ways I did not expect, but I’m still untangling how much of what I think is personal as opposed to provable.

Working Backwards

And then I’ll dive back into writing, again Going Long with a sequel to The Plane of Dreams, called The Test of Fire. Like so many of my tales, it’s always been “there” back at least to the 1990s, but this particular portion of the canon was the one most recently “triggered” by events in the Alleged Real World, in 2008. This is the adventure that got the whole chronicling thing started: so once you’ve read it, you’ll have a good idea who to blame if that’s your preference.

Test of Fire won’t be overlong by itself, probably about the same as Plane of Dreams (114k words). But it’s actually third in the series, and here’s where I’m Working Backwards because the tale I tackle after this will be the first! Yes, there was a time before the heroes of Plane of Dreams came into Wanlock, the story of how they gained the fabulous wealth and momentary fame they brought into the start of that epic, and I’m going to tell it. Eventually. So far, the only thing I know for sure about the story is that it will have to be titled The Blank of Blank. But for fans of Qerlak Barleybane, Galethiel and anyone who missed hearing more of a certain three young adventurers, plus a pair of new fun-to-hate bad guys, good news in 2018. You’ll have a tale that takes these heroes, if not to the end of the story, at least further into time than I have ever clearly seen before.

After that, we go back to the beginning and tell that story, by which time I’ll need a word to describe the mirror-image of deja vu (when you read about the first time stuff happens yet it still seems familiar somehow). But that’s for another day. Who am I kidding- year.

Classics You’ve Never Read: Mummy Mia

Classic: a book that people praise and do not read.

-Mark Twain

In this series I have always endeavored to do several things:

  • Bring in a capsule-review of a piece of timeless fantasy literature, one you must read but have probably only seen
  • Analyze a theme I can detect in its greatness, something a fellow author or discerning reader would appreciate in their own work
  • Compare the written version of the tale to the mangling that Hollywood committed subsequently, and in so doing perhaps help to repair a great wrong done to a past master

Today, I can do none of those things. But a promise is a promise.

Last year I discovered to my shock that there was, in fact, no original tale of “The” Werewolf, which I always intended to read as part of this series. At that time I promised you, I would get around of course to the Mummy, and as part of that I bought and set aside this version for later reading. I have now completed that task– I might go so far as to say I survived it. And so I have an obligation to you now, to summarize, analyze and compare.

Hahn_critic_1Here, in a nutshell, it is.

The only one way I could recommend you read The Mummy! is if you are a person fascinated by train wrecks. If instead your goal is to identify a classic theme or thread of something to carry over into your own writing or future reading, you would be substantially better served by watching one of the movie-versions of the tale. You heard me, better off with the movie. But having uttered such blasphemy, I must admit I found the experience fascinating, though for all the wrong reasons. It could just be that, marooned with the enormous task of reading a 10-hour book, I fell into the literary equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.

But there is something here after all. It’s just not a very good thing.

Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?

-1 Samuel 28:15

Mummy_1828_second_edition
An early edition cover

In the history of this series I have never felt such an enormous divergence between what I expected, and the actual book. The weirdness commences without delay, at the sub-title:  A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Thus I started out punch-drunk, going into a classic horror tale but now alert for signs of the future.

I found precious few of either in the early pages, and started to make mental notes about what I had gotten myself into. Mystery, well sort of; intrigue definitely a better word. All the main characters– several of whom wither away into cameos or just disappear, and others who appear like shooting stars only to fade, yet once or twice come back near the end– but everyone shares the trait of ambition. Two daughters (whoops, three, comes in later) in line to be the next queen of England. Two brothers set to marry them, though neither couple is happy in the arrangement; the wheels start to turn. Fathers, father-figures and no less than three priests (each of course called Father), two doctors, various pompous lords, and naturally the requisite Greek princess and King of Ireland all have a role to play. All ambitious, all circling in conflict like carrion-birds, searching for the first scrap of a coherent plot they could pounce on.

Bottom Line for Busy Readers: If you’ve read Frankenstein and The Count of Monte Cristo, you have already seen every major element and plot theme you could drag kicking and screaming out of The Mummy! And they would come to you from stories where they belong and make sense. Some men go too far in the service of learning or fame; and it takes a powerful mind and spirit to persevere through trials and make all the deserving folks happy by the end. Whew.

overland.org.au
overland.org.au

The Mummy Cheops is raised purely in the service of the younger brother’s rankling impatience with life. His tutor, who turns out to be a complete clown, stokes him up, and one dirigible flight later they’re in Egypt, plunging into the depths of the Great Pyramid in complete ignorance of how little is left inside there by now (much less by the 22nd c.), as well as certain irrefutable facets of the mummification process itself, that authors in the Rosetta Stone generation weren’t yet aware of. Like the whole deal with the organs being across the room in jars. Never mind that, just hook up the galvanic battery (like every Hollywood movie used for Frankie), touch the corpse and zoop! Up hops Cheops, who without a word runs out of the pyramid, hijacks our heroes’ balloon and flies straight back to England where he crashes into a royal procession to honor the other brother, wrecking multiple balloons, killing scads of people, mortally wounding the queen, and then running into the shadows to become Public Enemy Number One.

I have so far made up nothing, stretched not a single fact nor misrepresented anyone’s character. I WISH I had this much imagination.

But the bizarreness is barely past the first turn. What part, you might ask, does the risen Pharoah play in the rest of our tale? Does he seek his lost love from ages past? Ooh, wisps and glimpses of that theme- Cheops mentions Arsinoe who was taken from him a couple times, and once comments that one of the princesses reminds him of “someone”. But no,

sthfearsome.wordpress.com
sthfearsome.wordpress.com

The Mummy makes no untoward advances, kidnaps no damsels. Does he then try to wreck England and rebuild his beloved Egypt? Not a whit of it– in fact, he never so much as tears a curtain or breaks a window despite lurking about and inspiring constant revulsion. Invoke a plague? Summon an undead army? No, and again no.

He talks.

The Mummy can’t shut up, in fact. No matter where the heroes are, Cheops appears, preceded by a “fiendish laugh”. I’m completely serious here: Cheops laughs whenever he is discovered, and at least half the time when he exits the scene. And his laughter is invariably described as fiendish. But for all the menace I should be feeling at this Fifty Shades level of repetition, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt only shows up to– I can hardly believe I’m writing this– offer advice.

And everyone hates him, and after a few sentences everyone agrees to follow his advice.

Karloff, 1932
Karloff, 1932

One sister, then the other, becomes queen of England; marriages are called on and off again, the people rise and fall, all at the hand of this jack-in-the-box in rags who pops up every twenty pages or so to shake his head at what fools these mortals be, tell them what to do next and then exit. Laughing fiendishly.

It doesn’t matter where you are. Milady’s boudoir, a cramped alleyway, a closely guarded jail cell, a crowded corridor in the royal palace. There’s a character who doesn’t know what will become of him or her, and the chuckle of ages precedes the appearance of Cheops. He doesn’t know the land, he’s never seen these wondrous mechanical marvels, he doesn’t speak the language (a blazing-fast reference to how “educated” folk speak Egyptian, thank goodness for rational explanations). He don’t know jack, frankly, but he understands human nature. And he plays the ruling class of Europe like Harpo Marx.

{Just one of a thousand unanswered questions– why, in hundreds of pages where everyone agrees that Cheops is a menace and a regicide, does not one person attempt to hunt him, or place him under arrest? The subject never even comes up.}

Stayyy asleeeep...
Staay asleeep…

All ends tolerably well, after the usual tropes of prince-in-disguise, non-princess discovers she’s an orphan (and actually a royal after all), the scorned nurse who swapped the babies, the priest who forswore his vows to watch over his daughter (now THERE’s a father-figure), and more. Cheops returns to Egypt, pontificates, lays down in his sarcophagus and goes back to… whatever state he was in before. At least he doesn’t laugh.

 A Writing Life

I’ve sounded harsh on the book so far, but I must rise to the defence of this author. Sarah

Has to make a living
Had to make a living

Loudon, turns out, needed to write a book when her father died and she was left with no income. I think we can all sympathize. She persevered to complete a huge novel, and wonder of wonders, it apparently led her future husband to meet her. Yeah, this book. Which did pretty well in its day, and led her to write several more tomes, weirdly again, about gardening.

And while I’ve had my fun romping along the overall theme and how different it is from expectations, I want to point out that on the tactical level, the lady can pen it. Each sentence, taken on its own, is just fine, her prose is flowing and quite descriptive. The paragraphs are often a bit superfluous, but that’s just one’s taste, how much you want to hear about the queen’s agonized state of mind or the general’s philosophy of fighting. Ms. Loudon adopted some amusing ideas, such as that virtually all the servants speak with the most loquacious vocabulary imaginable, and are able to respond to complaints and demands in language that would make Shakespeare reach for his dictionary, if he’d had one. This is evidently the offshoot of our future, that even the lowest classes have time to get a Master’s Degree in Long Words or something.

They Made a Movie (actually several)

Some CONFLICT
Some CONFLICT, please

So it’s only the big picture that makes no sense. I came in expecting more menace, a true victory over evil, and something about what men should or should not do. It’s hardly Ms. Loudon’s job to live up to the formula created on film a hundred years and more after she wrote the book. Frankenstein was one of the only such works in existence in the 1820s; Carter was ten decades into the future, to give anyone a peek at an intact mummy’s tomb (and the first wisp of a curse around opening it). The whole Egypt-thing was popular in her day, so she ran with it; but the tale she was trying to tell was really about how much England would change (and ways in which it would be just the same) in 200 years.

Still… wouldn’t anyone find the idea of raising the dead after centuries to carry more consequence than this? My mind just can’t wrap around the strangeness of Cheops as he was first introduced to us in this tale. Give me Christopher Lee, in fact give me Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo, with themes like “leave Egypt alone” and fighting to the death (and beyond) to save your true love (and civilization as a bonus).

So I come to you today a humbled man. The people who wrote a long time ago didn’t always do better than the movie-makers who came along later to add explosions, and cultural conflict, and a monster who’s warm for the form of the heroine. The book is a long strange trip and I cannot honestly recommend it to you, though I’m glad I read it, in the same way I imagine folks claim they were happy they climbed a mountain on a rainy day when there was no view from the top. And by that I mean, lying.

But it was a kick, and for me that’s all. You know what I mean… that’s a wrap.