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The King in Yellow and Robert Chambers

The King in YellowThanks to True Detective, it seems like The King in Yellow is the most talked about eldritch entity of 2014 - a high honour indeed. Robert Chambers, the book's author, is one of my favourite authors, so I thought I'd share a few fun-facts and links to further reading. You too can be a Chambers hipster!

The first album was not better. The King in Yellow (1895) was Chambers' second book. His first, In the Quarter (1894) was a novel loosely based on Chambers' own experiences as an art student in Paris. (Chambers was an art student - and professional illustrator - before he was a writer. His fellow student included Charles Dana Gibson, who even wound up illustrating a few of Chambers' books.) In the Quarter is mercifully hard to find and, honestly, a bit poo. The King in Yellow, however, was an instant sensation.

Chambers wasn't a horror author. He wrote almost a hundred books, of which maybe 6 or 7 contained elements of the supernatural or bizarre. And only a couple of those were even intended to be 'spooky' in any way. The other ninety-odd books? Romances, historical thrillers, war novels, children's books, fishing manuals, you name it. (For reviews of a few of Chambers' other books, check out my slightly-stalled "Repairer of Reputations" project.)

He didn't regret it, either. Lovecraft famously abused Chambers as a "fallen Titan" - praising The King in Yellow and moaning that Chambers had turned his back on supernatural horror. Meanwhile, here's the house that writing three decades of best-selling fiction built. (25 bedrooms!) One of the reasons I like Chambers so much is that he was unrepentantly commercial, but that still didn't keep him from tackling hot topics such as adultery, alcoholism, the stock market crash or World War I. Chambers didn't write the books that Lovecraft wanted him to write; Chambers wrote the books he wanted to write. (More on this here.)

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Fiction: 'A Raft' by Charlie Human

“You are so pale, Sir Reginald,” Miss Tate says through her purpled lips. “Are you ill?”

The raft pitches on the water. The expanse of the sea is like a great mouth waiting to swallow us forever. 

“A slight fever, madam,” Sir Reginald says in his stiff, formal way. “Nothing more.”

On this raft we all have our place. Mr. Baines, bald and stout, is ministering to the needs of our souls. “Mystical revelation!” he shouts at the burnt sky. “The seven veils are lifting and the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed!”

We float on the endless black pool, nothing stirring except romance. Star-crossed lovers, Miss Tate and Sir Reginald, unable to move to console one another in the hour of their greatest need. A proposal then! Called clearly across the crush of poor lost souls. A marriage! A marriage under a dark, soot-filled sky. 

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Foxed but foxy

Condition is important - and I've been known to hunt down super-squeaky mint copies of books instead of settling for merely-only-mint copies. But there are also situations where it just doesn't matter to me at all:

  • The book is only for reading
  • The book is an association copy, or otherwise unique. (Say it belonged to John Fowles or something, I'm not going to whine that the corners are scuffed.)
  • I'm never going to find or afford a better copy (a bit like above, but with things like rare proofs or first editions)
  • It looks better that way

That last one is a bit goofy, but especially as a fan of vintage mysteries, sometimes they just seem right a little scuffed up. Obviously I wouldn't turn down perfect copies, but there's something about old noir that lends itself to being a bit battered. 

Amnesia moonWith all this in mind, the latest batch of arrivals:

Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon. The 1995 UK paperback. In perfect condition (which, given the horror of its cover, is kind of a shame).

Ben Percy's The Wilding. Also in perfect condition, which is a little irritating as I got it to read, and now I may need a second copy.

Four Mary Stewart first editions - Airs Above the Ground, This Rough Magic, Touch Not the Cat and The Gabriel Hounds. They're all in pretty good shape, actually - This Rough Magicwhich is also, coincidentally, the oldest (1964), is the only one missing the dust jacket. If there were collecting 'interventions', now would be a good point to step in. Our Stewart collection has crept from "want to read all her books" to "want the old paperbacks" to "want hardcover first editions". Eep.

For those that care about this sort of thing, these are all published by Hodder & Stoughton, and have the odd "crown and i" logo. The Gabriel Hounds, for no reason I can see, has an uncapitalised "the" on the cover (which is properly capitalised on the title page). Random capitalisation is random.

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Friday Five: 5 Genre TV Shows That Are Better Than The Movies That Spawned Them

This week's host is Rob Berg of, Rob Will Review... and the (sadly complete) "My Year of Disney" guest posts. Fortunately, even if he's done with singing princesses (for now), he's still got some recommendations to share...


Common sense generally dictates that the original of something is usually best. The book/play is better than the movie. The original movie is better than the TV spin-off that was clearly just made as a cash-grab by the studio to milk more dollars out of a recognizable title. But what about when the opposite is true?

Thinking over my list of favorite TV shows, I realized that quite a significant number of them were actually spawned from feature films, all dramatically transcending their source material in practically every way, taking what could’ve been a cynical marketing tie-in and creating a far richer story out of the original’s base elements.

These are five of my favorite genre shows that did just that:

BuffyBuffy the Vampire Slayer

This one is the most obvious, but no list of TV series spun-off from films that wants to be taken even semi-seriously can ignore it. What began as a silly, campy, disposable B-movie teen comedy about a dumb blonde with a destiny turned into a complex, enduring saga that used the literal monsters its titular heroine and her friends battled nightly as metaphors for the everyday struggles of life that people face, not only in high school but beyond it. An at-the-time unique fusion of teen drama, urban fantasy, and mythology, Buffy paved the way for countless kickass heroines who fight the undead.

Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis

Stargate, the movie, has one thing going for it: a very cool concept. Archaeologists in Egypt in 1928 unearth a circular object, covered with hieroglyphs, that eventually proves to be a wormhole generator that sends the modern-day US military to another planet, where descendents of the ancient Egyptians are still being subjugated by an alien posing as the god, Ra. Unfortunately, it also has leaden pacing, wooden performances galore, and a complete lack of humor.

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The Kitschies: Congratulations & Thank you

The winners of The Kitschies:

  • Red Tentacle (Novel): Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being
  • Golden Tentacle (Debut): Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice
  • Inky Tentacle (Cover): Will Staehle for Adam Christopher's The Age Atomic
  • Black Tentacle (Discretionary): Malorie Blackman

Congratulations to a brilliant and talented group of winners and finalists. More about them and the prize here.

And a huge thank you to all the people that made this possible: our board, the authors and publishers who submitted, The Kraken Rum and, especially, the judges. Reading and critiquing and discussing so many books threatens to turn a pleasure into a chore, but this year's panels carried out their duty with enthusiasm and rigour from start to finish.

Everyone involved in the award is a volunteer, and we couldn't be more appreciative of their dedication and hard work. Thank you again.

Fiction: 'The Devil's Age' by David Bryher

"The Devil's Age" was first published in a collection of Basque folklore, dictated by Franchun Feltzarri to Reverend Wentworth Webster in 1879. It is a bizarre tale, and one that’s all too brief.

David Bryher’s interpretation keeps the original tale's delightful irrationality and its sense of moral ambiguity, but he builds it into a complete story with more well-rounded characters and a tantilizing hint of darker forces at work...

* * *

Many years ago, somewhere far away but quite like this, there lived a penniless man called Peli and his wife, Irune. While Irune cooked and cleaned and got things done, Peli would spend his days taking indulgent, melancholic walks – walks that usually ended with a long mope at a crossroads a few miles from his home. One day, his mope was interrupted by footsteps crunching up the road behind him. He turned and there was a gentleman in a grey suit.

Now, Peli was a bad liar. All the town knew it. His face was as easy to read as your lover’s handwriting, so he wasn’t all that surprised to hear the gentleman ask, without any preamble, “Why are you so sad?”

Peli’s chest heaved with a big sigh, like a rolling ocean wave. “Because my wife and I don’t have enough money to live.”

The gentleman’s eyebrow twitched. “I will give you as much money as you like.” Peli was about to say something but the gentleman raised his hand to stop him.

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Nine Worlds: Tickets, Programming and All of the Books!

9Worlds_GeekFest_2014This summer's Nine Worlds convention is moving at pace - in case you missed it, the hotel booking link is now live:

The convention runs from August 8 to August 10, Friday to Sunday.

There are a lot of reasons we really like Nine Worlds. Things like this feedback report are one of them. Transparency, accountability, listening, adapting - all stuff that reminds you that cons (hell, all fandom 'structures') are there for you, not the other way around. Check it out. Amongst other things, it reveals that we're all in one hotel this year (woohoo!).

Jenni, Anne and I are looking after the ALL OF THE BOOKS track this year. Part of that is just coordinating with Fanfiction, LGBTQ+, Comics, Academia and Creative Writing - they've been amazing, and what's the point of having all these wonderful geeky interests if we don't all collaborate? Our specific remit includes encouraging people to read, write, publish and discuss books, and we'll have panels, workshops and interactive thingies on all aspects of that spectrum. 

As well as all the fantasy, SF, horror and speculative whatnot that you might expect, there are three mini-themes we're trying to develop this year:

  • Young Adult. We're really excited to be showcasing and discussing speculative fiction for readers of all ages. This is the hottest area in genre right now, and will be treated as such. 
  • Publishing. Both independent and traditional - we want to offer support that goes beyond the traditional "how to get published" panels. Whether that's finding an illustrator, using social media, handling feedback, we want to provide practical advice (in a fun way).
  • New Talent. Building on last year's (immensely awesome) New Voices, we want to create plenty of opportunities for new authors to strut their (literary) stuff. We've got some famous, wonderful Big Names coming, but we want to make sure that the next famous, wonderful Big Names get their share of the platform too.

As well as panels, we'll have talks, workshops, readings, signings and all sorts of interactive fun. We can't wait.

SO... if you're a reader, writer, publisher or discusser of books, formal or informal, amateur or professional, and you're coming to Nine Worlds, let us know! 

If you would like to get involved, get in touch with us officially at allofthebooks at We've got a system set up to keep track of your interest and your contact details. (That system breaks if you express your interest through tweets or blog comments, so official email to official email address, please!)

Our details are here - as are those for all the other tracks. 

Friday Five: 5 Works of Early Speculative Fiction by African American Authors

This week's host is Ben Blattberg, a freelance writer currently living in Texas. You can find him blogging about movies and story structure and making jokes on Twitter at @inCatastrophe.

American speculative fiction has always had a diversity problem, but it has never been a whites-only genre. Long before Samuel R. Delany, N. K. Jemisin, or Janelle Monae, African Americans have been using speculative tropes to examine our world and imagine another.

So here, for your reading pleasure, are five works of pre-1940 speculative fiction by African Americans, ranging from eerie regionalist tales; to hidden empire polemics; to technocratic pulp adventures.

To be clear, this list of five (well, six) is neither exhaustive nor all that representative, but rather idiosyncratic - these are five examples that I’ve read. So I’ve left off Martin Delany’s Blake; or the Huts of America (1859/1861-2) –with its speculation about a mass slave rebellion in Cuba – for the simple fact that I’ve never read it.

In short: you should only use these five as a jumping off point - and there are even more to find.

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) - The Conjure Woman 

Chesnutt_Charles_Waddell_cover_ConjureWoman_IAWith his 1887 story “The Goophered Grapevine,” Charles Chesnutt became the first African-American author published in the Atlantic Monthly. Which basically marked him “approved for white consumption” for the next few years.*

And at first glance, “Goophered Grapevine” and the other stories in The Conjure Woman (1899) look safe for white people: after the Civil War, elderly Uncle Julius tells the new (educated, white) Northern plantation owners eerie, folksy tales from before the war.

There’s the eerie tale of the a slave whose life gets tied - Fisher King-style - to a cursed grapevine; and the story of the slave turned into a tree to escape - except the tree gets sawed up for lumber; and, as if presented by Rod Serling for our approval, there’s the story of a cruel white master turned into a black slave; etc.

Notice that Chesnutt is clear about slavery being bad, but never hints at current racial issues. Even the form would be comfortable for the Atlantic, since these stories fit in with the 1880s-90s boom in regionalist literature (give it up for Sarah Orne Jewett!), complete with “authentic” native dialect.

But read a few of these stories, and you’ll notice that Uncle Julius always profits from telling these tales to the white people. It’s almost as if he understands that performing a certain type of “blackness” would get him approval.

* Chesnutt lost this status when he wrote The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a novel about the 1898 Wilmington race riot. Seriously: literary taste-maker and erstwhile Chesnutt-champion, William Dean Howells complained that Marrow was “bitter, bitter.” Which is kind of like saying, “Why does your book about lynching have to be such a bummer?” 

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Andrew Liptak on Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation

AnnihilationA couple of years ago, I took a course called Gothic Horror. Before that point, I'd never been all that interested in the genre, and I had been annoyed that I wasn't able to get into the Science Fiction literature course offered around the same time.

The course turned my thinking around, however, and I was now introduced to authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and reintroduced to ones such as Edgar Allan Poe, whom I'd loved as a child. Since then, I've become far more interested in such weird stories, and in researching SF history, I've come to really enjoy a range of authors, especially the ones from C.L. Moore, Francis Stevens and Robert E. Howard. The Weird sort of stories seem to have fallen out of favor as the pulps did, and it hasn't been until recently that such stories have been coming back in a big way. Jeff VanderMeer's latest novel, Annihilation (2014) is the sort of novel that continues this new explosion.

It's a weird (and Weird) short novel. Four women compose an expedition into Area X. The region has been cut off from the rest of civilization for decades, and theirs is the Twelfth Expedition. The remaining expeditions, when they returned, returned broken, sick or damaged. Their mission was to observe what was happening in Area X, and to avoid contamination. As they explore Area X, it's clear that there's more than meets the eye.

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Today in Semantic Quibbling: "Great" vs "Good"

grumpy-cat-good-1I was writing a review and, much to my chagrin, wound up churning out a sentence that was a bit like this: "this is close to being a great book, but isn't a good one". 

That made perfect sense to me, but then I realised that I was stringing two vague, subjective, qualitative adjectives together in a way that really would only make sense to me.

To me, this is simple: a great book appeals across genres, categories and readers. It is offering something different, possibly even unique. And, perhaps most importantly, it has meaningful subtext that has timeless relevance. The great books are the ones we're taught in school, and, in fact can be used as teaching tools: they have layers of meaning.

good book is entertaining.

I can hear the clatter of toys hitting the floor all over the internet, so let me quickly add: I don't think great is better than good: they're completely separate qualities. Sometimes they even co-exist. I do believe great books are more rare than good books, but, conversely, I also believe that there are more unreadably bad great books than good books. 

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