Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Death of the Genre Wars

I've been wondering about genres for a while now. Sure they are mostly made up to sell product, but they have obvious uses. But what should divide them, aesthetics or something more? I'm not convinced audiences care as much about superficial things like chrome plating or wood framing nearly as much as the 1% of the 1% or publishers looking for a fad do. I'd like to believe history is on my side, but I would do better with an example.

Let us begin at the real dividing line. When Edgar Rice Burroughs first penned A Princess of Mars, the first John Carter novel, what genre was he writing in?

If you answered: He was writing scientific adventure based on known science at the time because he wanted to explore what life on Mars would be really like... then you can hand in your reader card. His body of work simply doesn't bear that motive out. Not to mention the way John Carter gets to Mars would make the hard SF fans froth.

If you answered: He was writing the most imaginative and evocative setting he could... then you get it. He was writing an adventure tale.

The early days of the pulps were marked by attempts to catch the audience with very specific approaches. Their magazine titles were evocative: Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding. Their novel tiles were striking: Gangdom's Doom, Warlords of Mars, Golden Blood. Their covers would be focused on intense action or gargantuan sights that would never be possible in our normal day to day existence. Before Weird Menace magazines came along to throw an abundance of sex and blood on the covers, and give pulp an image it has never shaken, the pulps were more interested in attracting audiences via wonder and excitement. The content matches this advertising approach, and gives a clear idea of what genre this was.

There were no advertisements discussing the finer points of the feudal system and how it benefits the monarchy and how the audience needs to know this, or propaganda about how amazing science is in exchange for any entertainment. In other words, these stories were not advertised as Fantasy or Science Fiction. The mainstream audience didn't care that much about them. These were advertised as breathtaking adventures meant to wow the reader and make them pick the issue up based on the incredible sights before them. They used wonder for this selling point of accessing the reader's imagination and not the nuts and bolts aesthetics that only the 1% of the 1% care about. The genres back then were not as we know them now.

I should clarify this because I will get strung up by the hard science fiction and epic fantasy fans who each have their own rules that they must abide by.

Let's go back to basics.

Why do audiences consume fiction? That's easy, it is because it's fiction. It's not real. It's escapism. What better way to advertise escapism then by presenting an astonishing and fascinating place beyond the human imagination? At this point the only dividing line is what sort of escapism the customer is looking for. This is where the original genre lines came from.

Do you want to see lands and worlds beyond those you know? That's Adventure. Do you want to see intense battles of good and evil to keep you on the edge of your seat? That's Action. Do you want to dive into a seemingly impossible situation with no obvious answer? That's Mystery. Do you want to see love blossom between two people? That's Romance.

You can see where this is going. Genres are based on the type of story the reader wants to engage in. They choose based on only that criteria and no other. Especially since that's what sales show.

2015 Genre Sales
Modern categories dilute this simplistic and straightforward approach to audiences. Publishers have too many gourmet cooks in their tiny apartment kitchen. All this could easily be avoided if they pared it down to the necessary amount needed.

This needless convolution of genres hinders both authors and readers. Back in the pulp era, things were more straightforward. This means if your story contained a poltergeist haunting an immaculately terraformed Mars with a magical scepter from a long forgotten civilization it had a very clear genre. It was Action Adventure. Why? Because aesthetics didn't matter. It's fiction, use your imagination. Readers and authors both had no problem with this relationship. And this was the way it worked for a long time.

Things changed because those left in charge decided to seize control of labels and tweak them to benefit political agendas and their own personal fetishes instead of mainstream tastes. The result of that? Romance sells as well as ever, while Action and Adventure has been all but destroyed in the fiction market. All the precious sub-genres made up over the last 80 years? All they have done is harm stories they were supposed to be glorifying. It has split the audience into smaller and smaller slivers until said audience became fed up and left for other mediums like comic books, anime and manga, and video games to get their fix. Because of this, the fiction market has only been damaged by changing what worked in the first place.

This is my long way of saying that the genre wars are over. You lost.

It doesn't matter what subgenre you were propping up as the be all end all as the real face of your made up umbrella because it's deader than disco. And at least people still listen to Ring My Bell on the radio. No one outside of a small crowd even knows who Robert Heinlein is, and yet another portion of that sliver are even in the process of scrubbing him out of history. These wars are pointless. In an age where superheroes, space operas, and gun totting ex-hit man are the biggest things on screen and illustrated pages, book sales are flatlining. You're worse than dead. You're a zombie.

No one outside your irrelevant clique cares about aesthetics, and if the audience doesn't care, then the focus must be changed accordingly. The priority should be removing the straight-jacket imposed on writers due to workshops, self-proclaimed experts, and categories that hold no value to customers. While those in the Action Adventure arena have suffered, those that stayed the course like Romance are still doing as well as ever. Why? They didn't bottleneck themselves over fetishes. They allowed their intent to remain the same and the audience stayed even after decades of staying the course.

It's time to go back to basics. If we don't we risk falling even further into irrelevance and eventually into nothing as less and less people feel compelled to pick up a book. If you're not growing, you're shrinking, and we have ample evidence that growth stopped long, long ago.

Time to bring it back again. Action Adventure needs to return to the forefront, and all of us can do it. The Pulp Revolution is a good step forward, but it's only a step. It's time to keep walking.

My own work is in the Action Adventure genre. My most recent novel is a pulp length tale about an ex-punk who he battles mud monsters from Hell on a dying world. I'm doing my part to bring it back to basics again. How about you?

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Worlds of Adventure! ~ A Review of StoryHack #1

It's taken a bit of time to get to this, but here we are. The Action & Adventure magazine, StoryHack, began last year with a successful kickstarter and issue #0, and has quickly risen to the top of the short fiction heap for many people. After falling behind for so long, I have finally caught up and read Issue #1. This review is to let you know if all the praise is deserved.

It should be mentioned that I have interacted with several of the individuals involved in this magazine, and even submitted a story to it. That said, none of it has anything to do with my final opinion. I'm reviewing this because it's worth talking about and sharing, and I would never submit to a magazine I wouldn't read myself. This review is my honest opinion of issue #1.

StoryHack has a smaller physical size than something like Cirsova, but makes up for it in the content inside. Not only does it contain 10 tales, but each story has its own illustration, and there are many clever advertisements within its pages to give it the feel of a classic pulp magazine. I'm a big fan of getting physical versions of these pulp magazines and I'm glad that so many have felt compulsion to make readers want them. This format is entirely worth it.

As said before, this review will specifically cover the issue I read. You can find issue #1 on amazon here. Now to dive right in to the stories.

We start with an excellent cover to the first story in the magazine, New Rules for Rocket Nauts by Michael DeCarolis. This, in my opinion, was the perfect tale to begin with. This is essentially a space ranger story where times are changing and the old ways are being forgotten, but then a disaster occurs that proves that maybe charging blindly ahead is not always the best way to operate. There's plenty of action and derring-do with a small dab of romance along with creepy aliens to settle the reader in. I was a big fan of this story, and it was a perfect way to start off.

The Price of Hunger by Kevyn Winkless is the second story and it is nonstop action from the first sentence. The main character is being chased by his former friend who has something wrong with him and is determined to murder his fleeing victim. This is mostly one long set piece that ends with confrontation, but it was quite fast-paced.

The action continues in Retrieving Abe by Jay Barnson where a Mormon woman goes on a quest to save her husband from a dragon. But this isn't any old dragon. This short tale breezes by with good character development and descriptive action scenes. I'm starting to understand what sort of feel StoryHack is going for.

Protector of Newington by John M. Olson is a sort of steampunk superhero tale where the man behind the hero has to become one himself. This is a quick tale of a man trying his best to save a city from crime while getting over what he has lost along the way. The ending is a bit too convenient for me (the protagonist's decision is not that well thought out for one who works with heroes) but it does work thematically.

Hoping for werewolves? The next story, Brave Day Sunk in Hideous Night by Julie Frost, is what you're looking for. This has a time travel twist with an ending that is kind of vague. Yes, it's a time travel werewolf story. Despite that, I felt it held itself back. There wasn't that much action in this and I wasn't a fan of the vague ending.

Taking Control by Jon Del Arroz is a Weird Western with magic. It's short. I do enjoy the writing in this one, but I didn't feel like there was much in the way of stakes, and it just sort of ends. Of all the stories, this one feels like a small piece of a bigger one.

The mystery SF story (Planet & Mystery?) Some Things Missing From Her Profile by David Skinner is, once again, different from everything else in the magazine. A man's blind date is taken and he gets taken down a winding road that leads  to very strange places. Expect aliens and some violence. The opening is in media-res, which is not my favorite way to begin a written story, but beyond that I really enjoyed the journey.

Next we get Dream Master by Gene Moyers. This is a story where men begin dropping dead that soon becomes a cavalcade of fights and chases. Someone is infecting dreams and the main character is off finding out who. This reminded me most of an old Doc Savage story only without feeling like Lester Dent. Very much appreciated this.

Under the Gun by David J. West is another Weird Western but with a different tone from the last one. A young man discovers a body and finds a gun on his person. It begins to talk to him inside of his brain. This might have been my favorite story in this issue, as it was very fast paced but with enough character and plot movement to always keep me strapped in. This is what I read pulp for.

Finally we come to Circus to Boulogne by Mike Adamson to end the issue off. This is a historical adventure which takes place in World War II. A pilot is shot down behind enemy lines and must fight his way against incredible odds, or die. Every step of this journey is presented with a twist that leaves one wondering just what the protagonist did to anger fate so. But the ending finishes off the magazine right and leaves you wanting more.

What you might have gotten from this is that StoryHack takes no breaths and has no time to linger on the unexciting parts. This is pure Action Adventure and white knuckle action of the sort no one in traditional publishing is putting out anymore. What you get here is a tight set of stories that are pure joy to pick up and read and put away when needed. Short of Cirsova, I have yet to read a magazine with this much of a defined identity so quick out of the gate.

It is also proof that the Genre Wars currently taking place (and have been since Campbell made up his own rules) are total bunk. In this collection you will find Fantasy, Horror, Steampunk, Science Fiction, Weird Western, Mystery, and Historical Fiction stories. And yet they all bind together under a single theme. That theme is Action and Adventure. They all contain protagonists with defined goals that must overcome them through action and end up going through adventures. Despite how different the aesthetics are, every tale follows this one rule. This is the glue that binds every "genre" together and what used to be standard so long ago.

But enough about that, what's important is that StoryHack exists. This is the sort of magazine that needs to become the standard in short fiction again to bring it back to its roots. If you've been looking for something to read that lacks the spark you require then wonder no longer. Action Adventure is here to stay.

StoryHack comes highly recommended.

Issue #2 also just released, so you can look forward to more exciting tales here.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Weird Tales and Missing Links (Part II)

As I promised in the last post, here is part two and thirteen more tales to go through. Do they stack up to the first half? Read on and find out.

The second half of the Weird Tales Superpack only contains stories from the original run of the magazine. Unlike last time there are no pieces from any of the reboots or relaunches.

That is just fine with me as, from what I have seen, post-original run stories are not Weird Tales at all but cutesy and comedic farces more in tone with what would run in the pointlessly influential Unknown Magazine by John W. Campbell instead of the genre-mixing and tradition-linking stories the pulps were known to be. It does not mean every story here is great, but it means they try to achieve a similar goal. There is nothing quite like a pulp story, and a weird tale is even harder to get right, but these stories continue in the vein jut as much as the ones I covered in the first part of this series. For the amount of content it offers, this pack is more than worth the paltry price in goes for.

The stories I will be covering here are:

"The Medici Boots" by Pearl Norton Swet (September, 1936)
"The House in the Valley" by August Derleth (July, 1953)
"More than Shadow" by Dorothy Quick (July, 1954)
"In the Dark" by Ronal Kayser (August-September, 1936)
"Dearest" by H. Beam Piper (March, 1951)
"Doom of the House of Duryea" by Earl Pierce, Jr. (October, 1936)
"The Mississippi Saucer" by Frank Belknap Long (March, 1951)
"Mask of Death" by Paul Ernst (August-September, 1936)
"The Ring of Basset" by Seabury Quinn (September, 1951)
"Tiger Cat" by David H. Keller (October, 1937)
"Old Mr Wiley" by Greye La Spina (March, 1951)
"The Long Arm" by Franz Habl (October, 1937)
"The People of the Black Circle" by Robert E. Howard (September, 1934)

Another spread like last time. I am unsure why there is not much taken from the 1940s, but it is what it is. Let's get back into it.

The first story in this piece is The Medici Boots by Pearl Norton Swet. This one is about the titular relics from an old age, a pair of boots with a secret. A young woman tries them on and mysterious things start to happen. She begins to change. It's a bit predictable and the ending just sort of happens, but the whole story behind the boots is fascinating.

Next we have August Derleth's The House in the Valley which is a Lovecraftian tale. I've never read Mr. Derleth's work before, though I have tremendous respect for his contributions to genre fiction. My problem is that I dislike Lovecraftian fiction fully and absolutely. I enjoy Weird Tales. I enjoy horror tales. I enjoy the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I do not like pastiche and I do not like aping of others. The reason is that I read stories because art is meant to connect the reader and creator to something above both parties. That connection is hampered by the creator refusing to follow their own muse. It doesn't mean one can't write a good story with another's parts, it simply means I won't be invested in the makeshift vehicle. Part of that problem is highlighted in this very tale. Mr. Derleth does not understand, like everyone who writes such fiction, that the appeal of Mr. Lovecraft is the clash between reality and unreality, and the certain with the uncertain, all done with high dramatics and an odd understatement, which makes them glorious contradictions of entertainment. Mr. Derleth is simply writing a monster story, and the bolted on Lovecraft parts hurts it. This was an utter bore.

More Than Shadow by Dorothy Quick is next. A shadow the shape of a dog appear on a carpet and soon enough a dog appears that acts just like the shadow did. It takes a lot of skill to make a poodle, of all dogs, eerie, but the author manages it and then some. This was a welcome return to the expected style of Weird Tales after the last story completely broke the pace. I will definitely seek out more Quick to read in the future.

Following on that is Ronal Kayser's In the Dark. After hours at a chemical plant, the watchman and the president are alone. As the watchman does his rounds, the president is leaving a recorded message behind. You see, he has done some terrible, awful things and is falling apart in his guilt. But there was more to it than a simple crime. A lingering ghost clings to him and pries at his consciousness. This was fantastic. I was engaged from page one until the end of this short piece. It sure is nice to get back into the good material again after the disappointment of Derleth's tale.

Then we come to Dearest by H. Beam Piper. An old colonel deals with his relatives trying to put him away. He had taken them in after his brother died, and they now use the excuse of his advanced age to take their share of the inheritance and put him away. Stories like this never really stop being relevant, unfortunately, though there is no preaching about the issue here, thankfully. A voice speaks to the protagonist one day out of the blue and begins telling him things. They strike up an odd relationship that leads to an ending that is quite extreme. Personally, I think it goes on a bit too long after that climax, but the story is strong enough that it didn't bother me.

Following on that is a longer piece by Earl Pierce Jr. entitled Doom of the House of Duryea. A man named Arthur Duryea reconvenes with his father after a twenty year absence. Arthur's aunt warned him of his father's secret: that is vampirism. But it is not the sort of vampirism you might be thinking of. This weird tale ramps up with its eerie atmosphere to an ending that is as creepy as it is horrifying. One of the best here.

The Mississippi Saucers by Frank Belknap Long is next. In this story, a boy named Jimmy rides shantyboat along the river with his sister and uncle. He reads in the paper of what looks to be a monster flying in the sky. Soon enough he finds himself tangled up with forces outside of his control. Isn't it funny how before the '80s one could write a story with a child as a protagonist and not have it classified as an entirely different genre? Because even though being a child affects how Jimmy acts and sees the world, it does not change this from being a Weird Tale like any other one here. It was probably because no one needed a protagonist to look like them to be invested in a story. Would be nice to go back to that again. Anyway, I digress. It turns out the object is a UFO. But before he can deal with that some men come to his uncle's boat to cause trouble. The weakness of this story is that the UFO has to be explained (as does the very hokey and unneeded transhumanist message) which takes a lot of the mystery and wonder out of what was already a strong piece. It also goes on too long. But as a whole it is a fun piece.

We then come to the infamous Dr. Satan. This a story about a mysterious man who has all kinds of knowledge of the occult and uses it to commit crimes while a detective foils his schemes. You see, Weird Tales once tried to have their own pulp "hero" (actually a villain) for the magazine. Those who wrote into the magazine apparently protested, so it didn't last, but at least they gave it a go to try and tap the market. This story is by Paul Ernst and is called Mask of Death. It's a decent mystery, but not very engaging and takes far too long to get going. It wasn't that readers of the magazine were adverse to heroics (Conan made his debut here, after all) but that the story and villain character just are not very strong or engaging. There's more than a little unfulfilled potential in an occult powered villain who terrorizes the innocent. The ending also has everyone sitting around and discussing how the problem was solved which is not very Weird Tales at all and, like the last story, drags the weirdness out. Not a bad story, but definitely not a highlight. This tale just doesn't do it for me.

Thankfully we get back into what we all came here for with the single biggest contributor to Weird Tales' entire 31 year run. That would be Seabury Quinn who wrote 146 tales, and the story included here is The Ring of Bastet. This one star his famous Dr. Jules de Grandin, occult detective. The doctor and his friend are eating at a restaurant when a party comes in and a woman passes out. She's wearing a certain ring which leads things to spin out of control. This story is a lot like the previous story but done far better with smoother pacing and a plot that constantly moves from one point to the next. It is easy to see why the character appeared so much in the magazine while Dr. Satan died off.

David H. Keller's Tiger Cat follows and brings us away from detective stories. A man buys a villa (actually a mountain!) and discovers a door that has not been opened by previous residents. What he finds on the other side is the stuff nightmares are made of. The biggest disappointment with this is the lack of blatant fantastical elements. This could have slid right into a weird menace magazine. But it is still quite engaging to the end.

Old Mr Wiley by Greye La Spina is one of the better known storytellers from Weird Tales even if her work has not been in print for a long time. In this one a boy has grown ill and his great-grandfather gives him a puppy to cheer him up. But because the mother is a selfish person, they have to meet in secret so the boy can see the animal. His nurse plots to make him better without upsetting her employers. This story was a delight with colorful characters and an ending that had me wanting more. One of the the best in the pack. I'll definitely by looking for more of her work in the future.

We then come to The Long Arm by Franz Habl, a more traditional horror piece. The main character meets an old friend who begins to spill his guts about some shady things that happened in the past. Strange deaths and mental abilities are pieces of the dark puzzle that is his friend's story, and leads to an ending that you might not see coming unless you know Weird Tales. It was a good story, but the abrupt ending could have used a bit more meat to it.

Lastly, we reach another piece by Robert E. Howard to bookend the collection. This one is known as The People of the Black Circle, and is one of his most popular. As one would imagine, this is a Conan story. A princess begs for help after being tormented by sorcerers and having her brother, the king, killed. Of course she comes upon Conan who is more than willing to take up the task and slay any sorcerer scourge. There is much else aside from the main plot, multiple character motivations, and plenty of action to go around to end this Weird Tales pack off right. Howard was one of the best for a reason.

One odd thing about these stories is not just their strangeness, but their general uniform intent. If I had not known better I could have sworn they were all written for this anthology, all at the same time, and all following a very vague theme. You would not know these 20+ stories all spanned a thirty year range otherwise as these authors are all following a tradition going back to at least Edgar Allen Poe and are all doing so while letting their own individual talents and interests filter their attempts. This linked tradition is what hold them all together to form a greater whole which is probably why Weird Tales garnered such a readership that was so loyal at its peak and why it is the most fondly remembered pulp magazine.

But I will add one note. This only happened after I had read most of the stories here, but it became very noticeable to me. I noticed a shift in latter entries.

The later stories contained more mundane settings and resulted in less fantastical elements aside from a monster or two. Even the more realistic settings are not given quite the wondrous touch the earlier stories gave. Something had definitely changed with Weird Tales. The stories edited by Farnsworth Wright (pre-1940) had fantasy, science fiction, and horror, all in weird and wondrous locations that were just as fascinating as the strange problems the protagonists found themselves embroiled in. It felt like fantasy that was one step from being real. A large chunk of the post-1940 stories all take place in cities or suburban areas and have a tendency to over-explain the mysterious element. They read more like normal horror stories. The fantastical settings are almost entirely gone, as well.

Now, this doesn't really hurt quality, as some of the post-1940 stories are better than the earlier ones, but it is a noticeable shift. I'm not sure if this can be blamed on the editor change, but I think it has more to do with shifting tastes of the authors writing. A number of the same people who wrote in mundane settings would go on to write for John W. Campbell's Unknown which specialized in muddying up wonder and imagination to water down fantasy itself. And Unknown was never popular with readers so it clearly wasn't an audience choice for this shift.

Nonetheless, just about every story here is more interesting than the mainstream short fiction anthologies of today. If you want to know why the popularity of short stories dropped off, this shift from the way Weird Tales did it might have had a lot to do with the problem. But that has nothing to do with this release.

There is nothing but storytelling here. No preaching, no nihilism, no attempt to inform the reader of a truth that their ignorant brains haven't yet comprehended, no perfect vision of the future spoon fed to the audience (aside from one hokey story), and no snarky irreverence to reality itself. These were written for one purpose: to entertain. And that's exactly what they do.

Are these tales dated? That depends on what weasel-word terminology one uses to define their claim. They were written in specific eras which means the characters speak in dialects common to those time periods. As they should. I don't know when the ridiculous charge of "dated" meant that authors should have psychic abilities that let them understand terminology and phrases that arose after their deaths, but I also do not understand why certain critics have the need to punish them for these "problems" the writers could not have foreseen. In that aspect, they are timeless.

The writers were attempting to link to a tradition older than themselves. Regardless of time or space, these tales go beyond a simple charge of being irrelevant because they aim for greater things than speculating on science that might be proven wrong in a few years or a social fad everyone will be laughing at even sooner. They hit on eternal truths and are focused on a form of entertainment made to pass down through the ages, regardless of fads or trends. This are timeless.

If there's a reason they are dated it is because we no longer allow ourselves to link to traditions or generations older than our own. We are focused on stories that exist as mirrors to reflect back on us instead of ones that exist as windows to a potentially bigger and greater world than the one we live in. If there's a reason they are dated it is because we have lost our imagination. If there is a reason they are dated it is because we have no link with those who lived before us.

If that is the case then we have bigger problems to worry about than an inability to enjoy old fiction.

Because only the old can stand the test of time.

I write Weird Fiction of my own, though in the Action Adventure genre. Want to follow an ex-punk as he battles mud monsters from Hell on a dying world? I've got you covered.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Book of Thirty-Three ~ A Review of "Wonder Tales" by Lord Dunsany

Who is Lord Dunsany?

There was a time when that question would be absurd to any Fantasy fan, but that was in a time when his work was more easily available. It's hard to believe now, but Lord Dunsany was the king of Fantasy literature. There was a time where he was the most imitated writer in the field and was considered one of the fathers of modern genre fiction with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt. His name was synonymous with Fantasy. But that was a long time ago. His influence is still felt today, though not in the ways one would think.

The 18th Baron of Dunsany was an Irish writer named Edward J. M. D. Plunkett. He was a storyteller of considerable talent and most certainly the single most influential Fantasy writer of the last century. He inspired just about everyone from J. R. R. Tolkien to H.P. Lovecraft to Jack Vance to Michael Moorcock to Clark Ashton Smith and beyond. Not only was his influence immense, but so was the quality of his work. He wrote fantastical and wondrous weird tales and did it in a space that would put most modern writers to shame.

This is a review of his most easily accessible work, Wonder Tales.

Wonder Tales is a collection of two books. The first is The Book of Wonder (1912) and the second is Tales of Wonder (1916) which combine together for 33 short stories. Despite that high amount, the book itself only comes out to 158 pages. The reason? These stories are compact.

Reading Dunsany is an alienating experience to anyone weaned on modern Fantasy gunk. While he might be long on description, he is also direct and to the point. He rarely relies on dialogue. He doesn't need 1200 pages to tell a complete story. He doesn't need meandering subplots or dozens of characters. He expresses an untold number of ideas in a mere three pages of story. He evokes wonder with simple and carefully chosen words in lush passages. He is everything Fantasy is currently not. This is so far away from where the genre is today that it is almost sickening reading these tales now. Every single problem with modern Fantasy is completely absent in these 33 tales.

As previously stated, this is a release containing two books. To assess it honestly is to say the first books is the stronger of the two. Dunsany's stories are better the shorter they are, and the stories in the first book are shorter and sharper. From a story about a centaur as he captures his bride to a piece about thieves that come across an ineffable terror that would make Lovecraft jealous to one about a terrifying race of Gibbelins, these are stronger as a whole. Not to say the second book is bad, but it is not as strong a whole piece as the first. Every tale in The Book of Wonder is 5 stars. If you were to find Wonder Tales it would be worth it for this half alone.

The second book is not as fantastical as the first. Settings are more modern and there is more of a Weird Tale approach. Don't get me wrong, it is still plenty fantastical and has mystery and action to spare, but the settings are (for the most part) more mundane and straightforward and the longer pieces drag and are too stretched out. The better stories are, once again, the shorter and more direct ones. In other words, the stories least like modern fantasy are the ones most worth reading. The tale of the outwitted giant, the one about a wizard plotting underneath the modern world, and the very Weird Tales-like The Exiles' Club are by far the highlights here. You also can't go wrong with well regarded classics like The Three Sailor's Gambit, The Loot of Loma, or The Three Infernal Jokes, either. It is mind-blowing how good some of these are to read nowadays. Despite not being quite as great as the earlier book as a whole, there is much excellence to be found here.

This is the sort of thing all writers of the fantastical should be handed to get their feet wet. Reading this makes it clear just how far off the mark fantasy has come since Dunsany was writing about Thangobrind the Jeweller and his unfortunate journey. There is no bloat, there is no grey sludge, there is no obsession with scatology, and there is no religion of the new. There are only imaginative locations filled with large characters who exist to paint pictures in the reader's mind. They were all written to inspire and instill wonder and delight the reader.

This is Fantasy.

This was Fantasy. This is not what traditional publishing puts out now.

The archivists of classic genre fiction have failed newer generations quite handily. Finding Lord Dunsany's work in print is not so easy. This release by Dover is easily the most common and easy to find release but even it is mostly unknown. Considering his influence on the most important writers of the twentieth century (though he is one as well) it is inexcusable that it is not as easy to find The Book of Wonder as it is to find something like A Wizard of Earthsea.

This goes for much of the best fantasy literature and how the industry has deliberately hobbled creativity and imagination by keeping classic material out of their hands for modern muck that only exists to smear mud in reader's faces and keep them miserable. Where fantasy now is nowhere near Dunsany. It's in the toilet and deeper into the sewer..

But just because they failed does not mean we can let their mistake remain. It is time to rediscover the classics.

Lord Dunsany is one the most best writers of wonder you will ever read. If you are a reader of Fantasy, a lover of adventure, or a writer of the wondrous, then this is essential reading. You will not find much on Dunsany's level. There is not much in the genre better than this, and certainly nothing from traditional publishing.

Give it a try and realize what you've been missing.

Highest recommendation.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Future To Fantasy: Ruminations On Retrowave

Full-sized version Here (Thanks to the Outrun Reddit)

I've posted before about the odd phenomenon of Retrowave (or Synthwave) music and how it has taken the underground music world by storm over the past decade, but I wanted to make a special post dedicated to the music and less to just the scene aspect. This is partially because I have been listening to it more and more and partially because it's rise is quite fascinating.

As has been pointed out by many, there weren't any real musical movements that came out of the '00s that weren't '90s derivatives, but there was one style that began taking shape there before finally blooming into an original style in the Year of Our Lord A.D. 2010 and has so far only improved in scope and quality every year since. That would be Retrowave (or Synthwave, but I prefer the Retrowave label for being more descriptive) which only grows more by the day. The '10s were the decade of this music.

There were always groups before this genre existed like Daftpunk that used '80s synths but there wasn't a uniform style. In the '00s, some artists like Kavinsky, Makeup and Vanity Set, Lifelike, Chromatics, and College, used '80s film scores as a basis for their electro music and planted the first seeds for what would later be a full blown style. This happened in 2006/2007 but didn't trend right off the bat. Slowly, however, it began to grow. Those that heard this new/old style took it a step further and by 2009 and 2010, FM Attack, Lazerhawk, and Miami Nights 1984, among others, came out with their debut albums that pretty well knocked the door of its hinges. Throughout the '10s the style grew tremendously in popularity and was found in just about anything.

You had it in video games like Hotline Miami and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and in movies like Drive and even in TV series like Stranger Things. This raised its profile considerably. The genre has only managed more and more popularity over the years without wavering from its core goal or audience. This is no mean feat.

But what was fascinating was how different all the branching styles became. Early synthwave from the late '00s all more or less had a very similar sound. When the genre really solidified, more possibilities showed themselves. And sure enough, the subgenres followed.

In the chart above you can see the names given. You have Outrun, Darksynth, Vocal Synthwave, Spacewave, Dreamwave, and Cyberpunk, as the six main subgenres. There are groups that crossover effortlessly and some who stick to their lane, but all tend to have excellent works that spill over to become general audience favorites. If you'd like suggestions for any of them I suggest the image above as it is filled with quality material, but I would like to focus on some albums I think deserve credit on their own. But that can wait.

First let's talk about each subgenre.


Outrun is the name of Kavinsky's album which is in turn named after the classic arcade game and Sega racer. Outrun's soundtrack is well known to gamers as being a sunny, poppy, and atmospheric ride that instills feelings of adventure and wonder with hooks that always have you coming back. Magical Sound Shower, anyone?

This style is the one that gets most people into Retrowave, including those who might otherwise dismiss it as gimmick music. This is because Outrun is essentially the Action Adventure of the subgenres. Songs typically vary in tempo and length as well as mood at the drop of a hat to get the blood flowing and the listener energized. Outrun is about wonder and adventure. Would you want a style to get started with, this is the one to choose.

My personal favorite of this style include Tokyo Rose's The Chase: Last Run, Meteor's Inner Demon, Miami Nights 1984's Turbulence, and just about anything by Wolf & Raven.


Essentially where the metalheads congregate, Darksynth has a horror bent with heavy and more aggressively abrasive sounds. If you're a metal fan who wants to understand why this whole synth crap is taking off, then this is for you. Darksynth is all about eerie atmosphere and throwing the listener into the dark. Dance With The Dead really kicked this off with their atmospheric, yet rocking, tunes of monster busting goodness though even artists like Lazerhawk dabbled in it. It's all about rocking out.

Of course this specific aim also means its probably the least accessible style for an outsider to get into. But if you enjoy metal, cheesy horror, and/or blood, then this might scratch the itch. I personally have a harder time finding preferable material in this subgenre the most, but your mileage will probably vary from me.

My personal favorites in this style include Dance With The Dead's Out of Body, Mega Drive's 198XAD, and VHS Glitch's Evil Technology.

Vocal Synthwave

This is the most easy subgenre to understand. Vocal Synthwave basically amounts to artists attempting to recreate '80s pop music in the framework of Retrowave. Instead of just writing a Michael Jackson tune, one writes a tune that would match a dreamlike interpretation of the era and use lyrics to evoke a specific feel. It's not just a Synthpop tune that happens to have a singer. The lyrics tend to be far more ethereal and haunting than a typical pop song from the 80s would be.

The problem comes in how vocal artists coalesce with the other subgenres. Adding vocals fundamentally changes the game and makes it harder to stick apart from what is on the radio. In fact, a lot of what I've heard in this subgenre sounds closer to Owl City than it does to FM Attack, which is a downside to me. But there are artists that can knock it out of the park and make their vocal work match and merge flawlessly with the instrumentals. If you just can't get into purely instrumental music then you'll probably need to start here.

My personal favorites in this style include The Midnight's Nocturnal, Kristine's self-titled, and Sunglasses Kid's Graduation.


Another hard genre to talk about. This might be considered the opposite of Darksynth as Spacewave concerns itself with open and wide sounds and distance that put across an image of soaring through space itself and across metal monstrosities and steel-capped spaceships inside towering ancient cities on long forgotten planets. It's like prog rock without the aimless noodling and far more atmosphere.

The feeling of weightlessness and distant faraway hope crashes hard against heavy sounds in this subgenre. It's not the most popular style, but it is quite the favorite among many. Would you like to hear the soundtrack to your space opera epic? You'll find it here.

My personal favorites include Dynatron's Escape Velocity, Tommy '86's Outer Space Adventurer,  and anything by Volkor X.


Probably the most well-known and liked style overall, Dreamwave prides itself on being a like a living dream where reality and the unknown crash in on each other on an empty city street at night. This subgenre encapsulates the feel of Retrowave best of all from its dreamy soundscapes and pop hooks to its remarkable use of 80s synth in surprising ways that would not have happened in the '80s proper. If you've ever heard a Retrowave song before you ever knew what the genre was then it was probably Dreamwave.

Of all the styles this is the one I think I've spent the most time listening to as it is remarkable for writing inspiration or just a pick me up. It offers by far the most variety of sounds of all the subgenres and is the one style most likely to be frequented by listeners of any of the others. It's the most straightforward style.

My personal favorites include FM-84's Atlas, D/A/D's The Construct, and Kalax's self-titled.


I don't know what it is about Cyberpunk that attracts so many, but of all the subgenres I think this is the most unique. Imagine a bleak cityscape punctuated by moments of beauty that slip through the darkness to remind you of something higher than where you are. The world is crumbling, but there is something beyond it that prevents you from also doing so. Cyberpunk differentiates itself from Darksynth in that it can have a sense of hope if it desires to and it differentiates itself from Spacewave in that it can get down and dirty if the situation calls for it. Its a bit of a bridge between the styles in that area.

I do think my opinion on this style might vary from others because my favorites are not what gets talked about much in this subgenre, but then my taste in Cyberpunk itself is much different than many others as it is. There is a sense of the transcendent and the loss of the ineffable that pervades in the genre like a good Gothic Horror story. I enjoy the fight against ever increasing odds in a world gone mad, and I also enjoy hope that is almost, but not quite, extinguished. This Cyberpunk musical style fits the bill better than most Cyberpunk fiction actually does.

My personal favorites include Noir Deco's Future To Fantasy (or anything by them), LeveL-1's Motherbrain, and Mega Drive's Futurescape.

As you can well see there is a lot of variety in these styles. There is a very clear reason why Retrowave grew to the height it has in a mere decade. You have a very good case for it still improving and growing, as well. While a lot of the kooky, so-random appeal has worn off, the artists continue to work and put out great music on what feels almost like a near monthly basis. It's quite impressive. There's something good almost every day now.

To finish this post off, I'd like to leave you with a final list. This is my list of my personal top 10 Retrowave albums without using more than one entry per artist.

You can use this as you like, maybe to find a new favorite for yourself, but you would hard pressed to find fault with any of them. This is some good stuff.

1. Miami Nights 1984 - Early Summer

I've said it before, but this was the album to get me into the genre. I'd listened to pieces of other albums like Lazerhawk's Redline, but they didn't stick. They had good tracks, but nothing that gelled as an album. This one got itself trapped in my head and listening to it for years at this point. For me, this is THE Retrowave album that describes the whole appeal better than any other.

Dreamy images of the summer, past, present, and future, and all it entails grip the listener through every piece. From the ethereal title track to the end, this is back to start greatness. If you want a single album to listen to to get you into Retrowave, I'd say this is the one to go with. The perfect summer album.

Thankfully you can find this classic (with a far less cool cover) on bandcamp.

2. The Midnight - Nocturnal

This one came out of nowhere for me. Most people had been singing these guys praises for years now, but I always thought they were just okay with some great songs. A lot of their vocal songs sounded more like Owl City than Retrowave. But with this album they hit it out of the park with all killer and no filler tracks and more sax than you can shake a stick at. The lyrics paint a very vivid picture, as do the layered sounds. Dark streets, forgotten corners, empty alleys, and a way to a better tomorrow. This is by far the best vocal synthwave album I've come across.

Fortunately, since they're pretty well known, their material is easy to find. The album is on their bandcamp.

3. Noir Deco - Future To Fantasy

Someone clearly likes Blade Runner. But beyond that clear influence, Noir Deco's Future To Fantasy is a soundscape that crawls through a destroyed future into a fantasy world beyond the ruins of the old one. It merges the utter despair of a soulless existence with the eternal hope of something far beyond it, and it progressively makes its way with each new track as it goes. This album blew me away the first time I heard it as it is the first to really get that feel that most Cyberpunk just doesn't get right that I like most from it. Danger and wonder rolled into one. This album is pretty close to perfect.

Noir Deco is truly unlike anything else in the genre, and their material being hard to find doesn't help them stand out like they should. But you can get all the tracks on this album in the compilation release they put out at CD Baby.

4. Mega Drive - Futurescape

Not his most well known work by any stretch, but by far my favorite. This album is only 6 tracks that get progressively longer but also expand in sound and scope. By the end you feel like you've been through a real futurescape. Most of Mega Drive's work is more driving and hard, but this one is subtle and airy. It slowly works its hooks into you.

I like this for much the same reason as Noir Deco's stuff, but this album has a much sharper and abrasive sound that makes it a good companion piece. If you want something more accessible, you might also prefer his excellent album 198XAD, but this is still my favorite piece he's done. It's sharp and to the point.

You can get this easily on his bandcamp page.

5. Tokyo Rose - The Chase: Last Run

Essentially a compilation of much of their early work with some remixes and brand new songs, this album is the complete package. From the first notes of the intro, you know what you're getting, and it doesn't let up from there. Top notch Outrun Retrowave with plenty of wide open roads and skies where there is no limit. Every track on here is perfectly picked and all are worthy of inclusion on any compilation you might want to toss on. Simply put, this album has no bad songs. It is one of the best in the genre.

It also runs a bit of the style gamut being that there are also Vocal Synthwave, Darksynth, and some Dreamwave tracks to go with the main Outrun style. This might actually be one of the best Retrowave albums to start with just for its breadth.

Thankfully this one appears to have been a big hit as it is easily available on the NewRetroWave bandcamp itself. Well deserved.

6. FM Attack - Dreamatic

This is the earliest album I've included on here, and I hope one doesn't get the wrong impression of FM Attack. This does not mean their only good work was their original as that is definitely not the case. Go listen to Deja Vu or Stellar to get even more excellent work. I'm only focusing on their first album because it is my favorite. This was the album to really sand the genre down to its core parts and that makes it endlessly re-listenable.

This is the first album to really nail it down. Each song fills the quota for dreamy yet driving synth that really gets the imagination going. You can't go wrong with this one.

It's easily available on FM Attack's bandcamp here.

7. Kristine - Kristine

It might seem like I'm including a lot of vocal artists on this list, but it is only that the ones I included are about all I really like. It's really that simple. Their inclusion here only testifies to how good the ones I included are. I've already said that this is the hardest subgenre to get me into because it's so difficult to hit right compare to the other ones. Kristine, however, gets it right. This was the second vocal synthwave album (after Nocturnal) to get me on the first listen.

Catchy hooks, old and new sounds merging effortlessly, and dreamy lyrics that hit the essence of what makes the genre work. You won't find much better than this album in the vocal style.

Unfortunately, she hasn't put out much other work, but this album is easily found on her bandcamp page here.

8. D/A/D - The Construct

This one is the hardest inclusion to explain. D/A/D manages to include such spare instrumentation yet has a very emotional undercurrent flowing through every track. I couldn't describe what really makes this album click so well for me compared to the others as this is just an album that works on a gut level. And I'm listing it here exactly for that reason.

I got this one lodged in my brain after a single listen. This album is one that is a lot less known than it should be, but it is engaging from the first note until the end.

Like a few other artists here, he doesn't have that much material available, and this is his only album. That said, it is at least readily available on his bandcamp page here.

9. Sunglasses Kid - Graduation

This album is a masterwork of popcraft that throws in everything but the kitchen sink to make an album that celebrates an era long ago. Sunglasses Kid clearly is a fan of cheery 80s movie scores, because he nails that feel throughout. This is the definition of a summer album. You'll be cranking this on high.

The ONLY blemish on this great album is the absolutely terrible rap included on the third song that ruins the positive vibe of the rest. The rapper wrote some awful lyrics and they really should have been rerecorded or scrapped. There is an instrumental version that I recommend seeking out instead. That aside, Graduation is a great summer album with great grooves and fun beats that will get a smile on even the most jaded jerk.

I'm kind of surpised this album isn't more well known as it has everything genre fans dig. You can even easily find it on his bandcamp page.

10. Dance With The Dead - Out of Body

I guess it's fairly obvious that I'm not the biggest Darksynth fan. My list is conspicuously missing many artists subgenre fans live for. Sorry. It's just not my bag. But there is some great material in the subgenre I like, and this is the best of them all.

Dance With The Dead plays some hard hitting yet very atmospheric pieces that stick with you long after the song's over. Good for inspiration, good for chilling, and good for rocking out, this album hit all the marks. If there is a single Darksynth album I'd recommend first it would be this one. It's the one I listen to the most.

These guys are no unknowns in the scene. You can easily find this on their bandcamp.

And that's all I've got for you today! I wanted to get together a post for the genre that was slightly more in depth than my last one, and I hope I succeeded. This music should definitely be talked about more than it is.

Retrowave (or Synthwave) is the best musical genre to emerge in a long time, and has a lot of places left to go. Here's hoping it will stick the path and continue to delight old listeners and draw in new ones for awhile to come. The genre deserves it.

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