A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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The Gates is one _hell_ of a good time

Lowell Kempf
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I hadn’t realized when I decided to read John Connolly’s The Gates in the middle of October that it was set at Halloween. Mind you, I’d have enjoyed it any time of the year.

In a small English town, a boy named Samuel Johnson and his dashchund Boswell see a portal to hell open up. Demons come out, just in time for Halloween, and hijinks and comedy ensue.

Okay, it was impossible for me not to compare The Gates to Good Omens. They both have that cheeky, self-aware tone that resonates with the works of Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome. And they both are about biblical-style end of the world.

That said, the differences are significant enough that the Gates stands as its own book. Good Omens has an ensemble cast and a fairly complicated plot. The Gates is clearly centered around Samuel and has a simpler plot. A ton of footnotes about physics but a simpler plot. Samuel is very different than Good Omens’ Adam. Quirky and a bit nebbish and coping with his parents’ divorce, he’s more developed (but he is the main character so he should be)

And, yes, Good Omens is the better book but it’s a modern classic. That leaves plenty of room for The Gates to still be very good.

I have to note, while a dedicated cat lover, I adored Boswell the dashchund. Neurotic but brave, he demonstrates endless love for Samuel and more common sense than any other character. I cheated and checked to make sure he doesn’t die at the end of the book (spoiler)

The real strength of The Gates is tone and characterization. Plot wise, it doesn’t break any new ground on the idea of kids saving the world. But that doesn’t matter. The voice that the book has and the characters easily carry the work.

Years ago, I read John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things, which is one of the best fairy tale deconstructions I’ve read. After The Gates, I won’t wait so long to read more John Connolly. For instance, the Gates is the first book in a trilogy
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Wed Oct 20, 2021 9:10 pm
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The Night Wire is a tasty bit of dread, perfect for Halloween

Lowell Kempf
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With Halloween coming, I took a moment to reread The Nigjt Wire, a short story by Henry Ferris Arnold. It’s from 1926 so public domain and free to read online. It’s also pretty short so it’s easy to read in half a sitting.

In it, two men are on the night shift of a telegraph office, typing out news stories as they come in when they start getting live reports about a terrible apocalypse happening to a city they have never heard of.

I honestly don’t want to go into too many details because that would spoil the story. Mind you, it’s nearly a hundred years old, apparently was one of the most popular stories in that era of Weird Tales and has been frequently anthologized so you probably have already read it

And you can click on the link below and read the thing in five minutes if you haven’t

There are two elements in the story that I think make it resonate. Atmosphere and uncertainty.

The entire story takes place in one room in the middle of the night. The sparse setting manages to convey a sense of isolation where the only connection to the world is the telegraph and that is a tenuous connection.

But the uncertainty is the real power of the story. We never have a clear idea what is going on. Is the night wire describing a Biblical apocalypse? A Lovecraftian cosmic horror? The afterlife? Or is the narrator having some kind of psychotic break? You can make arguments for all of the above.

But you get enough details for it to be really creepy. The story gives your mind enough to work with.

If you need a tiny taste of Halloween dread, the Night Wire should do the trick.

https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Night_Wire
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Fri Oct 15, 2021 4:23 pm
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Shangri-La is a weird place

Lowell Kempf
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Rereading Lost Horizon (by James Hilton) for the first time in maybe five years was like reading a completely different book.

Okay. There will be spoilers ahead. For a best-selling book from 1933 that was turned into a famous movie from 1937 that turned Shangri-La into a common noun. So it’s like spoiling the end of the Wizard of Oz. (Pssst… Dorothy gets to go home)

Here’s the elevator pitch: four westerners get flat out kidnapped to the mysterious and mystical lamasery of Shangri-La.

My vague memories were that, by the mystical lamasery’s standards, Shangri-La was pretty mundane. No warrior monks with magical martial arts or wizards. I had completely forgotten that the High Lama claimed to be telepathic or that the longevity apparently had a narcotic drug component.

I had also been under the impression that Lost Horizon had been the start of the whole mystical monastery genre when I was younger. Now I know it was a well-used device by 1933. So I am now left wondering if Lost Horizon is a straight take on the mystic monastery and great white savior tropes or a deconstruction of them.

Conway, the protagonist, is the guy who the High Lama chooses to succeed him, even though he’s just got to the place. However, his inner calmness comes from being a shell-shocked survivor of World War I. The book makes is abundantly clear he is very damaged, even though everyone wants him to be their hero.

And, judging by the ending, he doesn’t end up saving anyone. But, to be fair, he never asks to be anyone’s hero.

Shangri-La, on the other hand, is fascinating. The highlights of the place include plumbing from Akron, Ohio, central heating, a library with lots of western elements and a grand piano. The High Lama is actually from Luxembourg. The special treatment that extends lifespans doesn’t work on native Tibetans.

More than that, Shanghai-La doesn’t seem to have any goals relating to enlightenment or philosophy. What little we learn of the place makes it sound like scholarly hedonism, like a group of professors were given lifetime tenure and sabbaticals at the same time. The main goal of Shangri-La is to be a repository of knowledge and art after the rest of the world blows itself up.

Don’t get me wrong. Shangri-La sounds like a lovely place to chill out but it doesn’t seem very deep. Given their mantra of moderation, the characters in the book might agree with me. It’s a tempting but I don’t know if it’s a good idea.

I wonder what Hilton’s goal was with the book. But the layers of ambiguity may be part of the book’s lasting success.
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Thu Oct 14, 2021 12:10 am
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Infocom make me read Douglas Adams

Lowell Kempf
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My introduction to both Infocom and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy franchise was the interactive fiction game back in 1984.



You know, it wasn’t the best introduction to either of those things

While I’m prepared to listen to an argument that the books or the radio plays or the BBC TV series is the best way to first learn about the Hitchhiker world, the game doesn’t have the narrative strength of any of them. As for Infocom, the Hitchiker game pretty much trolls the player .

Despite that fact, I came to love both the Hitchhikers franchise and Infocom. So everything worked out in the end.

Really, though, the interactive fiction game is ridiculous. Not only is it surprisingly nonlinear, it is relentlessly unintuitive. The thing breaks tons of written and unwritten rules of both fiction and gaming.

The babelfish puzzle (which happens early enough that I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything) which requires you to jury rig a Rube Goldberg device that hinges on a quirk in the way the parser works. Namely, that you can only fit one object on a satchel but a pile of mail counts as one object and a bunch of objects. So the solution plays the meta nature of how the game works.

Honestly, not only have I never come close to winning the game fairly, I don’t think I’ve made it through the game cheating with a full set of hints!

But the game is a beloved classic for a couple good reasons. Most obviously, it is really funny reading. I played the game over and over not to win but to read it. Infocom knew how to put the fiction in interactive fiction, which I would go on to learn in many of their other games.

More than that, by being so ridiculously iconoclastic, it’s a fascinating exploration of what you can do with fiction, interactive or otherwise. Not that I appreciated that back in the early 80s. But it is a weird experiment in how computer games and fiction works.

As of the time writing, the BBC will let you play the game online. I might do that and see if I can get to the end.

https://downloads.bbc.co.uk/interactive/embed/container.html...
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Mon Sep 27, 2021 7:52 pm
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Nine Horrors and One Dream is all fun

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve been poking around Horror: The 100 Best Books (mostly because it was edited by Kim Stanley) and one of the books I decided to try from it was Nine Horrors and a Dream by Joseph Payne Brennan.

Brennan was a prolific writer. According to Wikipedia (so, take with as many grains of salt as you choose to) he wrote four to five hundred short stories, two novellas and thousands of poems. And he was apparently a frequent contributor to Weird Tales during the 50s.

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of his work in print. Do I consider this collection to be some of his best work and the rest isn’t as good? Do I assume there are legal issues that keep a lot of his stuff out of print?

Judging by how well regarded he is (and I have read his stories in other anthologies) and the fact that what I have read is good stuff, I am leaning on the latter explanation.

Nine Horrors and a Dream is just what it says on the tin. Ten stories, although I don’t know which one is the dream. While, with one noteworthy exception, the actual concepts and ideas on his stories aren’t too original, the actual execution is excellent. Almost all the stories are written in that plain style that looks like it’d be easy but is actually really hard. Otherwise, everyone could be Hemmingway.

Okay, time to comment on a few stories.

Slime is the exception to the plain writing. It’s a blob monster story with purple prose that reminds me of P. Schuyler Miller’s Spawn (and that’s one wild ride of purple prose) And it’s a story I’ve read in anthologies more than once.

Slime is a story that has stuck in my head for a few reasons. Part of it is the over-the-top prose. However, it gives a slightly more reasonable version of the blob monster, which was old hat by the time it was written. It’s an adapted deep sea creature that doesn’t have an acid touch. Just crushing strength.

The one story that actually creeped me out was the Calamander Chest, which is oddly the least original concept in the book. A guy buys what turns out to be a haunted chest and bad things happen. If it isn’t an homage to M. R. James, I’d be surprised. But by being very visceral without being graphic, it just worked.

I’d read, more than once, that the best story in the collection was Canavan’s Backyard and it did not disappoint. The title location is a plot of land that warps time, space and anyone who goes into it. The most original and interesting story in the book, it’s a nice use of Genius Loci, the idea of place being aware and intelligent. Brennan also does a good job of hinting more than showing.

As I mentioned, I have read Brennan before but this was the first concentrated amount. It was worth the read.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.con
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Wed Sep 22, 2021 9:18 pm
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Even middling Lord Dunsany is good stuff

Lowell Kempf
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I was surprised to realize, when I started reading it, that I hadn’t read Tales of Three Hemispheres before. While there are vast sections of Lord Dunsany’s writings I haven’t read, I’ve still read a lot of his early short stories.

There was a period about ten years ago when I was reading collection after collection on Project Gutenberg and I assumed I had read Three Hemispheres then. I’m glad that I didn’t. While it isn’t the best Dunsany wrote, if I had read it amidst a flood of other Dunsany, I’d have missed what nifty elements it does have.

The book actually breaks down into two distinctive parts. Some unrelated stories and three interconnected stories, including the previously published Idle Days on the Yann.

I enjoyed the first part. The stories might not have been extraordinary but even middle of the road Dunsany is good reading. I particularly liked the Old Brown Coat, which would have been at home as a Jorkens story.

But the last three stories, collectively known as Beyond the Fields We Know (a phrase that since been pounded into the ground until it has reached the Earth’s core), that’s the best part of the collection. Although the best story being a reprint from an earlier collection doesn’t Tales of Three Hemispheres any favors as a stand-alone book.

I’m not exaggerating that each of these stores is Lord Dunsany going to the land of dreams… and being a tourist. In particular, Idle Days on the Yann is a flat-out travelogue. It isn’t a narrative. It’s world building. And in Lord Dunsany’s hands, world building is magical.

Between The Gods of Pegana and Beyond the Fields We Know, Lord Dunsany basically created splat books.

Tales of Three Hemispheres is not one of Lord Dunsany’s greatest hits. However, it isn’t just for the completists either.
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Wed Sep 15, 2021 6:28 pm
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The Sound of His Horn is a fever dream of a dystopia

Lowell Kempf
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The Sound of His Horn is a novel that I occasionally saw listed as an influential one but not one I heard a lot of conversation about. As if it was a book that mostly read by authors It was written by Sarban, which was the pseudonym for the British diplomat John William Wall. And, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if his professional life influenced his artistic one.

The Sound of His Horn is a ‘What if Hitler won WW II’ stories but it’s one that not like any other I have read. Instead of an authoritarian dystopia, it is a fever dream with touches of primal fear and Brave New World eugenics.

The story is framed as a story within a story. An unnamed narrator hears the story from a WW II veteran named Alan Querdillon who is clearly suffering from PTSD. During the war, he escaped from a German prison camp. Shocked by a mysterious barrier, he wakes up a hundred years later in a world where Germany had won.

The entire future section of the book takes place at the hunting estate of Reich Master Forester Count Hans Von Hackelnberg. Almost medieval in many respects and science fiction in others, the estate is an absolute horror show where human beings, sometimes genetically modified, are the prey.

There is absolutely no way to talk about The Sound of His Horn without mentioning the complete objectification of women in the bad future. They are hunted, bred to be hunting animals and even used as furniture. Since this is depicted as despicable and nightmarish, I’m choosing to believe that Sarban does not support such a view. The degree of dehumanization is profoundly and effectively disturbing.

And I also have to mention Von Hackelnberg. While he actually shows up in a relatively small portion of what is already a short novel, he looms over everything. A giant of a man who is full of primal rage and violence, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be supernatural or not. His scorn for his fat, pampered guests emphasizes his other nature.

As I mentioned before, Querdillon is clearly suffering from PTSD in the present time and the future section has a definite fever dream quality. A very possible interpretation is that he went mad and all of his fantastic experiences were in his his head. That possibility makes the already dreamy, nightmarish book even more uncertain.

After reading The Sound of His Horn, I can see why the book is considered so influential and also why it doesn’t seem to be widely read. I don’t know if it is a good book but it is a memorable and disturbing one.
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Fri Sep 10, 2021 10:19 pm
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Boy, was Grimtooth’s Traps its own thing

Lowell Kempf
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I decided to take a virtual trip back to an earlier age in RPGs and look at the original Grimtooth’s Traps from 1981. It is certainly a look back at a time when RPG philosophy was very different.

Grimtooth’s Traps was the first in a series of game supplements that consisted to literally page after page of traps. There weren’t any game stats for any of them (at least in the original versions of the book) Just diagrams, descriptions and snarky commentary. Lots and lots of snarky commentary.

The most entertaining part of the books and probably a big reason why there ended up being so many volumes is that the narrator is a sarcastic troll named Grimtooth who feels that the deadlier the trap, the better. Since so many RPG books from this time period read like engineering text books, the Grimtooth books have a lot of character.

And as a general rule, the traps involve either a crazy amount of engineering or magic. They are wildly over the top , not even remotely cost effective and often ridiculously deadly.

Honestly, I’m hard-pressed to believe a lot of dungeon masters actually used these traps. Not only would they be potential total party killers, they would slow the game down to a crawl, even if you had a party of nothing but thieves.

That said, I can see making some of the larger traps into the centerpiece of a tomb or ruined temple or a mad wizard’s proving grounds. They don’t necessarily have to violate the part of the Hickman manifesto that says architecture should make sense.

I can’t say that Grimtooth’s Traps and the books that followed it are examples of an era old enough that most Grognards aren’t old enough to remember since they are so atypical. And I think it would take some work to make traps actually useful. But Grimtooth is a fun read.
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Wed Aug 25, 2021 8:00 pm
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Arthur C. Clarke can be funny?

Lowell Kempf
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Every few years, I find myself rereading Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke. After reading The Travel Tales of Mister Joseph Jorkens, I felt almost obligated to revisit the book.

Tales from the White Hart is a collection of club stories, all science fiction tall tales, being told at the White Hart pub. They are all comedic, which makes this only comedy I’ve read by Clarke. (He may have written more and I just don’t know about them)

While the fantastic club story is now a well established genre, Tales from the White Hart is a relatively old example. (Although, looking it up, Gavagan’s Bar is just a little bit older) All of the stories in the White Hart fall firmly in the Science Fiction camp, although some, like the Reluctant Orchard and What Goes Up, are pretty ridiculous. Which is admitted in story

Clarke himself is the narrator but most of the stories are told by the hopefully fictional Harry Purvis. And when he isn’t telling the story, Harry is annoyed by that fact. Harry Purvis is a classic Munchausen, someone who has been everywhere and knows everybody. And he gets a bit of development by the last story.

What is interesting to me is that Clarke was apparently friends with Lord Dunsany and actually name-drops Jorkens at one point. However, Clarke’s stories remind me a lot more of Wodehouse’s club stories, like Mr. Mulliner. For one thing, they are flat out comedies while the Jorkens stories I read have more melancholy and wonder. There is a snarky tone running though White Hart. And the gender dynamics of henpecked men and in-charge women also reminds me of Wodehouse

But Wodehouse is great so that’s okay.

Tales from the White Hart isn’t the best collection of club stories I’ve ever read. But the stories are consistently good all the way through.

(Okay. Since someone will ask, I enjoy the Callahan stories (although their quality can drastically vary), the Draco Tavern Stories and the Black Widowers (which isn’t fantastical but is by Asimov) more than the White Hart)

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Aug 4, 2021 8:49 pm
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Target made me underestimate Patrick Troughton

Lowell Kempf
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As I’ve written in the past, I come from the generation of Doctor Who fans whose primary source of Doctor Who was the Target novelizations. It was certainly a different experience from a world where so much can be streamed at the touch of a button! That said, if I hadn’t had those books as a source of Doctor Who, I never could have become the fan that I continue to be today.

However, there is absolutely no denying that the books simplified the stories. They were aimed at younger readers. Which was okay since I was a younger reader at the time! I have even read that Terrance Dicks, who wrote over sixty of the books, may have helped British kids learn to love reading more than any other author. (I would love to see an actual study that claims that. Still, better him than Enid Blyton)

So, when I actually got to see stories that I only knew through the books, I was often amazed at how much depth and nuance there was. And, yes, a lot of that had to do with the actors and their acting.

I was underwhelmed by the novelization of the Three Doctors, which was a major milestone by its concept alone. And the actual episode wasn’t meaningfully different. (I am convinced that Terrence Dick often worked with the original script in one hand and a typewriter in the other) But Stephen Thorne as Omega hammed it up to eleven, chewing the scenery to the point where you’d think he was trying to eat the TARDIS console. It was over the top and kind of ludicrous but darn if it wasn’t entertaining.

And while the books never undersold the Master, you actually have to see Roger Delgado to appreciate his charm and lovely creepiness. There have been many fun interpretations of the Master but the character would have never gotten off the ground without Mister Delgado.

But I think Patrick Troughton is the one who got the worst of it. The books portrayed him as a clown, a cosmic hobo. Sight unseen, he was my least favorite Doctor.

However, actually seeing Patrick Troughton act, there is a presence and gravitas that I had no idea was there. More so than any of the Doctors who followed him (except maybe Sylvester McCoy), there is a thin layer of silliness over a core of steel. Troughton’s Doctor would see things to the bitter end and he would make them right.

The more exposure I have to Troughton’s Doctor, the more impressed I am and the more I like him. William Hartnel was where the Doctor got started but Troughton is the one who has informed every portrayal afterwards.

Yeah, didn’t get that from the books.

I am very glad that I had the Target books. In a world before the internet and streaming, they were essential. But, yeah, getting to actually watch the show is better

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 30, 2021 3:12 pm
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