Ten of the Best. #5: A Cave Full of Blind, Trigger-happy Pirates.

Beatrice Grimshaw (born 1871, Co. Antrim – died 1953, New South Wales, Australia) had one of the most extraordinary lives of any Irish writer of speculative fiction.  On reaching the age of twenty-one, she ran away from home to the South Seas, supporting herself through travel journalism and fiction writing.

Consider these snippets from an  autobiographical sketch that she wrote:-

  • I had so many adventures that they cease to seem adventures. In the New Hebrides, I was caught in a forest fire, and barely escaped into a valley where bones of a recent cannibal feast lay blackening in the smoke;
  • On the Sepik, I had my narrowest escape when a body of headhunters urged me to come and see their village, all by myself, because their women wanted to look at me. It came rather closer than was pleasant to my seeing nothing any more; because the headhunters, when they had brought out two or three old and terrified women as a bait, began to bar me into the house… …I got away by backing down the track and making signals to invisible (and non-existent) friends. Headhunters are nervy folk, jumpy and undecided until the moment when they strike. Before they had made up their minds, I was round the corner; going slowly, afterwards I ran; 
  • I had a house built on three huge war-canoes, moored in the sea; I loved that house until it became a meeting-ground for crocodiles who lived in the surrounding shallows and bellowed like bulls at night.

Most of her fiction falls into the adventure genre.  Two novels cross the boundary into the realm of the fantastical – The Sorcerer’s Stone (1914) and The Terrible Island (1919).  The latter is a favourite of mine.  First of all, I love its sense of place: where else can one read contemporary accounts of the expat life in New Guinea, a hundred years ago?

Secondly, I love the set up, with probably the most useless MacGuffin in all fiction – a horde of supposed treasure that is effectively worthless (on account of the tiny geographical area and the very limited market in which it might be spent), located on ‘Ku-Ku’s Island,’ somewhere out beyond the Lusancays, and guarded by ‘pigeon devils’ that will blind any intruder. [Spoilers Ahead!]  In Scooby-Doo-like fashion, the supernatural element turns out to be grounded in reality, the blindness being caused not by infernal birds, but through consumption of the tasty looking fruits of the finger cherry (Rhodomyrtus sp.) that grow all over the island.

But best of all is the terrifying set piece that Grimshaw is able to establish, on foot of this scenario.  Shortly after her protagonists first set foot on the island, they blunder into a cave full of blinded and very jumpy pirates, who are also looking for the treasure and who are armed to the teeth with guns 😀  Satisfying chaos ensues.


Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney

I’ve been to some great stuff at the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival (CJAF) over the years: the puppet show The Man Who Planted Trees, and 3epkano, live playing their soundtrack to accompany The Golem, particularly spring to mind.  So it was with high hopes that I went to the world premier of Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney last night, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The festival programme billed the piece as a …unique blend of new music and spoken word… …commissioned by leading uilleann piper David Power, and written by New York-based composer Dana Lyn… [and] …performed by Power together with acclaimed string ensemble the ConTempo Quartet. Interwoven with the music, actor Barry McGovern reads excerpts from a translation of the ancient story… This sort of mélange could go several ways; what was served up was very much a straight contemporary music concert and none the worse for that.

Bookended by two other short works, the 45 minutes or so of Buile Shuibhne consisted of seven passages read from the poem, each followed by a musical recapitulation of the action described.

The story of Sweeney was new to me.  In summary, Sweeney, the pagan King of Dál Riada, offends Saint Ronan the Fair, who is erecting a church in his territory without permission.  As a result  Ronan, curses Sweeney to wander about the world naked and in madness until he should die by spear point.  And so it transpires, with much blood letting along the way, giving the lie to the notion that in Ireland the transition from paganism to Christianity was bloodless, as David Power noted in his introduction.

The one jarring note in the tale is Sweeney’s death-bed embrace of Christianity at the end.  Presumably this is the authorial propaganda of the time.  It is rather the implacable Ronan, with his lack of compassion and his cursing, that radiates the evil as the action is unfolding; Sweeney is merely headstrong.  There seems to be no good reason why his repentance should be accompanied by a spiritual cost.

I found the full text of J.G. O’Keeffe’s 1913 translation of the poem on-line.  I’m not sure if it was the same text used for the performance, but it seems very similar.  Here’s an excerpt of the story contained in the opening movement:-

Suibhne was greatly angered and enraged, and
he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the
church. His wife Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
in order to hold him, seized the wing of the fringed, crimson
cloak which was around him, so that the fibula of pure white
silver, neatly inlaid with gold, which was on his cloak over
his breast, sprang through the house. Therewith, leaving his
cloak with the queen, he set out stark-naked in his swift
career to expel the cleric from the church, until he reached
the place where Ronan was.

He found the cleric at the time glorifying the King of
heaven and earth by blithely chanting his psalms with his
lined, right-beautiful psalter in front of him. Suibhne took up
the psalter and cast it into the depths of the cold-water lake
which was near him, so that it was drowned therein.

And this from the second movement:-

Thereafter, at the end of a day and a night, an otter
that was in the lake came to Ronan with the psalter, and
neither line nor letter of it was injured. Ronan gave thanks
to God for that miracle, and then cursed Suibhne, saying:
‘Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord,
that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it
be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying
throughout the world ; may it be death from a spear-point
that will carry him off.’

The playing of the ConTempo Quartet was impressively lively and inventive.  I particularly enjoyed the musical depiction of Sweeney leaping across the land, pursued by five severed heads.  The one weak moment was the one weakness of the piece itself, the unpromising opening of the first movement, which doesn’t immediately snare the listener, drawing them in, but rather threatens a difficult evening ahead.

David Power’s pipes surprised me.  I enjoy uilleann pipe music, but most that I’ve listened to has had a more ringing character.  Here we had a lower and more plaintive sound – I kept thinking of the shepherd’s pipes in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  I know nothing of the technical capabilities of the instrument, so presumably there are variations of chanters with other pitches and different tuning methods one can apply.  Perhaps this was a choice made so as not to swamp the string quartet.  That certainly never happened, though there were a couple of passages where the quartet threatened to overwhelm the pipes.

The readings were nicely done by Barry McGovern.  I found the overall narrative somewhat disjointed, but O’Keeffe, in the introduction to his translation, suggests that this is an inherent characteristic of the poem.  If so, it’s a good reason to structure the piece the way it was, with seven passages and seven movements, rather than trying to have the words and music flowing more into each other.

I think the performance is touring to other venues over the summer.  If so, it’s well worth catching up with.  I hope they make a recording.


My First BristolCon

I’ve been aware of BristolCon for some years; the word-of-mouth that it’s a small, happy, friendly convention having reached even the Atlantic shores of Munster.  Having been unable to attend Belfast’s TitanCon earlier this year, a slot in my annual con-going roster had opened up and I was able to break my BristolCon duck as a result.  I’m very glad I did.

It’s nominally a one-day event but a BristolCon Fringe open mic the evening before pleasantly extended the con vibe, even if attendees at that were a little sparse because the local Waterstones had arranged a competing event, offering free beer.  Nevertheless, I was able to read the scene from A Coarse and Violent Gesture, in which the King of the Fairies gets an unwelcome visit from the local paramilitary commander.  It’s one of the stories in my Irish Tales collection, due out next year and seemed to go down well.

One of the best things about BristolCon happened well in advance of the event itself.  A great long list of possible panel topics was sent to attendees, who then voted on the ones they wanted to see at the con.  Whoever came up with this, deserves a medal.  It’s become the norm in recent years, for cons to solicit volunteers for panellists on-line, which has too often resulted in platforms being given to the worst kinds of egregious self-publicists, axe-grinders and authoritarian bigots. Who has made it to the end of an EasterCon in recent years, for example, without wanting to slash their own wrists, having been assailed from all directions by three-and-a-half days of relentless, po-faced negativity?  Giving the members this sort of control over the panel topics is a great way to mitigate the worst excesses of this trend and to celebrate instead the very many positive aspects of our hobby.

The things I enjoyed most about my first BristolCon were the following:-

  • Some actual second-hand books in the dealers’ room (yay!);
  • The brick-out room – a throwback to the old ‘fan room’ which used to be a staple of every con but which has sadly fallen by the wayside in recent years.  This one had lego and free coffee.  How about adding an MC next year, to orchestrate impromptu stuff?
  • The free book swap table – every con should have one;
  • Making some great new acquaintances.  This is one of the best reasons to move outside of your regular fandom orbits and go to a new place;
  • The wild west panel, which covered loads of ground but still managed to leave a lot uncovered – ample evidence of the richness of the topic – thereby engendering much discussion in the bar later.  I can feel a blog post coming on to recap some of this, plus to air some of the angles the panel didn’t have time to cover.  On thing I was mulling over was whether there was any (near) contemporary wild west writing containing fantasy, horror or SF elements.  The opening yarn in Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895) came to mind and also some Verne, notably The Mysterious Island (1874), which opens with an American Civil War balloon-hijack prison break and The Golden Volcano (1905), set during the Klondike gold rush.

Did BristolCon live up to its friendly brand image?  Most certainly.  Would I recommend it to anyone else?  Absolutely.  Will I go again?  Definitely; indeed next year.  Apart from anything else it was significantly cheaper for me than attending Octocon, due in no small part to the cost of accommodation in Bristol being around 50% of that for a comparable room in Dublin.

Returning to the wild west theme, here’s a quiz question for you: which SF writer, whom I have previously featured in my blog posts, died from wounds received during the American Civil War?

On Scientific Fiction

When Hugo Gernsback was first casting around for a pithy term for the new genre fiction he was featuring  in his pulps, he opted for the portmanteau ‘Scientifiction.’  It didn’t catch on and, rather reluctantly, he tried again, this time with ‘Science Fiction.’

The earliest of his magazines, with titles like Electrical Experimenter (founded 1913), featured both stories and science journalism.  By the time Amazing Stories – his first magazine solely dedicated to SF – arrived, in 1926, the genre had already settled down into the standard form for the Golden Age – stories set in the future, often on distant planets featuring extraterrestrials, speculating, more or less wildly, on how the technologies of the time might one day have advanced.

Tales which particularly closely adhered to the known laws of physics, became known as ‘Hard’ SF.  This sub-genre is exemplified by Hal Clement’s classic short Dust Rag (1956), in which a lunar explorer out on EVA, has to figure out how to clear away the statically-charged moon dust covering his visor, or die.  The story is both satisfyingly scientific and, by virtue of its future lunar setting, classic SF.

Which is all a roundabout way of broaching the question; is all scientific fiction, Science Fiction, or does there arrive a point where the science component of the story is so rooted in the known and the present that it becomes something different?

I recently read Those Who Seek, Daniil Granin’s 1954 novel about the lives and loves of staff at a Soviet electrical power transmission research institute.  It’s a thrilling and absorbing tale, in part because of the window it opens onto how (relatively) ordinary people lived their lives under the Soviet system, in part because of what the book has to say about that system itself (and it’s not in any way a propaganda piece) and in part because of the gorgeous translation by Robert Dalglish (mine is the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, edition), which brings the story alive and makes you care about the characters.

The overarching story focusses on new laboratory head, the aloof and unworldly Lobanov.  At work, he battles conflicting resource demands, Party politics and bureaucratic inertia, to try and get support for the development of his baby – an improved ‘locator’ for finding breaks in transmission lines.  Off duty, the reader follows the course of his unsatisfactory affair with the enigmatic Rita.

There are scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in science and technology.  The heartbreaking one where engineer-turned-housewife Liza first attends, the flees her class reunion after suffering the disdainful disappointment of her former professor.  The joyous epiphany via which the fading Chief Engineer, Dmitri Alexeyevich first grasps and then decides to back Lobanov’s project.  And of course you want to slap Lobanov around the head a few times, when he rebuffs force-of-nature Nina’s interest in him at the annual Komsomol outing.

And there are some fabulous throwaway references, notably to the finest poetry on scientific themes being that written by the great Lomonosov.  Granin, the author, would doubtless have been very familiar with his works.  Now I despair of ever finding any in English translation, well apart from this one.

Is Those Who Seek SF?  My heart says yes, my head says no, even given the MacGuffin of Lobanov’s ‘locator.’  I have another Granin in my ‘to read’ pile: Into The Storm about weather forecasting/control – let’s see how that turns out!

In western SF, the works of William Gibson are an interesting case.  Since his debut Neuromancer (1984) and its off-planet denouément – undeniably SF, he’s slowly been creeping back towards the present and reining-in the tech to the point where Spook Country (2007) is almost better labelled a techno-thriller.  Maybe that’s one way we reclassify fiction dealing with the known science of the present.

In Irish writing, John Banville’s biographical trilogy of works on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton (Doctor Copernicus (1976) (which I read this year), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982)) is sometimes loosely referred to as science fiction.  The three books are, of course, first and foremost historical fiction about scientists but Banville infuses them with enough reflection on the nature of the cosmos, that treating  them as forward-looking speculative fiction is not unreasonable.

Scientific fiction is a without question a topic that grows in the telling.  I can see myself returning to it again in the not too distant future.

Jimgrim – the Palestine Years

Talbot Mundy (1879 – 1940) has long been one of my favourite writers and I suppose at this stage I must have read well over half his works.  What I’ve just finished, several years after starting, is the first part of his Jimgrim cycle, set in post-WWI Palestine and comprising the following stories:-

  • The Adventure at El-Kerak
  • Under the Dome of the Rock
  • The ‘Iblis’ at Ludd
  • The Seventeen Thieves of El-Kalil
  • The Lion of Petra
  • The Woman Ayisha
  • The Lost Trooper
  • The King in Check

The first two were later revised and collected as Jimgrim and Allah’s Peace, the second two were collected as Jimgrim and the Devil at Ludd, while the last is also known by the title The Affair in Araby.  All were serialised in the pulps in 1921-22 and reprinted in book form in the early 1930’s.

All told, they form a single narrative of some 1200 pages, in which Jimgrim and his crew (American adventurer Jeff Ramsden (the story’s narrator), Sikh policeman Narayan Singh and later ANZAC trooper Jeremy Ross) foil various plots by third parties (Zionists, the French etc.) to destabilise the region by pitting Arab against Jew or Arab contra Arab, with the backdrop of the slow reveal of Jimgrim’s overarching plan of trying to lay the groundwork for Feisul to become the king of a single Arab state encompassing Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia.

The story concludes with Jimgrim and his crew captured following the French assault (mustard gas and all) on Feisul in Damascus. They get packed off on boat out of Beirut and fetch up in Egypt where, while recuperating, they are made a proposition by multi-millionaire Meldrum Strange, as a result of which they quit the armed forces and become a sort of 1920’s A-Team.

The last part occurs at the beginning of the next volume, Jimgrim and a Secret Society, the first book of the second half of the cycle, that sees the gang battle ever more fantastical foes all across Egypt, India, Tibet and last but not least, in supervillain Dorje’s secret hideout in the Gobi Desert.

But that’s a story for another day.  Let’s return to Palestine and ask, just who is Jimgrim?  James Schuyler Grim is an American secret-service agent in the employ of the British armed forces in Palestine as a fixer.  Just how this arrangement came about is unclear but Mundy claims to have met the real ‘Jimgrim,’ on whom he based the character during his own time in Palestine, editing the English language Jerusalem News, as president of the Anglo-American Society of America.  Some modern blurb writers have characterised Jimgrim as a mix of Lawrence of Arabia, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and The Shadow.

Jimgrim is unquestionably one of the principal pulp-heroes of the 1920’s and it seems extraordinary that the character has never been the subject of any movies or TV series. Of course the Palestine setting of the early works may be deemed a little sensitive, especially given Mundy’s pro-Arab position but the historical background in the books seems impressively accurate, especially in setting out the duplicity towards Feisul on the part of the British and the French, following his support versus the Turks in WWI.

Mundy actually met Feisul during his time in Palestine and secured his permission to use him as a character in The King in Check.  The Jimgrim Palestine stories were widely read when first published and undoubtedly served to educate the reading public on the situation there.  More than that, there is still much for a modern reader to gain from them, in terms of understanding the root causes of what we still see unfolding in the Middle East today.


Les Rois Maudits

I first encountered Maurice Druon’s ‘Accursed Kings’ series by accident, as is often the case with good things.  There I was browsing idly when up popped a copy of The Iron King (book one of the series), with a banner recommendation by no less than George R.R. Martin, calling it the ‘original Game of Thrones.’

As a dyed-in-the-wool Thronie, my curiosity went into overdrive and naturally I bought it.  A couple of years later I’ve finally navigated my way through all seven books.

With my own fantasy writing heavily grounded in an alternative Europe, for which I still have to research a lot of real history, I’ve long been of the conclusion that a good historical novel is a difficult thing to pull off.  There’s the research of course but also the issue that because the facts are (largely) known, one has to buy into the journey, which implies that the writing has to be especially good.

That wasn’t an issue for me with The Accursed Kings, since I knew nothing of the demise of the french Capet dynasty after the Templars have put a curse upon King Philip the Fair.  The plots alone make worthy novels and the writing, even in translation is very good.

The first four books of the series are particularly fine since they follow swiftly, one upon the other, and really make one long tale.  For whatever reason Druon then chooses to gloss over the five year’s of Philippe the Long’s reign, picking up the history again with the accession of Charles IV and the estrangement between Queen Isabella (his sister) and Edward II of England.  I found the fifth book, The She Wolf, a drag compared to the others, not only because of this gap but perhaps because it is largely either set in, or to do with England and therefore has a lot of new characters to get to know.

In real history of course, people do age and die inconveniently but Druon does manage to find unifying threads to run through most or all of the series, notably the relationship between the nobles and the Lombard bankers personified by the kind yet cunning Tolomei, the unfettered ambitions of the egregious Charles of Valois and last but not least the terrible feud over the possession of the county of Artois running between the larger than life Robert of Artois (who I always see in my head as Gerard Depardieu when reading) and his disgraceful aunt Mahaut.

The books do get bogged down in history from time to time, not least because in real life names of characters do not have to differ from each other so conveniently.  Thus in book six, The Lily and the Lion, one has to try and keep track of Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (‘The Lame’), Dowager Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (‘The Widow’), Jeanne of Burgundy (wife of the Duke of Burgundy), Dowager Queen Jeanne of Evreux, Queen Jeanne of Navarre, Jeanne of Valois (Countess of Hainaut) and her brother Jean of Hainaut and Jeanne of Valois-Courtenay (Countess of Beaumont).  Ouch!

Within the series there are many memorable characters.  I most enjoyed the arc of Louis X ‘The Hutin’ going from petulant fool to competent ruler following his happy marriage to the beautiful and devout Clemence of Hungary.  The portrayals of Edward III of England and Cardinal Dueze (later to become Pope John XXII) were also exceptionally well done.

It has apparently been long widely known that George R.R. Martin cites Druon’s series as an inspiration for his own A Song of Ice and Fire series, though I hadn’t known this until I picked up The Iron King.  Martin even furnishes an introduction for the new editions of Druon’s books (The Iron King was written in the mid 1950’s) in which he outlines the general similarities between the two series (lust, intrigue, violent death and so forth).  It’s impossible to read both series without picking up on specific things too.  Of course I’m not saying Martin deliberately lifted them (after all Joffrey Baratheon is an almost perfect carbon copy of Derxis of Akkama but Martin has never cited E.R. Eddison as an inspiration) but they were no doubt lodged in his subconscious.

It’s maybe fun to mention a few that stand out.  Foremost is the device of swapping a royal baby with a common one to save the life of the former, which Martin calls out himself in his introduction.  Others include (i) the small circular prison cell of Edward II which has a deep dry well shaft in the middle which he fears to fall down to his death if he sleeps, which recalls the sky cells of the Eyrie in ASOIAF, (ii) Queen Isabella relating how Edward II would bring his lover Hugh the Younger to her bed to arouse him so that he could then perform with her, which recalls the Margaery, Renly, Loras proposition in ASOIAF and (iii) the references to the red keep of Kenilworth castle, foreshadowing Martin’s Red Keep.

Overall there is more than enough in the Accursed Kings series to satisfy a hardened fantasy fan.  Given the time it is set in there is plenty of room for the unexplained and the supernatural.  The Templar’s curse that sets it all off is a key example but there are enough other mystical visions, spells, potions, poisoned candles and acts of Satanism to maintain interest.  The standout fantastical character running through the series is the gorgeous femme fatale Beatrice d’Hirson, Mahaut’s Devil-worshipping consigliera.