A Selection of My Favorite Short Stories

Every year for awhile now a friend of mine sends me an image for my birthday which is usually Clark Ashton Smith themed. I figured one of these would go well here.

I feel like the short story gets too little attention. Proportionally speaking, I read them (and write them) much more than full length novels. In the future, perhaps, I will list some of my favorite novels. But make no mistake, this list is more important to my interests then that of the novels would be. The short story, much like the film (compared to , say, the currently in vogue television season) is a much more self contained creature whose focus tends towards a focused approach. That being said, I do tend to prefer longer rather than shorter short stories. The difference between a novella and a longer short story can be hard to pin down, but personally I would classify it as whether you could read something in 1-2 sittings on average. Therefore, for example, I will not be listing anything from my favorite author Jack Vance (who I have written about here before and will do so again), whose best books are mostly novellas requiring more than 2 sittings to complete. Though ‘Guyal of Sfere’ is his best short work, for what it is worth.

I will not be listing all of my favorite stories. Nor will I be ranking them in a specific order. I have also limited the list to only one story per author, lest a few people (and especially Clark Ashton Smith) dominate this list overmuch. What I like most in short stories is a strong evocative mood whose power is unique to a particular tale, and I will try to get one author per the type of story I most like. Obviously, this being me, this is heavily biased towards horror and sword and sorcery. If I feel so inclined, I may include a ‘runner up’ from the same author of another tale I almost made the entry. There are no (major) spoilers and descriptions are meant to say why the story is good rather than great detail about its contents.

I also will not be including stories that are not as good if read just on their own and thus require other stories for better context (sorry Lean Time in Lankhmar by Fritz Lieber). To be on this list, the story must be fully contained and not need any context outside itself.

Dead Authors

Clark Ashton Smith–The Dark Eidolon:

No point beating around the bush here since his name has already been dropped twice. Also, even though I am not ranking these, there is still such a thing as first among equals.

The Dark Eidolon, which is in the public domain and you can listen to it here, is a masterpiece of dark fantasy and lush vivid imagery. Smith, who is already like if Dionysius wrote tales in a setting part Kentaro Miura and part Baudelaire, goes all out to make a story of supernatural revenge involving mass necromancy and stunning visuals which he himself said was ‘among his best’ and that would have looked great in the then young field of film. As such, I have always imagined it rendered in lush high contrast interwar black and white within my mind when I read it. Overall, it is a feast of mental imagery that calls to mind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch in prose.

(Runner Up: The Double Shadow)

H. P. Lovecraft–The Shadow Over Innsmouth:

The one extremely famous author on this list, so the one I am inclined to say the least about. Let us just say, all of Lovecraft’s best writing and pathos come together in a now famous tale of alienation, fear of the other, and ultimately, fear and embrace of oneself. People say this tale of exploration of a dying seaside town and the human-fish people hybrids within is an ultimate example of Lovecraft’s (even then) quite legendary racism, but if so it also predicts his evolution in later life towards more nuanced perspectives when he realized he was just as monstrous as everyone else and his true hatred was for humanity in general.

(Runner Up: The Music of Erich Zann)

Robert E. Howard–Black Colossus:

Of course the big three from the original Weird Tales heyday of the 1930s are all here! My personal favorite Conan tale combines many different elements that make the character and his setting so iconic. Conan as an adventurer who becomes a leader, aspects of survival horror, and epic battles where swords and pikes clash on shields. While the first tale I read to really hook me into Howard was (Runner Up:) The Scarlet Citadel, and thus it retains a special place in my heart, Black Colossus remains the ultimate Conan story.

Alice Bradley “Raccoona” Sheldon–The Screwfly Solution:

It is very hard to pull off a horror story that reads like a thriller and retain both the atmosphere and the pacing of watching events unfold in real time. Watching human civilization crumble through mass femicide and placed firmly in the context of zoological experimentation has a cold detached logic of its own, which in this case is expertly paired with the very real personal loss and madness of the observing characters for an impressive roller coasting of building tension.

Karl Edward Wagner–Lynortis Reprise:

KEW is hugely underrated and might just be second only to Howard in the field of low fantasy. While I personally prefer Wagner’s full book length fantasy tales most of the time, the one of his short stories that really stands out to me is Lynortis Reprise. (Runner Up:) Where the Summer Ends covers him for horror and may be a technically better story, but Lynortis is just so damn unique. It uses the nature of Wagner’s recurring immortal protagonist to his best extent, having Kane return to the site of an awful siege he fought long ago to find old veterans there still living as the horror of the combat made them too broken to go anywhere else. These living ghosts serve as a foil for the lingering effects of war long after history moves on, and they revere the brutal and amoral Kane for his role in the battle that made their new cursed life.

Living Authors

John Langan–Mother of Stone:

An astonishingly executed second person story that begins as an academic investigation into the statue of a lost god that gradually evolves into one of the moodiest and actually fear inducing tales to ever exist. The less I say about it the better, but it and its (Runner Up:) ‘The Revel’ from the same collection was what got me back into writing horror after a few years in hiatus and experimenting with new ways of style to do so. The sheer ornate power of Langan’s prose is unmatched and this is is simply his best story.

Laird Barron–The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven:

Well, you know me from past posts. I love coyotes and I love Coyote (singular). Here we have what seems a simple set up of two women on the run from one of their abusive ex’s who end up in the woods. There’s a coyote pelt, some shape shifting, and the best single example of that earthy pagan TerrorWonder (perhaps the author would call this ‘Mysterium Tremendum?) that only Laird Barron does so perfectly. Its a simple and shorter story, but its execution is flawless.

T.E.D. Klein–Nadelman’s God:

If you are like me and of a weird-creative bent, you will love (or possibly hate) this story. What if one of those strange monstrous characters you periodically invent actually came to life, but outside of your control? Nonsense song lyrics used to make an angsty tune in one’s youth ends up becoming a summoning ritual for a mentally ill person who years later happens upon the author’s work. And the ritual succeeds. And garbage made animate to the instructions of forgotten about lyrics now seeks reunion with its erstwhile creator.

(Runner Up: Children of the Kingdom–its like if the movies C.H.U.D. and Summer of Sam were combined in prose and were not only good, but *extremely good*)

Richard Gavin–Mare’s Nest:

Gavin is an underappreciated gem who I suppose would be considered a horror author, but is really more like the dark reflection of pagan wonder on the surface of an algae-shrouded pond in the forest on an overcast day. His ability to be poignant and moving while inspiring wonder in nature and the uncanny is always apparent, but none more so than in his tale of tragedy and renewal for an artist couple.

Honorary Yet Redundant Mention: Thomas Ligotti–The Shadow, The Darkness:

I have written about Ligotti before, particularly about my heretical view that his best work is his novella. However, the one story that stands out among the shorts is the one whose themes are already explored in this prior post here.

There are many, many more short stories I love of course. And yes, many of them are not even in horror! But these were the stand outs to me in this first foray into examining them as a concept.

Swords Against Nerdery: A Khaldunian Theory of the Sword and Sorcery Genre

swords against wizardry

I’ve been a stalwart fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre and its iterations for a very long time. It is second only to horror and weird fiction for my fictional genre enjoyment. I have also been just as much a foe and hater of high fantasy for an even longer period of time. I never really gave much thought as to why this is until recently, assuming that the rank corniness and ethical Manicheism of high fantasy as compared to the more ambiguous and earthy nature of sword and sorcery were alone enough to clinch the deal for me. But my recent discovery that cultural commentary need not all be a horror show of religious fanatics, entertainment industry neoliberals, and blue-haired-septum pierced woke scolds jarred some thoughts about this topic. Indeed, the people mentioned in the sentence above-the ruiners of cultural critique-are a big part of the difference between traditional fantasy and sword sorcery, and more importantly, the kinds of people each appeals to. Plus, if your rivals are going to use such language in the real world, ridiculous as it is, you might as well be able to meet them on a level they can understand. Much like a sophisticated vocabulary is not a good idea when speaking to children.

What makes S&S what it is are protagonists with base motivations, magic being rare and mind-bending if not outright a cosmic horror, glories being relegated to a mythical past if even mentioned, and above all the love of a good tale about powerful outsiders, usually barbarians or criminals, and the decadent magical and political forces they often find themselves at crossed swords with. There are no grand battles of good vs evil or light vs darkness here. Large conflicts tend to be one local petty kingdom vs another with the protagonist happening to find themselves on one side or the other through chance, personal vendetta, or mercenary motives. This is the stuff of Robert E Howard, usually considered the inventor of the genre (as well as the maker of its two greatest incarnations, Kull and Conan), not of Tolkien or his many many increasingly terrible imitators. This is the less famous and far more interesting world(s) of Imaro, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kane, Jirel of Joiry, and Nifft the Lean.

What I like most about the genre aside from its general fun, of course, is its Ibn Khaldun-derived general view of human nature and of societal processes. Unlike the dominant ideologies of our time (which are reflected in our dominant fantasies apparently), history isn’t a teleology. It isn’t going along some pre-determined path. It is rather a series of competitive crisis managements that fail or succeed to different levels amongst a series of cultures and societies that were born into some form of success or stability and have been declining towards their fall and replacement ever since. Then the cycle begins anew. This is neither the reactionary thought of a Burke, the Catholic Church, or of modern-day patrician centrism, where a magical tower is continually built towards the heavens, nor is it the edginess of the pure radical, who revels in the demolishment of all for a wholly new leap in the dark, but rather sociology as a natural process. In fact, both of these extremes are often the antagonists of S&S stories. The first as the cloistered evil wizard or decadent king in their ivory or onyx tower, the second as a re-awakened cosmic horror or the monsters that dwell out in the wilds. Often, one is summoned by the other.

The protagonists of this genre tend to share things in common too. An outsider status, tight but rare friendships in an untrustworthy world, and a disdain for declared authority. Most importantly, many of these characters follow the Khaldunian path of barbarian nomads by eventually leveraging their advantages into kingship, toppling the old order but replacing it with a new and more vigorous one. Conan, the most famous hero of the genre, becomes king of Aquilonia. Kull was king of Valusia aeons before him, both were barbarians who started out fighting those very kingdoms. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser eventually end up as the local bigwigs on a subarctic settlement, Imaro as a legend across the lands with a mixed reputation. All come across dark entrenched forces that more live by inertia in entropy than by dynamic action. Most importantly, the various wizards, sorcerers, and the like are usually not world-threatening menaces but rather merely another cog in some kingdoms political machine, or a criminal guild’s most prized member, or the secret forces behind events within kingdoms. The decadent throne of Valusia was only given vigor by Kull, and first he had to survive assassination attempts by literal lizard people who had secretly controlled the kingdom and held it in bondage to old ways by puppeting previous kings. If that is not a conspiracy theorists fever dream come to life, I don’t know what its. But symbolically it resonates much as Pizzagate is obviously an (ironically hilarious) farce that no one should actually believe, but it speaks volumes about how many view our present ruling classes. It was after all only after the various housecleanings of Conan that Aquilonia entered its golden age, even if this, like all times before, could not last.

kull

S&S is, in effect, the Virgin vs Chad meme of fantasy genres. Cold steel always outperforms the elaborate machinations of a bunch of tower-dwelling neckbeards, court eunuchs, and inbred aristocrats. In a temporary, ever-fluctuating world, only the right use of force and alliances can see you through. This is not a glorification of violence and always taking the offense either. The vast majority of S&S heroes, when not being thieves, are usually wronged before they act. They do not seek fights, but rather respond decisively when such battles are forced upon them. The kingships of Kull and Conan are remarkable for how much less warlike they often are compared to their neighbors, with the real battles being keeping the decadent dying courts of rivals at bay.  Meanwhile, all of these outsider protagonists tend to be extremely well traveled, multiple language speaking, highly analytical thinkers. The Nerd-Wizards, on the other hand, so haughty and proud in their rote-learned intelligence, are almost helpless without prestige, ceremony, and dependency on established power networks. Their lack of contact with the brute reality of the world is their undoing.

It all reminds me of recent commentary I read somewhere (source presently slips my mind) about the superiority of speculative realist philosophies against correlationist ones, with the hobbies of the thinkers compared with their thought. It basically broke down that the realists tended to like hiking, travel, adventure, while the correlationists and idealists were often desk bound thinkers. This was shown by the nature analogies used by each, with correlationists tending strongly towards inanimate solitary objects like furniture and the realists using animals, plants, ecosystems, and weather.

And look, there I managed to tie this post into my fascination with Speculative Realism too. Anyway, back to the point.

It is these decadent courts whose thumb we presently dwell, tolerant as they are of neckbearded nerd-wizards in their towers and court lanyards that are the most aggressive threats to the world arise. Lacking true fortitude and strength as intrinsic character traits, they must rather pretend they have it through fraud and posturing- a far more dangerous proposition. Fantasy Bill Kristol types in effect. And if some group or leader came about who actually was interested in changing these entrenched interests they would face plots and palace coups aplenty from the dark forces that fester in the shadows of the kingdom. But that’s no reason not to try anyway. Even if you fail it will make for a good tale around a few pints, anyway. And someone needs to Hold the Sword against this high fantasy loving nerd tyranny we live in, where neoliberal nerds who identify their politics with the entertainment they consume are the predominant cultural force of strange cosmic horror summoning sorcerer class. If we must live in a nerd-dominated culture, then we can at least speak the language of the Chadliest of nerds…and that is of Sword and Sorcery. It is not like high fantasy represents anything but the pathologies of both liberals and reactionaries alike and their presently collapsing world views.

Anyway, here is a picture I did for a Mandy style movie poster (Mandy may take place in the 1980s but it is very much a S&S genre film-trust me) of Tulsi Gabbard clearing out the wretched dungeon of the Democratic establishment (special guest MBS, with Hillary, Booker, Harris, Podesta, Biden, and Power all thrown).

Tulsi Mandy Style Dungeon

But seriously, read nonfiction first for real commentary, people. Actual history and philosophy will always rule at the end of the day. But maybe…maybe sword and sorcery can help on the propaganda front anyway. It certainly can break up the high virgin fantasy monotony.

 

 

Seven Types of Atheism: A Book Review

chuckyjacksoff

Seven Types of Atheism, by John N. Gray is a book I have been meaning to get my hands on for a few months now. Gray is my favorite living philosopher for a number of reasons, mostly related to his ability to critique most of the currents in European political thought from a kind of Taoist-Antihumanist position. He is an atheist but not a progressive or believer in the power of humanity. Though on contemporary politics we are extremely different, him going for Burkean conservative secularism and me for a kind of regionally adjusted geopolitical realism that ers on the side of hard left due to ecological concerns and the current failings of our contemporary ruling classes, but we come from the same place…that history is not a teleology, it has no predetermined end point nor a guiding overall ideology-and that attempts to impose a universal moral ideology is a horrific mistake. Rather, history is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which knows no clear cut answers that work in every location or time period. He ends up more on the managed decline side of things-where I used to be I might add-though I now end up more on the ‘seize the moment to start a new cycle lest you be dragged down further’ side, but it is the kind of disagreement on big issues that reasonable people can have.

The reason I came to Gray was due to a recommendation from someone I knew who said that my attempts to articulate my own general position towards political theory sounded like his. I read Straw Dogs shortly after that, and since have gone on to read all his major works. I enjoy and learn from all of them, if not to equal extents. Straw Dogs and above all Black Mass I would contend remain his top works. Though I have moved in many ways in a different direction since, Gray was still the pivot point of my turn away from much of mainstream liberalism.

If anyone has been following his output recently, nothing in ‘7 Types of Atheism’ may necessarily surprise you. In the past 5 or so years he has written numerous criticisms of the myopia of seeing atheism as a purely progressive and humanistic endeavor for the patrician bourgeois of the western world’s developed nations. He not only does this to critique New Atheists, who he rightly scorns as charlatans and entertainers, but also to return awareness of the rich diversity of atheist thought which is not reflected by many contemporary trends. He is especially interested in non-liberal incarnations of the atheist world view, both ones he clearly dislikes as well as ones he respects. ‘7 Types’ is in effect the ultimate coda to these various positions he has scoped out over time. He starts with the New Atheists and Secular Humanists, and his largely negative views of them, then continues on to a mid-tier of various types (scientism, misotheism, etc) which he doesn’t like much either but sees at least some things worth engaging in. He then ends with what is clearly his favorite grouping, the ‘Atheists Without Progress’, and the ‘Mystical Atheists’ (Santayana and Conrad in the first and Shopenhauer and similar thinkers in the second).

I personally have never engaged much with Santayana, though I probably should considering there is a lot of overlap with my interests, but I certainly define myself in this ‘atheist without progress’ category. The impersonal and directionless nature of the cosmos is not what we make of it, as postmodernists and existentialists might claim, but rather simply a fact. The natural world is a material world, and a material world is stuff and energy. Our ability to control our responses to this are just as much slaves to nature as the other animals-even if we have perfected the art of deluding ourselves otherwise. It is not *all* for the worst of course, it gave us art and music after all. Its neither bad nor good because nothing is, the cosmos has no morality and this is fine.

Rather than go through each case study or argument piece by piece, I think it would be perfectly succinct to simply state the best and worst part of the book as I found them.

The best part of the book is that in many ways it serves as a slap in the face to the many Christians who have recently been drawn to Gray because of his savage critiques of New Atheists and Stephen Pinker type euphoria. Gray had developed a bit of a weird fan base that kind of missed the part where his critique of many contemporary atheists was precisely that they were too Christian and behaved as if they were the inheritors of all that baggage. The faith in progress, of human perfection, of a linear path going towards an end goal in history, of good and evil being repackaged as reason and unreason, it was all a very Christian form of atheism. Gray is more in line with the pagan thinkers of old, being fatalistic and skeptical of attempts to seek an artificial ideological improvement for the human race at large rather than localized and contextualized harm reduction. Universalism, outside of the big rules of hard science, is simply a method of moral posturing that heightens rather than reduces tensions and whose only benefit is as a psychological palliative for those who wield it. By re-centering his opposition to the monotheist world view as the core of his critique of many types of atheisms, Gray is reminding (intentionally or not) the faithful of Abraham that they created this mess in the first place. Perhaps if there were eight types of atheism I could consider myself a ‘pagan atheist’, or one who denies the reality of the gods but sees the use in the world view of personified natural forces for festivals and community building. But the point remains that Gray is reminding us of the origin of many of the bad ideas we struggle with, secular or religious, are monotheistic in nature-and stem from a religion that unlike most makes specific factual claims it cannot back up (a la the Resurrection of Jesus).

The worst part of the book to me is a general critique I have developed of Gray in the past few years: I do not think it realistic that many humans could become a kind of apathetic renunciate.  We are an action species by and large. To reject the idea that we are reasonable means accepting the fact that we will take action regardless of being able to see the pointlessness of much of it in the long run. We still have short term goals after all, which are far more immediate. There are people who renunciate, of course, but the realistic observation is that such people never become powerful, and powerful people count for much more. That means, if you like them you have to actively support them, and if you do not you should oppose them. Humanities’ ‘warring interests’ that Gray accurately points out are more likely to lead to a call of arms than a peaceful withdrawal. Since I believe individualism as politics to be a waste of time, one can only take such views from a deeply personal perspective-and even then this only applies to some people. I myself may want one day to live in remote A-frame cabin in Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, but before that point I want to uphold my friends and revel in the misery of my enemies. You can only get things done by building communities, and all communities need foes and challenges to provide that extra glue of solidarity. I can always renunciate when I am old if I want to, and if I’m dead before then I already, in effect, have.

Since Gray used numerous fictional authors to help illustrate his largely non fictional point I believe it is only fair if I do the same to summarize this one respectful disagreement I have with his work. Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, Kull, and arguably the entire sword and sorcery subgenre, was someone who shared my view that history is cyclic, civilizations decay after apogee, and the future is barbaric-just as the barbarians one day will be the civilizational apogee before they collapse in turn. This view came, like mine, not from theory or philosophy but from years of a rigorous study of world history. There are enough of such people who would say the following: ‘But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood,’ that walk this Earth. And even more of us who are not like that for the most part but have just enough appreciation of the ups and downs of irrational humanity as to have a little bit of that storm in them. For now, this is where I consider myself to be.

Or to take it from the mouth of Howard’s most iconic character:

‘I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.’