Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Review: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

a review by Rich Horton

I am not particularly a fan of horror, but I do like psychological characterization, and there is a sort of horror that uses horrific elements of the narrative as a means of characterization. I also have enjoyed Shirley Jackson's short fiction, and so have thought for some time that I need to read some of her novels (primarily this one and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the two that seem best regarded among her ouevre.) And, finally, one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Hand, just wrote an authorized sequel to The Haunting of Hill House -- A Haunting on the Hill. This provided the final spur to to reading Jackson's novel.

And you know what? I ended up reading it in late October -- so it's a well-timed Halloween read!

I both read and listened to the book, having bought the recent Penguin Classics reissue, with an introduction by Laura Miller; and having also got the audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne. I listened to the book on the way to work, and read it at night, so probably I experienced it 50/50.

Hill House is an isolated house in a rural part of the East, one assumes upstate New York though that's not specified. The nearest village is Hillsdale, about six miles away. The house's reputation is ominous, and it has been unoccupied for a couple of decades, except for occasional renters, who always leave much before the end of their lease period. 

The latest renter is Dr. John Montague, a professor who has an interest in occult matters. He stumbled across the story of Hill House -- built in the late 19th Century for a man whose wife died just as they moved in, mostly lived in by his two daughters, who ended up fighting viciously over the property, finally ceded to the estate of the companion to one of the sisters, who (the companion) had committed suicide in the house. Dr. Montague invites a number of people who seem to have had psychic incidents of their own to stay there with him one summer. Two accept: Eleanor Vance, a spinster in her early 30s, just freed from the tyranny of caring for her ailing mother, and Theodora, a free-spirited and vaguely artistic woman who has quarreled with her roommate. The two come to Hill House, along with Luke Sanderson, the somewhat raffish son of the current owners, and of course Dr. Montague.

The action takes place over about a week. Eleanor is the main character. She is beautifully realized (and Theodora is also well-depicted, though Luke and Dr. Montague never really come much into focus.) She is clearly yearning for, let's say, a life -- after decades of oppression at the hands of her mother and then her married sister. But she has no idea how to go about that, and she clutches at whatever scraps of friendship are offered by Theo or Luke. Dr. Montague is a prosy middle-aged man, and much of his character is revealed late in the book when his rather awful wife shows up with her elderly male friend Arthur. (They are obsessed with psychic manifestations, and things like planchette, in a way that annoys Dr. Montague.) The other character of mild prominence is Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper, set in her ways, a wonderful cook but not a very friendly person, and like all the locals, profoundly wary of Hill House.

Over the few days they are there, there are disturbing incidents. The House is architecturally weird, easy to get lost in. There are horrible messages written on the walls, some in blood. There are noises in the night, and things seem to want to get into everyone's rooms. Strange things happen outside as well. And much of this seems directed at Eleanor. Meanwhile, Eleanor is getting attached to Theo (and it is strongly hinted that Theo is a Lesbian -- though Eleanor seems to have no real concept of adult relationships with either men or women.) Eleanor seems more disconnected from reality -- or connected to Hill House's (un)reality -- as time goes on -- and this leads to a dark resolution. 

It's very well written, and eerie without ever being quite, well, horrific, which makes the shocking ending more effective. We don't really learn what's going on -- and that's right, because mystery is part of the affect here. It's a very good novel, very involving, and a good example of a book that does not outstay its welcome. Definitely recommended.

As for Laura Miller's introduction -- it's solid work, well done. I have read a lot of Laura Miller's writing about books, and she's always worth reading. That said, I felt that she and I didn't quite read the same book -- her view of Eleanor was not wrong, but it wasn't quite mine. Which is fine -- but I'll adduce that as yet another piece of Jackson's mysteriousness.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Review: The Navigating Fox, by Christopher Rowe

The Navigating Fox, by Christopher Rowe

a review by Rich Horton

Christopher Rowe's new novella is The Navigating Fox. It's set in the same universe as his 2019 story "Knowledgeable Creatures", which I reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2020, so I have been looking forward to this story.

This is a world in which many animals have been "uplifted", apparently by magic, so that they are "knowledgeable" -- the assumption is that they are human-level intelligent and can speak. (I will note right away that both stories in this world end up questioning some of the bases for these assumptions.) The story is told by Quintus Shu'al, who is the world's only "navigating fox", and perhaps the only knowledgeable fox. Quintus has just returned to the city of Aquacolonia, hoping to gain some information he has been promised concerning his origins -- the secret of who made him "knowledgeable".

He attends the meeting of the Sodality of Explorers, in which one Octavia Delphina is giving a paper which demands the expulsion of Quintus from the Sodality, due to the loss of the Benedictus Expedition (and Octavia's sister Cynthia) on an earlier journey that the fox led. (As a "navigating fox", his special ability is to navigate the "Silver Roads" that allow faster and (supposedly) safer travel across the continent.) Neither Octavia nor Quintus get what they want -- instead, they are inveigled into joining an expedition organized by the Holy, or priest, Scipio Aemilanus, who wishes to be led to the gates of Hell, and close them, thus ending Death forever. (It was Scipio who had promised Quintus information about his origins.)

The bulk of the story follows this expedition, with flashbacks to the earlier Benedictus Expedition. The new expedition includes Scipio, Scipio's spy, the crow Malavus, Quintus, Octavia, twin raccoon cartographers named Loci and Foci, and most interestingly, Walks Along Woman, a knowledgeable bison from the Great Northern Membership, an important polity of the continent. (Along with some assistants to some of these people.) Quintus leads both journeys on the Silver Roads, but critical things happen when they step off the roads, including meetings with the Lady of Toosa, an important woman (or women?) in part of the continent, and with whom Quintus as a, shall we say, complicated history. 

Everything converges at the gates of Hell, if perhaps not the gates Scipio might have preferred. More than Scipio's quest to end Death is involved, including political matters such as the health of the Empress who rules Aquacolonia (and much more); the true nature of knowledgeable creatures, not to mention humans; the fate of Cynthia Benedictus; and of course the origin of Quintus.

The story raises as many or more questions as it answers, and the questions are interesting. The location of the action is one question, though it seems plausible that the continent on which the action occurs is a version of North America, with Aquacolonia perhaps mapped to New Orleans (?) and the Empire based in Europe. (But again, who knows, and does it matter?) The real nature and history of knowledgeable creatures (and humans) is another. The ultimate consequence of the various political entanglements hinted at here. And so on.

It's advertised as a caper and a fable, and I don't think that's exactly wrong but it kind of misses the point, for me, anyway. It's funny at times, like a caper, and it's clever, and the characters are fascinating (especially Walks Along Woman), and of course talking animals seem like creatures from a fable -- but to call this a fable seems to me to do a disservice to the animals (knowledgeable and voiceless), who are not just variations on Peter Rabbit or Mr. Toad or the bears in Goldilocks: they are real people with real goals. I think there is a novel -- perhaps a grand novel, a saga -- buried in the potential of this milieu. What we have already is wonderful, and -- not to put any pressure on Christopher -- there is potential here for something truly special.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

by Rich Horton

Nicola Griffith made her reputation in the SF field, with such novels as Ammonite and the Nebula winner Slow River. She has also written contemporary novels. But though I had a feeling I would enjoy her work, I had only read a few short stories. In 2013 she published Hild, which received a good deal of adoring attention in the SF field. It is set in 7th Century England, and it is about a real historical figure, St. Hilda of Whitby, but many of the reviews I read implied that it was a fantastical retelling of St. Hilda's life. But all the reviews I read said it was very good.

So -- it got on my list of books to read. But for one reason or another (partly my focus on short fiction) I hadn't got to it. And this year the sequel, Menewood, came out. And so I finally pulled the trigger, and read Hild. Or, actually, listened to it! The audiobook is read, very well, by Pearl Hewitt. I also bought a copy of the physical book, which I think is very much worth it, partly to see how the names (and some other words) are really spelled. (For example, a very important character the pronunciation of whose name made me think "Keon" is actually named "Cian".) Plus, there's a glossary and a family tree. (To be honest, a map would have been fine as well!)

Anyway ... this is the story of Hild's life from about age 3 to age 18. Hild is the daughter of Hereric, part of the royal family of Deira, one of a number of small kingdoms in England, specifically the North, indeed Northumbria. When Hereric is poisoned, Hild's mother Breguswith moves them to the household of her uncle Edwin, the King of Deira. Hild grows up with the pressure of her mother's prophecy that she will be the Light of the World, while largely being raised by Onnen, her mother's body woman (and a wealh -- which means not Anglisc, so lower class (wealh eventually became "Welsh"), and speaking a different language, Brythonic); and always playing with Onnen's son Cian. Hild learns something of fighting from Cian, and even more of scheming from her mother, who pushes her to use her talents to become the King's Seer. To be clear -- this truly is an historical novel, not a fantasy at all, and while many characters think Hild can truly prophecy -- indeed, that she's a witch (haegtes) -- Hild's powers are entirely natural -- tremendous observation skills, judgment of people's characters, understanding of politics. Some of this is her ability, and some comes from her mother's instruction. 

Edwin's power grows, and his territory and influence are greatly expanded, in some part because of Hild's help. He becomes the Overking of the Anglisc, and founds the Kingdom of Northumbria. He is a widower, but soon marries a woman from Kent (with Frankish ancestry as well) -- and she is a Christian, so Edwin eventually converts, and begins to bring his subjects to the faith as well (for essentially cynical reasons.) All along Hild is helping him, and scheming, both for his and advantage and her own. Cian remains a close friend, and she makes a close woman friend in Begu, the daughter of Mulstan, an influential man who marries Onnen. Hild also buys a slave, Gwladus. The story follows Hild's education -- she learns writing, and Latin, from a captured Irish priest, Fursey; and she learns arms from Cian; and she becomes a Christian as well, though an enemy of the harsh bishop Paulinus. (Both Hild and Paulinus, in the long run, are canonized.) 

I don't want to detail the plot any more. It's intricate -- the scheming reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett, at times -- and it's also true to what we know of history. Certainly Edwin's story is an established part of history. His career as King is the center of the plotline -- various wars, marriages, negotiations with rivals, subjects, and foreign powers. 

The parallel plot details Hild's life, and the lives of those close to her: Cian, Begu, Onnen, her sister Hereswith, and others. This is both intimate -- there are love affairs, religious developments, personal growth (as with Cian's increased prominenence as one of Edwin's gesiths, or chief fighters.) It is also important to the main plot -- Hild in particular is portrayed as vital to Edwin's rule. The life of the historical Hild in this period is little known, and Griffith is free to invent much, but her inventions are consistent with what we know of St. Hilda's later life (though I suspect her prowess as a warrior is somewhat greater than that of the real historical woman.) More than the plot, the book is really fascinating in very convincingly describing life in England at that time -- the food, the travel, the politics, the way women live, class divisions, trade, clothing, religion, music, farming, war -- and more. There is action, and lots of talking, even some very well done sex scenes. It's an utterly involving novel.

It seems true to its time, and to the people of that time. Griffith avoids (at least mostly) giving her characters, even Hild, anachronistic views. She mostly avoids cutesy references to the few things people of our time will know about that time. (There is a sneaky Beowulf reference -- though Beowulf may have been written as late as the 10th Century, its events date to a century or so before Hild's time.) Hild is an exceptionally well-portrayed character. And the novel ends up being really moving and powerful at times. It ended, I confess, slightly before I expected (I cheated, and read up on history!) But the sequel, Menewood, is out now. And I suspect there will be at least one further novel. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Review: No Good From a Corpse, by Leigh Brackett

Review: No Good From a Corpse, by Leigh Brackett

by Rich Horton

The great Science Fiction writer Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was also a first-rate writer of crime novels, and Westerns. She wrote screenplays in all three genres, her credits including The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Empire Strikes Back. I have long been a great fan of her SF, but though I've seen some of her movies, until just now I hadn't read any of her crime novels.

No Good From a Corpse, from Coward McCann in 1944, was her first novel in any genre. It's pure hard-boiled noir, as cynical yet romantic as can be imagined. The story goes that Howard Hawks wanted her to write The Big Sleep (collaborating with William Faulkner!) after reading this novel, and that he was shocked when she showed up and wasn't a man. My copy is a 1999 Simon and Schuster trade paperback reprint, part of their Blue Murder series (edited by Maxim Jakubowski.)

Edmond Clive is the hero, a private detective, just returning from San Francisco, where he got some notoriety for solving a case. As soon as he arrives he meets Laurel Dane, a beautiful nightclub singer with whom he'd had a relationship of some sort. She seems desperate to see him, though it seems their relationship, whatever it may have been, is on rocky ground. Soon he realizes that Ken Farrar, another PI who Ed doesn't much like, has been pursuing her, and she's rebuffed him. At the same time, his childhood friend Mike Hammond, who had stolen his girlfriend long ago, also wants his help -- it seems he's finally gone straight, and married a rich woman, Jane Alcott, but that marriage has been threatened by some blackmail letters detailing his past, and also by his staying over at Laurel Dane's place. 

The pace is relentless. Before we even really know what's going on, Laurel Dane has been murdered, with Mike Hammond and Ed Clive in her apartment. Clearly they are the prime suspects, but Ed knows he didn't do it, and he becomes convinced that Mike didn't either. The rest of the book follows his somewhat flailing investigations, and a few more murders. He has to navigate a tangled web involving his own past, and that of Mike Hammond, and Laurel Dane's past, including her husband and a friend he made in prison; along with Jane Hammond's unstable siblings, Richard and Vivien Alcott. Ed takes an enormous amount of physical abuse. He battles with his frenemy detective, Gaines; and his investigations involve the usual mix of low-lifes and whores and drunks. The ending is satisfyingly twisty and cynical, and Ed Clive's philosophy of life is summarized with his favorite quote: "Of all things, never to have been born is best."

There are a couple of missteps -- Ed has a sidekick of sorts, Jonathan Ladd Jones, who seems a complete waste of time. Some of Ed's relationships with women come off strange -- supposedly he and Lauren never slept together, for example. Brackett's style is high noir, very well maintained, with a couple of passages that match the pure lyricism of the best sequences of her Martian stories. I don't think it's quite a great novel -- it's Chandleresque, sure, but it's not a match for Chandler at his best. Still and all, a novel well worth reading. 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Resurrected Review: First Lensman, by E. E. "Doc" Smith

I wrote this review back in 2001, for posting at my newsgroup on SFF Net, and probably on rec.arts.sf.written as well. I was prompted to do so by its Retro-Hugo nomination that year. It was my first encounter with Doc Smith. I wasn't impressed, but, as I note, perhaps it would have been different if I read him at my "golden age".

First Lensman, by E. E. "Doc" Smith

a review by Rich Horton

I had never previously read anything by Doc Smith.  I didn't encounter him when I was 12 or 14, and by the time I knew his name as an SF legend I also had some notion of his reputation, and he didn't seem likely to appeal to me.  It may well be that First Lensman is a poor choice as a first Smith book to read.  It was the last of the "main sequence" of Lensman books to be written.  (I believe the "Vortex" books are technically in the Lensman universe, but outside the main plot line.)  That isn't necessarily bad, but the book is chronologically an interpolation into the previous sequence of books, and that usually is bad.  IMO, later books are best to be pure sequels, or to be unrelated efforts in the same universe.  When they are "prequels" that's dangerous, because they are so constrained by the weight of known events that they can seem programmed -- still, that can work.  But to slip a book into a chronological gap, as with this book -- that seems most dangerous of all.

As I understand the publishing history of this series, the first book was first chronologically, "Triplanetary", a serial in Amazing Stories in 1934.  However, that may not have been intended as a Lensman book -- certainly (if First Lensman is to be believed) it had no actual Lensmen.  (It probably had the villain Gharlane of Eddore, though.)  The next serial was "Galactic Patrol", in 1937, which featured already anointed Lensmen. There followed some sequels -- "Second-Stage Lensman", "Children of the Lens", maybe one or two more.  I believe these were all serials in Astounding.  By the late '40s, the serials began to be published in book form.  When "Triplanetary" was published as a book (1948, I think), it included some additional material to more explicitly link it to the later Lensman books.  Finally, in 1950, First Lensman was published, not as a serial but as a book from the first.  

This book presents, in terribly episodic form, the decision by the disembodied brains who collectively form Mentor of Arisia, to bring the incorruptible Virgil Samms of Earth to Arisia and award him a Lens, which will give him some special powers, particularly telepathy.  This will aid him in forming his dream of a Galactic Patrol, sort of a Galactic police force with army powers, which will unite the beings of the Galaxy in "Civilization".  The best, most incorruptible, beings of all species will travel to Arisia and get Lenses.  Smith makes clear that all species have the potential to be Lensmen, but that humans are the best -- he does so in a fairly inoffensive fashion, however.  And no women need apply, but that's a feature (of women, that is): something necessary and good and essentially feminine in their nature is incompatible with having a Lens.  Then the story follows Virgil and his incredibly beautiful daughter Virgilia (Jill), and his good friend Rod Kinnison and Rod's incredibly handsome son Jack Kinnison (who for Arisian eugenic reasons is prevented from being attracted to Jill, who has to settle for electronics genius Mason Northrop for a lover) as they set up the Galactic Patrol, are resisted by the evil Senator Morgan and his minions (all controlled, if you follow the chain of command far enough, by the Eddorians), break up a thionite ring, break up a pirate ring, and win an election.  Oh, and find a far off planet, convince its human-like inhabitants to spend something less than five years in building, in secret, a huge fleet which will vanquish the somewhat smaller fleet the Eddorians have caused to have built.  

It's bad.  Really.  I know lots of people love this stuff, and I can imagine the possibility that I would have lapped it up if I encountered it as a teenager, but seeing it now, I can't call it anything but bad.  Oh, there are hints of a nice imagination, like the description of one alien race that partly lives in the "fourth dimension".  And the rah-rah characterization is actually less cloying than it might seem: Smith seems so wholly to believe in his people that, while they are not three-dimensional, they are at any rate two-D, and they are distinguishable one from the next.  But the plotting is random, and sometimes makes no sense at all, and the science is just too silly, but worse, there is no suspense.  Also, the Lensmen don't win because of heroism, nor because of cleverness, nor even because of virtue, but because of overwhelming, ridiculously overwhelming, force.  Pure and simple.  Which is just boring.

It's quite possible, I acknowledge, that many of my problems with this book are intrinsic to its interpolated position -- his references to the Eddorians, for example, particularly to Gharlane, seem pro forma, thrown in to satisfy fans, but have little to do with the story at hand.  And the lack of suspense is partly explained, I suppose, by the fact that it all had to dovetail with the existing story of "Galactic Patrol".  So I'd be happy if anyone could indicate if any of the other books in the series are better.  But the Retro Hugo nomination for this book can only be due to people voting for fond long ago memories, and probably for fond long ago memories of the whole series, not this individual book.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Review: Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

Review: Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

by Rich Horton

Terrace Story is a short novel (a bit over 40,000 words by my count) -- Hilary Leichter's second novel. Like her first, Temporary (2020) it is perched somewhere within the bounds of fantastika, and at the same time it dances in and out of those bounds. It is sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, sometimes achingly sad. The fantastical and SFnal elements are real, and useful, and important -- but they won't, I think, disconcert readers unused to genre. In that sense there's a hint of, say, Emily St. John Mandel. But a writer I thought of even more is Kelly Link, not just in the deft use of the fantastic for human concerns, but to an extent in the voice.

It is structured in four parts, called Terrace, Folly, Fortress, and Cantilever. At first glance the parts are unrelated -- separate stories -- but the reader quickly gathers that they are connected -- some characters recur, and some are related to each other, and some events are viewed from different points of view. Yet the timing of the action is disconnected, and even the worlds in which events take place are not always the same.

We open with Edward and Annie, a young couple with a new baby, Rose, moving into a tiny apartment due to financial stresses. They struggle to make it work -- and they are happy with each other, at least -- and then, one day, they discover a strange thing -- a door that once opened to a closet opens to a lovely terrace. This only happens occasionally, and only when Annie's work friend Stephanie visits, but it's a relief, and something special, even as Annie's job position become precarious -- and suddenly there's a shocking finish.

The next sequence is also about a couple with a baby, and a curious house with a folly on the property. And, eventually, it's about adultery, and also about stories -- the story of a King, a Queen, and the hermit living in the folly. And then in Fortress we meet Stephanie, as a child, and learn her strange power -- to expand things, rooms, yards, people. But there's cost, that Stephanie eventually learns -- where there is expansion, there's contraction somewhere too. Including in her family -- wrenched by her sister's death as a child. Finally, in Cantilever, we are in space, with another family, Rosie and Kyle, and another case of expansion -- humanity into space, but the cost, of course, has been the loss of almost every other animal as humans expanded across the Earth. 

I haven't, I think, shown what is so lovely about this book. It is, above all, about family. About marriage. About children. About families growing, and contracting, and breaking. About hurt and love. The connective tissue is stories. The "Terrace Stories" Edward and Annie tell. The story of the King and the Queen and the Hermit. The stories Stephanie wants to be true, about her lost sister, about her friend Will, about her own life. It's arch at times, real at times, deeply affecting, beautifully written. 

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Trip Report: Montana, 2023

The Davidsons visit Montana, 2023

Carl and Mary Ann

My wife and her brothers have an interesting extended family. Their father -- named Harley Davidson! -- was born in Missouri, but moved to California during the depression to find work. He married a woman there, and had four children. The marriage foundered, and Harley moved back to Missouri, and married Mary Ann's mother, whom he had known before he went out west. Mary Ann and her three brothers were born between 1955 and 1961, but the family was always poor, and their mother died in 1970. Harley was not able to take care of the children, so they were raised by their aunts. Harley died in 1980. I met Mary Ann in 1982, so I never met either of her parents.

Mary Ann and her brother met their half-sister Myrna a couple times over the years, and in 2017 we all went out to California to stay with Myrna for a week. Their other half-sister Linda was there as well, but their half-brother Carl wasn't able to make it, because his wife Sandy had had a fall and couldn't travel. Myrna died a couple of years later. So as of this year, Mary Ann had never met her oldest half-brother. Carl lives in Montana, in Connor, a small town in the Bitterroot valley, not too far from the western border of Montana with Idaho, perhaps an hour south of Missoula. This year we made plans to visit Carl at his home -- Mary Ann and I; Mary Ann's brother Mark and his wife Becky; her brother Dwight and his wife Terrie, and her brother Scott, his daughter Rachel, and granddaughter Caitlyn. 

Mary Ann and I left on Wednesday September 20, taking a flight to Salt Lake City. We wanted a nonstop flight, and to travel in easy stages to Connor. We stayed in Farmington, Utah, after a bit of an adventure with the rental car. (The first one didn't have working Bluetooth, so we had to return it, in the process meeting a guy who had moved to Salt Lake City just three weeks before -- from Lahaina, Maui. His house -- built by his great-grandfather (I think) in the late 1800s -- had just burned down) We chose Farmington because the hotels were cheaper and because it's reasonably close to Antelope Island, the largest island in the Great Salt Lake. (It is now only ambiguously an island, because the lake has lost so much water that you could, as of late last year, walk to land (though I imagine it would be a marshy walk.) It's got about 5 feet of depth back in the past few months, but needs about 7 or 8 more feet to be truly healthy.) Antelope Island is a Utah State Park. It's best known, I think, for its population of bison, which were imported in the late 19th century. We saw plenty of bison, but alas no pronghorn, which are native to the island. I was happy to visit the island, but it's not the most impressive natural place in the world, it's fair to say.
Bison at Antelope Island

We then drove up to Idaho Falls, Idaho. September 21st is our anniversary (38 years!) and we had a nice steak dinner at a restaurant called Stockman's. There's not really that much more to see in Idaho Falls except the falls, and even they aren't all that spectacular. It was of interest to me because my Dad used to visit there regularly on business -- he worked at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, and Idaho Falls is home to Idaho National Laboratory. (On the way we drove by Pocatello, home of Idaho State University, and of the first-rate SF/Fantasy scholar and editor, Brian Attebery. I did wave on the way back, Brian!)

Bitterroot River in Connor
On Friday we went the rest of the way to Connor, and indeed to Hamilton, the somewhat larger city 30 or so miles from Connor where we had rented an Airbnb. This is in the Bitterroot Valley, between the Bitterroot mountains to the west (which pretty much form the border with Idaho) and the Sapphire Mountains to the east. The southern end dips slightly into Idaho, and the northern end bumps into Missoula. The Bitterroot River runs up the valley, which is around 4000 feet above sea level. The mountain peaks are over 10,000 feet. Lewis and Clark followed the Bitterroot River north in 1805. The primary Native American tribe was the Salish, though the Nez Perce lived nearby and in fact we drove by one of the more shameful battle (massacre) sites in American history, Big Hole, which is a bit east of the Sapphire mountains.

Trappers' Peak

The area is currently modestly famous for being the key shooting location for the TV show Yellowstone. Indeed, the ranch from the show is just a couple miles north of Connor, and a shootout scene in one episode was filmed on Carl's street. The population of Ravalli County, which makes up most of the valley, is just over 40,000 people. 

Our Airbnb was very nice. We had nine people staying, and five bedrooms, three baths, plus a "bonus room" over the garage with another bathroom, a large TV, a pingpong table and a pool table. There were two ponds on the property, and a pickleball court. There were elk and deer outside (and cows!) Lots of magpies, too, a bird I'd never really seen -- they are quite striking, black and white and fairly large.

Carl, Dwight, Scott, Mary Ann, Mark
Much of the next few days was occupied in visiting with Carl and other family members. Myrna's daughter Robin and her husband Keith, who are spending much of their retirement traveling the US in their RV, had arranged to be there. And Jimmy Garcia, a cousin, also lives in the Bitterroot valley. (He and Carl encountered each other in a bar many years ago, neither having any idea the other lived there.) Most of this was conversations, stories -- Carl telling about his life, and his brothers telling about theirs, comparing notes about their mutual father, etc. Some literal war stories. Stories about high school, about working life (Carl spent much of his career working on dredges), about hunting, so on. It was really striking, really moving, to see a family growing, expanding. And Carl is a damn good storyteller (so is Jimmy.) 

Mountains from the Airbnb
We shared dinners too. Caitlyn made soup for one dinner. Sandy and Carl cooked lunches and dinners. Becky and I did most of the breakfast cooking. We explored the valley some. One day driving down to Carl's we had to stop because the hay bales had fallen off a hay truck and blocked the highway. I got out with most of the other drivers and helped sweep the road. We went into Hamilton proper one day, did some shopping. The bookstore there, Chapter One, had a nice used book section where I bought some books (pictured at the bottom) -- the owner mentioned having visited St. Louis and in particular Left Bank Books. Another town, Darby, had some nice stores as well, including a candy shop and another used book store -- this one running on a book exchange model plus donations, no prices. One day we drove over to Wisdom, east of the Valley, about 45 minutes away (near the battle of Big Hole site) in search of highly recommended pizza. Alas, the place was closed -- the owner had fallen and wasn't in any condition to operate the restaurant. We also played pickleball, and fished (with no success) in the ponds. (Pickleball is exhausting!) And of course we luxuriated in the scenery -- it is really beautiful country. 

By Tuesday it was time to head out. The goal was to get to Yellowstone. We were staying in Island Park, Idaho. We slept in a bit, did a final cleanup of the Airbnb, and left by 10 or so. The drive to Island Park took about 5 hours, with an only too interesting final stretch, over an extremely rough gravel road, followed by an even worse rutted dirt road. But at last we got there. It was just a bit too late to explore any of the park, so we just checked in. I did run up to West Yellowstone, the Montana town right outside the park, and went into a bookstore there (not that impressive a bookstore.) 

Wednesday morning we did go to the park. We had a pleasant surprise entering it -- we are over 62, so we qualify for the senior discount, which is pretty good -- $20 gets you unlimited entrance to any National Park (or Monument) for a year, and $80 is good for the same for life. We realized pretty quickly that one day -- less than a full day -- isn't nearly enough to see the whole thing. We'll have to try to get back some time. What did we see? Some nice scenery -- the Madison River, in particular. And the Gibbons River, especially Gibbons Falls, which is pretty cool. (Apparently it's where the river cascades down into the caldera of the supervolcano.) I walked around the Norris Geyser area, with lots of fumaroles and such, and some geysers, none of which erupted. Pretty cool scenery, really, lots of strange colors and boiling mud and all that. I went by Steamboat Geyser, the tallest in the world. It erupts roughly every 30 to 40 days, and it had been 30-some days since the last eruption, so ... there was a chance? But no luck. I did chat for a bit with an Australian guy, there with his wife and two kids -- he said he was from Brisbane. I said I was "in the SF field" and one of my friends (Jonathan Strahan) lives in Perth (which of course is about as far from Brisbane as San Francisco from New York!) The guy said something like "I never knew there was an SF field!"

Me at Gibbons Falls

Norris Geysers Area

Gibbons River

Gibbons Falls

Steamboat Geyser

Those were a bit to the northwest of the Park, and then we headed south, to the Fountain Paint Pads -- more geysers and fumaroles and hot springs -- then to Old Faithful. We got there with about an hour to go before the predicted next eruption, so we grabbed some (very indifferent lunch) and then waited for the eruption. But Old Faithful was a bit of a strumpet, and didn't go off until a minute or so later than the latest time it was supposed to erupt. (That is, it was predicted to go at about 2:29, with a plus or minus 13 minute margin, and it went off at 2:43 ...) It's pretty impressive, I have to say. There were also bison wandering around, causing the park rangers to keep moving people away from them. 

Bison near Old Faithfull

Fountain Paint Pot

Old Faithful

Then we checked the driving time to our hotel -- and we realized that we really had to leave pretty much right away. We had hoped to stop in at Grand Teton too -- and there just wasn't time, plus it would have made the drive longer to go south first, as we were staying in Farmington again. Really poor planning on our part. We probably should have stayed another day. 

The trip back was mostly uneventful. Everything at the airport went smoothly, the flight was fine. And we got home to find -- a huge tree limb in the driveway! (Actually, a neighbor had warned us.)

It was really a wonderful vacation. Mostly for the family aspect, but also, Montana is a beautiful place, and Yellowstone is a treasure. We saw some fall changing colors, though not a lot -- we were probably a week early. If there was one mild disappointment, we didn't see quite as much cool wildlife as we hoped. Lots of deer, lots of bison. Only one pronghorn. No elk, no bears, no wolves. (Apparently there was a large crowd watching a grizzly bear eating an elk, but we missed that.) So we know the wild creatures are there -- but no luck for us. But that's not really a complaint -- we had a great time.

Grand Tetons

Fall Colors

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Review: Ursus of Ultima Thule, by Avram Davidson

Review: Ursus of Ultima Thule, by Avram Davidson

by Rich Horton

Avram Davidson is one of my favorite writers, and I have up to now read almost all of his SF/Fantasy novels. (Though for all I know Seth Davis is set to publish some more -- he's already put out at least one previously unpublished non-SF novel, Beer! Beer! Beer!.) But there were two I hadn't got to -- Ursus of Ultima Thule (1973) and Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty (1988, with Grania Davis.) Recently I learned that my old friend from the glory days of Usenet, David Goldfarb, with whom I have again connected due to another shared interest (trivia), had recorded, for Wildside Press, an audiobook version of Ursus of Ultima Thule. I figured that would be a great opportunity to catch up with that novel, and so I bought it and listened to it. (David does a fine job reading it.)

Then I looked into the publication history of the novel, which is kind of interesting. It was originally published in (sort of) three parts. The first half or so of the novel was a novella in If, August 1971, called "Arnten of Ultima Thule". The remainder of the novel appeared the following year, in a two part serial in Fantastic, August and October 1972, called "The Forges of Nainland are Cold". The full novel was published by Avon in 1973. The quasi-serialized version is roughly 55,000 words, and the book version is about 65,000 words, due to an interesting chapter interpolated between the end of "Arnten of Ultima Thule" and the beginning of "The Forges of Nainland are Cold". 

The full novel was reissued in 2000 by Wildside, with the audiobook coming out in 2011. An outfit called Prologue Books published an ebook in 2012, and Gateway/Orion also did an ebook, for the UK market, in 2013. Finally -- I'll remark that my personal favorite title is "The Forges of Nainland are Cold" -- but I fully understand that Ursus of Ultima Thule is the more commercial title, and probably more representative of the whole book. 

The novel has been called "a tale of an Arctic Atlantis", and so Ultima Thule -- the original Ultima Thule -- is said to be a land now buried under the Arctic ice. This story is set in the far past, when Ultima Thule was warmer. We open with the hero, Arnten, still a boy. He is not accepted by most of his fellows for a couple of reasons -- his absent father, who is said to have been a bear; and also perhaps his unusual intelligence and curiosity. But he is allowed to come on a hunt of the wild horses, partly because Tall Roke, the band's best young hunter, is one of those who tolerates Arnten. But the hunt goes terribly wrong when they encounter a mammont, and most of the hunters are killed -- and Arnten is wrongly blamed. So he runs away, having been urged by his uncle to find his father.

In the mean time, the whole Kingdom of Ultima Thule is in trouble. The iron their society depends on -- especially for weapons -- is "sick" -- it quickly decays. The Nains who mine and forge it (Nains are essentially the same as the dwarves of Norse myth) don't know what to do. The king, Orfas, is likewise becoming sick -- there seems to be some sort of link between the health of the iron and the health of the king. And as his power declines, his cruelty and misrule worsens. 

Arnten does discover his father, Arntat, who is indeed a bear -- or, rather, sort of a were-bear. Son and father forge a bond, with Arnten realizing that he too has the bear nature within him. He also learns his father's back story -- he is a half-brother of the king, and eventually a rivalry grew, and Arntat was exiled. He has maintained his freedom by staying a bear -- but as he and Arnten travel together in human form, they are soon captured by Orfas' men, and sent to the mines to work with the Nains. 

That is the first part of the novel. In the second part, after Arnten has escaped the mines, with his father's, and the Nains', heroic assistance, he makes his way back to his home village. Soon he -- now coming into his manhood -- forms an alliance with Tall Roke, who has come back (mostly) from near death, and with others, including his uncle, a shaman of sorts. And they come to the realization that their weird is to travel to the land of the wizards, and feed the wizards -- and have the wizards break the spell on the iron. All this is accomplished -- the scenes with the wizards are deliciously strange, and inevitably the novel moves toward the already forecast climax, with Arnten claiming his true birthright.

It's an enjoyable novel, but it's not really Davidson at his best. His prose has the slant rhythms and odd turns of phrase and delight in unveiling of esoteric knowledge that we expect, but for me it doesn't quite sing here like the best Davidson prose. There are neat scenes -- an interlude with a strange creature called a "perry" (peri, I assumed?), the scene with the wizards, the stories of Arntat's adventures with Orfas, and some more. The plot is pretty straightforward, and doesn't really surprise much. I liked it, and I'm glad I read it finally -- but it's a fairly minor part of the Avram Davidson canon.