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Shootout at the Fantasy Factory

The Agony Column

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

February 25, 2002


"Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a song, something to keep us all happy..." -- Steve Winwood

The copy of LOTR that I actually read in Junior High.

I've never considered myself much of a fantasy fan. It goes back to those cruel years of childhood. Like all my total geek friends, back in Junior High School, I read 'Lord of the Rings'. I liked it, as did most of them, but not quite as much as most of them. It finally came to a point I clearly remember. On the advice of counsel, I refuse to put a date on the incident, but it goes like this: me standing in the schoolyard, my two good friends standing to either side of me chanting "Frodo Lives!" OK, scratch one fantasy fan.

Not the originals I read, but a nice JK Potter cover.

Down the pike of course, I did stumble on the Gormenghast Trilogy, which I enjoyed then and still enjoy now. But when Shannara got the sword, I just gave up. All the brothers Hildebrandt and their gold-plated dragons couldn't drag me kicking and screaming into the Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Funny how time changes things. Like most folks, I was more than pleased by the recent movie adaptation of 'The Lord of the Rings'. And now, I find myself about to dedicate a column to fantasy series fiction.

You read that right. Fantasy fiction. I can even attest that you've got something that calls itself Elven in these books. And book covers with gold plated dragons. I'd better get to the point soon, because I'm beginning to doubt myself.

The point is that somewhere in the not too distant past, the remains of the horror genre, the rotted, stinking corpse left after the 1980's came to an inglorious end, well, the flyblown flesh bloated with the maggots of a new and ugly creature. Thus was Dark Fantasy born.

In this scan, you can't even see the word horror on the cover, though it's there.

But this was a good anthology!

Horror became a word applicable in the positive sense to a couple of superstars. Otherwise, if you were writing a horror novel, you might as well go out and get a day job, because the publishers weren't having any more of those gaudy covers. Gone were the days of shiny foil and embossed knives being a good thing. Now you can't even get grocery store shelf space with a King blurb and a ghostly holograph.

The kind of cover that many folks associate with horror.

But Dark Fantasy -- it sounds so much better, so much classier. It sounds classier than Fantasy. At least the reader might presume to think that there wouldn't be a surfeit of cuteness and light in 'Dark Fantasy'. And it sounds classier than horror, unless you happen to like big bloody rips in the flesh and blood spurting every which way. Yes, there's still a pretty large audience for that, thank you very much.

So it's even more surprising that I find myself touting two new series -- yes series! -- that can be called Dark Fantasy. Serial fiction is tough to do well. Drag it out too long and the readers lose interest. But with trilogies all the rage right now, I can recommend a trilogy that uses all the classic fantasy tropes in a very horrific manner. That would be Mark Chadbourn's 'Age of Misrule' books -- 'World's End', 'Darkest Hour' and 'Always Forever' . This might come as a bit of a surprise to readers who know that I wasn't all that crazy about the first Chadbourn book I read, 'Nocturne'. But I liked the premise of the series when it first came out and decided that he was a talented enough writer to give him another try. I'm glad I did. 'The Age of Misrule' takes the fantasy staples and runs them through a contemporary horror filter then lets them loose in our world. It's been done before but not with Chadbourn's serious research, which grounds his imagination in the reality of Celtic myth and legend. And Chadbourn's characters, this time around, seem to leap off the page with all their problems, both personal and supernatural.

Lucky for me, the premise forWorld's End caught my brain before I judged the shiny dragon cover.


'World's End' came out before the millennium. When it came out, the events it depicts were in the future; now they read like a bit of well thought out alternate history. Here's the premise: at the turn of the millennium -- the Y2K number, not the Arthur C. Clarke millennium -- science starts to fade and magic starts to creep in, slowly but surely. Soon enough, the world is being invaded -- from within another reality, in a manner that would be all too familiar to John Keel, author of 'The Mothman Prophecies'. As in Keel's conception, the entities invading are not really comprehensible. Nor are their motives. There are two sides, and one certainly corresponds to all the evils we've been taught about, but the other has a much less strong correspondence with the good. The only way for humanity to come up to par is by learning about the old ways of magic, about the power that lies in the land itself. And the people who can do that are broken, frail humans like someone who might stop you in the office and tell you about their therapy session. Not exactly the kind you'd presume should be sent on a full blown find-the-power-things quest. Chadbourn plays it out like horror movie chase scene, but the monsters chasing the humans are more like something out of a Kubrick/Clarke/Keel collaboration than the usual undead uglies.

Darkest Hour, Book Two of the Age of Misrule. Celtic research and messed up characters.

Always Forever: Book Three of the Age of Misrule; the title may be on the namby pamby side, but the novel offers a great conclusion to the trilogy.

The sequels to 'World's End' continue the tale pretty much seamlessly and the main story arc manages to finish in the third volume. Each of them includes a rather helpful and not-too-difficult to read summary. They're all out and you can now read through them at the fast pace they deserve. If you like your Dark Fantasy really dark and well-researched, fast paced and filled with flawed, frail human characters, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of these book on the Internet. You absolutely won't find them in any American bookstore. For some insane reason, the American publishers have thus far passed on these books.

In a recent signing at M is for Mystery, Dan Simmons mentioned that "for some reason, trilogies are hot in Hollywood right now". I can't imagine a trilogy more tailor made for today's fantasy and thrill hungry audience. We know that this is a less than perfect world -- by a clear 5/4 vote -- and thus my expectations that Chadbourn's work will get the attention they deserve in Hollowood is low. But at least they can get the attention of readers of this column. One does what one can.

Circumstances inspired me to locate this edition of the first novel in Holdstock's series.

In my recent paperback diet, I found myself reading a novel in the Mythago Wood series by Robert Holdstock. I've got to admit, I thought that this was a bit of a long shot. 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn' had pretty much everything against it. I had read my last Mythago Wood novella, 'The Bone Forest', back in what -- 1991. I had been buying the British hardcover version of the books, and I enjoyed them greatly. But my attention slipped for a moment, I couldn't get the next sequential hardcover, and they were starting to seem expensive at the time, so I passed. This novel was two or three past that novel. I barely remembered what had happened in the previous books.

Lavondyss -- it actually says sequel on the cover.

I didn't need to. 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn' managed to bring me back to Ryhope Wood, the primeval forest in England behind the Huxley house, where ancient myths are morphed into reality by the thoughts of those who live there. But better yet, though it built on those books, it did so in layers, above and beneath them, not in a sequential manner. Time is distorted in Ryhope Wood, and it flows irregularly in this novel as well. Holdstock has put together a marvelous, marvelous book, one that can be read before, during or after the other novels. The only problem is that you can't find any of them around now, even the progenitor, 'Mythago Wood'. However, you can read "The story of Kylhuk and Olwen", an excerpt of this novel at on Holdstock's website. This should give you the impetus to pick up the novel; it's only one of many stories within stories that Holdstock tells.


This picture will help break the text into smaller, more easily digestible blocks.

When I was partway into 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn', just enthralled by the fantastic tapestry that Holdstock creates, I was inspired to go find my copy of 'Mythago Wood'. I couldn't, so I thought I'd just see if I could land a copy off the Internet. Alas, it's not in print until later this year, though you may be able to score a used copy somewhere. Don't set your sights on a hardcover edition though. When I found out how much it would cost to replace the one I thought I'd lost, I went right back to those stacks and spent 40 minutes trolling through them until I found it. Put it this way -- it would eat up a week's worth of California's current maximum unemployment insurance, if of course, the Congress had got round to passing that bill. Congress didn't, I found it, sigh of relief. Now, about those other books -- it's time to get cracking and find them. I've got a bit of catching up to do and I'm looking forward to every page of it.

This book inspired some serious searching within the stacks and on the net. Buy it now!

On Thursday, I'll cover the Simmons signing -- the short story is go if you can, he's a hoot and a half. And maybe I'll have some words on the current page-turner of choice, Mo Hayder's 'The Treatment'. In the interim, take a look at the posted last week review of 'Birdman', and burn a few minutes of cheap late night electricity reading. I'll have to, just to keep up with myself.


This just in: Eraserhead is coming out on DVD in April. See the David Lynch Website for details. Finally -- a film for the whole family!




Rick Kleffel