REVIEW: The Dreaming Wounds by Anya Ow

Tuesday , 28, March 2017 10 Comments

Man, I love the title on this one. The Dreaming Wounds. Get inside your Thrilling Wonder Astounding Weirdness place like you would for a late night D&D session and you could really go places with this!

No really, it evokes a crazy mashup of Lovecraft’s dreamlands and Moorcock’s Elric. See, there’s this ancient relic. Your character can stab himself with it to make this awful mouth on his body. (Permanent loss of hit points!) The mouth starts babbling hints about where the spirit world bumps up against the prime material plane. (Adventure! Death! Treasure!) If you listen closely, you can pick out bits and pieces of forgotten lore that can cut costs spell research and magic in half. This comes with a price: on a failed saving throw against petrification, the mage permanently loses a point of wisdom. You can imagine a high level mage opening up several wounds in his lust for power… and then binding them closed in order to shut them up. But then… he wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes and they’re all free, babbling their dream talk. He fails another saving throw and his descent into insanity quickens apace!

But since around 1980 or so, this is not what fantasy is. It’s not how it’s done. I know it because I had a hunger for the weird, the uncanny, the horrific and I just could not find it. But the old EC comics were long gone when I was a kid and the closest thing I could find was– I kid you not– Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness from Palladium games. That’s how bad it was. (Not that TMNTaOS was bad… it’s just no where near as weird as Weird Tales.)

What changed?

Well there’s a lot of stuff playing into this and it was a long time coming which you can see by referring back to Jack Williamson’s lament as a English professor in the sixties. When that generation came onto the scene as full fledged authors, they took all kinds of limiting presuppositions along with them. And not just in technical things like the ability to work a plot or the capacity to create likable characters. Though admittedly, there is very little plot to be had and no genuinely likable characters once a post-Christian and nihilistic world view is taken for granted.

But beyond that there is this idea that comes in that for fantasy to be good, for fantasy to be “real”… it has to be anchored in the banal. This is the root cause of why short fantasy by conventionally trained writers has been flat out godawful for decades.

And that brings us to Anya Ow’s story here. Now… it is competently written, no doubt. But the problem with it simply isn’t technical. It’s spiritual. Oh, something uncanny is going on. Folklore is more relevant to its resolution than science. And there is an actual cosmology here. This gives Anya an edge over the bulk of her peers even as it disqualifies her work from being the sort of  tacky magical realism that is what you have to do this days to merit awards and critical acclaim.

But notice how the tale starts with something a little weird. And then it slowly builds into something you might think is actually weird. And then it climaxes with an encounter with something that is… well… mildly weird. Sandwiched in between those three beats are two incredibly vivid scenes of stultifying banality. I’m talking about the scene with the unmarried hippies smoking pot with the protagonist and the awkward conversation with the neighbor that’s walking his dog.

Seriously, why would anyone write a fantasy story this way? Margaret St. Clair included a lot of hippie stuff in her work in the sixties. But it served an entirely different function within the story. Her scenes were integrated into the tale and in service of the tale. There is a difference. St. Clair was in conversation with the pulp masters, so she could avail herself of a mode of writing that is flat out unimaginable to contemporary writers today.

What’s the secret?

  • Start with something that is actually weird.
  • Cut anything this is even remotely banal.
  • Have a succession of encounters with weirdness that crescendo into something that is awesomely weird.

All the writers workshops and author panels of today are incapable of directing people towards this sort of common sense approach to fantasy. No, it’s more like there is a contempt for the genre altogether and they are eaten up with explaining to people ways of writing fantasy without actually writing any fantasy! They actively point people away from the sort of things that even the lowliest pulp author could take for granted back in the day.

It’s the difference between writing to be taken seriously by people that hate fantasy and writing for people that actually want to read it. If you want to be writing anything good, you’re going to have to regress harder.

Note: This is the first story to show up in my mailbox as a result of my backing the Lyonesse project. This is a totally worthy endeavor that’s run by awesome people and you definitely want to check it out!

 

10 Comments
  • Man of the Atom says:

    Bill Gaines was smart enough to know that other people publishing in “pulp format” had great stories. Why Ray Bradbury had to contact Bill once to remind him that he had neglected to forward the fee on a story he had used.

    EC Archives is a great resource (SF, Horror, War, Fantasy) for those who have ready spending cash.

  • Jesse Lucas says:

    I’ll note that Part 4 of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure uses this format regularly. Josuke’s doing something normal, he bumps into something weird, it gets even weirder. Plenty of stand users of the week, most of them get forgotten, it’s all right because we had fun while they were around; and so rather than dragging a save-the-world story over a million seasons like Doctor Who, we have a large amount of content with our beloved characters doing weird things.

  • Russell says:

    Thanks for the review!

  • Mark Pearson says:

    I’m going to propose a somewhat different theory. I think a big part of it has to with the fact that mainstream literature of the time was flat, farging WIERD. Surrealism, Poststructuralism, the complete disregard for anything resembling conventional story or structure…just like with the atonal garbage of “neo-classical” music, it got where the only respite for a plain story was in genre fiction.

    That isn’t the only reason–blame the Tolkien pastiches (which were incredibly popular), blame TSR driving Gary Gygax out of his leadership role. Blame the Satanic panic. But this was a big reason. Genre entertainment was often comfort food; and a lot of it was bland.

    • Jeffro says:

      The Weird Tales authors were denounced by gatekeepers starting in the 40s. Then yet another wave of old school sff authors were shut out of the marketplace starting in the 80s while simultaneously the market was flooded with TOO MUCH DERIVATIVE COPY OF A PHOTOCOPY OF A COPY type work.

      • Mark Pearson says:

        What Weird Tales authors were stopped from publishing? Howard was dead. So was Lovecraft. And the reason we still know of Lovecraft is because of assiduous devotion by some Golden Age authors?

        Burroughs has never been out of print. Neither has Merritt. It’s a lot harder to track down Smith, but Dunsany was still around in the 80’s.

        Damon Knight may have destroyed Van Vogt’s career, but he was one author. Weird Tales was still around. So were any number of pulps that weren’t Astounding. And CL Moore, Kuttner, and any number of others were busy writing Conan pastiches.

        Those guys didn’t get blackballed in the 80’s–they got overshadowed by David Eddings and Terry Brooks.

        As for weird, I can’t really think of anything as weird as Jack L. Chalker’s Well World series; Check Piers Anthony, who I think is a hack, but every series he wrote was just plain unusual, from the Incarnations of Immortality, to Phaze, to the Battle Circle novels.

        Or Glen Cook’s “the Swordbearer”, which I always read as a response to the nihilism of Moorcock’s Elric.

        There was Phillip Jose Farmer-and the Riverworld series and Dayworld.

        And oh man did the Thieve’s World go in some weird directions.

        I got my copies of Doc Smith in the 80’s.

        The old guys were still there; they were just overshadowed and outsold by the Brooks’ and the Eddings (except for Anthony-but as I said; he’s a hack).

        • Jeffro says:

          It all adds up.

          If you’re looking for Fahrenheit 451 type suppression, that’s not quite what I mean. The thing that is so astonishing about sff before 1940 is (a) how good it is and (b) how Christian/Western/American it is. Seeing the changes over the next couple of decades it’s like Communists were actively subverting the entire field.

          The authors of Appendix N were lapsing into obscurity even as Gygax and Kask compiled the list– it was a message to a generation that had no idea what the sff canon was. A critical frame that pushed the narrative that sf began with Campbell’s “Golden Age” combined with the psychoanalysis of Lovecraft and Howard combined with Joanna Russ declaring heroic fantasy to be bad for you *in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction itself*… it’s astonishing.

          And then we come to the eighties. A change in the management occurred with a great deal of consequences.

          Because of the absence of something like Castalia House Blog, there are hordes of fantasy addicts that have NO IDEA that that Robert E. Howard was as awesome as he was. And when they read Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber and ERB and Leigh Brackett… they get downright angry about what they know has been taken from them.

          Maybe you’re the type to completely discount these sorts of shenanigans that go own in the critical space. That’s okay with me. There’s a plenty big audience of people that want to hear a different perspective. But something significant did happen ~1940 and ~1980.

  • Mark Pearson says:

    That is not what I’m aiming at. We are pretty much agreed on those points.

    Where we disagree is the implication of malice (and with the contention that publishers of the 80’s were actively trying to hide pre-Golden Age authors).

    I am contending that in the 80’s the combination of the weirdness and incomprehensibility of “literary” fiction, combined with the influx of new readers with no interest in reading anything that didn’t already match their expectations of what fantasy was “supposed” to be, had a lot more to do with the decline of pulp authors; as well as a lot of modern authors who didn’t write books the cover of which could be described as “tempestuous warrior maiden staring sadly into the distance with one hand on her dragon”.

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