The Ship of Ishtar, part four

Thursday , 26, January 2017 16 Comments

The one thing you can count on is that pretty much anything the Poindexter types sneer at is going to be uncommonly good. That’s no joke. Everything they hate is awesome: male power fantasies, colonialism, Madonna-Whore complexes, the failure to pass the Bechdel test, cultural appropriation…. Seriously, if you just make sure to do all the things they tell you not to, you’re well on your way to creating something special.

The one that always baffled me was the thing about purple prose. Somehow, this comes off as being the one literary sin that trumps them all. Certainly “terrible wordsmith” is among their post potent weapons which they use to suppress anything and anyone they don’t like. There’s something vaguely autistic about the way they talk about this, as if the knowledge of a handful of contemporary “best practices” somehow allows them to claim greater accomplishments than writers that are infinitely more influential. It’s petty.

So let’s take a look at a bit of prose that would no doubt cause these sorts of people to recoil in horror:

On sailed the ship. And on and on–by what signs or reckonings or to what port Kenton could not know. Sleep after sleep it sailed. The huge bowl of silver mists whose edge was the horizon, contracted or expanded as those mists thickened or thinned. Storms they met and weathered; roaring storms that changed the silver of the mists to lurid copper, ambered jet, darkness deeper than night. Sudden storms threaded with lightnings weird and beautiful. Lightnings that were like the shatterings of immense prisms, the breakings of rainbows of jewels. Storms that trod on feet of thunder. Thunder that was metallic, tintinnabulary; hurricanes of clashing cymbals following showers of multicolored, flaming gems.

Gorgeous. Maybe not quite as awesome as Madonna-Whore complexes, but yeah… this is way up there.

Is there a way to determine which style is better…? I think there is. The answer is wrapped up within that other sneering put-down they deploy: that all these old pulp stories are kids stuff. To determine whether a book is any good, put a few twelve-year olds in the back of the car and head out on a road trip. Put an audio book on for forty-five minutes or so and then ask them whether or not you can change it to something else. The degree of vehemence you get back will tell you everything you need to know!

This one is particularly striking to me:

Between sleeps Sigurd chanted to him Viking tales, Sagas unsung, lost epics of the Norse.

That sort of thing is ubiquitous in the works of these old pulp writers. They were intimately familiar with real myths and legends and literature and not just genre fiction– the sort of thing I would tell someone to read if I they wanted to become a better writer. There’s something else to it as well: the old works weren’t just something to study to them. There’s a deep love that shines through in little offhand bits like this. Heroes might win all manner of treasures, but their most mind-boggling gift is to have access to tales that have been lost in our world.

Divorce a generation from the old works and they start writing characters that act as if they are from nowhere– as if they have as little culture as the person that is penning them. Having the benefit of an education while also being unshackled by convention, guys like A. Merritt could come up with singularly original situations like this:

Zubran is with Klaneth, arguing about the gods. Zubran, although sworn to Nergal, thinks him a rather inferior copy of Ahriman, the Persian god of darkness. He is also convinced that this whole matter of warfare between Nergal and Ishtar for the ship lacks not only originality and ingenuity, but taste–something, indeed, that his own gods and goddesses would not do; or if they did, would do much better. This angers Klaneth, which greatly rejoices Zubran.

The ideas really are as lush as the prose. And a great many people were influence by this stuff. Phillip Jose Farmer’s work has more in common with A. Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs than with anyone else that came before him. Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon reads as if it’s a simplified version of A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar wrapped up in an homage to Barsoom.

And then there’s this:

“Have no doubts about Zubran,” snapped Gigi. “He, too, was tricked upon this ship and is even more eager than I to be free. Some day he shall tell you his story, as I have mine. Ho! Ho!” laughed the drummer. “Ever seeking the new, ever tiring of the known is Zubran. And this is his fate–to be shot into a whole new world and find it worse than his old. Nay, Wolf, fear not Zubran. With shield and sword will he stand beside you–until he tires even of you. But even then will he be loyal.”

You know… I’d thought that the opening chapter was reminiscent of de Camp and Pratt’s The Carnelian Cube. Based on this paragraph alone, it’s a safe bet that they were A. Merritt fans because this is a better summary of that book than anything I could come up with.

A. Merritt is unaccountably obscure today, but to some of the biggest names in science fiction, he was synonymous with the very best that the field had to offer.

16 Comments
  • deuce says:

    “The one that always baffled me was the thing about purple prose. Somehow, this comes off as being the one literary sin that trumps them all.”

    Well, why shouldn’t modern prose be as empty and illiterate as those who write it? It seems pretty obvious, to me, that Merritt was going for a “mythic” feel with this novel, just one of the things that makes it my favorite. I’ll note that AM could write lean when he wanted to. SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN reads more like Lester Dent than Poe. He wrote in the style the story at hand required. That’s just one facet of what makes him a “Lord of Fantasy”.

    • caleb says:

      Speaking of whining about “purple prose”, that is a rather old one as far as genre fiction goes. John W. Campbell was infamously set on exterminating it from SF and horror fiction, and did his best to condition the writers whose stories he published into writing in simplest, dryest language possible.

  • Twila Price says:

    Jeffro says:” The one thing you can count on is that pretty much anything the Poindexter types sneer at is going to be uncommonly good. That’s no joke. Everything they hate is awesome: male power fantasies, colonialism, Madonna-Whore complexes, the failure to pass the Bechdel test, cultural appropriation…. Seriously, if you just make sure to do all the things they tell you not to, you’re well on your way to creating something special.”

    But… but… but… OK. I am not a man. I am a woman. I like being a woman and a wife and a mother and a grandmother. OK? Male power fantasies do nothing for me. Neither does the Madonna-Whore complex. I like fiction that has women in it. I like fiction that has women as primary characters doing things in it — and talking to each other about *interesting things* (like those sagas or theology or history — anything that isn’t just house and home and kinder and what dude they like, because that ain’t the kind of person I am). Now, agreed, if the woman is being up in your face Xena-style, that does not satisfy me, either. But I want my female characters to make decisions and guide the plot besides being a “reward” for the male character. I make no apologies for that. I want what I want. I also want heroic male protagonists who believe in good and are good, and who do the right thing, no matter what it costs them (the Scarlet Pimpernel and Rupert Rassendyl come to mind (from the Prisoner of Zenda — awesome book, btw!), as does John Clayton, Lord Greystoke). And, yes, most of my old school favorites are full of what might be called purple prose, and colonialism. I can live with that. Hell, the book I’ve been working on is probably rife with colonialism and cultural appropriation (with a couple of British lords and an American mage on the road to the Taklamakan desert along the Silk Road in the 1880s, it can’t help but be!) but I was inspired by Abraham Merritt and H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs
    and Baroness Orczy in the first place.

    • Jeffro says:

      Your type of adventure story is ubiquitous.

      The type I am advocating is very nearly unimaginable to most people today.

      • Twila Price says:

        Jeffro —

        Tell me more. How is what I want ubiquitous? How many heroic heroes who are clean, Christian, and admirable are being written nowadays? Very few. Grimdark and antiheros are the name of the game, most of the time. And how many women are heroes, same qualities as I want for my guy heroes? Very few, again. I don’t see my wants being ubiquitous at all.

        I am just as cranky about the current run of fantasy and science fiction as you are, some days. More, possibly, because I get so tired of the same old same old — you’ve read one urban fantasy with werewolves and vampires, why read another? They are all pretty much written to the same formula. Ditto dystopias. Ditto quest fantasies. Etc. etc. etc. I am incredibly picky about what I want to read, because I’ve been reading fantasy and sf since 1958.

        • Jeffro says:

          I like fiction that has women in it.
          I like fiction that has women as primary characters doing things in it.
          I want my female characters to make decisions and guide the plot besides being a “reward” for the male character.

          Congrats. You don’t just have have Alien. You have the latest Mad Max, the two newest Star Wars movies, and Through the Looking Glass, too. Bones. Fringe. Agents of SHIELD. Agent Carter. Jessica Jones.

          Ubiquitous.

          • Twila Price says:

            TV and movies are not written sf, Jeffro. I do not consider them as part of the Canon of sf and fantasy. Told you I was old school–only the written word counts when I am talking about the field. YMMV, of course, but I thought it was pretty clear that we were talking books here. And the current written field has few protagonists that meet my criteria. And in the time of Merritt and Burroughs, which features totally awesome male heroes, there were, alas, very few female characters that would meet my criteria (Tarzan’s wife, Jane, may but I don’t recall her having any fun conversations with other women at all).

            I don’t watch much TV anymore, and I only go to movies that don’t feature realistic violence or swearing or blatant sexuality. That mostly leaves Disney or Pixar, so, again, I’m not conversant with your examples.

            In short, if you want to talk books, I can talk books, but when you start talking media, I stop with Star Trek and Babylon 5 in sf TV, and Kelvin Universe Trek in the movie realm.

          • Hooc Ott says:

            “Tarzan’s wife, Jane, may but I don’t recall her having any fun conversations with other women at all”

            If you are looking for women who had Bechdel test conversations with Jane then Esmeralda and Hazel Strong

        • “How many heroic heroes who are clean, Christian, and admirable are being written nowadays?”

          I wrote one: https://www.amazon.com/Swan-Knights-Son-Squire-Cobweb-ebook/dp/B01L43JG88

          • Twila Price says:

            Mr. Wright,

            I have bought this first book in the series on the strength of the sample and your recommendation.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      “I make no apologies for that. I want what I want.”

      I have a challenge for you Twila:

      Get banned on twitter by advocating for the things you want.

      • Twila Price says:

        Hooc Ott —

        I don’t twitter. I will read blog posts (I read yours, too!) and comment, but I am not going to deal with the craziness that is most of social media these days. Old Luddite is old and cranky about all these new-fangled ways to get banned and shunned…

      • Twila Price says:

        Hooc Ott — in re: Jane and her conversations — I’m pretty sure saying “Oh Gabrielle” is not all that substantive a conversation (that’s nearly all of Esmeralda’s on-page spoken lines in Tarzan of the Apes, and I did not notice her at all in The Return of Tarzan; she appears off screen in The Beasts of Tarzan). Hazel Strong’s major on-page conversation with Jane Porter is about Tarzan. I just reread the books today, so I can say that Jane doesn’t really have much interaction with other women on the page in the Tarzan books.

  • Jill says:

    Purple prose is pretentious, IMO. What you quote above is energetic prose. When I was in college, I turned in a portfolio of essays for some scholarship. I turned in an A paper that had used Freudian literary analysis. The judge called it purple prose because it was pretentious, as well as being entirely sincere. I was honestly trying to write a good analysis. I know they’ll also call pulp fiction purple, as they’re in a maze of mirrors where any writing that isn’t self-consciously ironic is purple. It’s a sad reality they’re living in.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Can’t find my copy of this book; I did loan it out, and it never came back. Now I’ve got to find a copy, because this series of posts is reminding me of how much I’ve forgotten.

    Jill: I agree with your distinction between pretentious and energetic prose.

    Deuce: I think Clark Ashton Smith would have laughed in Campbell’s face.

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