One of the cool things about getting older is the perspective it gives you. Now that I’m (ahem) of a certain age, I’ve found it fun and enlightening to go back and revisit some of the beloved genre novels that worked for me so well when I was in my teens. In short, I’m now rereading the great science fiction, horror and heroic fantasy classics of my youth.
I loved the ideas, the landscapes, the characters, and — yes — the escapism of a lot of these novels. But also I learned from them; they were my friends. Now, I wanted to see them from a new vantage point — were they good? Were they worthy of my time? Is it just plain nostalgia? Should I go find my temporarily shelved copies of Nudge and The Alienist?
I started with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which was amazing, and seemed to prefigure this effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster era of movies by about, oh, a hundred years or so. Then it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and finally I made my joyful way through Stevenson’s famous novelette of Victorian supression, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All were simply delicious, and reminded me why I love to read in the first place.
More recently I moved up to a few contemporary works: Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, a literary take on heroic fantasy which could never be filmed, was first. I just re-finished Peter Straub’s Jack of Shadows, and it knocked my socks off (see that entry here). Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot — one of his seminal early works — gave me a bit of a thrill, and reminded me why people like him so much in the first place. Michael Moorcock’s Swords Trilogy, a wonderful psychedelic fantasy series originally written and published in the swinging sixties, blew my mind, baby. Now it’s Fritz Lieber’s Swords And Deviltry, the first entry in his legendary Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books.
Of course, I do space these out among other, more challenging, literary-based works: The Corrections, Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, etc. But my heart (my Rosebud!) still lies with these sometimes cheesy but undeniably fun period genre novels. And if the original version sported a cool Frazetta (or Frazetta knock-off, as above), then all the better. (In that spirit, the books I read have been, as much as possible, the initial paperback versions — yellowed, dog-eared pages and all.)
Lieber, I learned, is a prose stylist of the first order; the writing is simply gorgeous, something I was unable to appreciate fully the first time around. This came as a surprise because fantasy is seen as fairly weak when compared to non-genre prose. (Once, when I finished Toby Wolff’s memoir A Boy’s Life and turned my attentions to a newer acclaimed fantasy series, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, it was like driving on a splendid four lane highway and suddenly bouncing along a dirt road. Martin’s language was leaden; the voice unoriginal, and it made me appreciate Wollf’s seemingly simple sentences as wise and elegant all the more.)
I’m happy to report that the true fantasy and sci-fi classics are mostly excellent: Just like Tolkein’s work is splendid by any standard, these are also bursting with life. Lieber’s writing is funny, dark, smart and so well-ingrained in modern geek culture that it practically wrote the book on, well, funny, dark and smart fantasy (it also served as the unofficial basis for the world of the early Dungeons and Dragons game — which may not come as a recommendation for some).
But as an adult, and an artist myself, I remain impressed with Lieber’s accomplishments, and am reminded why I was so drawn to these genre works in the first place: Often, they served as receptacles of ideas — they confronted life and its challenges through an interesting lens of escapism and teenage power fantasies that appealed not only to me, but to millions of people across the world. They make me remember why I love reading, why I love rainy days — so we have an excuse to sit inside, under the covers, and fall into a good book.
Next up: Asimov’s Foundation books and Moorcock’s Elric series. I’m so looking forward to it.