Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book Review: The Valley so Low



 
Hang your head over...

Book: The Valley so Low: Southern Mountain Stories
Author: Manly Wade Wellman; compiled by Karl Edward Wagner
Publisher Information: New York, NY: Doubleday, c1987
Genre: Fantasy fiction

Fantasy fiction feeds off a certain collection of well-defined settings and tropes.  Sure, some level of diversity has always existed, but by and large, most fantasy is cut from the medieval template developed and codified by such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: kings and queens in high castles, a feudal economic and social system, and heroes clad in armor and wielding swords or spell books.  But every once in a while an author shakes up the paradigm by adding different cultures and inspirations into the mold.  Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), born in Portuguese West Africa and raised in North Carolina, is perhaps not as well known in fantasy circles as the above two dignitaries, but he held a commanding place in the pulp fantasy publishing world of the 60s and 70s.  He bucked the usual trend by infusing his stories with the folk culture and customs of the southern Appalachian environment in which he was raised.  Over many decades, he created a number of memorable heroes: Judge Pursuivant, a former judge and scholar of the occult; John Thunstone, supernatural detective and playboy, who smites evil with a silver sword-cane; and his most famous creation, a wandering bard with a silver-stringed guitar known as John the Balladeer, Silver John, or simply, John.  This slim volume, compiled by author Karl Edward Wagner, contains a varied collection of stories made by the writer in his last fifteen years of life.  Though often predictable and somewhat formulaic, Wellman has a magic touch for old-fashioned spooks, shifting from old-fashioned campfire tales to almost Lovecraftian levels of creepiness, and dedicated fans will definitely enjoy these last glimmers from an old master’s twilight.

The stories are arranged in an orderly fashion, based on who the headliner is.  Silver John takes the fore, of course, being central to the first five tales and beating out the other contenders for percentage of the total volume.  This was my first encounter with the mysterious bard, and I must admit that I can easily see the appeal of the character.  John is a humble, plain spoken fellow, but don’t let that fool you; he has a brilliant mind, and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the folklore and deadly supernatural threats that haunt his land.  Though a vet of the Korean War and hence trained for combat, he’s more of a backwoods Dr. Who than an action hero, relying on his wits, his vast knowledge, and the occasional white magic spell usually channeled through his songs and strings to vanquish his otherworldly foes.  And speaking of his adversaries, the varied beings John and his compatriots face are a curious blend of folk myths and cosmic horror; though many are familiar creatures, like vampires ("Chastel"), witches (The Witch for All Seasons"), and good ole’ fashioned haunts, many others feature terrifying specters of another world running roughshod over the good folks of this slice of Appalachia.

But this is still Lovecraft Lite, for no matter how alien the nemesis or its power, our heroes always prevail.  This is both a blessing and a curse for the anthology, for while the element of wish fulfillment remains intact, the stories are very predictable if headlined by one of Wellman’s protagonists.  If there’s a good, virginal, innocent girl, expect her to live through the book, and maybe even become a love interest.  If there’s a “bad” (read: not sexually-repressed) girl, or a crook, or anyone with the slightest bit of taint on their souls, expect them to be the villain - or at least, meet a bad end by the conclusion.  The blatant morality play can get tedious, and when the stories are led by Lee Cobbett or Hal Stryker — newish protagonists who feel more like knockoffs of Wellman’s more established figures than characters in their own rights –  the tedium climbs to staggering heights.  This is mitigated a bit in the last couple of stories; the morality play is still there, for sure, but the main characters are now a varied collection of one-offs who may or may not live through to the end depending on their moral alignment.  While still predictable, the eerie, Lovecraftian karma seep gives these tales the impact of a well-told campfire yarn.  Wellman understands that the scariest entities are the ones built up only to be left unexamined, and while throwaway explanations are given in stories like “The Petey Car” and the unnervingly creepy “Rock, Rock” and "Along About Sundown," they do little to make the entities encountered any more understandable - or less frightening.

If you’ve been a Wellman fan for years, this collection may seem like a let-down, though a poignant one, as they reflect the very last of the great writer’s works.  If this is your first encounter, then it’s recommended that you take a gander at his earlier stories, especially the Silver John tales.  If you’re looking for homegrown American fantasy with a touch of horror, you can do much worse than Wellman and his backwoods clashes between heroes and the dark forces of the world.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Afrofuturism and Afrofantasy: the best genre you've never heard of



Black Panther has been a hot topic ever since it came out February, breaking box office records and inviting endless discussions and debates about the tone and texture of this otherwise conventional superhero flick.  But this sudden spur of interest has also drummed up musings on it particular genre - one relatively little known to many Westerners: Afrofuturism.  Very loosely defined, Afrofuturism - and its cousin, Afrofantasy - is an umbrella term encompassing speculative fiction, futuristic music and/or pop culture either made by people of African descent, featuring main characters of African descent, or using Africa as a setting.  But it’s much more than that; it twists expectations about who is or is not part of the speculative fiction bubble.  Afrofuturism, whether dystopian or utopian, promises an expanded role for people of African descent in arenas traditionally viewed as beyond their reach: the ballooning technological democracy of the Space Age, or the narrative freedom and adventure of ideas endemic to the fantasy paradigm.  But it also issues a challenge to the dominant worldview, usually by tempering the often out-of-bounds optimism of science fiction with real-world racism and perspectives from a people who have all-too-often felt the boot of history’s zealous, future-oriented “winners.”

It is a fascinating and diverse genre that spans the full multimedia range, but despite being filled to the brim with talented authors and artists, it is sadly ignored or underestimated by many mainstream fantasy and science fiction fans.  The reasons are manifold: general unfamiliarity with and condescending dismissal of Africa and the African diaspora on the part of the Global North is a prime culprit, but other factors, like access and exposure, play keys roles as well.  It’s no surprise that the Afrofuturist/fantasy creators most familiar to the mainstream reside in the United States. 

So if you’re hankering to immerse yourself in the same vibe delivered by Coogler and co. this past February, check out the authors, performers, and other luminaries below.  They’re just the tip of a very deep iceberg, but their works shine a light into this fascinating and ever-changing field.

Authors

Nnedi Okorafor: This Nigerian-American writer is well known for her evocative sociocultural imagery of West Africa, as well as her literate explorations of gender, class, and the social Other in fantastic or post-apocalyptic settings.  Her most notable works include Akata Witch, the first in a fantasy series starring an albino Nigerian-American who discovers her knack for magic on a trip to her parents’ homeland; and Who Fears Death, a grim, post-apocalyptic tale of a child of rape who discovers it’s her magical destiny to end the genocide of her people.

Octavia Butler: The late, great grandmother of the genre, she was one of the first
African-Americans to achieve success in the traditionally exclusive arenas of science fiction and fantasy.  She was a diverse and imaginative writer, refusing to be bound to a particular convention, and her plots sampled everything from astronomy and cybernetics, to time travel and biology, though always with the core theme of the misuse of humanity’s gifts to repeat cycles of domination and abuse - both at home, and across the galaxy.  Kindred is her most famous and bestselling work, starring a reluctant time traveler from the 1970s who’s repeatedly whisked away to the antebellum South in order to ensure that her slave-owning ancestor lives to father her family line.  Aficionados should also check out her Xenogenesis  and Patternists series, though the woman’s entire body of work is a treasury of Afrofuturism and Afrofantasy.

Samuel R. Delany: Another pioneering author of the Afrofuturism genre, Delany entered science fiction as a gay black man, already far out of the norm for the field’s usual craftsmen, and never hid his aspirations for literary gravitas in a genre often mired by shallow technophilia and plots hung together by the barest of scaffolding.  His stories are complex, existential, yet often quirky, using the freedom of sci-fi to explore the bending boundaries of sexuality, race and class.  Dhalgren is widely considered his masterpiece, a 1975 mammoth of a book featuring a nameless protagonist known only as “the Kid” in his trek through the post-apocalyptic ruins of a fictional central US city in search of “signs.”  This is science fiction in the bare minimalist sense, more likely to appeal to fans of Cormac McCarthy's The Road than to the hardcore sci-fi enthusiast, though his bizarre early space opera, Nova, and seminal military sci-fi series Fall of the Towers are on more familiar, if no less deconstructivist, grounds.  Through it all, though, he remains arguably Arfrofuturism’s most brilliant theorist.

Nancy Farmer: This Arizona native spent much of her early years in Africa, where most of her earliest works take place, and though she’s drifted from the continent in her later stories, she is recognized for being among the first to center her books in a land that had been and still is ignored as a speculative fiction setting for young adult fiction.  Her most famous book as far as Afrofuturism is concerned is The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, the story of three children in 2194 Zimbabwe who are kidnapped and put to work in a “plastic mine,” while three mutant detectives - the titular characters - search for them on order of the kids’ powerful father, in the process revealing a land both absurd and painfully familiar.

Leslie Esdaile Banks - AKA L.A.Banks:  Though cancer had tragically cut her life short, Banks left the world a sprawling corpus across a diversity of genres.  But she is best remembered for her intricately-plotted webs of urban fantasy and paranormal romance starring young African-American female protagonists.  Her Vampire Huntress Legends Series is perhaps her most popular, with Damali Richards as the eponymous huntress: a no-nonsense spoken word artist who leads a guerrilla team of deadly musical vampire slayers (no, really) in a never-ending battle of good against evil.  Described, perhaps superficially, as “Blade meets Buffy,” Banks infuses the series with free-flowing metaphors linking her underworld nosferatu with the clandestine dealings of drug lords and kingpins, and stresses the power of love in all its myriad forms to light even the darkest recesses of the world.  These themes carry over in her other works, like the Crimson Moon Series centered on a secret government consortium of Special Ops werewolves, as well as the number of young adult graphic novels based on her stories.

Musicians   

Herman “Sonny” Blount - AKA Sun Ra: The self-declared member of an angelic race from Saturn, he was a visionary composer and jazz band leader who pioneered the melding of free group improvisation and electric instruments that greatly influenced the jazz styles of the 1960s.  Incredibly inventive and wildly eccentric, he styled himself a philosopher/mystic, preferred his musicians to live communally, and often gave live performances in a mixed-media fog of outlandish costumes, sounds, and poetry that left his audiences both energized and bewildered.  His music often themed around the Space Age and cosmic sounds, and set much of the tone for the futuristic vibe that has become such a staple of Afrofuturism.  Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra is, perhaps, his most accessible work, while Atlantis is the perfect example of the free “space” jazz that ties him so firmly to the Afrofuturism category.  The Space Age is Here is a compilation that samples a number of his songs through the years, so it’s a nice way to wet your feet with this admittedly difficult avant-garde artist, if you can find it.

George Clinton: The father of funk, this barber from North Carolina blended soul and psychedelic rock into a bright, colorful package, producing dazzling performances and espousing revolutionary politics.  Through his two bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton created a “musical cosmology,” and much like Sun Ra, rooted his sound and his eccentricities in a place beyond the divisions and hierarchies of Earth.  The fluid, bass-heavy melodies of P-funk and their otherworldly rhythms were elevated by Clinton’s often space-based performances and costumes.  Mothership Connection, released in 1976, was a fictional concept album with a heavy space theme, and features such classics as "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" and "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)."

Other Media and Resources

  • Pumzi, a twenty-one-minute short by Kenyan native Wanuri Kahiu, set in a technologically advanced underground city in East Africa.
  • Experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist Cauleen Smith, who blends her sci-fi sensibilities with French structuralism to make challenging and often confrontational works.
  • Many figures in the creation of Afrofuturistic comic books and graphic anthologies, like John Jennings and Turtel Onli.
  • Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, a documentary from 1980 about the musician himself and his thoughts on life, death, and music, punctuated by performances from the “Arkestra.”

Sources:
"Samuel R. Delany." Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 24, Gale, 1998. Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1603000116/BIC?u=dkpl&sid=BIC&xid=07078480. Accessed 29 Mar. 2018.

"Sun Ra." Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 60, Gale, 2007. Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1606003655/BIC?u=dkpl&sid=BIC&xid=898d3cb6. Accessed 30 Mar. 2018.

White, Jerry. "The Many Layers of Cauleen Smith." Black Film Review, vol. 8, no. 2, June 1994, p. 6. EBSCOhost, proxygsu-dep1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=9503312058&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism : The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. vol. First edition, Independent Publishers Group, 2013.