Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Dark World

I have been pretty effusive with my praise for Paizo Publishing's Planet Stories imprint and its reprinting of some of the great pulp stories that are pretty much impossible to find in a decent condition. I've thrilled to C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett and looked forward to each new announcement of titles from Planet Stories. In my previous reviews of these books, I've talked about how they dance along the line between the stereotypical pulp and fine writing. Moore especially uses an exquisite writing style that separates her from the stereotype, evoking writers like Poe and Lovecraft while telling compelling stories about heroes and near-heroes dealing with threats both literally and figuratively unearthly. And because of their relationship, Moore cannot be discussed without Henry Kuttner eventually coming up as well.

Planet Stories has been thoughtful (I almost said "lucky") in their choices for reprints, but while Kuttner's the Dark World clearly has ties to Moore's work, it falls short of the standards that her stories have set for the publishing house. The Dark World has what could be a fascinating premise, that of "twins" from parallel universes switching bodies, and it goes a little way to develop the idea by twisting expectations around several times. The narrator of the story is Ganelon, a master of a parallel Earth where science has been only slightly developed but magic and legend hold sway. Mutations also affect the inhabitants of this other Earth such that werewolves and vampires are real and threaten the human population of the planet. Ganelon himself has a reputation as a ferocious warrior and oppressor of the lower classes as he consorts with the mutated species, but as the story opens, he has no recollection of who his history. Instead he remembers a life on our Earth as Edward bond, a veteran of World War II and relatively normal man. But as the story goes on he realizes that his enemies on the alternate Earth have switched him with the real Edward Bond, and now his allies have brought him back. It's not often in speculative fiction that a story is told from the point of view of the antagonist, but Kuttner takes this path in his story, with the caveat that Ganelon spends a great deal of time torn between which persona he really is. And when both sides of the battle between mutations and humans seek to use him as a pawn, the conflict is established: Ganelon has the unique opportunity to decide who he wants to be, both in name and in action. The Dark World follows his decisions and his actions to a somewhat satisfying if a little clichéd conclusion.

The weakness of The Dark World is not so much in the plot, but in the writing style. All of the stereotypes seem to come to life in Kuttner's ham-handed writing, such that one wonders if he was paid extra for each exclamation point. Looking back at his wife and writing partner, C. L. Moore, it's important to remember that she allowed her storytelling to build tension, and her fine craftsmanship is revealed in the haunting descriptive passages and the events that take place in them. Kuttner is not telling the exact same kind of story that Moore does, but there is plenty of room for descriptive work and mood-setting. Instead, the mood is set by repetitious acts of shock and awe, usually unwieldy two or three word sentences that serve to distract more than to compel. And while Moore's characters sometimes rise above the stereotypes and clichés that repel readers from pulp speculative fiction, Kuttner's never do; his women are there for adornment and the threat or promise of incipient evil or overwhelming good. Moore's Jirel of Joiry is deeply complex in comparison to Kuttner's Medea and Arles. But then, Kuttner's male characters don't possess tremendous depth either. Of course, space was limited in the original publications of these stories so development is difficult. It's unfortunate that the Dark World suffers so, especially in comparison with the other samples that Planet Stories has made available.

The Dark World is an entertaining, if fluffy, read. It falls just short of the line that other pulp reprints from Planet Stories cross, failing to show that the writing from that time was capable of rising above the stereotype of escapist literature. There's nothing wrong with escapism, but if I am going to pay extra to dig back into the archives that Planet Stories offers, I want a little something for the effort beyond the standard fare.

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