Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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Spooking

As it usually (and frequently) happens, I was looking for a gift for my brother’s birthday, and I ended up buying a few books for myself. I also found a suitable gift for the brother, so it’s all right.

And among the books I bought for myself there’s one that’s moving steadily to the top of the best books I read this year. I bought it from Amazon and I am happy of my purchase, but you can find it for free on the Project Gutenberg.

The book is called The Road to En-Dor, and it was written in 1919 by a former officer of the British army, Welshman E.H. Jones. The subtitle is suggestive…

BEING AN ACCOUNT OF HOW TWO PRISONERS OF WAR AT YOZGAD IN TURKEY WON THEIR WAY TO FREEDOM

It is the account of how Jones and RAF pilot C.W. Hill, both prisoners of the Turkish forces in a camp in the Altai mountains, set up a colossal spiritualist scam in order to bamboozle their guards and make good their escape.
It took them almost two years, and a lot of chutzpah.
Jones calls his fake medium ploy “spooking” and the made-up Spirit Guide he created with the help of Hill is, of course “The Spook”.

The book is written in a plain, straightforward tone and it does really sound like the reminiscences of someone that saw some pretty dark places, but got through it all, and now can talk about it.
Jones is a fine writer, the plot hatched around the ouija board is the sort of crazy that would be deemed implausible in a novel, and the succession of events feels like a very good adventure comedy-drama.
The BBC should do a series from this book.
Indeed, there is a screenplay, written in 2014 by Neil Gaiman and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) – but apparently nobody was interested in shooting the script.

This book ticks all the right boxes with me – it’s an adventure story, it’s set in the East and somewhat along the Silk Road, it’s set in the early 20th century. It features war (and little-known episodes of the Great war inparticular), danger, espionage, bravery, survival, the supernatural, stage magic and confidence games. And it’s a true story, narrated with the dry wit of a man from a more civilized time.
This is a perfect example of why I love history so much.


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Down the Ulamba river

I am reading C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, the classic 1935 adventure story that in 1951 was turned into a movie by John Huston, featuring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. I must have seen the film a thousand times, and it remains one of the all-time great romantic adventure films, but I had never read the original novel – nor was I particularly familiar with C.S. Forester’s other books. Sure, I saw a number of adaptations of his Hornblower stories, but I had never read any.

And I must say I am impressed by Forester’s narrative economy and skill in creating characters and bringing them alive on the page. The prose is lean and direct, the images vivid, and the psychology of the characters masterfully presented. The lot, with an almost total lack of artifice. This is entertainment, without any conceit or affectation, and yet it manages to be literature.
Really, I am surprised they don’t study this book in schools – and it really is a concise, fun master class in how to write an adventure story.

And the good news is, while I spent some of my hard-earned money for a copy of the novel, you can actually download an ebook edition for free, from this page.
I really recommend the novel – if you are a fan of the Bogart/Hepburn movie, doubly so.
And if you read it – or if you knew it already – tell me what you think of it in the comments.


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Storm Constantine (1956-2021)

I have just learned about the death of British fantasy writer Storm Constantine, popular for her Wraethtu stories and for her collaboration with Michael Moorcock on Silverheart. A strikingly original writer, I first encountered her work back in 1992, when I discovered the trade paperbacks of her first trilogy – The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire.
In a beautiful style reminiscent of some of Tanith Lee’s works, the Wraethtu Chronicles were ahead of their time, in tracing the future history of humanity’s slow but inescapable replacement by a new species of hermaphroditic beings, the titular Wraethtu.

The stories were rich of atmosphere and tackled a variety of ideas and situations not often seen in commercial fantasy – which probably explains why Constantine’s novels developed a sort of cult following.

Constantine would later expand the series (that also came to include a roleplaying game), exploring further aspects of her future history, finally launching a publishing house devoted to her works (including expanded versions of her earlier books) and those of other writers she supported.
She published other series – most notably the Grigori sequence – and she also wrote a number of essays on magic, including a few spellbooks.

Often described as a writer of “shadow fantasy”, Storm Constantine was an impressive writer, both for her bold ideas and her sophisticate style, and she was also that rarest of creatures, a fantasy writer that would have been perfectly at home in one of her imaginary worlds.
She’ll be sorely missed.


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A bit of pulp detection

One of the things that have helped me remain sane in the last few months is the weekly podcast I record with my friend Lucy.
It’s a simple thing, in Italian, that we started because we were isolating at home 500 kms apart, and were both feeling stressed – so we meet virtually once a week, and we talk about old horror movies. We would have done it anyway, as a way to keep a hold on our sanity, but then we said … why not turn it into a podcast?

So far we’ve discussed films new and old, from Carpenter’s The Fog to he classic post-apocalyptic Doomsday from 2008, and then Bride of Frankenstein and A Chinese Ghost Story, and so on and so forth. We have a pretty loose definition of horror, and we expand on SF, adventure, disaster movies, even comedies. We are currently about to record the 16th episode, and we are already working on the 17th.

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Dumarest #1: The Winds of Gath

Now, was this fast or what?
I started reading E.C. Tubb’s The Winds of Gath around lunchtime, and by tea time it was over. The novel is pretty slim – 240 pages, in fact, and it’s pretty fast reading, but all in all I’m well pleased, and I’ll go on reading the series as long as it manages to be this fun.

So, what’s this all about?

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The summer of Dumarest

Back when I was starting as a science fiction reader – as to say, in the late ’70s – I chanced upon an article in a magazine that basically quartered and killed E.C. Tubb and his Dumarest series. Cheap, repetitive, boring, bad bad bad. Oh, well, I took note and moved on – it’s not like there wasnt other stuff to read, right?

Fast forward to 2017 and the announcement that a TV series was in the works based on the Dumarest novels. Back then, a friend dropped on me the whole 33-books series, telling me it was a good opportunity for me to brush up on the plot before the series hit our screens.
The series never happened, I never read the books.

Then, this morning, two things happened.

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Two evenings with the Queen of Zamba

I have always loved Lyon Sprague De Camp’s books – both alone and in tandem with his pal Fletcher Pratt, both as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. De Camp & Pratt’s Castle of Iron was the very first fantasy I read, and then I tried to track down and read any book that had Lyon Sprague De Camp’s name on the cover.

This hunt for books was not helped by the fact that Italian SF/fantasy editors did not share my enthusiasm for Lyon Sprague De Camp’s work, or for him as a person – one of them actually celebrated De Camp’s death, and later would say that he “spat on the man’s grave”.
Because, you know, Lyon Sprague De Camp desecrated the purity of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Or something.
Wankers.

(full disclaimer – while I believe that Howard’s work at his best was impossible to emulate, and think De Camp’s Conan pastiches are well below par, I also believe that without De Camp’s work to keep Conan in print, Howard’s work today would be a niche interest for very few connoisseurs – like it happened to many other pulp writers)

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