Between Two Fires: A Girl, a Knight, and a Priest in a France Gone Literally to Hell

I’d never heard of Christopher Buehlman but I won’t forget him after Between Two Fires. The novel was recommended by a library coworker, and the blurbs describe it as a blend of historical fiction, horror, and fantasy, which are the genres I mostly read. It’s mostly the former two (with a dash of fantasy), taking place in medieval France taken over by the Black Plague and Hell itself. Think Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant — hostile lands in dark times traveled by characters seeking some personal redemption — and you have an idea of what you’re getting into.

When I say that Hell has come to earth, I mean that literally and quite graphically. The devils have decided to test God and see how much shit they can get away with, and so they punish the world with famine, war, and bubonic plague. People are dying everywhere, societies collapse, and to feed yourself you’re lucky if you can cobble together some grass, worms, and acorn paste. But it’s how the devils use France as their dramatic playground that yields some utterly profane and shocking scenes. I’ll get to those in a moment.

The main characters are three — a young girl (Delphine), a knight (Thomas), and a priest (Matthieu) — who make a 500-mile journey from northern France to Avignon, so the girl can meet the pope for some mysterious purpose. [Historical note: Avignon was the seat of the papacy from 1309-1376. The novel is set in 1348.] Delphine can’t reveal her purpose, but the priest trusts her and the knight feels protective of her. As a character she’s not always compelling; she seems more like an avatar than a real person, since angels speak to her and she’s apparently the spiritual key to whatever may thwart the devils on earth. It’s the knight and priest who feel real, in all their sordid flaws. Thomas is sort of like Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones, but more refined, in the way he’s become an outlaw doing bad things, but has a slow turnaround when he meets his “Arya” (Delphine) and becomes her guardian, but can hardly utter a kind word to her. Father Matthieu, meanwhile, is a sodomite consumed with guilt, and a genuinely nice guy. One of the these two men will die on the road to Avignon (there’s a sort-of spoiler for you), and frankly it’s a wonder that any of them, including the girl, makes it to their destination.

For there are threats everywhere, most of them life-threatening. The countryside is ravaged, and the villages, towns, and cities full of desperate and vile people. (See map to the left where I trace their trek from Normandy to Provence, “S” (start) to “F” (finish).) It’s a two-month journey from August to October, five hundred miles of redundant starvation, sickness, piles of corpses, mistrust, betrayal, and — worst of all — snares set by devils who attack in unexpected ways. The devil confrontations are worth detailing, and I will now examine them, but if you haven’t read the book you may wish to stop here. Major spoilers follow.

The Castle: When the Revelers Start Reveling

The first is the snare set in Normandy by the devil Belphegor. Having departed the awful village of Rochelle-la-Blanche (where starving mobs kill each other over a religious relic), our trio spot a castle on a distant hill, with an open drawbridge and men-at-arms patrolling the walls. Wondering if the plague has somehow spared this place, they check it out — despite the warnings of Delphine, who refuses to enter. To the reader, that’s an obvious cue, but I probably would have done as Thomas and Matthieu do, had I been starving. The two men are invited in for a banquet of unbelievable food, music, dance, and sex; and a night tournament to cap it off, in which Thomas jousts.

The castle interior a phantasmagoric “paradise”, where Thomas and Matthieu begin by feeding their faces from courses like these:

Pastries in the form of a small tower were shared out until a breach formed that revealed, within the tower, a painted almond-paste statue of a nude woman tied to a stake amid “flames” of crystallized honey and ginger that were to be broken off and sucked. Fruits and cheeses came next, served in bowls painted with images of men and women copulating. Then the main course: a huge platter piled with venison and other exotic meats, and several boats of garlicky brown gravy. Peacock and pheasant feather accented it artfully, and topping it were three large roasted monkeys sitting on cedar thrones, wearing capes of ermine. They wore golden crowns, which the cook, a man with narrow eyes and very long fingers, proudly tipped back, letting steam rise from their open skulls, into which he placed elegant spoons.

The monkey brains and spoons evoke the famous scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but there is nothing cartoonish in the way this unfolds, and the lure of the nightmare is impossible to resist.

The lord of the castle is described as a “stunted but ferocious leonine man with little black eyes” and it’s obvious there’s something off about him from the get (he’s really the devil Belphegor). When one of the castle knights cracks a homophobic joke, the hurdy-gurdy player joins in the laughter and momentarily stops turning his handle. The lord rounds on him:

“Did I tell you to stop playing? Your job is to keep the plague out of this castle, not stand there and laugh at our jokes like they’re meant for you to hear. Turn that goddamned thing. And make it pretty. Or I’ll break your hands. Is there anything sadder than a hurdy-gurdy player with broken hands? Maybe a Jew who sneezes at the sight of gold.”

A few pages later, the lord makes good on his promise, seizing the hurdy-gurdy’s hands and smashing them with a pewter mug. The festivities proceed as if in a David Lynch film, and after fucking one of the castle ladies — who stinks of “garlic, fecundity, and rot” — Thomas realizes the castle is literally from Hell. He and Matthieu continue as a willing participants though, and I suppose one can hardly blame them.

Paris: When the Saints Come Knocking

The next diabolical attack comes in Paris. It sort of reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village, in which forest creatures come knocking at night and splash red paint on the home doors of the villagers. In this case, those who come knocking don’t always stop at the door, and they would rather draw blood and kill than throw paint around for a few scares. Thomas, Matthieu, and Delphine are taken in as guests in the shop/home of a woodcarver named Jehan, and his sweet wife Annette who practically wants to adopt Delphine on the spot. She doesn’t get the chance. Both man and wife pay dearly for sheltering their guests when an animated statue of the Virgin comes knocking the following night, in a truly terrifying scene:

The door opened on a six-foot statue of the Holy Virgin with a high crown, holding a scepter in one hand. But where the Holy Infant should have been cradled in the other, her stone hand held the ankle of an infant who dangled upside down with the purplish skin of a plague victim. He had been dead for some time. Flies buzzed around them. His milky eyes saw nothing. And yet he opened his mouth and cried.

“Help my baby,” the statue said, its mouth moving jerkily. It ducked its crown and stepped into the room with the sound of a millstone grinding, and everyone recoiled from it. Now it flung the infant at Thomas so hard it knocked him backward. Delphine gaped at it; when it moved, it somehow seemed like a statue seen in glimpses; it moved fast, but choppily. It was impossible.

The fight was awful. It was hard to see in the near-darkness of the candlelit workshop. Delphine shook her head, trying to wake up from what couldn’t be happening. The unholy Virgin had Annette by the arm. The arm broke. The Virgin bit something off her face and spat it at Jehan. Then it stove her head in with its scepter.

“No!” Delphine tried to scream, but it came out like a kitten’s mew.

Matthieu pulled Delphine behind him, saying a Pater Noster, but she looked around his robes. Thomas had flipped his sword, holding it near the point, bludgeoning the living statue, making sparks and chipping at it, but he could not stop it. It wanted the woodcarver now. Jehan’s mallet knocked a point off the crown, but then it lowered its head like a bull and gored him against the wall, again and again, shaking the building with the force of it.

Thomas, Matthieu, and Delphine barely manage to escape the fate of their hosts, with the Virgin-parody croaking after them, “You didn’t help the baby.” (Said she who just threw the goddamn baby like a rock.) As they flee Paris they are accosted by many more statues — “saints, kings, and apostles, their limbs and faces spattered with blood” — and poor Saint Paul has been co-opted in quite an obscene manner: “holding his stone book in one hand, and, with the other, dangling a limp boy-child aloft by the head as if the saint were being fellated.” The apostle then unloads a deluge of shocking vulgarity on Matthieu, mocking the priest’s lustful desires, and it’s amusing to imagine what the historical apostle would make of this.

Auxerre: When the Dead Start Rising

The trio eventually come to Auxerre, where the devil Raum and a German boy are stirring up mobs with incendiary preaching and obscene miracles. Everywhere this preacher duo come to (they began their itinerary in Germany), they convince the town to crucify one of their citizens in order to appease God. The boy, to me, is one of the novel’s most entertaining (and tragic) characters, and his accent has a lot to do with it:

He was quite credible as the herald to a prophet, with his eyes of northern ocean blue and his dimpled smile. Even his German accent, normally a hindrance in these xenophobic times, lent him an air of exoticism; after all, if some holy cure were to come to Auxerre, it would not come from Burgundy. Why not the piney forests of the north?

“Wait!” he said, capturing his audience with an up-pointed finger and a theatrical tilt to his head. “I believes I hear them. But perhaps you will hear them, too, if you make der Alleluia.”

Nobody spoke.

“Children of Gott, make der ALLELUIA!”

“ALLELUIA!” they cried, and a drum began to beat a simple march.

And with that, a mob of self-flagellating Penitents appears, marching up the street into view:

Threescore farmers, carpenters, wives, and daughters who had all been converted by the beautiful boy. They were naked from the waist up, like the boy, all wearing simple skirts that had once been white but had been marched in and bled on until they were the color of earth and as stiff as leather. The crowd gasped at the sight of them; the women’s bare breasts, the old blood drying, the new blood trickling. Some of the Auxerrois even fell to their knees wailing, thinking Judgment Day had come, here, now, and soon Christ himself would split the sky and part the damned from the saved.

The preacher’s miracle follows. He calls himself Rutger and looks like a muscular Saxon, but he’s really the devil Raum. He beats his drum faster until the Penitents “bloodied themselves with their whips and branches in time to the rhythm, ending in an orgiastic frenzy that actually sprayed droplets into the crowd”. The madness catches on, and makes more Penitents on the spot, and then Rutger raises a man from the dead — a perverted Lazarus-like resurrection that’s more like reanimation, since the corpse comes back with an evil mind. At this point Delphine makes a surprising intervention, revealing power that she has, by kissing the man and returning him to death. She also kisses the preacher-boy (who had been a victim of the plague in Germany until “raised” by Rutger), and he too is granted the mercy of release. Rutger is furious and things get even more nasty.

Avignon: When the Pope Speaks

At first I was worried that the papacy was going to be caricatured, and my bowels almost burst when Pope Clement VI reversed his historical attitude towards Jewish people. In two papal bulls, Clement had condemned attacks on the Jews and exonerated them from causing the Black Plague, and while in the novel that is acknowledged, Clement now retracts those bulls, declaring:

“Our late words in defense of a certain quarter were, we now believe, in error. Many men, wiser men than we once thought, have said that we cannot drive the rat [Muslim] from the granary while the mouse [Jew] steals in the pantry. I tell those of you who wear crowns to ready yourselves and your kingdoms in secret; soon we shall recall our bull Sicut Judaeis, in defense of the Hebrew race, and issue another which shall grant any Christian whatsoever the right to turn his hand against any Jew, and to take from such whatever goods he desires, even his house and chattel. Very soon now, from the feast day of Saint Martin of Tours [Nov 12], the murder of the Hebrew shall no more be a sin than the hunt of a stag.”

Sicut Judaeis was the bull issued by Calixtus II over two centuries earlier, in 1120, in response to the slaughter of Jews during the First Crusade (1096-99). The bull stated that the Jews are not analogs to the Muslims; they are God’s chosen and thus Christians are forbidden, on pain of excommunication, from harming Jews, forcing them to convert, taking their property, and disturbing their festivals. This bull was reaffirmed by countless popes all the way through the 15th century, including Clement VI. In Buehlman’s fiction, however, Clement plans to nullify that bull and his own two recent bulls, as he summons a perverted form of a crusade. I thought this was a cheap shot — that the author was trying to malign Clement VI, or he just didn’t know his facts — until I realized how stupid I was being. For this isn’t the real Clement, of course, but a devil impersonator; the devil this time being Beelzebub, the worst of the lot.

Beelzebub’s agenda is to incite hatred and violence against the Jews from the chair of St. Peter, and he keeps a plantation across the river in Villeneuve where animated corpses toil in the vineyards, making wine that causes people fall under his spell when he speaks.

The Apocalypse: When the Lord Gives Answer

The devils’ war in heaven and on earth finally breaks out at Avignon, ignited when the real Clement is rescued from his imprisonment (by Delphine) and confronts the false Clement. Literally all Hell breaks loose, and God responds by sending his angels led by Zephon, Uriel, and Michael. It’s a climax of (again, literally) biblical proportions, and a most satisfying scene involves Thomas splitting the false Clements’s head down the middle. The fly-head of Beelzebub grows and replaces it immediately, and at this point I was thinking more than ever that Between Two Fires needs to be made into a film.

I can’t finish without addressing Thomas’s fate. Not only does he go through hell (figuratively) all throughout the story (his legs are broken at one point and he is tortured close to death), and gets a taste of Hell in the places described above, he goes to Hell for real when he dies in the apocalyptic showdown. Aside from Dante’s Inferno, I’ve not read a more compelling view of the afterlife of the damned:

He went from one torment to another, starting with bodily pain and going on to heartbreak. He was skinned and then made to drag his skin behind him, and then made to sew his skin back on himself, with the dirt and gravel it had picked up now under it. He was shredded slowly, crammed with thorns and made to eject them, crowded in with naked thongs and scalded, made to fight for cool water or a glimpse of sky, and when they saw that he liked fighting, they made him fight again and again for everything, for years, until even his rage was broken, and he wept and succumbed when confronted. He was murdered and betrayed by those he loved, and then made to murder and betray them, then desecrate them, cannibalize them, regurgitate them.

Nothing was left out. No weakness was overlooked.

For pride in his strength he was made a plaything. For his carnality he was rendered sexless.

He was made to live each oath he’d spoken, no matter how ridiculous, lapping Christ’s wounds, drowned with Christ in shit, boiled in Mary’s sour milk, sodomized by the cocks of the Apostles, until he had been stripped of his capacity for laughter or even the capacity to disbelieve the outrageous. They took his humor from him not because they themselves were humorless — they most certainly were not — but because it so offended them that man had been given this too.

Hell was mutable and hard, banal and shocking, painful and numbing, burning and frozen, but mostly it was real.

Hell was real.

I don’t know that Hell is real, and I tend to doubt it. But if it is, and if it’s anything like what’s presented in Between Two Fires, then God help me and probably us all.

Verdict

Between Two Fires is one of those novels you’ve never heard of and wonder why. Buehlman has an arresting imagination, and he can write, unlike many novelists who make the bestseller lists. I’ll surely read the book again at some point. It’s a bleak story but not nihilistic; there’s a redemptive arc suggesting a glimmer of hope in a world where disaster and evil too often get the upper hand.

Rating: 8 ½ stars out of 10

Would Mr. Tumnus have been a rapist?

Probably. Our recycled myths tend to handle kids with kid gloves.

The picture on the right was posted in a Reddit thread — a supposed Tolkien quote that’s been paraphrased second-hand. I like it though, and it may as well have been written by Tolkien. He didn’t like sanitized myths and thought children were made of sterner stuff. It was one of his many problems with Narnia.

The quote comes from Joe Christopher in Mythlore, and the article may be read here. Another helpful article is Josh Long’s “Disparaging Narnia” (2013), the preview of which may be read here:

It is well-known that Tolkien disliked The Chronicles of Narnia, but what were his reasons? They appear to be complex and manifold. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we have only one (published) statement from Tolkien on the matter, and it remains ambiguous at best. Writing in 1964, he observes, “It is sad that ‘Narnia’ and all that part of C.S.L.’s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his” (Letters 352). This tells us almost nothing. My intention in this article is to come to terms with why Tolkien disliked Narnia. Many reasons have been offered, but it is not always easy to separate the facts from the fancy; more often than not, the lines between the two have been blurred. I will begin by reconsidering the secondhand accounts of Roger Lancelyn Green, Nan C.L. Scott, and George Sayer; Tolkien evidently told each of them at different times why he disliked Narnia. Second, I will defend Humphrey Carpenter’s accounts in Tolkien and The Inklings, although several scholars have called them into question. Finally, I wish to introduce and analyze an unpublished letter in which Tolkien briefly discusses Narnia.

The most well-known secondhand account is certainly Green’s. In 1974, he published a joint biography with Walter Hooper entitled C.S. Lewis: A Biography. In it, Green recalls that after Lewis had shared the opening chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with Tolkien, “who had disliked it intensely,” Lewis then read it to Green. Shortly after, Tolkien saw Green and remarked, “I hear you’ve been reading Jack’s [Lewis’s] children’s story. It really won’t do, you know! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun’. Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?” (qtd. in Green and Hooper 241). (1) Green provides no explanation of what Tolkien meant; however, this has not prevented critics from interpreting Tolkien’s comment.

Joe R. Christopher observes that Nymphs and their Ways is one of the books which appears on Mr. Tumnus’s bookcase in Chapter II of The Lion. According to Christopher, Tolkien was bothered by this scene because Lewis was distorting and sentimentalizing the myth (“Narnian Exile” 41). He suggests, “[I]f Lucy had really met a faun–that is, a satyr–the result would have been a rape, not a tea party” (Christopher, C.S. Lewis 111). Hence, the reason Tolkien alludes to The Love-life of a Faun–a book that doesn’t actually appear on Mr. Tumnus’s bookcase but is absurd all the same. In short, Lewis failed to maintain the mythical archetype of fauns as lustful.

Christopher’s argument had established that Tolkien’s dislike of Narnia evolved in stages, first against Lewis’s distorted/sentimentalized mythology in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second against the allegory of the Narnian series as a whole. Long’s article considers Christopher’s argument, and also those of Green, Scott, and Sayer, to argue more comprehensively, that Tolkien disliked Narnia for many reasons, especially these:

  • Lewis wasn’t a serious world-builder, and often incompetent in using mythical archetypes. Tumnus is indeed a good example of this. A faun meeting a little girl wouldn’t have been a pleasant encounter as it is in Lewis’s story.
  • Lewis was into allegory, but myth has more to offer than that.
  • Lewis cranked out his stories fast and the result shows — they have a superficial feel to them.
  • Lewis actually borrowed a lot from Tolkien.

Long supports these contentions from things said by Tolkien himself, and the article is worth going through.

As for Mr. Tumnus, it might be a fun project to try rewriting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and make it more Tolkien-friendly. Though I doubt it’s possible. Too much needs reworking; it would probably end up killing the patient.

 

James Maliszewski’s List of Imaginary Settings

Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski lists his favorite imaginary settings, whether they are RPG worlds or strictly literary ones. You can read his commentary in the first post (numbers 10-6) and the second post (numbers 5-1), which add up to the following ranking:

1. The Third Imperium
2. Tekumel
3. Glorantha
4. Lankhmar
5. Zothique
6. The Dying Earth
7. The Hyborian Age
8. The Known Worlds of Fading Suns
9. Barsoom
10. Middle Earth

James got me thinking about my own favorite settings, and I’ve ranked them below. Seven have been designed specifically for RPGs, and one of them (#4) has inspired an RPG setting, so, like James, my heart is clearly game oriented when I think of alternate worlds.

1. Middle-Earth. Of course it’s my favorite: the world of Tolkien’s source material and also how it was developed in ICE’s gaming modules. Those modules (published from 1982-1999) weren’t made for D&D specifically, but I had no trouble adapting them. There’s a lot about Middle-Earth that sails over the casual reader’s head. It’s grounded in the “long defeat” theme — the ultimate powerlessness of good over evil — meaning that when good does triumph it’s a just holding action; worse is to come. Magic is subdued in this world, and (after the First Age anyway), the gods seldom involve themselves directly. The lands are in a constant state of fading, or “lowering” their fantasy context with the passage of time. It’s the most genius imaginary creation, with cultures, languages, and history so detailed it doesn’t seem like fantasy; and in fact it was intended by Tolkien as a prehistory to our own world and so it resonates with a realism that’s hard to come by in high fantasy. The folks at ICE fleshed out Tolkien’s labors with scholarship of their own, especially in exploring lands to the south, and it was a sad day for me when Tolkien Enterprise took away their license.

2. Tekumel. I’m new to this setting, coming to it just this year under a grim cloud: the exposure of M.A.R. Barker’s neo-Nazi beliefs. It seems too bizarre to be true. Barker studied for a long time in India, converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad, and became of a Professor of South Asian Languages. He created Tekumel, the first gaming world not based on a European white setting. It’s populated by brown people and their cultures are based on Middle-Eastern and Eastern models. How on earth could this guy be a white supremacist? But then looking into it more, I saw that it’s not as surprising as you might imagine, considering the strong link between Islam and Nazi Germany’s war. In any case, I’ve never had a problem separating artists from their socio-political views; I wouldn’t be able to appreciate much art if I did. And Barker was a genius. After only months of pouring over the Tekumel setting, I join Maliszewski unreservedly in calling it the second best imaginary setting of all time. Like Middle-Earth, it’s detailed and complex, especially regarding the cultures and languages. It’s basically a Middle-Earth grounded in Indian, Middle-Eastern, and Meso-American mythologies.

3. Mystara. I always played AD&D, not Basic, but I liked the setting for Basic much better than Greyhawk. The Isle of Dread was the first module I read in full and prepared as a DM (not Keep on the Borderlands, which was the first module I played under the DM’ing of a friend), and so for me, Mystara, or the “Known World”, was there from the start; it was my official D&D sandbox. When the gazetteers started coming out, I was in hog heaven. The nations are medieval European analogs of our own world and so it feels real: the Thyatian Empire = the Byzantine, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos = southeastern Europe, the Principalities of Glantri = western Europe ruled by wizard-princes, the Ethengar Khanate = the Mongols, the Republic of Darokin = the mercantile states of medieval Italy, the Emirates of Ylaruam = the Middle East, the Northern Reaches of Ostland/Vestland/Soderfjord = Scandinavia, plus regions for the dwarves, elves, and halflings. There’s nothing artificial about it like Greyhawk, and I still consider Mystara the most ideal setting for D&D campaigns.

4. Averoigne. If Elric of Melniboné is the best pulp fantasy hero, the world of Averoigne is the best pulp fantasy setting. I’ve known Averoigne primarily through the D&D module Castle Amber. As a teen way back in 1981, I went there as a mage, and had to keep my spells under wraps lest I fell prey to the inquisition. In the module Averoigne is lifted right from the stories of Clark Ashton Smith: a province in a parallel world similar to medieval France, but where magic is real and considered to be an evil pagan practice. Clerics (priests and bishops) don’t cast spells, and spell casters in general are viewed with suspicion and subject to arrest by the church authorities. It’s an analog of the province of Auvergne in particular, with the capital Vyones standing for Clermont (where the First Crusade was preached), Ximes for St. Flour, etc. Of course, Smith wrote his stories long before D&D was a thing, between 1930-1941, but he may as well have been gazing into the late ’70s and early ’80s. Averoigne is practically a blueprint for a D&D campaign setting, and I can’t stress enough how inspiring Smith’s tales are. I’ve read some of them many times — The Holiness of Azédarac, The Beast of Averoigne, and The Maker of Gargoyles being my top favorites.

5. The Land. It’s not the most D&D-friendly setting, but The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were a milestone for me. By rights, this entry probably deserves to be higher, considering the impact on my imagination in my formative years, second only to Middle-Earth. Especially the Second Chronicles. The First established a vibrant Land with natural magic — Earthpower everywhere, in the trees, rivers, hills, and stone. In the second trilogy, Donaldson nuked the Land we love so dearly, with one of the most creative and nasty evils I’ve read in a work of fiction: the Sunbane, a corruption of Earthpower, affected by blood sacrifice, inflicting the Land with 3-day cycles of (a) a desert sun (evaporating all water and vegetation everywhere for three days), (b) a fertile sun (causing vegetation to grow fast, but the vegetation is in tortured pain), (c) a rain sun (causing relentless cold and windy storms), and (d) a pestilent sun (causing rot and decay, water to go bad, and swarms of poison insects to attack). How Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery manage to heal the Land is among the most epic tales of fantasy literature.

6. Newhon. Though I agree with Maliszewski that Lankhmar City is its crown jewel, the entire world of Newhon inspires me. I love the City of Ghouls, and the Sinking Lands in particular, and have used variants of the latter in more than one setting. But there’s no denying the primacy of Lankhmar, the greatest city ever imagined in any work of fantasy — a vile cesspit, corrupt at every level, a place where you have to worry about being backstabbed (literally and figuratively) at every turn. I was delighted when TSR began publishing the Lankhmar resources in the mid-’80s, especially since this was a turbulent time when Dragonlance was changing the face of D&D for the worse. I dreamed a lot about Nehwon as a teen, and being sent on the same kind of ludicrous missions Fafhrd and Mouser suffered under their wizard patrons, Ningauble and Sheelba. Even though Elric is the supreme pulp hero, and Averoigne the best pulp setting, it’s Newhon that most aligns with the D&D universe as conceived by Gary Gygax; the tales of Fafhrd and Mouser have a D&D feel to them that’s unmatched by other pulp tales (including even Conan).

7. The Third Imperium. I’m not big on sci-fic, but Traveler is like old-school D&D — gritty, not glitzy. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”; adventures typically involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me of Traveller, and their spaceship is very Traveller-esque.) The space world has lawless frontiers (like the Spinward Marches and Solomani Rim), where authorities are distant and corrupt. And it’s damn perilous. There are no healing potions or rods of resurrection. When you engage combat, you feel that you’re risking your life for good. Hell, you can actually die as you are rolling up a character — before even beginning to play the game — the only RPG I know of that has this mechanism in place. As for Traveller’s setting, The Third Imperium is as vast and unending as you’d imagine the universe, and I’m in awe of its design.

8. Athas. Launched the year I stopped playing D&D for a long time (1991), The Dark Sun products are among the few decencies of the 2e period, superb in fact, set on a planet so saturated with Dune overtones you expect sandworms to appear. Athas is a land of ecological disaster, constant thirst, grinding poverty, and like most dying worlds has a history reaching back to a glorious age now forever out of reach. In this sense it’s reminiscent of Middle-Earth’s long defeat and foreordained passing, but even more depressing for its lack of deities; there are no Valar equivalents to assist, however obliquely, in keeping the tide of evil at bay. Druids draw their power from elemental forces, and wizards use magic at their own risk. It’s a world where halflings are cannibals, heroes are almost unheard of, and sorcerer-kings hold city-states under complete tyranny. The modules are railroady as hell (as everything was in the ’90s). but the setting itself is brilliantly conceived.

9. The Lands of Dus. I dare say there are many grognards who haven’t heard of, let alone read, the Lords of Dus novels. Even in my day they were an obscurity, a sword-and-sorcery series in the vein of the early pulps. It was especially the second novel, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, that was classic D&D come to life. The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, and the world he inhabits is like those of the pulps: decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards. The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the night), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death). Garth’s mission is to rob these temples, and he causes a shitload of suffering for doing that, not least because he sets off a new era of war. In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented “brutal fantasy”, but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and brought them into high fantasy. There’s a lot I miss about those stripped down worlds of the pulps that told straightforward stories, unencumbered by epic ambitions, and the Lands of Dus is by far the most underrated of those imaginative worlds.

10. The post-apocalyptic America of Gamma World. I can’t exclude this one. Gamma World was the only sci-fic RPG I had any use for besides Traveller. Its vision of a post-apocalyptic United States was basically the Dark Ages of Our Future — a vision born in the ’80s, during the Reagan era when everyone worried about nuclear holocaust. But what raises this setting above other post-apocalyptic worlds is that the apocalypse is so far into future (the 24th century, 2322 AD), which allows the pre-apocalyptic world to be just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with as much mystery and wonder for players as it is for player characters. (PCs start adventuring in 2450, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe out.) It’s a global sandbox like classic D&D settings, in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts — the kind of America I thrilled to playing in, with a film like The Road Warrior being so popular in the ’80s.

RIP, Peter Straub

A sad day for me: we’ve lost Peter Straub. He wasn’t as popular as Stephen King, and many readers found him too literary and cerebral, but I always thought him the superior writer. He was a joy to correspond with. RIP, Peter.

I’m reposting my ranking of Straub’s novels. If you’ve never given Straub a try, it’s never too late.

throat1. The Throat, 1993. 5+ stars. I’ve read this thing six times. It’s the final piece to the Blue Rose Trilogy, Straub’s masterpiece of meta-fiction that deals with murder and secrets and how crimes of the past hold the present in a vise. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories actually have nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Tim Underhill is a thoroughly intimate character, his world (both inner and outer) suffused with an organic realism few novels achieve. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. Religious rites of cannibalism. The specter of Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing. Only Lord of the Rings and Shogun have affected me more deeply.

lost boy lost girl2. Lost Boy, Lost Girl, 2003. 5+ stars. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so terrified by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run away. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.

shadowland23. Shadowland, 1980. 5 stars. The best of the early period isn’t Ghost Story. It’s Shadowland, and it holds up gorgeously. But I forgot how Straub plagiarized the magic-user spells of Dungeons & Dragons to a tee. Tom and Del are taught to fly and water-breathe. Tom takes a sleigh-ride over an arctic hallucinatory terrain. A school bully is magic jarred and transformed into the hideous Collector. Del’s girlfriend Rose was created stone to flesh from a statue. How could I have forgotten this? On the other hand, I do remember Tom getting a hand-job from Rose, as they fall in love and betray Del. I certainly remember Tom getting crucified. When he frees himself of the nails by pushing his hands forward (his hands incarnations of pain), I hurt in every atom of my being. Shadowland is about a punishing education on a fairy-ground. The magician takes in the kids on pretext of grooming one of them (whoever can prove the better) to be his successor, but he really wants to kill them both, and needs to make them rebel against him so he can rob their talents with impunity. At heart it’s the tragedy of a broken friendship and doomed romance. Del is killed, shapechanged into a glass sparrow, and Rose leaves Tom for a water-world, to escape her feeling of walking on knives. Tom grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. The final pages are as heartbreaking as the Grey Havens — and I don’t make that comparison lightly.

mystery4. Mystery, 1990. 5 stars. This novel is so well crafted to qualify as lasting literature, the kind you imagine Cliff Notes for. As the middle book of the Blue Rose trilogy, it examines how harms of the past eat into the present. What Koko set the stage for, and The Throat exposed every membrane of, Mystery runs parallel with a coming of age story. It’s set in the ’60s, and introduces the character of Tom Pasmore, a young boy who is almost killed when hit by a car (this happened to Straub in his youth, and the autobiographical fingerprints are evident). In recovery he becomes obsessed with solving mysteries, and is mentored by an elderly Sherlock Holmes figure who is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show. Tom becomes a natural mystery-solver but gets in over his head when he insists on finding a killer close to home. The settings are inspired: a Caribbean island, where destitute natives are ruled over by white aristocrats who play by their own rules; and a lakeside residence in Wisconsin, where said aristocrats spend their summers — and where vile deeds play out. Mystery is about a teen learning life’s hard truths. Besides mystery, there’s romance; and loss. And people brimming with ugliness under the facades Straub portrays so well.

hellfire5. The Hellfire Club, 1996. 5 stars. Most of Straub’s serial killers work off-stage, but Dick Dart leads in the spotlight, and he’s by far the most theatrical character Straub ever wrote. He regales his captive with obscene wisdom, rapes her repeatedly, but also enables her to break away from her ineffectual husband. This quasi-Stockholm drama is framed around a string of murders from the past that steamroll into the present, and Nora is caught between Hell and Hades — her in-laws and Dart, each who want to suppress the secrets of a stolen manuscript for different reasons. Shorelands is one of the most inspired settings I’ve read in a work of fiction, a writer’s colony seething with fascist history and secrets unveiled as lies and half-truths. It becomes Dick Dart’s playground for the final act which is so depraved I always go back and read it twice. The Hellfire Club basically inverts the conceit of Mystery: Alden Chancel is a carbon-copy of Glendenning Upshaw, but instead of the positive role model of Lamont von Heilitz, there is now the diabolical “mentor” Dick Dart, who like Heilitz empowers the novel’s protagonist to go against a corrupt white-collar top dog. Nora is resolved to do justice to victims long dead, and she’s  a heroine nailed just right by a male author; a woman friend of mine testifies strongly to this.

the-talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. There’s a special place in my heart for The Talisman, and not just because I’m a sucker for parallel worlds. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of Iowa, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. What King and Straub produced is amazing in both story and style. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, like the melodramatic obscurity. It’s never clear why Speedy, Farren and others can’t tell Jack things that would help him — this isn’t a world like the Land, where the danger of unearned knowledge is woven into the fabric of reality. But the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise outstanding tale of a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos.

koko7. Koko, 1988. 4 ½ stars. Straub calls this his best novel, and I can understand why. “It was a very difficult book to write, but somewhere in the middle I saw that I had raised my game and felt as though I had reached a new level. I’ve never wanted to feel as though I was working at a lower level than I was in Koko.” It was his breakaway from the horror genre and completely on his own terms. It took me a few years to give it a try, because I’d assumed he was drying up like Stephen King. (After Misery in 1987, King went completely downhill.) But he was getting better — and Koko blew me away. I read it in ’91, a month before joining the Peace Corps, which turned out to be a bit creepy, since in my host country “koko” is what you say when you knock on a door. Koko was fresh in my mind when I learned this, and my head filled with crazy images of Basotho serial killers who announced their intentions by knocking. Straub’s killer did no such courtesy. The story is about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold It’s a brilliant novel, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. I completely respect Straub’s reasons for calling it his best, but I think those are mostly writer’s reasons. The fact is that he’s done even better — the top five on this list.

ghost story8. Ghost Story, 1979. 4 ½ stars. Many will object to it placing this low. Stephen King pronounced it the best horror novel of the ’70s that trailed the classics Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other. He was humble, because that accolade goes to his ‘Salem’s Lot. And it’s not often I compare King and Straub with the former coming out ahead. Straub is usually the better writer. But ‘Salem’s Lot is a mighty work, and Ghost Story stands in its shadow. To be fair, Straub acknowledges this: “I wanted to work on a large canvas. Salem’s Lot showed me how to do this without getting lost among a lot of minor characters.” Both novels deal with small towns under siege from the supernatural. In each town, the arrival of a writer triggers the calamity. The writer in each case becomes closely involved with a young teen and takes on a parental role as the kid’s life ends up ruined. Don’t mistake me, I love Ghost Story and am not dismissing it as derivative. King reinvented vampires, while Straub wrote ghosts who adopt the motives and souls of people who witness them. It’s certainly the most polished novel in the Straub canon (aside from perhaps Mystery), and a classic for good reason. It falls at the bottom of my 4 ½ category for the simple reason that it ultimately feels like Peter Straub beating someone else’s drum.

BlackHouseHC9. Black House, 2001. 4 stars. The sequel to The Talisman is the most difficult to rank. The writing on display is brilliant; the plot an ultimate let-down. The town dynamics of French Landing are as irresistible as ‘Salem’s Lot; the other-worldly dynamics, however, involve not only the Territories, but King’s Dark Tower series which is problematic. Then there is Jack Sawyer, now an adult and ex-homicide detective who is caught up in a string of pedophile killings. But he’s one of many point-of-view characters — unlike in The Talisman, which showed almost everything through his eyes — and this results in a narrative which is all over the map. Ironically, this turns out a strength as much a weakness, because Jack’s point of view is the least compelling; the Dark Tower baggage comes in his chapters. In the shoes of other characters, we’re treated to some of the most engaging sequences you’ll find in any novel. The mystery of “the Fisherman” — who cannibalizes children and leaves their half eaten corpses displayed in hen-houses and abandoned shops — and the discovery of the repulsive Black House concealed in a haunted wood, drive incredibly powerful scenes. Black House is so well written (even better than The Talisman), with a poetic and morbid humor that’s mesmerizing, that even the most trivial characters come vivaciously alive. I love reading this book; I’m deflated by what’s really going on behind the Black House.

in the night room10. In the Night Room, 2004.  4 stars. This one pushes bold ideas. Some might say questionable ideas, and admittedly there are points where Straub’s reach exceeds his grasp. But it works for the most part. We learn that Lost Boy, Lost Girl is a novel Tim Underhill wrote to cope with his nephew’s murder: in the story Mark explores a haunted house and bonds with the ghost of a girl who had been abused, raped and killed by her father. The novel left open the question of Mark’s fate. On one reading, he and the girl-ghost escape to a peaceful otherworld where they heal each others wounds; on another, he was abducted and killed by a real-life psychopath. In the Night Room makes clear that the latter is true. But it’s not realistic revisionism. Things get even more wild. It turns out that the ghost of Joseph Kalendar is enraged at Underhill: he didn’t in fact kill his daughter as his novel suggests. (Though he did abuse her horribly.) Tim must acknowledge the mercy Kalendar showed his daughter by sending her away to a foster home, but also the price she paid for this mercy trying to grow up sane. Meanwhile, Underhill falls in love with a woman fated to die in order to appease demonic powers. In the Night Room reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s Legion, his thoughtful sequel to The Exorcist. Each trails a brilliant horror piece and explores how forces on “the other side” retaliate when pissed off.

julia11. Julia, 1975. 3 ½ stars. This one holds up surprisingly well for a first effort. The narrative is simple and straight-forward, but more engaging than the complexities of Floating Dragon and A Dark Matter — proof that convoluted plots aren’t necessary for a good story. Julia is a clear product of the ’70s, with the kind of subtle scares we don’t see much anymore. It’s about the spirit of a long dead child, who is suddenly able to manifest in the house where she was killed, when another woman moves in. This woman (Julia) killed her own daughter recently, and is married to the same man who sired the other girl. These connections empower the spirit of the dead girl, who strongly resembles the other girl, so it’s unclear which girl is out for revenge until certain things come to light. There’s a dreamy Gothic feel, with the cruel husband and his manipulative sister, but never feeling cliche. The scene where Julia meets the other woman in the mental hospital still unnerves me after all these years. (“Get out of here, Mrs. Shit.”) Julia shouts the potential of a fledgling author and foreshadows the mightier Ghost Story. To think I was in first grade when it was published.

mr x12. Mr. X, 1999. 3 ½ stars. It shows off style at the expense of story, but the ideas are so fun that Straub can at least partly get away with it. The best part is the Lovecraft theme, found in the chapters narrated by Mr. X, who devotes his serial-murders to the Elder Gods and Far-flung Entities. He believes that his son will be the agent of his own destruction, but it turns out he has two sons, which brings in a doppelganger theme. This has been a bone of contention among readers, because while it’s a neat idea it’s handled confusingly throughout the story, as for that matter is the entire nature of Ned’s family. Moreover, when Ned is accused of crimes he didn’t commit, the drama should be more intense than it is, and it probably would have been if the author wasn’t so busy enjoying the sound of his voice. Mr. X is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, forcing reams of creativity into a crazy-8 narrative… but damned if I wasn’t turning pages and admiring the mess. It’s refreshing to see Cthulhu mythology supplanting the tired formula of anti-Christs. It’s safe to say that Mr. X will please hard-core Straub fans like myself for whom the cerebral style and weird ideas compensate significantly for the misassembled story crying for a ruthless editor.

if you could see me now13. If You Could See Me Now, 1977. 3 stars. Into the good-but-nothing-memorable category falls If You Could See Me Now. I enjoyed reading it today as I did long ago, but it’s nothing I’d go out of my way to recommend. Miles Teagarden is a detached character and hard to warm to, but his story proceeds apace. In the prologue his thirteen-year old self is in a Wisconsin town, where he makes a promise to his fourteen-year old cousin with whom he is infatuated: in twenty years time, no matter where they are in life, they will return to this town and meet. After so swearing, they go skinny-dipping in an abandoned quarry. Something happens in that quarry. The novel begins years later, with Miles holding up his end of the vow and expecting Alison to do the same, even though she’s long dead. On the one hand, her death is presented later as a grand reveal; on the other, it’s fairly obvious from the get. These features seem subtly intended, and indeed complement rather than oppose each other, since the narrative is more arresting if the reader “knows” Alison is dead if not entirely sure. Miles must face memories about what happened in the quarry on top of now being a suspect in a new set of murders. If Julia foreshadows Ghost Story, this novel anticipates the Blue Rose Trilogy, with themes of obscured memories and past violence, even if it involves the supernatural.

floating dragon14. Floating Dragon, 1983. 2 stars. Floating Dragon is to It as Ghost Story is to ‘Salem’s Lot. The difference being that King’s novel followed Straub’s in this case, the commonality being that he did it better than Straub as before. The novel’s chief liability is its stale characters. But the It-like formula is a problem too. (It is a pretty good novel but hasn’t aged well.) The pattern seems tired. Sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces; cyclical evil which only a small group of locals can defeat; cumbersome back-stories; confused plotting. The “floating dragon” is a gas leaked from the Defense Department, and the supernatural element is never clear. The gas causes people to go insane, hallucinate, and their bodies to liquefy (there are some admittedly memorable dissolving scenes I’ll never forget). Because people are losing their minds, it could be that the supernatural is in fact psychological, but there’s no real interplay between the real and surreal forces, and so the story feels underdeveloped. The final act is trite for an author of Straub’s talents, and the worst conclusion of any of his stories. Floating Dragon does score for the nasty gas effects, but not much else.

dark_matter15. A Dark Matter, 2010. 2 stars. In which nothing matters. It’s a go-nowhere novel that offers scarce intrigue, repetitions of the same event with trivial variations, and characters less impressive than Floating Dragon‘s. Spencer Mallon himself being the worst offender. When your villain is less intimidating than Lassie, that’s a fail. The crying shame is that this could have been a good story. I like the premise of an apocalyptic guru: “Like every other phony sage and prophet wandering through campuses in the mid- to late sixties, Spencer Mallon promised an end to time and a new apocalypse; unlike most of the others, he admitted that the end of time might last only a moment, or take place only in the throwing open of a mental window. I hate the man, but I have to respect this evidence of what feels to me like wisdom. If not wisdom, a conscience.” This fraud gathers a group of students in a field one night for a mysterious rite; one of the students is savaged and killed, and another disappears forever. The other students carry scars into adulthood, and the novel consists solely of these (rather uninteresting) adult student survivors taking turns at recalling the night’s horror. But nothing scary emerges, quite frankly, and in the end there’s just not enough story to warrant 400 pages.

The Targaryen Kings Ranked

House of the Dragon starts this weekend, and in preparation I’ve been going through the Targaryen histories presented in The World of Ice and Fire and Fire and Blood. The kings are a colorful lot, and I rank all seventeen of them. (In the TV series we’ll get the fifth and sixth kings, Viserys I and Aegon II, neither of whom score very well on my list.) I rank them similarly to the way I ranked the U.S. presidents, not on the basis of how likeable or mean they were, rather on how good or bad they were for the Seven Kingdoms. With the presidents, I used categories of peace, prosperity, and liberty, and here I operate similarly, with peace, prosperity, and justice, since the concept of “liberty” doesn’t make much sense in the feudal world of Westeros (unless perhaps you’re a Wildling).

1. Jaehaerys I, 4th king. Excellent.
2. Aegon V, 15th king. Very good.
3. Viserys II, 10th king. Very good.
4. Daeron II, 12th king. Very good.
5. Aegon III, 7th king. Good.
6. Jaehaerys II, 16th king. Good.
7. Maekar I, 14th king. Average.
8. Aegon 1, 1st king. Average.
9. Viserys I, 5th king. Poor.
10. Maegor I, 3rd king. Poor.
11. Aerys I, 13th king. Bad.
12. Baelor I, 9th king. Bad.
13. Aenys I, 2nd king. Bad.
14. Daeron I, 8th king. Very bad.
15. Aegon II, 6th king. Very bad.
16. Aegon IV, 11th king. Atrocious.
17. Aerys II, 17th king. Atrocious.

1. Jaehaerys I, the Conciliator (4th King, 48-103 AC). Rating: Excellent. United the Seven Kingdoms and started a golden age.

If only the Targaryens could have cloned this guy. He had the longest reign of any Targaryen king, and those fifty-five years were chock full of peace, prosperity, and justice. Westeros became a near paradise, thanks to the king’s fair and level-headed policies, not to mention his progressive ambitions. He improved infrastructure dramatically, with new networks of roads. He created a unified code of law for all the Seven Kingdoms. This was arguably both good and bad — bad because locals lost some autonomy, but mostly good, since many of the local customs were barbaric. His sister-wife, Queen Alysanne, ruled at his side and was also widely loved. She persuaded him to outlaw the practice of First Night, whereby a male noble could claim the right to have sex with any man’s wife on the first night of their marriage (if the man was of lesser rank). Jaehaerys disarmed the Faith Militant, forbidding the clergy weapons, and worked hard to heal the schism between crown and faith that had threatened the kingdom’s fabric since the Targaryen conquest. He appointed a new High Septon who preached the doctrine of exceptionalism (that incest is an abomination for the Andal peoples, but it’s okay for the Targaryens of Valyrian stock). Thanks to this evangelical campaign, the people of Westeros came to accept Targaryen incest, removing an eternal threat of rebellion. When Jaehaerys died, “Westeros mourned, and it was claimed that even in Dorne men wept and women tore their garments in lament for a king who had been so just and good. His ashes were interred with that of Good Queen Alysanne, beneath the Red Keep. And the realm never saw their like again.” (WoIaF, p 65)

2. Aegon V, the Unlikely (15th King, 233-259 AC). Rating: Very Good. Gave rights to the peasants and was adored by them.

Known to many of us as “Egg” (from The Tales of Dunk and Egg), Aegon came to feel a kinship with the peasantry during his career as a boy squire. He traveled the realm like this, disguised as a commoner, during the reigns of Daeron II, Aerys I, and his father Maekar I. His major takeaway from those travels was the plight of the peasants, and how to navigate squabbles among petty lords. As soon as he became king he launched reform after reform to improve the lives of commoners: raising taxes on aristocrats, and punishing lords who abused their peasants. On whole this was a stunning mark of progress in Westeros. Aegon V took cues from his grandfather Daeron II (see #4 below), in putting diplomacy above military might. He gets a bad rap for the lousy economy during his reign (thanks to drought), but he at least tried to address the issue (unlike Aerys I, who all but ignored the problem of drought in his reign). He also had a bad image among nobles who felt they lost too much power over the peasantry. But this is to Aegon’s credit; rulers who are willing to suffer unpopularity for doing the right thing should be commended. Virtually all of the peasant rights and protections would be undone by Tywin Lannister, the Hand of King under Aerys the Mad (see #17 below), but for a few decades at least, under Aegon V and Jaehaerys II (see #6 below), the commoners of Westeros enjoyed remarkable freedoms for a feudal society. Aegon is also famous in how he died: trying to bring dragons back to life by hatching the last surviving dragon eggs. This resulted in the tragedy of Summerhall — a mysterious fire erupted, destroying most of the castle and killing the king.

3. Viserys II (10th King, 171-172 AC). Rating: Very Good. Did more in a single year than the best kings do in ten.

He reigned for only a year but showed enough potential to be a new Conciliator even better than Jaehaerys I. Ruling came natural to him, since he had served as the Hand for the three previous kings — Aegon III, Daeron I, and Baelor I. Those latter two were quite bad, and it was Viserys who moderated the worst of their obsessions, almost single-handedly keeping the realm from falling apart. As king he went full progressive, reforming the law codes that Jaehaerys I established. He founded a new royal mint and expanded trade with Essos, skyrocketing Westeros into prosperity. He died suddenly from illness, but many believe that he was poisoned by his son and successor, Aegon IV (see #16 below), which I think rather likely.

4. Daeron II, the Good (12th King, 184-209 AC). Rating: Very Good. Made peace with Dorne and brought it into the realm. At home put down a civil war mercifully.

Unlike the first Daeron in every way (see #14 below), he was no warrior but a skilled diplomat, and exactly what was needed to mend the fences broken by his terrible predecessor Aegon IV (see #16 below). He gave the court a full-fledged enema, flushing away Aegon IV’s corruption, and removing incompetent people from their positions. Also opposite Daeron I, the second Daeron succeeded in bringing Dorne into the realm — not by belligerence, war, or occupation but peaceful diplomacy. He didn’t have many warriors on his court, preferring maesters, septons, and singers. Needless to say, this earned him enemies, as many of the warrior elite disdained intellectualism and preferred the sword to the pen. So they threw their support behind Daeron’s half-brother Daemon Blackfyre (a bastard of Aegon IV who had been legitimized by Aegon) which ignited a civil war, to which Daeron responded most effectively — crushing the rebellion with the help of the Dornish. He was merciful in victory, accepting the defeated lords back into the king’s peace instead of punishing them as some of his advisors urged.

5. Aegon III, the Dragonbane (7th King, 131-157 AC). Rating: Good. Hated kingship but kept the realm stable.

He isn’t remembered kindly, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad king, and in fact he was better than most on this list. After the civil war of the Dance of Dragons (129-131 AC, see #15 below), Aegon III established the much needed peace. It’s true he wasn’t warm. He was traumatized by the Dance of Dragons and the slaughter of so many family members, including his mother Rhaenyra, the rightful queen, who was roasted to death before his eyes. He was young, didn’t court the nobles, hated kingship, and (largely to his credit) cared more about the common people than his lords. But sometimes those who are thrust into unwanted leadership roles end up doing better than others would, precisely by not being too activist. Like Jaehaerys II (at #6 below), Aegon III ranks high because he didn’t fuck things up. For a twenty-six year reign, that’s a success story. The worst thing about him is that he didn’t like dragons or try to prevent their passing, though there wasn’t much he could have done to stop that. There were only four dragons left at the start of his reign, thanks to Aegon II (see #15 below); by 153 AC all of them were dead, and the world wouldn’t see any more until Danaerys a century and a half later. What matters most is that Aegon III’s rule was long, stable, and peaceful. That’s what people want, especially after a nasty civil war.

6. Jaehaerys II (16th King, 259-262 AC). Rating: Good. Defeated the last of the Blackfyre rebels. Reconciled the great houses to the Iron Throne.

Most remember him for the War of the Ninepenny Kings — the fifth and final Blackfyre rebellion — which Jaehaerys halted on the Stepstones before the rebels could set foot on Westeros. Also in his favor, though arguably a mixed bag, is the reconciliation he brought about between nobles and the crown. The nobles had come to resent the Iron Throne since Aegon V enacted reforms that hugely favored the common people (see #2 above). Jaehaerys kept most of these reforms alive (it was Tywin Lannister under Aerys the Mad King who would eradicate them), while massaging some of the rough edges, and doing other things for nobles to balance the pro-peasant law codes. Aside from that, he places this high on my list because nothing bad happened during his reign. For any king, especially a Targaryen king, that’s a good show.

7. Maekar I (14th King, 221-233 AC). Rating: Average. Didn’t do much, but didn’t do harm.

Maekar gets a pass because he didn’t fuck things up, which in itself is very commendable for a Targaryen king. He was a warrior at heart but never started any wars and for the most part presided over a period of peace (in between the Second and Third Blackfyre Rebellions under Aerys I, and the Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion under Aegon V). When he fought, it was defensively, as in the Peake Rebellion, in which he was killed. There’s not much to know about Maekar, and when there’s not much to know about a king, he’s in all likelihood pretty much okay.

8. Aegon I, the Conqueror (1st King, 1-37 AC). Rating: Average. Founded the Seven Kingdoms by conquest.

The most famous Targaryen king is difficult to rank. On the one hand, wars of conquest are hardly admirable. On the other hand, his invasion of Westeros ended the permanent state of war that had existed in the Seven Kingdoms for ages. Aegon’s conquest can probably be esteemed like other wars of unification in which the ends barely justify the means. After the conquest he pursued a pointless bloody conflict with Dorne for many years (4-13 AC). He did nothing to actually unify the realm besides subjecting it to his rule. (The real task of unification was left to the 4th king, Jaehaerys (see #1).) Aegon was similar to his descendant Danaerys of three centuries later: “bend the knee to me or die”. When provoked, he was ruthless like Danaerys, incinerating Harrenhal as she would later do to King’s Landing. But he genuinely cared for his subjects (like Dany did for the slaves of Mereen), and tried to navigate conflict by being politic, especially with the lords of the Seven Kingdoms and the clerics of the Faith. Ultimately, he was better than Dany, because for all her positives, Dany was tainted by the madness of her father Aerys II, which got the better of her in the end.

9. Viserys I (5th King, 103-129 AC). Rating: PoorPresided over the best period in Targaryen history, while seeding it with civil war, the decline of his house, and the death of the last of the dragons.

I’ve seen rankings that put this guy pretty high, on grounds that his reign was peaceful and prosperous, and that the Targaryens were at the height of their power during these twenty-six years. (There were more dragons at this time than ever before.) While all of that is true, the credit for it goes entirely to his predecessor Jaehaerys I (see #1). Viserys inherited a great realm, and on the surface he maintained it, but without doing anything to ensure those blessings would continue — and indeed doing enough to ensure they would not. He avoided war and bloodshed, but did a terrible job as a leader and failed to secure the line of succession. He broke precedent by insisting on his daughter Rhaenyra as his heir, which fueled endless factionalism. While upholding his choice of Rhaenyra, he never did it forcefully enough, and people ran over him left and right. The result was the worst civil war in Targaryen history — the Dance of Dragons — which broke out after his death when his son Aegon usurped the throne (see #15 below). In fairness, there are some things to commend in Viserys’ rule. He was generous and open-handed. But he basically wanted to be everyone’s friend, which a king can’t afford to do, especially in his situation.

10. Maegor I, the Cruel (3rd King, 42-48 AC). Rating: Poor. Cruel and sadistic, but did what needed doing against the Faith Militant.

This one will also be controversial, for the opposite reason of Viserys I. Most rankers put Maegor somewhere in the bottom three, casting him as a bloodthirsty tyrant who craved violence. I read him a bit differently. That he was a sadist is beyond doubt. The question is to what degree that impacted his kingship and made the realm suffer. One thing should be cleared up: his so-called overzealous treatment of the Faith Militant. When it came to the clergy, Maegor did exactly what needed doing, especially after the ineptitude of Aenys I (see #13 below). His conflict with the Faith was a war, and his actions and atrocities against the Faith were no worse than the actions of almost any king in most wars. For that matter, there were far more atrocities under Aegon’s conquest than Maegor’s war against the clergy. (Maegor never pulled an equivalent of the Burning of Harrenhal or the Field of Fire.) He smashed the Faith Militant as they deserved. His cruelty had more to do with the way he treated rebel lords — over-punishing lords who did wrong — though at least they were actually doing wrong. He also occasionally punished the innocent, like when he killed all the craftsmen involved in the building of the Red Keep (so that only he would know the Keep’s secret passageways). Maegor I ranks at #10 mostly for securing the Targaryen hold in Westeros after Aenys almost lost it. If you steered clear of him, you might think him a good king to have. If you worked in his circle, or if you were an artisan of the Red Keep, or if you were one of the many ladies he raped and disfigured, well, then you’d rightly wish him dead.

11. Aerys I (13th King, 209-221 AC). Rating: Bad. Kept his head in books while his Hand created a police state.

The bookworm king was always reading; always a book in his hand about philosophy and deep mysteries, when he should have been reading up on military strategies and how to improve trade and address disasters like plague. The Blackfyres (the legitimized bastards of Aegon IV, see #16 below) took advantage of his weakness and staged not one, but two rebellions during his reign (the Second and Third Blackfyre Rebellions). The Greyjoys also rebelled against the Iron Throne. There was drought that drove hordes of people into banditry and lawlessness. Aerys dealt with all these problems by avoidance — by giving his Hand, Brynden Rivers, virtual autonomy. He deserves a large amount of credit for this, as Rivers swiftly putting down the rebellions, but Rivers was also a tyrant, installing a police state in Westeros that made people terrified of the Hand’s “thousand eyes and one”; people distrusted their neighbors for fear of spies. Aerys I ranks at #11 for not taking his office seriously, poorly managing the economy, and failing to address crime and banditry properly instead relying on a tyrannical police state.

12. Baelor I, the Blessed (9th King, 161-171 AC). Rating: Bad. Shoved religion down everyone’s throat to the detriment of the realm.

The most pious Targaryen to sit the Iron Throne is proof that you should never put a religious zealot in power. To his credit he cleaned up Daeron I’s mess by making peace with Dorne. Though he did this in a lunatic way, by walking to Sunspear barefoot; and when the Dornishmen refused to free Aemon the Dragonknight, Baelor rescued him personally by walking through a viper nest — believing that the vipers would not harm a religiously devout man like himself. He was bitten twelve times for his convictions and forced to lie in bed for months. Traumatized by the event, he grew increasingly mad, and locked away his sisters so that no men could have sex with them. He took a septon’s vows of chastity (which threatened the line of succession) and obsessed spiritual matters even more, shoving affairs of state to the periphery. He tried to outlaw prostitution and prosecuted whores (and even the whores’ children), exiling them from King’s Landing to horrible fates. He gave tax exemptions to fathers who made their daughters wear chastity belts. He turned the city into beggars by giving out free bread to everyone. He pissed off nobles by forcing them into publicly pious acts, like washing the feet of lepers. Thankfully he killed himself — unintentionally, by starvation, when he chose to fast for 40 days and 40 nights, in order to cleanse himself of lust — and the realm was saved from many more years of fanaticism. His very able Hand became Viserys II (see #3), and a very good king, if for only a single year.

13. Aenys I (2nd King, 37-42 AC). Rating: Bad. Thoroughly indecisive.

This guy wasn’t made for kingship or affairs of state. He was a daydreamer and lost himself in hobbies — singing, mummery, and mimes. He craved approval (a bad trait in a king), and was frequently paralyzed by indecision for not wanting to disappoint one side or another. In the wake of Aegon the Conqueror, there were rebellions that needed putting down — in the Riverlands, the Vale, the Iron Islands, and Dorne. Instead of either putting them down or negotiating a settlement, Aenys dithered and made bad situations worse. He left problems for his advisers to solve. Eventually the Faith Militant rose up and besieged the Red Keep, when Aenys refused to abandon the Targaryen practice of incest — the one issue he had the balls to stand firm on. But he lost his balls when the Faith attacked the Keep; he fled like a coward to Dragonstone where his Aunt Visenya advised him to respond to the Faith with the fire and blood they deserved. Aenys refused to do that, and died soon after. (He may have been poisoned by Visenya, who wanted her son Maegor on the throne.) Aenys I ranks at #13 as a thoroughly ineffectual king who came close to losing the realm.

14. Daeron I, the Young Dragon (8th King, 157-161 AC). Rating: Very Bad. Started a pointless war to prove to himself that he was super-human, and got tens of thousands of people killed.

He faced the challenges of the new post-dragon era in the way of boy-kings who think themselves invincible. He was 14 when he took the throne, and right away hell-bent on “completing the conquest” that Aegon I never finished: he would bring Dorne into the realm. When reminded by his councilors that there were no more dragons (the last dragons died in the reign of his predecessor Aegon III, see #5 above), Daeron was undaunted, replying, “You have a dragon. He stands before you.” People died for that ego. The boy-king conquered Dorne for a brief moment, until the Dornish rose up and overthrew everything he accomplished. The death toll on both sides totaled about a hundred thousand, and it was all for vain dreams of glory. What made this so reprehensible wasn’t just the fact that the Targaryens lacked the might to take Dorne (without dragons), but that Dorne wasn’t even an enemy at this point. The Young Dragon got what he deserved: in the fourth year of his reign, he went to discuss terms with the Dornishmen after they murdered Lord Tyrell, and was treacherously attacked and killed under a peace banner. Can’t say I blame Dorne, even for treachery, and good riddance to this sword-happy fool who spared the realm more catastrophe by dying after only four years.

15. Aegon II, the Usurper (6th King, 129-131 AC). Rating: Very Bad. Started a devastating civil war by claiming a crown that wasn’t his, and having zero competence to rule.

This worthless twit was the son of Viserys I (see #9) but not the king’s designated heir; that was Aegon’s half-sister Rhaenyra. No matter. Incited by his mother Alicent Hightower and the knight Criston Cole — and by his pathetic sense of entitlement — he usurped the crown on Viserys’ death and started the worst civil war in history, the infamous Dance of the Dragons. Thoroughly incompetent in matters of state, he left most of the governing to governing to Criston Cole. Meanwhile his brother Aemond One-Eye fanned the civil war flames by pursuing outrageous vendettas. He and Aemond attacked his aunt Rhaenys during the war and killed her, though the king was burned by dragonfire and maimed in the process; he had to recover for almost a year and a half on Dragonstone while Aemond carried on as regent. Eventually he murdered his half-sister Rhaenyra (right in front of her son, the soon-to-be Aegon III, see #5 above) by commanding his dragon to roast her. As a huge northern army descended on King’s Landing, Aegon was thankfully murdered — poisoned by his own councilors —  before he could fuck things up even more and turn Westeros into a wasteland. Aegon II ranks this low for torpedoing the Targaryen legacy (dragons would soon go extinct) and bringing utter ruin down on the realm.

16. Aegon IV, the Unworthy (11th King, 172-184 AC). Rating: Atrocious. Ruled badly on purpose, through rank cronyism.

How this fat toxic piece of shit didn’t start any immediate wars is beyond me, but he certainly made future wars inevitable — the five Blackfyre Rebellions of 196, 212, 219, 236, and 260 — by legitimizing all his bastards. And he had bastards up the wazoo. Lust and gluttony ruled him, and while those vices don’t necessarily a bad king make (Robert Baratheon was lustful and gluttonous and a rather average king), they do when they are directly the cause of misrule. Aegon IV filled his court with undeserving fools who had no skills other than to amuse him, flatter him, or satiate him in bed. When he grew increasingly fat he ended up forcing himself on the ladies. Some chronicles say he slept with over 900 women. He’s known as the Unworthy, but “King Rape” would be just as fitting. He stole from one house and gave to another purely on whims, doing more than any other king to misrule the realm through cronyism — selling offices to flatterers and dimwits, and wreaking 100% havoc on the political fabric of Westeros. Again, it’s amazing that this didn’t lead to any immediate wars. George Martin says that Aegon IV was the worst Targaryen king, and I give the author’s opinion its proper due. But I say the worst has to be…

17. Aerys II, the Mad King (17th King, 262-283 AC). Rating: Atrocious. Caused the end of the Targaryen dynasty. Wanted the world to burn and everyone to die.

Seriously. What can I say about the Mad King that hasn’t been said throughout the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire? The singular good thing he did was make Tywin Lannister his Hand, which brought immense prosperity to the realm, not to mention that Tywin often rescued the realm from Aerys’ stupidities. (Though Tywin also stripped peasants of their rights codified into law under Aegon V, which was bad.) Aside from that, Aerys was completely insane and cruel. He wiped out houses for perceived slights, usually imagined. He alienated the realm out of obsessive paranoia. He manufactured a dispute with the Iron Bank of Braavos. He began to fulfill his sexual desires by watching people burn to death, and by randomly torturing and killing people. He tried to murder the entire city of King’s Landing, and allowed Rhaegar to kidnap Lynanna Stark, which ignited a realm-wide civil war. His madness was off the scales, and it finally caught up to him, leading to the downfall of House Targaryen. He’s easily the worst king by any standard.

Parallels Between My Novels and Stranger Things 3 and 4

There are strong parallels between Stranger Things 3 and 4, and and my fanfiction series. I wrote my stories with no knowledge at all of what would happen in those later seasons, so these similarities are striking to say the least.

1. El dumps Mike, at the engineering of Hopper. In the TV series (season 3, episodes 1 & 2), Hopper manipulates Mike, and also threatens him, in order to break up the relationship between him and Eleven. In my story, Hopper manipulates Eleven rather than Mike, in order to achieve the same goal. In each case the person being manipulated by Hopper doesn’t come clean: in the TV series, Mike starts avoiding El but lies about his reasons for doing so, to which she responds by “dumping his ass”. In my story, El tells Mike that she needs to break up with him, but won’t say why, which breaks his heart.

2. Dangers of the Void. In the TV series (season 3, episode 6), Mike warns Eleven of the dangers of communing with Billy in the Void. She has only tried this once before, when she accessed the memories of her mother in season 2 (and her mother was a willing subject who wanted to show El what Dr. Brenner did to her). Sure enough, when El accesses Billy’s memories, he is able to latch onto her mind, and see where she is in Hopper’s cabin. In my story, El warns Hopper of the same dangers, when he wants her to access the memories of a comatose hospital victim. She tells her father that the victim may rebel against her intrusion or even die from shock. Sure enough, that almost happens; the victim’s monitors bleep momentarily, though she doesn’t end up dying.

3. El loses her psychic powers, thanks to a creature of the Upside Down. In the TV series (season 3, episode 8), El loses her powers after a piece of the Mind Flayer gets in her leg. In my story, she loses her powers for two days (January 22-24, 1987), when she’s snared on the shadow tree and injected with anti-psychic sap.

4. El leaves Hawkins for the West Coast. In the TV series (season 3, episode 8), Joyce moves out of Hawkins, taking Will, Jonathan, and El to California (in October 1985). In my story, Hopper leaves Hawkins with El (in April 1987), when he takes a job as Sheriff of Yamhill County in Oregon.

5. D&D game. In the TV series (season 4, episode 1), there is a new dungeon-master (Eddie Munson), who puts a lot of players through a killer module. All the PCs are killed, except for Dustin and newcomer Erica. Dustin screws up, and newcomer Erica completes the quest. In my story, there is a new dungeon-master (Vijay Agarwal), who puts a lot of players through a killer module. All the PCs are killed, except for Dustin and newcomer Eleven. Dustin screws up, and newcomer Eleven completes the quest.

6. A major character assumed dead is alive and fighting like a gladiator. In the TV series (season 4, episode 7), Hopper is assumed dead, but is captive in a Russian prison and forced to fight a demogorgon in a “demo-pit” for the guards’ entertainment. In my story, Mike is assumed dead, but enslaved in the Upside Down and forced to fight shadow creatures, also like a gladiator, for the amusement of the Illithid.

7. Vecna. In the TV series (season 4, episodes 4 and 7), Max and Nancy are inflicted by a curse inspired by the figure of Vecna. In my story, Will and Mike are inflicted by a curse inspired by the figure of Vecna.

8. Speaking humanoid more powerful than the Mind Flayer. In the TV series (seasons 4 and 5), the Big Bad (Vecna) who rules the Upside Down is smaller than the Mind Flayer but more powerful, and he speaks. In my story, the Illithid rules the Upside Down; he too is humanoid sized and speaks.

9. A major character dies and is soon after resurrected. That character is also blinded and crippled. In the TV series (season 4, episode 9), Max is killed by Vecna through the creature’s process of blinding and disfigurement. Max is then resurrected by Eleven into a coma state; if she comes out of her coma in season 5, she will be disfigured and (presumably) blind. In my story, Mike is killed by the Illithid and then raised back to life by the same creature. Much later the creature forces him to tear out his own eyeballs, and it also cripples his leg.

10. The End of the World. In the TV series (season 4, episode 9), multiple gates open in Hawkins, initiating the apocalypse — the “beginning of the end of the world”, as Vecna calls it. In my story, multiples gates open in Hawkins, blooming out across Indiana and many other states, initiating a shadow apocalypse — or, as my novella is titled, the “World’s End”.

If You Could Live (or Relive) Two Years in the Past

Here’s an interesting exercise: If you could go back in time and live out two full years in America, any two years between 1913-1992, what would they be? In other words, sometime after all continental states were admitted to the union, but before the World Wide Web was made public. My years of choice are 1925 and 1973.

The Year 1925

The mid-twenties in general were a time to be alive. It was the ultimate decade of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Presidents Warren Harding (1921-23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) kept the nation out of war and needless costly foreign intervention. They raised the standard of living for millions. Technological advances and mass production made consumer goods affordable, and the spread of electrical power created a demand for appliances. Many people could buy cars, yielding a new world of paved roads and stores. New York became the largest city in the world, overtaking London. Child mortality rates dropped across the nation. Money was spent lavishly on public education. Women were now able to vote, giving the country 26 million new voters. People danced the nights away, to the latest music on radio. There was Prohibition, which was bad itself, but yielded the benefit of the black market with bootlegging and speakeasies; in effect the price of booze went way down. If there was a decade I could visit during the first half of the twentieth century, it would be the 20s hands down, and the particular year I choose is 1925.

Here are some of the note-worthies of 1925.

Great Books. Some say the greatest year for books was 1925. Books like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were hugely influential.

The First Motel. Hotels had been around since 1794, but the first motel opened in California in 1925, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It charged a rate of $1.25 per night. Motels hinted that car culture would soon take over the American way of life.

Gitlow v. New York. This year the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling: that the right of free speech protects a person from state interference as much as federal interference. The Court had previously held, in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), that the Constitution’s Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but Gitlow reversed that precedent and established that while the Bill of Rights was designed to limit the power of the federal government, the denial of these rights by a state government constitutes a denial of due process which is prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In this year the Court also held that children did not have to attend public schools. States that made such a requirement were acting unconstitutionally.

Scopes Monkey Trial. In the summer of 1925, the Scopes Trial was all the rage — staged deliberately to attract publicity. Tennessee upheld a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools, and fined Scopes $100, although the state supreme court overturned the ruling on a technicality. The nation would have to wait until 1968 for SCOTUS’s substantive ruling: that banning evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the bans are primarily religious. But the Scopes trial itself was a benchmark in forcing the question of whether or not evolution should be taught in public schools.

Weird Tales and Adventure (“The Camp-Fire”). The pulp magazines became wildly popular in the 20s. Weird Tales — still regarded today as the most important and influential of all fantasy magazines — had launched its first issue in 1923, and in 1925 began publishing an issue every month. Adventure Magazine, started back in 1910, had grown so popular by the 20s that its letters page, “The Camp-Fire” (not to be confused with the youth development organization by the same name, that also started in 1910), had become a major cultural phenomenon. The Camp-Fire featured editorials and fiery discussions about all sorts of topics, usually about whether or not the author had the right facts in his or her story. Historical accuracy, geographical accuracy, the kind of weapons the characters used — all of these and more were debated with passion. By 1924, a number of Camp-Fire Stations — locations where Adventure readers could hook up — were established across the U.S. and even in other countries. In 1925 one of the Camp-Fire’s most fiery debates was over the character of Julius Caesar. The writers often embellished their lives, reinvented themselves with outlandish fictions (even in their bio sketches); some were con artists. By 1925 Adventure was unquestionably the most important pulp magazine in the world, let alone the U.S. I’d love to live in 1925 as a subscriber to Weird Tales and Adventure, and as a Camp-Fire freak.

Drag Balls. The tradition of masquerade and civil balls (“drag balls”) goes back to 1869 in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of Prohibition, they were attracting thousands of people of different races and social classes—whether straight or gay. We tend to think of Stonewall (in 1969) as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but decades before that, Harlem’s drag balls were part of an LGBTQ nightlife-culture that gave us gay and lesbian enclaves. What fun. Only after the Depression would this libertine culture fall out of favor, as many would blame this cultural experimentation for the economic collapse.

The Year 1973

The early 70s were gloomy and nihilistic, but that’s what generated so much artistic creativity and cultural progress. Disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage coalesced in the ’60s aftermath, yielding introspection and existentialism. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. The dress and hair styles were awful, granted, but aside from that, it was a groovy period. The best year in particular is 1973. I was alive that year, but so tiny and young that I remember nothing about it. I’d love to go back and live out the year as an adult.

Here are the note-worthies of 1973:

The Exorcist. The best and scariest film of all time is released. I’d give anything to see this masterpiece on screen when everyone was fainting in the isle and running from the theaters.

The Godfather. The epic film wins Best Picture, becoming the new Citizen Kane.

Selling England by the Pound. The best album by the best band of all time. Or at least, Genesis was the best band while Peter Gabriel was involved.

Dark Side of the Moon. The most important album by the most important band of all time. Even if The Wall is Floyd’s best, Dark Side’s influence can’t be exaggerated.

All in the Family. The best episodes — meaning the most offensive and insanely hilarious ones — from the best TV sitcom of all time come from the late part of season 3 and the early part of season 4, which spanned the year of 1973: “Archie Goes Too Far”, “Archie Learns His Lesson”, “The Battle of the Month”, “We’re Having a Heat Wave”, “Henry’s Farewell”, “The Games Bunkers Play”, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig”, to name the very best episodes.

Abortion. Roe v. Wade was a problematic ruling, but the result was at least good, guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion.

The Paris Peace Accords. After 16 years, American involvement in the Vietnam War ended. Peace at last.

The War Powers Resolution. The congressional resolution (vetoed by Richard Nixon but then overridden) limits the president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions abroad. It states that “the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply” whenever the American armed forces are deployed overseas. Many presidents since then have failed to comply with this resolution, and for the worse.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association declares that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sickness, and removes from its manuals the listing of same-sex activity as a disorder.

The Endangered Species Act. The most comprehensive legislation enacted (in any nation) for the protection of endangered species.

Reading Roundup: 2021

This was a good year for books. Here are my ten picks. Most of them were published this year, but I was late catching up on others. Especially my #1 choice.

1. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Expanded Edition). Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography because porn “hurt” people — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were pandering to the inexcusable and retreating from their most important values. They haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian approaches. The results speak for themselves: offensive speech is a precious commodity. Full review here.

2. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. This novel started my new year and blew me away. (It would be at #1 if Kindly Inquisitors weren’t so goddamn perfect.) It blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas, and is a bit hard to summarize. Call it a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and an unsparing look at the mind of a serial killer. It’s about the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character is Walter Peach, who runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.

3. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. Critiques of postmodernism usually strawman their subject, but Pluckrose and Lindsay do right by it, allowing us to scorn postmodern theories with a clean conscience: theories saying that objective truth is unobtainable, and that the scientific method is overrated; that power and hierarchies are the number one evil; that words are powerful and dangerous, and language can be as harmful as physical violence. This stuff was always bonkers, but when applied to social justice agendas of the woke left it goes off the cliff, giving us Critical Race Theory (all whites are complicit in racism), Queer Theory (sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum), Postcolonial Theory (describing Islam as a religion of violence is hateful), Fat Studies (the desire to remedy obesity is hateful), and so on. The authors conclude that while racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and social injustices continue to be problems, postmodern theories are religious anti-solutions making the problems worse. The proper solutions lie where they always have — and where they have produced tangible positive results — namely, in classical liberalism. This is a perfect book to read in tandem with Kindly Inquisitors (#1), which the authors have clearly learned from. Full review here.

4. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. Dave Goulson, 2021. This is a strident plea to protect insects before they’re wiped out, and the planet along with them. The author (an entomologist and conservationist) explains how global insect populations are declining through habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, and climate change — and in some cases the decline is by as much as 75%. It continues to astonish me that many people don’t realize how critical pollination is. Nearly 90% of plant species require pollination in order to produce fruits or seeds, including most agricultural food crops, and while honeybees and bumblebees do most of the pollination legwork, other insects do too, like butterflies, wasps, and beetles. In some parts of the world farmers have to do the labor-intensive job of hand-pollinating their crops. Goulson calls for action to protect insects and rethink our heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We can help insect populations recover in a variety of ways: by reducing lawn space in favor of flowering plants, mowing grass less often, incorporating wide ranges of native plants into our gardens, and giving predatory insects a first crack at the problem that pesticides address. If we don’t want fruits and vegetables to become the food of kings — and for humanity to be reduced to eating wind-pollinated cereal grains — this is a book we’d do well to heed.

5. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. Carol Delaney, 2011. I’m not a fan of Columbus, and there’s certainly no reason to have a holiday in his name, but after reading this book I appreciate him more in the context of his time. He wasn’t a greedy colonizer but a zealous apocalyptic. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control. Columbus believed a crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a holy war. He also knew that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religious fervor that drove Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus was preparing the world for the Last Judgment, and acquiring the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade. Delaney is no apologist for Columbus, but she does show how he’s been over-maligned. At least he tried treating the Indians decently, unlike many of the men he led, and especially unlike the governors (Bobadilla, Ovando, etc.) who came after him. Full review here.

6. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan Rauch, 2021. The sequel to Kindly Inquisitors (see #1) addresses the major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts, from the populist right and elitist left. Rauch starts by showing how human beings are biologically and socially conditioned to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, and that our institutions of expertise tame those tribal urges through rigorous practices such as peer review and fact checking. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings. But recently there have been two particular forces seriously undermining the constitution of knowledge. The first is the nihilism of the internet, with its metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the alt-right a voice everywhere. Instead of banning ideas, the right swamps and swarms them with garbage to overwhelm people. The second is cancel culture, rooted in what Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes disagreeable or upsetting arguments as threats that need policing. His list of the dozen ways in which emotional safetyism poisons us is one of the best exposes on the subject. So is his seven-fold criteria of how to tell whether you’re being criticized or cancelled. The left has gone a long way in turning a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship. Full review here.

7. Sins of Empire. Brian McClellan, 2017. I gave this novel a try based on its reputation as a fantasy set in a world of guns and magic. The world evokes our Napoleonic era and there’s a mood to it unlike typical fantasy that feels like fresh air. I was hooked immediately by the three major characters. First is Michel Bravis, my favorite; he works for the secret police force and is an antihero, a coward who does everything in his power to obtain a promotion by kissing the asses of those above him. He’s my favorite character because of this; he’s so real and authentic. Second is Ben Styke, a legendary military veteran rotting in a labor camp until he gets pulled out and set on a course of action that he’s not really clear about. Finally there is Vlora, or Lady Flint, the general leading her company of Riflejacks mercenaries, who gets summoned to the city for a new contract, but quickly learns that nothing is safe or as it seems. It’s a good story and I look forward to the next two books when I have time for them. McClellan’s plotting is impressive, as he focuses on mysteries as much the usual fantasy tropes, and his self-serving characters are very entertaining. Fantasy novels don’t always have the most engaging characters, but Sins of Empire has plenty of them.

8. Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2021. Vilified for speaking truth and common sense, Hirsi Ali has now turned her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis. It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are vastly lower in some parts of the world than in others, especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy. In many parts of Europe now, women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women. The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from the Muslim world where such rights to women are not granted, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Muslim immigrants have a poor track record of assimilating to western culture even by the second or third generations. Islam’s demands are too absolute to allow for it. Hirsi Ali rejects right-wing populist solutions (expelling illegal immigrants and restricting Muslim immigration), and instead advocates a massive reform of the European systems of integrating immigrants, from which she herself has benefited. Full review here.

9. The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021. A novel-within-a-novel that focuses on the inner turmoil of the author, and kind of reminds me of Misery (no surprise that Stephen King loves it). Misery was about a guy who was forced to write the story he didn’t want. The Plot is about a guy who writes a story that’s not his. Jake is a third-rate novelist who steals a story from a former student now dead, becomes rich and famous for it, and then out of the blue gets trolled by an anonymous stalker and repeatedly called out for plagiarism. Panicked, he tries to uncover the person who is harassing him, and one bizarre twist leads to another. Turns out (major spoiler) that Jake stole a real-life story of a murder, and when he decides to rewrite his novel as a piece of true crime, he ends up in much deeper shit. I never read anything by Jean Korelitz before; she’s pretty good. But while The Plot is a cracking suspense novel, it’s also, I think, a serious mediation on — and rather unflattering look at — writers in general. Their egos, insecurities, vanities. At points I felt a bit naked reading it.

10. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. David Gessner, 2021. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was mostly a terrible president, but he did one thing for which we owe him a debt of gratitude: saving hundreds of millions of acres of land from being developed and despoiled. Gessner reminds us that the GOP was Teddy’s party, and that many of our most important environmental laws came from the Republican party, all the way up through the end of Nixon’s presidency. In fact I would argue that Teddy and Richard Nixon were the best pro-environmental presidents. (The GOP anti-environmental shift came with Reagan.) Yes, they were overall failures. Aside from Donald Trump, no president was so narcissist and drunk on his self-regard than Teddy Roosevelt; and also aside from Trump, no president so openly disdained the Constitution and claimed himself to be above the document like Teddy did. And Tricky Dick was a Constitutional crook. Yet we do owe these men gratitude for their environmental causes, Teddy for land preservation, Nixon for signing loads of progressive legislation. Gessner’s book is a tour of all the sites we can savor thanks to Teddy, and let’s hope these sites will be around for a long time to come.

The 50th Anniversary of the Nashua Public Library

This year the Nashua Public Library will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the months of November and December. The celebration will include an exhibit of library artifacts and a slideshow of photographs in the gallery, a banner and a special anniversary edition library card, and also special displays of material from the collection that were released in 1971 — books, films, music, TV series, and events. The library’s actual anniversary is September 26 (when the dedication ceremony took place), so technically the celebration should already be under way. So I’m doing my own personal homage to the library and the year 1971. Here’s looking back at what was happening that year: books that would leave their mark, like The Exorcist; rock ‘n roll masterpieces like Zeppelin IV; the debut of All in the Family and unprecedented political incorrectness. It turns out that 1971 was a critical year in many ways — it started the ’70s in the way 1983 started the ’80s — an important year (though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate most of it) and suitable moment to open a town library. There were shifts in the cultural milieu that would have lasting impact, and here are some of the highlights.

1. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. It started with the book in ’71, even if the film pushed it into infamy two years later. Not great literature by any means (unlike the film, which was a cinematic masterpiece), but Blatty presented demonic possession like no one has done since, and never scarier.

2. All in the Family, by Normal Lear. The best TV sitcom of all time hit its peak in ’73-’74 (the excellent third and fourth seasons), but it began on that fateful January in 1971 (you can watch the full premiere here), when Archie and Mike screamed at each other about racism over a Sunday brunch. The show would keep going to the tail end of the ’70s.

3. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. The 50th anniversary for this one has already been widely celebrated. It was a book ahead of its time, making its urgent plea for preservation and a clean environment, showing how species disappear when food runs out or pollution is left unchecked.

4. Led Zeppelin IV, by Led Zeppelin. Yeah, this one. The opening “Black Dog”, the medieval “Battle of Evermore” (my favorite), the epic “Stairway to Heaven”,  the ballad “Going to California”, and everything else… hard to believe this masterpiece has 50 years under its belt.

5. Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby. A morbid love affair between a suicidal teen and a 79-year old woman was widely panned at the time of its release, but today it’s much more appreciated it deserves. One of the darkest comedies ever made, and a fitting start to the ’70s era of creative cinema.

6. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin. In the middle of writing the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin released this sci-fic tale of a world racked by violence and environmental catastrophe. One man’s dreams controls the fate of humanity, and a psychiatrist manipulates those dreams for his own purposes. I’m reading this now and lamenting that we don’t have writers like this anymore.

7. Hell House, by Richard Matheson. Stephen King calls it the best haunted house story of all time. Perhaps. It’s about two previous expeditions to the awful house that ended up with the investigators killed or going insane, and now a new investigation is under way.

8. The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone. It may sound strange, but this book terrified me as a kid. My mother got for me about three years after publication. Hysterical images like these petrified the shit out of me and kept me awake at night. I dreaded the monster at the end, even knowing it was just Grover. The things that scare little kids.

9. The French Connection, by William Friedkin. Known for the infamous car chase that could have gotten people killed (it was shot illegally without Friedkin getting anyone’s permission, or without even closing off the streets), the film was a landmark shot in the “induced documentary” style that put Friedkin on the map.

10. Nursery Cryme, by Genesis. Prog rock excellence from Genesis in their glory days. In the epic “Musical Box” a girl knocks her boy cousin’s head off with a croquet mallet, and his spirit returns to lust for her and assault her. In “The Fountain of Salmacis” Hermaphroditus is seduced by the nymph Salmacis and becomes fused with her. Great imagination on display here.

11. The Electric Company, by Paul Dooley. Sesame Street (launched in ’69) had pride of place when I was growing up, but The Electric Company (’71-’77) was my favorite and the reason I became a fan of Spider-Man. Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader was pretty cool too. This is his first appearance on the show.

12. Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey. Arguably the best of The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the second book involves complex storylines. In the first book Lessa traveled back in time centuries in order to bring an army forward. In this one F’nor takes on an even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread forever.

13. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. Like The Exorcist, the book would be made into a successful 1973 film. It was also awarded on its strength as a novel, receiving the Best Novel Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. it’s about the assassination attempt of Charles De Gaulle, and it holds up well today.

14. A Clockwork Orange, by Stanley Kubrick. Kubric went for the jugular in adapting the 1962 novel, depicting a miserable journey through a world of decaying cities, psycho adolescents, and nightmare technologies of rehabilitative punishment. Viewers were stunned. Welcome to the ’70s.

15. The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, by Robert Foster. Before the age of the internet and Tolkien webpages, this was my go-to book for Tolkien lore (which I acquired, I think, in either ’79 or ’80). It was as complete as I could imagine a resource for Tolkien’s world. How little I knew back then.

16. Who’s Next, by The Who. A song like “Baba O’Riley” comes along once in a blue moon, and an album like Who’s Next? even more infrequently. I’ve never been a Who fan, but I do love this album, and I could play “Baba O’Riley” any day of the week.

 

As for events, in 1971…

17. The digital age began. We don’t tend to associate the early ’70s with that, but January 1971 is when the microprocessor was invented.

18. The voting age was lowered to 18. The 2th Amendment was finally ratified, after the drafting age had been lowered to 18 during World War II. The drinking age, of course, still needs to be lowered to 18 (if not abolished altogether).

19. Charles Manson was executed. He and three of his darlings got the death penalty.

20. Disney World opened. I’ve still never been and probably will never make it.

All was not rosy, however, in 1971. Probably the worst thing that happened was…

21. The gold standard was abandoned. Nixon announced that the United States would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed value, thus completely abandoning the gold standard. From 1971 onwards productivity increased as wages flatlined; Gross Domestic Product surged but the shares going to workers plummeted; house prices skyrocketed; hyperinflation increased; currencies crashed. The personal savings rate went down the toilet; incarceration rates went up by a factor of five; divorce rates shot up too, and the number of people in their late 20s living with their parents increased; the number of lawyers quadrupled.

Graphically, this is what happened in 1971, thanks to Nixon’s abandoning the gold standard (click to enlarge). The graphs come from the WTF Happened in 1971? website.

No denying that 1971 is a year to pay homage to, in more ways than one. Happy anniversary, Nashua Public Library!

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.