Friday, March 2, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Horseman!

I call these things book reviews, which is often doubly inaccurate, as they aren't so much reviews as they are commentaries and ramblings, and they aren't always about books, either. I just settled on calling them book reviews because that seemed like the most concise compromise. (Also, when I started this, these entries were mostly about the books)

This disconnect between calling reviews of short stories "book reviews" is particularly noticeable in shorter works, like Horseman!, one of the first stories that Roger Zelazny sold.  It's only four pages long in the Collected Stories, and that includes notes and an afterword, and if I'm not careful, this review is going to wind up longer than the actual story.

Even if you only read the blog for the Zelazny stuff, you're probably at least aware of my interests in video games and RPGs. I play a MMORPG called City of Heroes. Recently, they're trying something new with their missions, with what they call "Signature Story Arc", which is a series of several story arcs, culminating in events that will have a permanent change in the game world. Players, including me, have been discussing them on the official boards.  I've been mostly defending them, not because I think they're great, because I don't see them as flawed in the same way that a lot of the players do.

A common complaint is that the stories don't explain everything. That's not something that bothers me. I do try to at least puzzle things out, and when confronted with something I don't understand, I tend to think "I don't understand this", rather than "This doesn't make any sense." I've mentioned in other posts that I think stories where the writer omits details he knows to be true strengthen a story.  Because of the point in my life that I was at when I first encountered them, Zelazny's works have been hugely influential not only on how I read things, but how I solve problems, and I've internalized a lot of his philosophy of writing, to the point that I consider the methods he employed to be the "right" way to write a story.

He mentions how he came to write Passion Play in an introduction to that story (though I included his actual account in my review of Coils, since I wrote that one first) and how it was a conscious effort to "to treat the reader as I would be treated myself, to avoid the unnecessarily explicit, to use more indirection with respect to character and motivation, to draw myself up short whenever I felt the tendency to go on talking once a thing had been shown." 

Horseman! is actually not one of my favorites. In my review of A Thing of Terrible Beauty, I mention Zelazny's essay, "An Exorcism of Sorts", which served as an introduction to the Frost & fire collection, where he says, ""And there was a time long ago when I favored literalness and almost total coherence in wasn't really till I came across W.S. Merwin's work that I realized that I could be consistently happy with imagery alone when it proceeded from a person of extremely powerful vision..."

That's how Horseman! (much like the game show Jeopardy!, we mustn't forget the exclamation point at the end) strikes me. As a set piece, it's wonderful, moody, evocative, running over with the powerful metaphors that would come to characterize Zelazny's work. ("He was thunder in the hills when the villagers lay dreaming...When he was an avalanche of steel, the cattle began to low, mournfully, deeply, and children cried out in their sleep." "I have ridden an inconceivable distance, past nebulae that are waterspouts in rivers of stars.")

As a story, well, there's not much there. The Horseman, War (Huh! Good God y'all!) shows up in a sleepy village looking for his fellows. The villagers point him in the right direction and he settles in with the other riders, just as Death arrives.

It's not my favorite story, but I enjoy it because of its peculiar place in Zelazny's history. There is a pretty broad consensus that his very best work (Rose, Lord of Light) was early in his career and it's interesting to see the that brilliance in an inchoate form.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you said about leaving things out of stories. In fact, there have been a few major turning points in my own writing that have resulted in vast improvements to my work, and one of those points was the day I told myself, "I don't care if the reader doesn't get it."

    That may sound excessive, but it's basically a simplified way of saying that I'd rather be ambiguous than give the reader every detail of what's happening or has happened in the past. It's a nice way of self-enforcing the "Don't talk down to your readers" rule.