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This is a brief discussion of James Blaylock and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Blaylock.
This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Blaylock: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)
I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Blaylock tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Blaylock worthy; in sum, to help you rank James Blaylock (and the works by Blaylock listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.
James Blaylock has managed the impressive feat of writing books of enduring quality in at least four distinct modes or styles. Those styles can be set up in quite a number of interesting similarity groupings, but let us first see what they are. Using names I will explain below, they are his:
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These include the three “Escargot” books and The Magic Spectacles (that last shares a number of concepts with the “Escargot” books but is clearly not connected). I call those books “G. Smithers tales” because in each of them we have recurring references to a “G. Smithers of Brompton Village” who is the author of seemingly countless delightful novels of a very definite type—the type that Blaylock’s “G. Smithers” novels are.
The “Escargot” is from the name of a recurring character of importance, Theophile Escargot. And the three Escargot books by themselves I refer to as the “Twombley Town Trio”, after the starting point of each.
That type of novel is a genteel descendant of the great adventure tales of old, Treasure Island and its kin. By “a genteel descendant”, I mean that the sense of reality, always one step removed in “real” adventure stories (we know that the hero will prevail and rescue his friends) is one or two more steps removed; the tales are self-conscious, told with a wink and a nod and a warm good humor that says to the reader “you’re reading a lighthearted book meant to be read sitting in a stuffed armchair by a crackling fire, and it’s about the adventures and misadventures of people who love to read adventure tales while sitting in a stuffed armchair by a crackling fire, and you know it and I know it and you know I know it.”
The heroes are mostly likeable ordinary folk whose biggest problem in life normally is which G. Smithers book to next take up for an evening by the fire; the villains are wicked but with a somehow inept wickedness that never leaves one taking too seriously either them or what they are likely to be able to ultimately do to the heroes or the world at large, however grandiose their schemes. (I don’t mean that those villains are comically inept—they can be almost frightening, as frightening as a book of this sort will let them be—it’s just that there is always a certain something that forbids our taking them too seriously.)
These books are all set in lands that are at once vaguely generic and highly particular. By that I mean that we are given nothing about the larger world—it might be round or flat for all we know—but where we do see it it, we see it with almost microscopic clarity. With Blaylock, as with all fine writers, we feel in his descriptions that we are reading from notes taken by the author while actually travelling through the place. The place itself is also bizarre: it is at once clearly not our world—dwarves and elves and magic of all sorts are integral to it—yet it has Christmas and marbles and port cheese and kaleidoscopes. Adding to the bizarre flavor is the often wildly anachronistic mix of elements: one of Blaylock’s great achievements is that he manages to make a quasi-Victorian (if rustic) world with coffee and telescopes and pocketwatches able cheerfully to co-exist with galleons and windmills and pirates.
The characters in a “G. Smithers” tale are neither terribly bright and witty nor unusually dense and stolid, but one thing they always are—to us, never to themselves, or even their neighbors—is quirky bordering on eccentric. And the conversations they have! Another of Blaylock’s telling swoops of genius is his ability to have characters cross-talking in the weirdest ways until they sort themselves out (which they on occasion quite fail to do). Here we find cheesemaker Jonathan Bing and his friend Professor Wurzle preparing for a raft voyage downriver:
“Well, Master Cheeser,” said the Professor, tamping a great wad of chocolaty smelling tobacco into his pipe. “Here we are, then! Stap me for a lubber if we’re not!”
Jonathan, not used to such seawise talk, mistook his meaning, supposing him to have said blubber instead of lubber and feared, just for the moment, that the professor was talking like a lunatic.
“…But I’ve brought my arms and money to buy supplies at Hightower when we get there, so I suppose it doesn’t matter, really.”
Jonathan was again puzzled at this mention of arms. Why had the Professor thought it necessary to mention having brought his arms? Had he a choice in the matter? Jonathan thought about the blubber business and gave the Professor what is commonly called the fish-eye.
That is characteristic Blaylock: things are rarely if ever a pandemonium, but they are also rarely if ever conventional. The characters are not only at occasional cross-purposes, they seem to think in a dimension or direction that is by no means crooked but seems to lie at a definite angle to the norms of conventionality.
“These trout seem to be studying Talbot’s rubber cheese,” Jonathan said. “I wonder if their concern is scientific or philosophic.”
“Almost certainly philosophic,” the Professor replied. “They’re coming to conclusions about the nature of such a beast as would dangle lumps of rubber beneath a dock.”
“They can only conclude, then,” Jonathan said, “That we’re a race of lunatics. They’ll score our significance in terms of a dangling rubber cheese. Perhaps we should drop a book down on a string, or dangle some symbol of technology like a compass or a marble or a bar of soap.”
“That would just make matters worse. They’d wonder why we worked up such marvels, then dumped them into the water.”
His characters, for all their eccentricities, are not buffoons—never that. They have, in their own ways, intelligence and prudence; above all, they have decency, an unpretentious or even unconscious uprightness, and a bravery that in itself is simply a down-to-earth doing of what obviously needs doing, which is about the way they would think about if they even thought about it instead of simply doing it.
A good part of the fun—fun being perhaps the core value of G. Smithers books—in these tales is the matter-of-fact manner in which his characters accept and deal with the most outrageous situations. It is as if there were no such thing in their world as normalcy, so that nothing can be abnormal (yet we see, outside the main action, a world that ticks over with classic Victorian regularity and order). That paradoxical polite normality amidst exotic nonsense provides much of the special pleasure of these tales (such contrasts have powered many a charming mythos, “Dr. Who” being a prime example).
And throughout, there is zaniness; a sort of controlled zaniness, but only just barely so:
Old Bastable cleared his throat about seven times, and sneezed calamitously. His hat jumped off his head because of the violence of the sneeze and, being round like a wheel, began to roll toward the swirling waters. Gilroy Bastable, it turned out, moved wonderfully fast for a man of his age and size. Ahab, however [Jonathan’s stubby mongrel dog], was every bit as quick and leaped for the hat as soon as it pitched off. Both Ahab and Gilroy scoured along the bank for the space of thirty feet, Bastable with one hand pressed to the top of his head as if to hold down the very hat he was chasing. The two of them caught up with the renegade hat right at the water’s edge and lunged for it simultaneously. Ahab charged in between Gilroy Bastable’s legs, whereupon the mayor, with a shout of surprise, tumbled head over heels toward his rolling hat which went twirling up into the air. Gilroy rolled to a stop in a clump of grass, and Ahab, in his wild rush, bounced into him. The spiraling hat settled onto Ahab’s head and perched there. Sailing past on a bed of river grasses and lily pads, a group of wide-eyed frogs paused momentarily before the disheveled mayor, whose legs and arms splayed out in every direction, and the dog Ahab, who wore a hat that was clearly too small for him. Now it was the frogs’ turn to wonder at the goings-on. Jonathan stepped along and helped Gilroy Bastable to his feet then removed the hat from Ahab’s head, dusting it once or twice for good measure. That done, the three set off up the path toward town.
In short, Blaylock’s “G. Smithers” books are about fun, joy, delight, adventures of the sorts one reads about in, well, in G. Smithers books.
He tried to buck himself up by thinking about the hero’s welcome he’d get, sailing back into Twombley Town wharf with a raft piled high with honeycakes and candy and elfin gifts for the children: kaleidoscopes with lightning bugs inside and marbles that rolled themselves and glowed like living rainbows when the sun went down, and moon gardens encased in glass balls that sprouted and grew weird castles and caverns and tiny fish that you needed a special eyeglass to see. How glorious it would be to sail into Twombley Town a week before Christmas with the likes of that on your raft.
The “G. Smithers” books are filled with bright delights like that, but they are above all homey and cozy. Had Blaylock never written anything but the “Escargot” books, his position in fantasy would be assured.
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“Steampunk” is a term signifying science fiction set in Victorian times, generally in London, and usually with anachronistically advanced but (given willing suspension of disbelief) not impossible technologies. Blaylock has written a great number of such books, and they appear to currently be his continuing theme.
I also refer to his steampunk tales as the “Ignacio Narbondo Cycle”, as that sinister character is the ever-recurring bad guy in all the steampunk novels; one could almost call these the “St. Ives” books, but he does not appear in the first two (wrong era: St. Ives is Victorian, while those two are contemporary California) whereas Narbondo (apparently immortal, though killable) does.
Although these books, especially Homunculus, have a dark turn, it is nevertheless a comic dark turn. These books are to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as his “G. Smithers” books are to Treasure Island. We have less overt humor—well, usually less—but just as much zaniness and eccentricity; but the zaniness, and even the eccentricity, are toned down in a way commensurate with the nominally dark mood (which corresponds roughly in seriousness to the lights-out at a camp ghost-story-telling session)—now, it is not single scenes that are zany but entire patterns of behavior. Still, the flavor remains distinctly Blaylock:
“It’s a little-known fact that the equator, you see, is a belt—not cowhide, mind you, but what the doctor called elemental twines. Them, with the latitudes, is what binds this earth of ours. It isn’t as tight as it might be, though, which is good because of averting suffocation. The tides show this—thank you sir; God bless you [he is being treated to sausages and ale]—when they go heaving off east and west, running up against these belts, so to speak. And lucky it is for us, sir, as I said, or the ocean would just slide off into the heavens. By God, sir, this is first-rate bangers, isn’t it?”
St. Ives nodded, licking grease from his fingertips. He washed a mouthful of the dark sausage down with a draught of ale. “Got all this from Owlesby, did you?”
“Only bits, sir. I do some reading on my own. The lesser known works, mostly.”
“Oh, I ain’t particular, sir.”
The running arch-villain of these adventures is the diabolically mad hunchback genius Dr. Ignacio Narbondo (clearly akin to Dr. Miguelito Loveless); the hero is the debonair scientist Langdon St. Ives, whom we have just met. Need one say more? (Well, perhaps this: a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, left unfinished at his death, was entitled St. Ives.)
In my estimation, these steampunk tales are entertaining, but not the stuff of which enduring reputations are made: they are Blaylock’s weakest works—though from him “weakest” is still fine reading worth keeping and re-reading.
Their difficulty, I think, is that they are a trifle forced—one gets the sense of a joke carried to novel length. Their achievement level is constrained by the need—at least it seems as if Blaylock feels a need—to keep in clear view the originals that he is aping. The characters are wind-up toys designed to play out the little episodes that will amuse us, rather like a clever puppet show; we have no sense that they are anything or anyone real, with feelings, emotions, thoughts of their own. The result is not true comedy but farce. (That Blaylock has of late been rather cranking these out also suggests a forced quality to them.) It is ripe reading, but not greatness.
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These are pretty much what the name suggests. There are three of them—Night Relics, Winter Tides, and The Rainy Season—each set in contemporary times. They are appropriately moody without the moodiness being overdone.
Another windy night, warm for late November and smelling of sagebrush and dust. Restless autumn dreams. The night haunted by a slow and deliberate creaking in the bones of the old house, by the rattle of doors shaken in their frames, by the sighing of the wind beneath the eaves, murmuring past the stones of the chimney. Tree branches tossed and rustled out in the night, and dry leaves skittered across the screens and scraped along the brick path.
That, with its pleasingly poetic use of language, is a very far cry from It was a dark and stormy night.
The specters in Blaylock’s ghost tales are not overt: nothing in sheets goes sailing through the air moaning “Wooooo”. As in all great ghost tales, the real interest is in the influx of evil into human souls—not animate evil, not foul spirits possessing one, but real evil, the slow, steady corrosion of the soul by the classic methods, the cancerous growth of unchecked desires, of wants, of ego.
Blaylock’s special expertise is to show us that corruption in broad daylight, show us folk who could be our next-door neighbors, cheery and ordinary on the surface, rotting away inside. The horror is all the more ghastly for being the sort that does not dissipate in sunlight, does not creep back to a graveyard, but instead parks its Nash Rambler in the driveway after a trip to the supermarket.
Blaylock is also expert at showing us the contents of the minds of the twisted souls who drive his ghost tales. They are anything but amorphous villains doing evil because the plot calls for some evil to be done. Oh, no: Blaylock spreads these monsters out before us and succeeds in making them thoroughly real and believable—we see and almost understand their skewed worldview. Their motivations become clear, straightforward consequences of the sharp bend each has in that worldview. They are three-dimensional persons, not plot devices, which makes them all the more terrible.
Another distinction in Blaylock is that not every corrupted soul is corrupted past redemption. That in itself is not novel in fiction (though not common either), but in Blaylock it always surprises because the occasional redeemed one never seems, through the body of the tale, a very likely candidate for redemption. We see no on-going internal struggles, no major hint (but there are often minor hints for the attentive reader). But these late changes add to the depth of Blaylock’s works: they convey to us that his tales, like life, are not simply the white hats versus the black hats, they are documents of real, complex people struggling to manage the awful burden of being human.
(I wonder from some things whether Blaylock might not be himself quite religious, and these redemptions intended to be, though rarely couched as, redemptions in a formal sense.)
Blaylock’s ghost tales are another sort that, were they all he wrote, would suffice to mark him as a writer of high ability.
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As someone once remarked, California is as much a state of mind as it is a state of the union.
These tales are, I think, Blaylock at his best because at his most natural. They are in many ways quite individual, but nonetheless have elements in common. For one, the protagonists are usually ordinary middle-aged men of no special distinguishing character save modest eccentricity and flawed but real decency. For another, the problems these Walters and Andrews and Howards in their plain lower-middle-class lives find themselves facing are ancient and terrible and great powers of evil, whose scope those plain men perhaps never do fully appreciate. Moreover, those powers do not appear in swirling cloaks but—as in the ghost tales—as the folk next door.
I also refer to these books as his “Christian” works, because in the end they are each concerned with something from Christian mythology, from the Grail to Judas. There is nothing in the least “preachy” in any of these books: they each simply use a myth element as the springboard for a fantastic story.
If there is a message in these tales, as I think there is, it is the old one that we must consistently govern our lives by what is right because it is the things that look small, so small that the "how much can this matter?" temptation inevitably arises, that are often what the world—or at least one’s own world—pivots about, something we do not realize until far too late if at all. But Blaylock is not pushy or preachy: you have to reflect on what he has written to extract that message—it is not shoved at you explicitly or even overtly.
Indeed, the force of these tales arises just from the very ordinariness of the protagonists and of the circumstances as best those protagonists perceive them. Part of the piquance derives from our knowing how crucial some seemingly (to the characters) trivial act is to their fate and that of their entire world. (There may also be another lesson there, that evil is not vanquished by great powers for good, just by plain, simple, ordinary good, acting within its plain, simple, ordinary world.)
I referred to Blaylock’s protagonists as having “flawed” decency. By that I mean that though simple men, none is any sort of modern equivalent of the Holy Fool; they are men with character defects, notably laziness and self-centeredness. Their eccentricities—collecting weird things or building bizarre constructions or being fixated on doughnuts—exhibit and amplify those flaws, for to indulge them those men put aside the tasks they need to be doing and too much ignore the wives they love and who love them. A common ancillary theme in Blaylock’s California tales is the reconciliation of the protagonist with a wife that he has been in danger of estranging owing to his self-centeredness, a process with larger overtones.
It is worth noting, for example, that Blaylock opens Chapter One of The Last Coin with a quotation from Stevenson (obviously one of his favorite authors) apposite to the chief character therein: “I am told that he was, in his heart, a good fellow, and an enemy to no one but himself.”
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It is hard to resist—and I will not—the temptation to match Blaylock’s classes of tales one against another.
His G. Smithers tales match in many ways his California tales: protagonists who are ordinary and genial but eccentric, zany dialogue and action that the characters sail through never noticing anything unusual, oft-emphasized delight in simple pleasures (eating, playing marbles, fishing, and more eating), and great evil met with simple decency. What chiefly distinguishes the two is, superficially, the “reality” of the settings and, at a deeper level, that the folk in the California tales are changed by and grow from their experiences, whereas the Smithers characters just resume their, well, their G. Smithers lives.
His ghost tales and his California tales are parallel in the everyday California reality of their settings, in the deepness of the evils confronted, and in the always available possibility of redemption of one or more of the “evil” characters. They differ chiefly in the depth of their protagonists—the ghost-tale protagonists are usually sober, less-eccentric people—and the presence (in the California tales) or absence (in the ghost tales) of zany humor.
His steampunk tales in many ways parallel his G. Smithers tales: they are in essence those tales told in a different setting, if with a mild increase in their morbid quality. Each set parallels a work or type of work of Robert Louis Stevenson.
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James Blaylock can do, excellently, all the things an author should do: use language admirably, as demonstrated in even the few passages above; tell tales with plots that hold our interest and, in his serious tales, make his characters grow; give us both heroes and villains with whom we can empathize, who develop before our eyes, who have possibilities, who are flesh and blood, not cardboard plot devices; and show us settings, whether from our backyard or a world that is not, that illuminate both the tales set in them and our own world, letting us—making us—see with fresh eyes what has become invisible to us from stale custom.
And Blaylock stimulates our mental processes—not with obvious platitudes, or allegories painfully explained to the saps, but by portrayals of things that could be happening next door, things to which we can apply the famed adage, there, but for the grace of God, go I. Things from which we, like Blaylock’s characters, can learn and grow.
Blaylock is already a four-star author in my books; he may well finish his yet-young career as one of the five-star grand masters of our fields.
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Blaylock had his own web site (now apparently gone), titled simply James P. Blaylock [archived copy]. But there is another fine resource, also titled James P. Blaylock, at the Sybertooth web site. And the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has, as expected, a useful Blaylock entry.
There are a couple of interesting interviews with Blaylock to be found: one at the “This Is Writing” site and another, James P. Blaylock: Impractical Machines at Locus.
There are a few touching appreciations of some Blaylock short stories available at Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project.
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I have not found any books devoted to Blaylock; a pity.
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