Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Kinsmen of the Dragon, Part 1 [Guest Post]



By GW Thomas

When I write one of these blog pieces I usually begin by reading all the stories concerned. This time around I haven't. Let me explain.

Fantasy as a genre has many towering figures such as JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Robert E Howard. Some classic authors who preceded them, such as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and even Lewis Carroll, also stand out high above the rest. These figures are well documented thanks to editors like Lin Carter and his Ballantine Fantasy series. Carter was also good at finding little known bits of fun in fanzines, ancient tales, and the pulps. Because of this, I am truly surprised when I discover an unknown (to me) fantasy novel from the 1950s.

Nobody wrote fantasy in the 1950s (excepting the well-noted Poul Anderson with The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions, a few lesser Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales by Fritz Leiber, and of course, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings). Other than these famous exceptions, most fantasy was disguised as science fiction in Planet Stories or as Jack Vance did it in The Dying Earth.

So again, I'm not often surprised. Until I was checking out an old copy of Ray Palmer's Imagination (one of those fantasy mags that look like science fiction). The inside cover of the second issue has a full page ad for Kinsmen of the Dragon by Stanley Mullen. The ad proclaims: "Just What You Were Wishing For!" and "The Most Exciting Book Since Merritt's Moon Pool." 352 pages for only $3.50.

My jaw dropped. And dropped again when I saw, first, that other people were quite aware (and hadn't told me), and secondly, the gorgeous Hannes Bok cover art. This got me all defensive and I started to question why I hadn't even heard of it. I think the main reason is I haven't really read any Stanley Mullen. Just as important, the book never had a paperback version in the 1960-70s during the big sword and sorcery craze. It might have happened if Ballantine had continued their series. Lin Carter might have gotten around to it. He had published two novels by Hannes Bok and was a personal friend of the artist. Carter must have known about the book. And maybe didn't like it?

I read online about the reviews: Francis J McComas had written in The New York Times Review, "Practically every theme of fantasy and science fiction has been mistreated in this silly melodrama." Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonders, "A plot that is kept in motion solely by the fact that everyone involved is an idiot." And James Blish called it in The Issue at Hand "an incredibly bad novel from any point of view" and reprimanded other reviewers for taking it easy on a pal.

These kinder reviewers were Forrest J Ackerman ( as Weaver Wright) in Astounding August 1951:
"This novel has not appeared in any form prior to this book publication" proclaims the jacket blurb. Few other s.f. books can make that statement this season, as the rash of pulp reprints continues. But Stan Mullen, himself a magazine contributor, has come up with a first-class first novel blending astounding science with unknown wizardry. If "Kinsmen" somewhat invites comparison with the recently reprinted "Blind Spot" because of its world-beside-our-own theme, I dare the sacrilegious opinion that it surpasses the "Spot' in reader interest. In Annwyn, the invisible realm we cannot sense, psychology is different, inventions strange, architecture alien; yet to the hero this Lorelei land offers a kind of haven in the end, away from the confusion of our own here and now. A splendid escape piece. The all-around technicolor wrapper by Bok puts the artistic whipped cream on top this brandied literary plum pudding.
And an anonymous reviewer in Startling Stories who wrote in May 1952:
"If you still have a soft spot for buckety-buck adventure, this is for you. The publisher's blurb informs us that it has never appeared in magazine form or anywhere else - no doubt it's length was a factor. Briefly it is the story of the underworld of Annwyn, peopled by stock types of lizard men and dragons and human sacrificing savages - and of course beautiful girl savages. Personally we do not consider this science fiction, but some people do; in fact, some people prefer this type of fantastic adventure to anything which involves ideas. If you are looking for ideas, don't linger here. There is nothing new in KINSMEN OF THE DRAGON, nothing you haven't read before. If you are just discovering the world of fantasy it may seem new to you and you may get a belt out of it. The jacket design, by Hannes Bok, is a handsome one, and liberally sprinkled with BEMs, dragons, and something which is half-girl, half-BEM. Incidentally, has anyone noticed the Maxfield Parrish resemblance in Bok's color work?
Three quick reactions to these two reviews: The suggestion that Mullen has borrowed the "world-beside-our-own" theme from Homer Eon Flint and Austin Hall's The Blind Spot (1921) shows an unfamiliarity with fantasy on Ackerman's part (surprising!). If he had been familiar with folklore he would know that the idea of parallel fantasy realms was around before Flint. Lewis's first Narnia book, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1950) was selling in the US, though this was sold as a children's book. Or if he remembered the Jorel of Joiry stories of CL Moore or "The Sapphire Siren" by Nictzin Dyalhis or any number of Fantasies by Edmond Hamilton in Weird Tales, he would have known the idea's wider use.

The second thing that popped for me was the name Annwyn, the Celtic underworld that is the novel's setting. Most of us encounter the place either in Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion series (1936-1974) or Lloyd Alexender's Pyrdain fantasies (1964-68). Alexander used Annwyn in 1964 and Walton not until 1974, so in this way Mullen may be the first fantasist to claim the territory. Nothing new, my eye!

Maxfield Parrish
Lastly, the anonymous reviewer calls attention to Bok's similarity to earlier artist Maxfield Parrish. Bok actually studied under Max Parrish and considered himself his apostle. The resemblance is certainly intentional.

Was Kinsmen of the Dragon a terrible novel? I wish I could tell you. I haven't read it. But I think a little historical perspective might help here. This was 1951-52. Science fiction magazines, book publishing even juvenile novels and hard covers were all on the horizon. Fantasy was the poor, retarded step-cousin SF fans hid out back in the wood shed. Tolkien hadn't published The Lord of the Rings yet and even those books would need another ten years to explode and change everything. Many of the poor reviews could have been 1950s SF-hate, which carried on until the 1970s when fantasy could throw sales figures from LotR and The Sword of Shannara at the sneering critics.

Except for two things. Look who the reviewers are. Francis J McComas was one half of the team who created The Magazine of Fantasy in 1949 so that more literate and interesting fantasy could be published. The "and Science Fiction" was added as a commercial necessity. McComas was not a fantasy hater.

Damon Knight is considered one of the best editors of SF from the 1970s and on, but he also wrote many well-crafted stories and novels. One of these was actually a collection of stories from Galaxy called The World and Thorinn (1981) that borders on fantasy. He might be part of the more SF crowd, but he has written extensively on the craft of writing and knows a good plot from a bad one.

James Blish is another SF author, though his Black Easter novels are considered Fantasy. He wrote of jungle lords for the same pulp as Mullen back in the 1940s. He would not be one to throw stones. He was considered a little prickly and stand-off-ish by some, and his pointing to fellow reviewers and calling them out may have contributed to this. He may also have been right. Mullen was a member of the SF community, and a publisher as well, with his own small Gorgon Press. You never know who your next publisher is going to be...

Ultimately, I'll have to read it for myself. I may find it a charming 1950s forgotten classic like Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. Or I may find it a contrived, imitative mish-mash of Edgar Rice Burroughs with a lovely cover. Either way, (I have the Kindle version ready to go!) I will enjoy every word of it. More to come.
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