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The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews
Darrell Schweitzer
Borgo/Wildside, 238 pages

The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews
Darrell Schweitzer
Darrell Schweitzer was born in 1952. He is a writer, editor, and essayist with much of his focus on dark fantasy and horror, although he does also work in science fiction and fantasy. Schweitzer is also a prolific writer of literary criticism and editor of collections of essays on various writers wiithin his preferred genres.

Darrell Schweitzer Website
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A review by Richard A. Lupoff

The most striking aspect of this volume is the author's ability to write serious criticism that is accessible, personal in nature, and that speaks directly to its audience. At the same time, Darrell Schweitzer shows respect for his subject matter and for the reader without condescending to either.

The book opens with a series of meditations on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, about which thick volumes, in fact whole shelves of books, have been written. When the accumulated critical material about a work or body of works exceeds its own subject matter in volume, some kind of tipping point has been reached. In Mr. Tolkien's case, that point was reached and passed several years ago; it took the arrival of Harry Potter to distract the literary snufflers from Middle Earth, causing those of us who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings purely as a rousing good adventure yarn to breath a sigh of relief.

I read The Lord of the Rings during its first rush of adoration in the science fiction world, circa 1961. I was a member of a science fiction fan club at the time, and remember the competition at meetings to claim the greatest number of readings of the epic.

"I've read it five times and I'm about to start on the sixth."

"Well, I've read it eight times and I've already started my ninth."

"Ho, that's nothing, I've read it twenty-two times and..."

Someone turned toward me as I sat quietly in the corner and asked, "How many times have you read The Lord of the Rings?"

"Once," I replied.

There was a gasp. You'd have thought I had belched (or done something even less polite) just as the Archbishop raised the Eucharist during a Solemn High Mass.

"Don't you think that The Lord of the Rings is good enough to be worth more than one reading?" my accuser demanded.

Trying to be diplomatic (and avoid a verbal if not a physical thrashing) I said, "I'm sure it's worth reading again, but there are so many potentially worthy books that I haven't read even once, I'm unlikely to read this one twice."

That was my position for the better part of half a century, but Darrell Schweitzer comes to The Lord of the Rings -- or, rather, comes back to it after a sojourn of several decades through other cultural realms -- and finds that he does not merely replicate the prior reading experience of his twenty-year-old self. He discovers a deeper book, one less optimistic, and altogether different from the one that he read as a very young man.

This whole approach refutes my regard of The Lord of the Rings as simply a rousing good adventure story. Schweitzer seems to regard the Peter Jackson films based on the Tolkien epic rather highly. Personally, I found the first of them beautifully produced but dreadfully shallow and ultimately boring. I literally fell asleep during the film, and never went back to see its sequels. But as the Romans used to say, De gustibus non est disputandum.

The leitmotif of Schweitzer's criticism is the question, "What does it mean?" and I believe that he has thus asked the key question of the serious critic. Another way to ask this same question is, "What is this book about?" The answer should not be a plot synopsis or a description of the protagonist or even an examination of the author's technique, for all that these things are also of interest. They are more the subject of the reviewer than the critic, and as regards The Lord of the Rings Schweitzer is a critic, not a reviewer. He asks, What is this book really about?

If a work can provide a substantial and thought-provoking answer to the question, it is certainly worth serious criticism. Otherwise it's just a rousing good adventure story.

At Darrell Schweitzer's prodding, I am rather inclined to go back and read The Lord of the Rings again, for the first time in forty-seven years. But then there are all those other books piled on my desk and night table, calling out to me with their seductive charms.

The Fantastic Horizon contains a variety of pieces of various length, culled from The New York Review of Science Fiction, Weird Tales magazine, and a variety of nonfiction anthologies. Schweitzer also includes the texts of several speeches. It really helps to write out your text before talking to an audience, you can always recycle the words into print. The subjects range from A.E. Van Vogt's classic Slan to Niven and Pournelle's Inferno, with side trips into the history of science fiction in Philadelphia (which I suppose can be forgiven), the career of Britain's Lord Dunsany, the works of the great and unjustly forgotten fantasist Robert Nathan, the historic roles and contributions of -- or damage done by -- Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Hugo Gernsback.

The Fantastic Horizon is an intellectual feast for anyone who loves science fiction and fantasy. It's like a pleasant, wide-ranging conversation with a knowledgeable friend with whom one shares a variety of interests. At least such is the case for anyone who is looking for something more than a rousing good adventure story.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

A word of warning: the first edition of The Fantastic Horizon is marred by an excess of typographical errors, most of them merely annoying but one or two of them truly horrific. It is to be hoped that the publisher will reissue the book in a corrected edition.

Copyright © 2009 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff is a novelist, short-story writer, critic, and sometime academic. His most recent books are Visions (currently in production by Mythos Books) and Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix (Crippen & Landru). He is also the Editorial Director of Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House.

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