Sunday, February 22, 2009

And After Mervyn Peake There Was...

For the last few weeks I've been going through old issues of Epic Illustrated, and I found myself intrigued by P. Craig Russell's adaptation of "The Dreaming City," part of Michael Moorcock's "Elric of Melniboné" series.

I'm a sucker for mopey antiheroes, so I ventured over to Old Goat Books. Imagine my surprise that Mr. Old Goat himself has long been a Moorcock fan, and he was happy to sell me his personal copies of the two-volume Elric omnibus, containing the original six "classic" books.

I've finished the first four ("Elric of Melniboné," "The Sailor on the Seas of Fate," "The Weird of the White Wolf," and "The Vanishing Tower"), and I'm absolutely charmed by Moorcock's imagination. The character of Elric may be a tad TOO mopey, and he may spend too much time rescuing princesses, but otherwise the Moorcock "multiverse" is a welcome surprise, providing endless opportunity for shock and invention.

Moorcock wears his Mervyn Peake obsession on his sleeve, spending a lot of his effort on environments, characters, and quests which juxtapose horror, adventure, and mystery. I find myself cringing while reading these novels, especially when a new bizarre and unexpected happenstance rears its (truly) ugly head.

Unlike Peake, however, Moorcock spends very little time on characterization, and the Elric stories are almost totally devoid of humour. For this reason they tend to be a bit sparse and tiresome after a while, betraying their origins as short stories or novellas. Each Elric tale seems doomed to span sixty pages and have only a single narrative thread.

What keeps me going -- besides the horrific stuff -- is the imaginative scope. With each chapter, Moorcock builds upon his mythology. Sometimes he brings in previous characters, locations, and motifs in order to revisit the history he's created. Sometimes he gives suggestions of a larger mystery which you suspect will never be explained. But most of the time he's wrapping the plot in layer upon layer of "multiverse:" his characters meeting and remeeting at various points in their divergent histories, their weaponry swapping around, their memories rewritten, their prophecies hinting at greater revelations to come.

This style seemed familiar to me, and then suddenly -- BAM! -- I realized it sounded an awful lot like Clive Barker's "Weaveworld." They share the same strengths and weaknesses and have the same general tone, and I'd be amazed if Barker wasn't at least somewhat inspired by Moorcock's writing.

Currently I'm reading "The Fortress of the Pearl," a novel that Michael Moorcock wrote much later to fill a gap within the original Elric series, and I'm pleased that his writing has improved IMMENSELY between 1977 and 1989. "Pearl" is a much more satisfying read and I look forward to eventually tackling his "Jerry Cornelius" stories.

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