Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Review: Balefires by David Drake

1597800716.01.LZZZZZZZDavid Drake is known first and foremost for his importance to the field of military science fiction, and many of his recent books have been space opera or heroic fantasy.  However, many of Drake's early publications were in the horror genre, often influenced by the classic pulp fantasy, horror, and "weird fiction" of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Manly Wade Wellman.

Balefires: Tales of The Weird and Fantastic contains 24 of Drake's fantasy and horror stories.  The emphasis is on Drake's early work from the 1960s and '70s, but the stories included span almost three decades.  A few have previously appeared in the David Drake collections released by Baen Books, but many have been largely unavailable since the 1960s or 1970s.

The settings are quite diverse.  Several of the stories, drawing on Drake's own experiences, involve American troops in the Vietnam War.  Drake's interest in history also frequently comes to the fore, with a number of stories stories set in Viking Age Scandinavia, the Roman Empire, or other eras.  There are also a number of stories set in contemporary America (including one about 30 miles from my home, which I got a kick out of.)  Some of the stories are clearly influenced by cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft or Howard.  Others portray evils on a more human scale, and a few stories are more in the mode of heroic fantasy, albeit of a very dark sort.  The one anomaly is "A Land of Romance," a fun, light-hearted story written in tribute to influential SF writer L. Sprague de Camp.

Drake's talent for depicting intense, furious action manifests itself a number of times, but the dominant mood of many of the stories is not visceral terror but a relentless feeling of cold.   Horror that draws its atmosphere from the idea of a pitiless, uncaring universe beyond human comprehension is quite common thanks to the popularity and influence of H.P. Lovecraft, but Drake does it better than most, and the effect is quite chilling.  (Among other things, I think Drake's relatively austere writing style, which is highly evocative while remaining very straightforward, is generally better-suited to this sort of bleak tone than the more ornate style often associated with Lovecraftian horror.)

Despite the cosmic horror aspects, however, much of what is horrifying in the stories is more personal in nature.  As is the case of in much of Drake other work (most notably his military SF),  the most terrifying things arise from human psychology- the psychological devastation left by trauma and violence, what suffering and brutality can twist people into, the dulling of emotion and conscience, and the things that  human beings will do, condone,  or become.

In addition, each story has a short preface written by Drake about how the story came about and the idea behind it.  These provide some very interesting information about various stages in Drake's career, as well as some of the influences that have shaped his work- growing up in Iowa, classic science fiction and fantasy, his military service in Vietnam, and his love of Classical history and literature.  It's quite interesting for the insights it gives on Drake's work, as well as his thoughts on horror fiction more generally and his first-hand accounts of what the field was like in the 1960's and 70's.

All in all, Balefires is a great collection of stories and an intriguing look at David Drake's roots.  I would enthusiastically recommend it for anyone who is a fan of Drake's work, and for anyone who enjoys horror and dark fantasy.

Stories collected in Balefires:

The Red Leer
A Land of Romance
Smokie Joe
The False Prophet
Black Iron
The Shortest Way
Lord of the Depths
Children of the Forest
The Barrow Troll
Than Curse the Darkness
The Song of the Bone
The Master of Demons
The Dancer in the Flames
Best of Luck
Something Had to be Done
The Elf House
The Hunting Ground
The Automatic Rifleman
Blood Debt
Men Like Us

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