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Readers Imbibing Peril roundup for October

I started, but didn’t finish, Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly. Maybe I’ll have time to finish it this month.

Everything I listened to from Pseudopod in October:

Pseudopod 830: The Honey Witch by Kathryn McMahon, published September 30, 2022; listened October 1, 2022 *****

We’ve All Gone to the Magic Show by Todd Kiesling, published September 25, 2022; listened October 5, 2022 ***

PseudoPod 832: Flash on the Borderlands LXIII: Respect Your Elders – three short stories by different authors; my favorite was “When I Was Young, I Did Not Need Magic by Kat Day. Published October 14, 2022; listened to October 15 ****


Review: Welcome to Night Vale, Season 1 & Starter’s Guide

A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is a horror podcast presented as a radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale. This isn’t quite my first experience with the medium, because I’m an occasional listener to the horror podcast Pseudopod. However, that’s short fiction and many of the stories are previously published, so it’s a different kind of format. I heard about Pseudopod from a discussion thread for short stories on GoodReads, and I think I found Welcome to Night Vale from someone on GoodReads too, although I can’t remember exactly how.

I’d planned to review this podcast for Readers Imbibing Peril, specifically the “Peril of the Listen” challenge. I started by listening to the first few episodes, but then I thought it would be interesting to listen to the Starter’s Guide on the Night Vale website, and discover some of the recommended episodes of later seasons.

There are 22 episodes on the list. I have to say that the one episode that didn’t make sense to me as a standalone was the three-parter “e-Gemony.” I might like it better when I reach that point as I listen to the episodes in order. After that there’s another three-parter, “The Birthday of Lee Marvin.” I don’t know if it’s a true standalone episode, but by the time I listened to that one I think I had enough context to follow what was going on. “The Birthday of Lee Marvin,” about a man who keeps reliving his thirtieth birthday, is definitely one I’m looking forward to revisiting. But it’s part of season 7, so I won’t be listening again for a while. The Starter’s Guide ends with the 5-episode arc “The Blood/Space War.” There were some great moments in this one, but I’m not sure that it completely stands alone. For one thing, the plot of these 5 episodes is closely connected to “Lost in the Mail,” which appears earlier in the Starter’s Guide. My favorite episodes from the Starter’s Guide were “A Story About You” and the two-parter “The Sandstorm.” (See the Starter’s Guide for descriptions.)

If you’d prefer to listen in order, I have to say that my favorite episode that is not in the Starter’s Guide was #7, “History Week.” I loved it for the concept of a Night Vale History Week, the ending, and, of course, the puppies. (You’ll know what I mean if you’ve listened to this one.) The first three episodes probably won’t be my all-time favorites, but they do a great job of setting things up. I’m looking forward to Season 2, but first I want to listen to a few episodes of the recap show, Good Morning Night Vale. I’m not sure when I’ll write about it again, but I’ll probably pick a few episodes to highlight once I’ve listened to Seasons 2 and 3.


Readers Imbibing Peril: Short Stories read in September

There’s no official sign-up for RIP this year, but I read or listened to a bunch of horror short fiction in September, all from the Pseudopod podcast.

Pseudopod 823: Little Freedoms by Ephiny Gale (August 13, 2022) (first published 2017) listened September 14 ****

Pseudopod 822: The Experiment of Erich Weigert by Sewell Peaslee Wright (August 25, 2022) (first published 1926) listened Sept 17 ****

Pseudopod 825: Flowering Evil by Margaret St. Clair (August 5, 2022) (first published 1926) listened Sept 18 *****

Pseudopod 827: She Works in the Office Where They Died by Alex Singer (September 9) (Pseudopod original) listened Sept 19 ***

 Pseudopod 820: Off the Road by Matt Ellis (July 22, 2022) (published 2021) listened Sept 22 **

 Pseudopod 807: The Bleak Communion of Abandoned Things (published April 22, 2022) listened Sept 24 *****


Review: Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente

I hardly know what to say about this book. I found it in my library’s OverDrive ebook catalog, looking the books they had by Catherynne Valente, because I’ve intended to read more of her work for a few years now. (I’ve previously read Deathless and Space Opera.) I read most of it on Thursday, but it’s very densely written, so I took a break and finished it the next day. I happened to stop just before the plot twist, though, or I don’t think I would have.

‘This novella is a kind of surburban horror, about a woman named Sophia in a gated community called Arcadia Gardens. The essence of this type of story is the horror of conformity. The book opens with an excerpt from the local homeowner’s association agreement, and additional excerpts precede each chapter of the book, as the rules described become more and more draconian and disturbing. Now that I stop to think about it, I’m surprised I haven’t seen “bizarre HOA agreements” as a plot device in horror before. Valente creates a powerful sense that Something Is Wrong Here, but it becomes a completely different book when you find out why.

I spent some time searching the internet for discussion and commentary after I read this book, and I want to recommend 2 different podcast episodes:

– One from CastleBridge Media, which is 30 minutes and doesn’t reveal major details of the book. A great discussion with the author about her inspirations and writing process.…

– And another from Breaking the Glass Slipper: Perfect Women With Cat Valente, which is a completely different discussion because this time, they discuss the plot twist and its implications. This one is just under 50 minutes.


5 Great Fantasy Stories as Podcast Episodes

(tree wolf image by chic2view on

This is another post for the Fantastic Five short stories prompt (May 22: “Bite-sized delight”), a little late this time. I have listened to a lot of short story podcasts in the last few years, mostly the horror podcast Pseudopod and its sister podcast Podcastle, which covers fantasy short stories. My first pick for this top five, however, is from a podcast called Starship Sofa, just because I really love this one and Podcastle hasn’t recorded it. (So far!) If you listen to podcasts at all, I hope you find something you like from this selection.

Starship Sofa 232: The Truth is A Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

This is possibly my favorite short story by Neil Gaiman, and I’ve read most of his short fiction. (Well, my favorite outside of the Sandman comics, anyway.) It’s a story of greed, loss, revenge and fate. Oh, and a search for gold. This is probably the most adventure-ish story in my top 5, but there is also an element of mystery.

Podcastle 01: Come Lady Death by Peter Beagle

The very first episode of Podcastle: A bored woman who has nothing to do but give parties invites Death to a party. You know from the title that Death will be a woman, but the characters don’t, and that’s part of the fun of this episode. I had read this story before in The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and it was the highlight of the collection. 

Podcastle Miniature 56: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe

Everyone has already read this, right? But you should listen to it anyway, for Podcastle’s amazing narration. I also recommend a great commentary on this story by Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth at (It was written for their project The Lovecraft Reread, which — despite its name — covered  stories by a bunch of other writers, including a few Edgar Allen Poe. And if you want to understand the headings, it may help to read the intro to the series, which you can find by clicking “The Lovecraft Reread” at the top of the post.)

Podcastle 660: Tales from the Vaults: The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Muchado [rated R]

Another one that I had previously read before I started listening to Podcastle. It was included in the author’s collection Her Body and Other Parties (2017), which I read several years ago. It’s a twist on the urban legend of the green ribbon. Very weird but compelling. It might be best not to say too much about this one. This story could easily have been an episode of Pseudopod, the sister podcast to Podcastle that covers short horror fiction.

516A: Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy by Saladin Ahmed [rated R]

I found this story through the “For New Listeners” page and then I clicked on “more by this author” and found that there was a second recording in 2018, when Podcastle listeners voted on their most popular episodes and then the top 5 were re-recorded. This is that version. Although this is rated R, I’d call it a softer R than the previous one. If you have paid attention to fantasy at all from the last few decades, you have probably noticed writing from the perspective of the villain of an existing story is a very popular trope these days. This story does that for the three Saracen brothers in The Faerie Queen, who in the original are known as Sans Foy (without faith), Sans Loy (without law), and Sans Joy (without joy). Of these five stories this is the one I’ve heard most recently, a few weeks ago, but I think it will stick with me for a long time.

Podcastle also records stories written originally for the podcast. I’ve listened to a few of those, but none of them made this top five. For the last year or so I’ve listened to one of their new stories about once a month, but it’s a weekly podcast so that means I’m not listening to all of them. I’d like to listen more regularly, but I also want to keep exploring the archives.


Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Kingdoms of Elfin is a collection of 17 stories by the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, most of which appeared in The New Yorker in the 1970s. This was her last book. I don’t know why “Elfin” seems to be a noun in the title instead of an adjective; I’ve never seen anyone else use it that way.

I discovered this book a long time ago through Kate Nepveu’s reread of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, at (2014). But I didn’t read it then.

Nepveu writes:
“Here’s a good place to mention Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection Kingdoms of Elfin, which was recommended to me when I was preparing for this project as possibly influential on JS&MN’s depiction of elves. I, uh, haven’t finished it yet, but from the first two-thirds or so, it strikes me as an interesting comparison in two ways.

First, the elves’ behavior there has something of the same juxtaposition of sometimes acting similarly to humans but thinking in completely alien ways. Second, Kingdoms of Elfin also imagines Elfland as being made up of multiple kingdoms that overlay, or coexist with, Europe—as opposed to, for instance, Elfland being a single kingdom with a physical border between it and our world (Lud-in-the-Mist) or a single kingdom in an entirely separate dimension (Discworld). Kingdoms of Elfin is very out-of-print, but it’s worth checking your library, because it’s quite interesting (though much chillier than JS&MN).”

Warner’s elves are long-lived but not quite immortal. In “The Five Black Swans,” five black swans appear as an omen of death. This story has some of the most memorable passages in the collection Warner writes:
“They are born, and eventually die; but their longevity and their habit of remaining good-looking, slender and unimpaired till the hour of death has led to the Kingdom of Elfin being called the land of the Ever-Young. Again, it is an error to say ‘the Kingdom of Elfin’: the kingdoms of elfin are as numerous and kingdoms were the Europe of the nineteenth century, and as diverse.”

And a little later:

“Dying is not an aristocratic activity, like fencing, yachting, patronizing the arts: it is enforced — a willy-nilly affair. Though no one at Elfhame was so superstitious as to suppose Tiphaine would live forever, they were too well-mannered to admit openly that she would come to her end by dying. In the same way, though everyone knew that she had wings, it would have been lèse-majesté to think she might use them. Flying was a servile activity: cooks, grooms, laundresses flew about their work, and to be strong on the wing was a merit in a footman. But however speedily he flew to the banqueting room with a soup tureen, at the threshold he folded his wings and entered at a walk.”


5 Fabulous Fairytale Retellings

(tree wolf image by chic2view on

This is for the Fantastic Five short stories prompt (May 22: “Bite-sized delight”), but I decided to be a little bit more specific and recommend 5 of my favorite fairytale retellings. I’ve read a few novel-length retellings — I loved Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and Spindle’s End — but I’m not sure I’ve read enough to make a top five, so here are 5 short stories instead. Three of these stories are from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, which I read last year. There are several fairytales-for-adults anthologies from the same editors, and I look forward to reading more.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories)

This story is definitely the highlight of this well-known collection, for me. A Bluebeard retelling.

“Are you sure, she’d said when they delivered the gigantic box that held the wedding dress he’d bought me, wrapped up in tissue paper and red ribbon like a Christmas gift of crystallized fruit. Are you sure you love him? There was a dress for her, too; black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water, finer than anything she’d worn since that adventurous girlhood in Indo-China, daughter of a rich tea planter. My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I? ‘Are you sure you love him?'”

Pied Piper by Tanith Lee (Red As Blood)

My favorite Tanith Lee story of the ones I’ve read so far. From her collection Red As Blood. The original tale is, of course, The Pied Piper of Hamelin; this version is set in Asia.

“You try to lock everything up in a cage. Your animals and your hearts. But love will always get out. Love, or hate. Somehow.”

True Thomas by Bruce Glassco (Black Swan, White Raven)

This one is a science fiction twist on the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, and so not properly a fantasy story. But I just couldn’t leave it out!

How can I describe the Words of the Queen? Imagine that you are feasting on the finest banquet ever served to king or pope. It has been prepared by the finest cooks from Ireland to Inde, and they have studied your body until they know your favorite foods better than you know them yourself. Now imagine that, with every bite, you taste every course of the meal at once, but preserve the flavors separately as well, the way five strings of a harp struck together sound sweeter than one string plucked alone.”

The Dog Rose by Sven Westgard (Black Swan, White Raven)

The editor’s introduction to this story says, “It is the tradition of many fairy tales to have a prince awaken and rescue a princess. ‘The Dog Rose’ instead focuses on less royal folk who might have an interest in the outcome.”

In the middle of May, when irises grow their beards and bleeding hearts shed their first white drop, Edward battled the sun for the life of the garden. Father was too old to haul buckets, so Edward carried the rain of the absent clouds on his shoulder-yoke. But in spite of his dousing, the herbs and flowers sagged under the growing heat. Shepherd’s knot leaves turned shriveled and brown, and Edward saw the fevers he would not cure.

Godmother Death by Jane Yolen (Black Swan, White Raven)

I didn’t know, or at least didn’t remember, the original fairytale (“Godfather Death”) before reading this story. This is definitely the most metafictional of these five stories. I don’t always enjoy that sort of thing, but it works beautifully here.

“You think you know this story. You do not. You think it comes from Ireland, from Norway, from Spain. It does not. You have heard it in Hebrew, in Swedish, in German. You have read it in French, Italian and Greek. It is not a story, though many mouths have made it that way. It is true. How do I know? Death, herself, told me.”


Fantastic Five: Great fantasies I’ve read since last May

This is my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, an annual event each May with a fantasy theme. This year, each week in May, there will be a Top 5 List prompt called the Fantastic Five. This will give me a chance to give a shoutout to books I didn’t review!

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (read June 2021): I don’t know why I didn’t review this one, but I’ll probably read it again eventually and write a review then. However, I want to read the sequel (Paladin of Souls) first. For now, I’ll just say that I really liked the protagonist in this intrigue-driven fantasy, but the secondary cast was sort of unsatisfying.

The Conference of the Birds by Farid Attar (read July 2021): I intended to read more premodern literature in the last year or so, but I managed to read a little bit, and this is probably the highlight. There is some boring stuff at the beginning, but it becomes more interesting pretty quickly. The birds of the world gather to decide who should be king of the birds, and they decide on the legendary Simorgh, but then they need to find him. I read the Peter David translation.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (read September 2021): The second Guy Gavriel Kay novel I’ve read. I read Tigana first, but I wasn’t thrilled with it. This one is more recent (2010) and I think I like it better. This book is set in a fantasy version of Tang-era China, with ghosts and assassinations and shapeshifters and quite a bit of interpersonal drama. This is another one I will probably reread once I read the semi-sequel, River of Stars.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (read February 2022): I really have no idea what to say about this book. I thought it was great, but I was sort of stumped. Fortunately lots of people are smarter than I am; here is an excellent review from one such person.

Grim Tales by E. Nesbit (read April 30): This is a collection of seven supernatural tales. I listened to the LibriVox recording, which is excellent. (The book is in the public domain at least in the United States, because it was published before January 1, 1927.) The last two stories (“Man-size in Marble” and “The Mass for the Dead”) are probably my favorites from this collection. This is one of Nesbit’s books for adults, but she was better known as a children’s writer. I don’t think I ever heard of her when I was growing up.


There Would Always Be A Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien by Verlyn Flieger

My library doesn’t have Flieger’s earlier collection, Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien, so I read this instead. I’m not really sure how to review this, so I’ll start by linking to Megan Fontentot’s review:

These were interesting to read, but I’m finding it difficult to say much about them. I’ll probably come back to some of these later.

“How Trees Behave, Or Do They?” is one of my favorites, a fantastic essay on the nature of trees in LotR. It’s also available online, so you can read it here:

“Eucatastrophe and the Dark” is not really a scholarly essay, but a reflection on Flieger’s experiences teaching Tolkien’s work. She writes about teaching The Lord of the Rings along with two Tolkien essays, “On Fairy Stories” and “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” As she says, the two essays deal with the opposite poles of Tolkien’s imagination: the fairytale and the tragic epic. I have to admit that when she describes some of her students resisting the bittersweet aspect of LotR, I am completely baffled, because I just don’t share that reaction at all. I do agree with her that the ending of LotR is bittersweet rather than happy. I wonder, though, what teaching The Silmarillion must be like, because I think most people who have read it would say that while LotR is pretty balanced between joy and sorrow, The Silmarillion comes close to crashing the scales on the tragic side. (I love it, but still.)

My introduction to Flieger’s work was her excellent study of The Silmarillion, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. (I reviewed it here.) I have Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien and A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie on my reading list, but first I want to reread John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to it.


Notes on “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings”

This is a 1983 essay by fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, published her book Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. I read this essay because of a post from Calmgrove, which is part of a series of posts concerning The Lord of the Rings. I have read a few of Jones’s books (so far Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire & Hemlock, and Charmed Life) and I want to read more by her, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Jones writes that the book is “organized in movements, just like a symphony, but with this difference: each movement has an extension, or coda, which reflects partly back on the movement just completed and partly forward to what is to come.”

Jones has a few criticisms of Tolkien’s style. She thinks he uses “suddenly” too much, and maybe she’s right. She doesn’t like what she calls his “hackneyed high style” in the more archaic passages. I don’t share her reaction at all, but I am a little surprised, because she says some admiring things about The Return of the King (RotK) later in the essay. I think if I didn’t like Tolkien’s use of a higher register then I would like RotK much less, because it’s very prominent in that volume.

She finds Tom Bombadil “supremely irritating” even though she recognizes that he represents something unique in the narrative. I’m with her on that one. She likes the gate of Moria but “once they get inside, I am never as impressed as I could wish.” She notes that the Orcs don’t have personalities here as they do in vol. 2, which is true, but I love the other villains we get here: the Balrog and also the Watcher in the Water. They don’t have personalities either, but I really like the fact that so many of Tolkien’s monsters have an air of mystery, rather than just being minions of Sauron.

Regarding the Elves, Jones says: Legolas makes us think that Elves can be “human and approachable.” She continues: “This is not the case. Tolkien leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw Lothlorien.” I don’t really agree… I think they continue to come across as alien, but they continue to surprise us by undermining that impression too.

She also writes about the contrast between the two sections of RotK, books IV and V. The dreary journey through Mordor contrasts with the uplifting tone in much of book IV: “Though it is odd that the positive side of the action is compounded of killing and politics, and the negative of love, endurance, and courage, this is how it seems to be.”

I have a few other articles on various aspects of LotR that I have saved from the internet to read later. I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to write about those, but in the meantime you can read my review of Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth.

Classics Club Spin #27 List

I haven’t reviewed any books in a while, but I’m joining the Classics Club Spin #27! Info here. And I will review The Conference of the Birds soon (my current book for The Classics Club).

  1. The Golden Ass
  2. The Symposium
  3. The True History 
  4. Electra 
  5. The Saga of the Volsungs
  6. Troilus & Cressida
  7. Cymbeline
  8. Songs of Innocence & Experience 
  9. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy 
  10. The Best of CL Moore
  11. The King of Elfland’s Daughter (reread)
  12. The Complete Cosmicomics 
  13. The Boat of a Million Years
  14. Lyrical Ballads
  15. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  16. The Phantom Tollbooth
  17. The Fifth Head of Cerberus
  18. The First Men in the Moon
  19. The Wild Shore


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