Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 2007-2014 Evelyn C. Leeper.

"The Orchid Forest: A Metafactual Narrative Introduction to THE CRYSTAL COSMOS by Rhys Hughes, by Miguel Obispo" by Michael Bishop:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/01/2007]

If the traditional sources of short fiction are disappointing these days, one can occasionally find a gem in the most unlikely places. For example, "The New York Review of Science Fiction" does not usually publish fiction, but the February 2007 issue has a wonderful piece by Michael. A few weeks back (in the 04/27/07 issue of the MT VOID) I reviewed Rhys Hughes's A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY. Well, "The Orchid Forest: A Metafactual Narrative Introduction to THE CRYSTAL COSMOS by Rhys Hughes, by Miguel Obispo" is described as "Rhys Hughes's 612th piece of fiction in his projected life's work of one thousand discrete, albeit subtly linked, items of fiction." Except, of course, it is written by Michael Bishop. Only about 5500 words long (placing in firmly in the Short Story category for Hugo, hint, hint!), it is chock-a-block with literary references, allusions, and in-jokes. Some are overt (Hughes the character says that all the ships in his latest work, THE CRYSTAL COSMOS, are named for Ian Watson novels), some are more subtle (Moby K. Dick, the Paranoia Whale), and others are downright obscure (I am sure that "an unpronounceable town in Finland" must be a reference to something). This is one of those stories that as soon as I finished it I wanted to read it again, and will definitely be on my Hugo ballot next year.

stories by Rhys Hughes:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/24/2009]

With A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, I discovered Rhys Hughes. Unfortunately, much of his work is available only in expensive limited editions. ("All the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions," as Helene Hanff says. Though she goes on to add, "[Or] in Barnes & Noble's grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies," but trust me, even if Barnes & Noble did still sell used books, one would not be finding grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies of Rhys Hughes's works!)

So far the only other books of his I have been able to find cheaply are JOURNEYS BEYOND ADVICE (stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft) and NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD (a story cycle set in Wales). (One had slightly bumped corners; the other was an ex-library copy, but in pristine condition other than two very neatly placed stickers.) But luckily, about two dozen of his stories are available on-line, so I figure I will comment on some of those as well.

As I noted in my review of A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY (), that book was a pastiche/homage to Jorge Luis Borges's A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY. Borgesian influences can be seen in many of Hughes's other stories as well.

For example, Borges has written about mazes, and so does Hughes. "The City that Was Itself" is about "Itselfia, the city that evokes only itself. ... Every street, however long or short, has the same name. Likewise every square, park, building." Describing the consequences of this results in a story full of philosophical concepts. But also as with Borges, the concepts are the story-- the characters and plot are almost non-existent.

The stories in NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD are full of word play. In "Anton Arctic" the situation itself is in some sense the pun (this will make more sense after you read the story), but there is still some word play going on: "When he arrived in Edinburgh he walked unknown streets with a measured step. Not even the greatest detective in Scotland Yard, an organisation that specialises in Scottish measurements, hence its name, has been able to determine where exactly his measured step took him." The story (also available at ) begins, "Ordinary geographers believe that our planet has only two poles, the North and South, and they prefer to ignore the East, West, Front and Back poles. But Anton Arctic went to the other extreme and maintained the existence of a seventh pole, namely the Scottish."

"God in a Basement Flat" () is a more serious work, in that the focus is on the philosophy behind the story rather than the cleverness in telling it. It is the sort of theological/eschatological story that one might expect of an author such as James Morrow.

"The Don Entrerrosca Trilogy" comprises "The Lute and the Lamp" (), "The Toes of the Sun" (), and "The Promised Labyrinth" (). Don Entrerrosca attempts to serenade Senorita Eber Marcela Soler, fails, causes to sun to go out, and tries to find a horse that will allow him to end his difficulties. The most interesting is the third story, in which he tries to find a horse so fast that he can be everywhere simultaneously. He tries famous horses (such as Bucephalus), fictional horses (such as Rocinante), and even carousel horses (if he stacks the carousels high enough, he reasons, the top one will be rotating faster than the speed of light). Eventually he finds a solution which, while not scientifically rigorous, is aesthetically pleasing enough that most readers will forgive him.

"The Expanding Woman" () is set in a future where Klingon has just become the official European language--and Hughes actually gives a rational reason for its triumph over Esperanto. (I suppose all natural languages are ruled out as being preferential to one group or other.) The eponymous character seems to be a creature half of science fiction, half of horror, and never completely explained.

"The Folded Page" () is based on the fact that the maximum number of times you can fold a single sheet of paper in half is eight. Why this is, and what happened when a king tried to fold a sheet more than that, are the core of this story--though of course Hughes adds a twist to it as well.

Some of Hughes's pieces are almost too short to analyze, such as "The Hungover Ruba'iyat" ().

"The Impregnable Fortress" () has Hughes's typical word play, but in a more controlled and constrained fashion than some other stories.

In "The Metaphorical Marriage" (), Hughes has gone a bit overboard in his word play (in my opinion), and ended up with something reminiscent of "Wordplay" by Rockne S. O'Bannon (an episode of the 1980s "New Twilight Zone" series).

Not all the stories are gems. With "The Minotaur in Pamplona" (), the title pretty much says it all, and the story is mere elaboration.

And "On the Deck" () leads up to a rather startling last line, but other than that does not seem to have much purpose.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/04/2014]

AT THE MOLEHILLS OF MADNESS by Rhys Hughes (ISBN 978-0-953-85988-7) is a collection of Hughes's horror fiction, which is pretty gut- churning at times. The fact that it is almost unobtainable makes me wonder why I am even mentioning it but, hey, I have to fill the column somehow.

To order At the Molehills of Madness from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/02/2012]

JOURNEYS BEYOND ADVICE by Rhys Hughes (ISBN 978-1-902309-26-2) is a limited edition collection of seven stories. (I managed to get it at a reasonable price because the corners were bumped.)

"The World Beyond the Stairwell" is presumably patterned after William Hope Hodgson's THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND, although there are clearly other influences as well. For example, all the mythological beasts the characters meet are from Jorge Luis Borges's BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS and all the quotes about them from the bestiary in the story are actually from the Borges. In addition, part of the story takes place in Argentina, and Borges is even mentioned explicitly by one of the characters. This is not surprising--Hughes's NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY was a complete pastiche of Borges's UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, and Borges is obviously a major influence on Hughes. (In fact, discussing "The World Beyond the Stairwell" on a blog, Hughes said, "It was a great excuse to go though Borges's BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS and use it as a sort of playbox to borrow monsters from!") Also, the main character is named Howard, perhaps a nod to H[oward] P[hillips] Lovecraft.

"A Rape of Knots" has the sense of "grotesquerie" that one associates with Lovecraft, but could not really be called Lovecraftian. It is a very visual story, which may be why I think of it as more like a film (or an episode from something like "Night Gallery", though it is obviously not suitable for that show).

In "Mah Jong Breath" is the description, "We share the premises with a legitimate company and they don't even know it. Our rooms slot through theirs, like a hidden compartment in a conjuror's box. A silk smuggler's trick from Yunnan. Very cunning." This is both Borgesian and reminiscent of the real-life situation at the Bell Labs Holmdel building. The offices were set in long parallel aisles. But in spite of the fact that the offices were pretty much all the same size, the aisles were not evenly spaced across the cross aisles. The reason wasn't obvious--it was because between every other pair of aisles there was a long corridor/room for electrical, telephone, and computer connections. The doors to it were designed to blend in with the walls, and the whole thing was "slotted between the rooms" in the manner described by Hughes.

Hughes also indulges his penchant for in-jokes by naming the local vicar Lionel Fanthorpe. (Lionel Fanthorpe was a priest who was also an extremely prolific, if not especially skilled, writer of science fiction for Badger Books.)

"The Swine Eater" is the other William-Hope-Hodgson-inspired story in the volume, and Hughes's own favorite. This may be because it has even more word-play and literary tricks than usual. The narrator says, "The chauffeur drove us out of the city, over hills and through momentous canyons, to the country inn of another Carnacki, where we supped heartily for free and exchanged anecdotes about found wallets and lost islands. I'm reluctant to move on from such convivial surroundings, so I intend to stay here while you, the reader, are dragged back down the roads to the city and the miserable abode of Captain Babel. Throw open the rotting doors of the seedy hotel where he has taken lodgings; up the greasy stairs and under a ragged curtain into his room!"

"The Semi-Precious Isle" is a story of a man looking for his Irish roots. However, the mathematician in me feels obliged to point out that the characters get their genetics wrong.

"The Herb Garden of Earthly Delights" has someone passing himself off as a demon because he is held in thrall by being threatened with spicy food. And "The Singularity Spectres" rounds out the collection.

To order Journeys Beyond Advice from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/24/2009]

NOWHERE NEAR MILKWOOD by Rhys Hughes (ISBN-13 978-1-894815-11-6, ISBN-10 1-894815-11-4) is a 2002 collection in three parts. "Martyr to Music" has three stories, "Taller Stories" has twenty- two, and "The Long Chin of the Law" has nine.

The stories in "The Long Chin of the Law" are all told by Titian Grundy, Prefect of Police. They are full of talking plaques, illegal noses, Elk-Assassins, and so on. And as always, word play, such as "Well, Titian, here's a sherry affair, because a rum business would be darker." The stories in "Martyr to Music" are told by Disability Bill, a musician in the band Disability Bill & the Cussmothers. The stories in "Taller Stories" have no obvious connecting thread, but Hughes's professed plan--to write a thousand stories which form a connected set--means that the reader occasionally runs across a character in one story that has appeared in a previous one.

To order Nowhere near Milkwood from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/06/2013]

WORMING THE HARPY AND OTHER BITTER PILLS by Rhys Hughes (ISBN 978-1-905784-31-8) is the second edition of this book. The first was published 1995 with sixteen stories; this 2011 edition adds an additional story. It also makes it much more affordable--the first edition was a limited run of 600 copies and they go for $400 and up these days. This one was much cheaper.

Indeed, that is a major problem in reading and/or collecting Rhys Hughes: so many of his books have been very limited editions that fetch high prices on the collectibles market. (Occasionally one can find an ex-library copy at a reasonable price.) I mention this only as a warning to you all--try to develop a taste for authors who are published by major publishing houses in large print runs.

(I got hooked on Rhys Hughes through his NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, an homage to Jorge Luis Borges's UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, and the only one of his books consistently available for a reasonable price.)

To order Worming the Harpy and Other Bitter Pills from, click here.

Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page.