Philip José Farmer, Venus on the Half-Shell
and Others
(Subterranean Press, 2008)

Philip José Farmer can legitimately be described as a madman, in the best possible sense. Judged solely on the basis of his writings, he seems to have, in addition to a vivid and unruly imagination, the willingness, not to explore forbidden territory, but to dance gleefully through it.

Venus on the Half-Shell and Others brings us a collection of examples of just how out-there Farmer can get. It's a collection of two novels and a number of stories from Farmer's "fictional author" period, in which, ostensibly to get past a case of writer's block, he wrote in the guise of a number of fictional authors. Thus the title work was written by Kilgore Trout (and if the name and title seem familiar, that only proves that you remember your Vonnegut), while the last selection, The Adventures of the Peerless Peer, gives us Dr. John H. Watson's story of an adventure with Lord Greystoke. (Burroughs' creation pops up again here in the second story, but not as written by Edgar Rice. Tarzan, or I should say Lord Greystoke, also known as The Jungle Rot Kid, as he might have been depicted by William S. Burroughs, addresses the Houses of Parliament. While not, strictly speaking, a "fictional author" story -- Farmer called it a "double pastiche" -- it certainly suits the temper of the collection. You have to read it to believe it.)

These stories are, aside from being a lot of fun, supremely literate, even erudite and probably, on some level, totally scandalous. Farmer was so taken with the idea of works by fictional authors that he planned an entire program enlisting a number of writers to write stories by authors who were characters in their own or others' works, with the ultimate goal of publishing an anthology. Alas, it never came to fruition (although Rex Stout not only granted permission for a story written by his character Paul Chapin, but suggested stories by Anna Karenina and Don Quixote). Editor Christopher Paul Carey, in his introduction, outlines the whole story, with names. This story is also related from one author's perspective in a foreword by Tom Wode Bellman. (And why does the name of the late Manly Wade Wellman keep tickling the back of my mind here? Mind you, I'm not drawing any conclusions, but it is sort of interesting to speculate.)

Farmer himself contributed an introduction to this volume outlining the whole fictional author approach, as well as offering some tantalizing glimpses into Vonnegut's reaction to Venus on the Half-Shell. (Vonnegut did give permission for that one, but after the tempest it aroused on publication, declined to consent to any other borrowings.)

This is one of those delights that is almost impossible to describe -- one can really only nibble around the edges and hope that some of the sense of it gets digested. Even though I've been a compulsive reader since toddlerhood, I'm sure there is much here that I'm missing -- I can't possibly remember every author-character from everything I've read, but it's a marvel and a joy to see a gifted writer having this kind of fun. (And happily, there is much here that I do get.) Carey's doing a wonderful job of bringing us the stories of Farmer, and this collection is right on target.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

Philip José Farmer is online over here. Subterranean Books is here.