James Branch Cabell

I’m revisiting this writer – a poorly-remembered American fantasist – because I just read through all of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and it’s crawling with Cabellian allusions and intertexts, especially in the early issues. I wasn’t too surprised to find, when I looked up Jurgen on Amazon, that the latest paperback edition has a foreword by Gaiman.

I was obsessed with Cabell when I was a teenager, but all my copies of his novels were lost in the Great F&SF Purge of 199-, when almost everything on my shelves with a lurid cover got packed up and donated to the Metropolitan Community Church secondhand store on Broadway. The covers of the early-80s Allen and Unwin paperbacks were exactly the wrong sort of lurid for Cabell: panel-van swordsmen, a far cry from the drolleries of Frank Papé’s original illustrations.

What I’m most struck by in reading Jurgen again is the ways in which Cabell is a sort of mirror image of his contemporary, H P Lovecraft. The two writers are so different in style that any glib comparison is ridiculous, but they both were possessed by a vision of the wider universe as incomprehensible and hostile to humanity. The way Cabell’s characters usually deal with this unpleasantness is a kind of sniggering bawdiness, followed by heavy drinking and a resigned middle age. A much more congenial and realistic fate than the psychosis which lies waiting for Lovecraft’s heroes.

People take Lovecraft far too seriously nowadays; a 21st century in which an equal amount of critical attention were to be paid to Cabell is an interesting fantasy in itself.

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