Sunday, September 30, 2007

CAN Put it Down

Started reading a historical novel last night called Dawn of Empire. takes place in 3158 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Now here's the thing. I read 162 pages last night and while I was reading I thought the book okay, though nothing spectacular. But upon waking this morning, I find that I have absolutely no interest in picking the book back up. It held my attention while I was reading it, but it's now highly unlikely that I will finish it. I find that this happens with a lot of books lately. They're just good enough that it's like watching some TV programs. If you're there and it's on, you'll watch it, but you wouldn't go to any effort to tune in. Anyway, anybody needs a copy of Dawn of Empire, let me know...


Fickle sort that I am, I've already thrown Rosario Dawson over for Eve Myles, who plays Gwen Cooper on Torchwood. Myles has a down to earth beauty that's very appealing and I'm a sucker for the Welsh accent.
What is Torchwood? It's a spin off from the new Doctor Who series. Think of it as men in Black meets CSI. An organization of special ops who deal with extra terrestrial menaces. Headquartered in Cardiff, they have a high tech base and a lot of nifty gadgets. They spend a lot of time wandering rainy city streets looking for monsters.
The team leader is Captain Jack Harkness, a character originally introduced in the first season of the new Doctor Who. Jack is seemingly immortal. He doesn't age and he can't die. His origins are shrouded in mystery and while he seems to be an American, he also seems to be an extra terrestrial himself. The show has plenty of action, a dose of romance, and lots and lots of monsters. As we know, I love monsters.
The show is currently running on BBC America, which I of course don't get in my cable free environment, but Whitney was kind enough to burn a DVR of some of the episodes for me, and Cliff is going put some on DVD.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cuppa Joe

Looks like yet another era may be coming to an end. In addition to canceling my Gold's Gym membership because I now lift weights at home, I think I'm about to stop buying my morning coffee at Dunkin Donuts. Couple of reasons for this. One being a drop off in service at the Dunkin Donuts at Woodstock. They don't seem to be able to keep any help and some mornings they're short staffed or even closed when I get there. It's taking longer and longer just to get a cup of black coffee. Then there are the inconsiderate customer types who pull up to the drive through to order three dozen donuts one at a time. If I want to treat the office to Donuts, I park and go inside. I don't hold up the drive through.
But the main reason is that over the last year, since I've been cooking so much, my own coffee has gotten a lot better. I finally have the right mixture down. So since I drink it every Saturday and Sunday morning, no real reason I couldn't drink it Monday through Friday too. This weekend I think I'll look into getting one of those big, metallic travel mugs. Been buying coffee with Dunkin Donuts for five and a half years now, but all things come to an end.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sampson and the Seven Miracles of the World

Well it's not actually Sampson and there are no traces of seven miracles, but who cares? It's Gordon Scott, hero of five Tarzan films, running around in the Orient, trying to rescue a Chinese Princess from evil Tartars. The fun thing about this movie is that since Scott is only a year or two from his last Tarzan film, 1960's Tarzan the Magnificent, and is basically still wearing the same costume, it's easy to imagine this as one of those Tarzan books like Tarzan and the Lost Empire, where Tarzan finds some ancient civilization (Romans, Medieval Knights, etc) still living like their ancestors in the middle of the jungle. In fact, I could re-dub this as Tarzan and the Tartars if I could get some other voice actors.
Scott was the first real body builder to play Tarzan. In fact he was hired for his build rather than his acting ability after being spotted by a talent agent while Scott was working as a Lifeguard. He's probably the strongest actor who ever played Tarzan. There's a scene in Sampson where Scott picks one of the bad guys up by the legs and uses him as a club against three other bad guys. No wires or special effects in those days. Scott just swings the poor stuntman around like a rag doll. Once he finishes using him as a weapon he throws the stuntman away. Yikes. Scott was ex-military and had some martial arts training as well, which shows in the fight scenes.
Anyway, there are some nice sets and a lot of fights in this one, but the plot is nothing great. I'll give it a three out of five Sandals just for almost being a Tarzan movie.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Well Runs Dry

I am running out of sword & sorcery. Keep in mind that my definition of the sub genre is narrower than many and mostly confined to less than a dozen authors who hew fairly close to the original genre as defined by Robert E. Howard. And no one currently writing books in the fantasy field today is writing what I would define as actual sword & sorcery, so there's nothing new coming my way. Some folks come close. Bob Salvatore comes to mind, though he's so concerned with elves and dwarves that he's more in Tolkien land than S&S land. The late David Gemmell was also close, but many of his novels are closer to modern, post LotR heroic fantasy than old time S&S.
Some authors work in more than one branch of the fantasy tree. Michael Moorcock for instance, because while his Elric stories fit into the framework of S&S, many of his other series don't. I wouldn't consider the Hawkmoon books to be S&S. Thus, while he is a sword & sorcery author, everything he writes is not sword & sorcery.
So now that I've read all of Robert E. Howard, and all of Fritz Leiber, and all of C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Karl Edward Wagner, Lin Carter, John Jakes, L. Sprague Decamp, and many other authors that few people have even heard of, I have to consider the fact that I am gradually running out of true S&S. I have a few of Charles Saunders stories to go. I think I have a couple of Gardner Fox yarns I've yet to read. There are one of two of the Tor Conan pastiches that I haven't either read or disqualified. Basically though, I can see the bottom of the barrel.
So what will I do when I run out? Keep reading historical novels and re-read the old stuff I really like in between mysteries and non-fiction, I guess. I'm not overly concerned, but I do realize that the supply is finite and I've already exhausted most of it.

I repeat, Woof!

Nuff said.

Clerks and More Clerks

This is apparently my weekend to watch movies that everyone has recommended to me but I never got around to watching. My pals Brett and Jared went one better than recommending though. They actually brought me DVDs of Clerks and Clerks 2. Now I'd seen some of Kevin Smith's films, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, so I was familiar with his universe, but oddly I'd never gotten around to watching either of the Clerks films. I watched Clerks yesterday and Clerks 2 today. I liked the first one a lot and absolutely loved the second one. I can see why the guys like these movies so much. They're good films all around, sharp and witty, but more than that, they definitely speak to those of us who march to the beats of different drummers.
Were I a cynical type, I might say that the films celebrate under achieving. But I'm not and they don't. If they celebrate anything it's knowing who you are and doing what genuinely makes you happy even if it's not what everyone else in the world thinks you should do. Fitting in isn't everything. Maybe it's not anything. These are lessons I'd already learned, but always nice to see them championed somewhere else. Plus, Clerks 2 in particular is a meditation on friendship and love. Both things carry a cost and the cost is worth it.
And of course the movies are funny as all get out. I was actually chuckling at the impromptu dance number in the middle of the film. Just great. Oh and that Rosario Dawson? Woof!
So thanks Brett and Jared. Excellent recommendations.

Cooking with Bruce

Trish doesn't let her cats eat people food. I respect her wishes when they are with me, and only feed them cat food. (Though I slip in Pounce kitty treats, which they love.) Now Amelia seems fine with this. She rarely shows any interest in what I'm cooking or eating. Not so with the Brucester.
Bruce is not only determined to get his paws on whatever I am eating, he attempts to do so the entire time I am preparing the food. For example, this morning's breakfast went some thing like this.
Go into kitchen. Throw Bruce off the counter. Open cabinet get PAM spray. Throw Bruce off the counter. Spray pan an add egg beaters. Place pan on stove. Throw Bruce off the counter. Get sausage ready. Throw Bruce off the counter. Start coffee maker. Check on eggs. Throw Bruce off the counter.
Get the idea? Now since I don't want cat hair in my eggs and because I always wash my hands thoroughly before I start cooking, and don't want to have to stop and wash them again countless times, I have this down to an art. I only touch food with my right hand and I only pick up Bruce and throw him off the counter with my left. This gets a little chancy toward the end as I'm trying to add seasoning and cheese to my eggs. I need both hands to some degree and Bruce realizes this is his best chance to actually stick his nose into whatever I'm working on. But, fortunately my years of martial arts training have taught me to use my forearms and elbows efficiently and I manage to block all attempts to get to my eggs.
Now I move to the desk so I can check emails and such while I eat. Take a bite. Throw Bruce off the desk. Use the mouse. Throw Bruce off the desk...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

First Bourne

Finally got around to watching the Bourne Identity, which everyone and his brother (including my brother) has recommended to me. I did indeed enjoy it. Lot of good fight scenes. Well written and fast moving. Seeing all the European locations made me want to get back to traveling abroad.
I think that I was originally reluctant to watch the Jason Bourne films because I just couldn't picture Matt Damon as an action hero. I thought him a good actor, but just didn't see him as a guns and martial arts kind of guy. He did a good job though. I was pleasantly surprised. Anyway, I bought the movie in a two pack of Bourne Identity and Bourne Supremacy, so I'll be checking out the second film soon.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Hercules Against the Mongols

Ummm...a bunch of Knights fight the hordes of the sons of Genghis Khan with the aid of Hercules. It doesn't seem to bother any of these 13th Century folks that they're fighting alongside the Son of Zeus. It does raise some interesting possibilities in terms of the immortality of Hercules. I mean the guy is still around in the twelve hundreds. So presumably he could have been involved in the crusades and any other number of interesting historical events. Anyway, I'll give this one 3 Sandals just for the scene where Herc uproots a tree and clobbers a dozen or so Mongol horsemen.

Hercules in the Haunted World

Wish I'd saved this one for Halloween. It's got vampires, zombies, dank crypts, torture chambers, and all kinds of other creepy stuff. And the villain is none other than Christopher Lee, playing (what else?) the King of the Vampires. I'm surprised that some enterprising Hollywood type didn't retitle this one "Hercules Versus Dracula", because for all intents and purposes that's what this movie is.
It's also probably the best of the sword and sandal movies I've watched so far. This is one that shows that a good director can take the same limited budget that lesser talents have and turn it into a visually stylish film. According to the internet, the director, Mario Brava, went on to become a famous Italian horror movie maker. I'm not familiar with him, but he certainly has a head for the spooky stuff. The rise of the zombies from their graves toward the end of the film is actually pretty scary and when the mob of decaying bodies is swarming all over Hercules in a dark, narrow corridor, biting and clawing, it's genuinely chilling.
The film's only clunky special effect is yet another bad rock monster. It looks especially out of place because the rest of the film manages to look so good despite the limited budget. Hercules journeys to Hades, the underworld, in a dreamlike sequence that's quite surreal and effective. He climbs a gigantic tree to find the golden apple he needs to save his main squeeze and her city.
This is another Herc film that I'm reasonably sure the producers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys must have screened. Herc's sidekick in this one is an acrobatic young fellow with blonde curly hair and an eye for the ladies. Sound familiar? This one also has quite a bit of intentional humor. Much wise cracking and good natured insults. The dubbing on this one is better than average, though apparently Christopher Lee wasn't available to do his own dubbing. In some of the other S&S films I've watched, the American or British Actors did their own voices for the dubs.
I understand that this film has recently been digitally remastered and released in a wide screen version. The version in the Warriors Boxed Set is so-so, but still manages to look better than any of the other S&S movies so far. Hercules in the Haunted World gets an unheard of Five out of Five Sandals. This is probably as good as it gets for this genre.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Self Absorbed

Today has been an official Be Nice To Me Day. So I gave myself a day off from work. I took myself to breakfast at Cracker Barrel. I took myself to Barnes & Noble and bought me a book. I took myself to Movie Stop and bought me two movies. I Bought myself a pizza. I have eaten more calories today than I usually have in a week. I have not done anything I did not wish to do. Tomorrow it is back to the real world of eating right, going to work, and thinking of others. But for the rest of the day I plan to continue being nice to me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

It's Talk Like a Pirate Day

In case you weren't aware, Today is international Talk Like a Pirate Day. We take this holiday very seriously at my work place, mostly because of myself and two other people who insist on paying more attention to this than we do to any of the regular Holidays. I'm wearing my monogrammed pirate polo shirt with its custom version of our company's logo altered to a nautical theme, complete with skull, cross bones, a hook and an anchor. (I drew it and one of my co-workers had them made) Since I get to work early I'll be playing the Great Pirate. Never heard of the Great Pirate? He's the Pirate that flies around the world on Talk Like a Pirate Eve and delivers treats to all the good little girls and boys. I will be distributing Robert's American Gourmet snacks (provided by one of me mateys) to all the desks before anyone arrives. Pirate Swords and Cannon Balls for the guys and Pirate Booty for the gals. (You figure it out.)
One of our vendors, who joyously embraces the holiday, is catering the event, bringing lunch for the entire office. The air will be filled with phrases like, "belay that", "aye matey," "shiver me timbers" "avast', and such all day and entirely too many cries of "Arrrrrrrrr!!"
But that's okay. It's Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The City of Madness

Finally filled a gap in my sword & sorcery knowledge last night by reading The City of Madness, the first story written by Charles Saunders and featuring his hero Imaro. Imaro is, as far as I know, the first African American barbarian hero. (As a headliner anyway. I can think of a couple of books and comics that featured black barbarians as sidekicks earlier on.) The Imaro books originally came out in the early 1980s after I had given up reading fantasy and science fiction for a while, so I missed them the first time around. Nightshade Books has recently reprinted some of the Imaro stories in two trade paperbacks, but I ended up reading City of Madness in its original professional debut in The Years Best Fantasy volume one, edited by Lin Carter. I say professional because Carter had pulled the story from a fanzine called Dark Fantasy.
The basic concept is brilliant. Conan style adventures in a Tarzan style African setting. City of Madness is very fast paced and has a lot of the verve and energy sorely lacking from most of today's fantasy books and indeed from many of the sword & sorcery tales written by Saunders' contemporaries. There's a particularly brutal fight scene between Imaro and a demon.
As a black author, writing about a black character and introducing many elements of African culture and folklore, (though the setting is a fantasy version of Africa) Saunders definitely brings a different tone to the S&S genre. I'll have to read more of the Imaro series to see if the level of storytelling holds up, but I was very impressed with Saunders' and Imaro's debuts.


When I got home from work yesterday it looked as if it had snowed in my apartment. Someone, and I'm thinking Bruce the cat, had shredded an entire roll of paper towels into very small bits and strewn them across the living room. It was actually fairly impressive. Bruce was sitting in the middle of it, but Amelia was peeking out of the kitchen so it is possible that she set him up to take the fall, knowing he would rush out to greet me when I came home. Still it's more likely that Bruce was the culprit since he has lately been in destructo-kitty mode anyway. Beth has suggested that Bruce had made confetti to herald my arrival home and that I'm simply an ingrate. This is possible as well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I just learned that author Robert Jordan passed away yesterday, the victim of a rare blood disease. While not a big fan of his Wheel of Time series, I have always liked Jordan's prose style. Very clear and easy to follow. Just good, solid writing. His half a dozen or so Conan pastiches were among the best of the Tor series. Action packed and full of the stuff of high adventure. The one WoT book that I did finish was the 'prequel' New Spring, which began as a novella in the collection Legends. He expanded it into a short novel which I was pretty impressed with. I feel bad for his fans, who eagerly awaited each new WoT book, though I understand that there were extensive notes, plot direction, etc left for his uncompleted 12th WoT book and that someone will complete it for him. Don't know if that will tie up all the loose ends or not. Jordan followed Terry Brooks as one of the first writers to really popularize the post-Tolkein brand of epic heroic fantasy. His work was enjoyed by millions of fans. He'll be missed.

Hammer Time

Speaking of Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer, as I was a couple of posts back, I learned this weekend that mystery writer Max Allan Collins will be writing at least three new Mike Hammer novels based on partial manuscripts and notes left by Spillane. I think this is great news for several reasons. For one, I think Collins is the man for the job. I've been a fan of his for many years, reading all of his various series characters like Nate Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory, and Elliot Ness. The man is a crime writing machine. He's got the chops. More than that, he's a major fan of Spillane and Hammer, having co-written a study of Spillane's work, One Lonely Knight, and also having produced the documentary, Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane. And even more importantly, Spillane himself asked Collins to write the new Hammer books. Over his long career as a crime writer Collins had met and become close friends with his hero, Spillane, collaborating with Mickey on various projects, including co-editing various anthologies and writing a comic book series, Mike Danger, based on Spillane's original concept for Mike Hammer which Spillane had conceived during his days as a comic book writer in the 1940s.
In addition to Mike Danger, Collins also wrote Batman, Wild Dog, and other features for DC Comics and is the writer and co-creator (along with artist Terry Beatty) of the long running independent comic series Ms. Tree. I'll have to do a separate post about Ms. Tree soon. It's a great comic and needs to be collected and reprinted. (Ms. Tree is also about to appear in her first prose novel this December.) Collins was also the writer for the Dick Tracy comic strip for many years and wrote several Tracy novels. The guy gets around.
I've met Collins many times over the years at various comic book conventions, and gotten him to sign my copies of his books. My favorite memory though, involves meeting both he and Spillane at a comics/record shop in Atlanta in the early 1990s, during a promotional tour for Mike Danger. I got my copy of The Killing Man autographed by Spillane and had my picture taken with Mickey. He's about a foot shorter than me and the shot has him standing there with his arm around me like we're old pals. It's great. I'm grinning like an idiot because I'm meeting one of my heroes, and because right before the picture was taken, Mickey said, "Jeez you make me feel like a little shrimp!" That photo resides inside my copy of The Killing Man.
Sometimes, when you hear that a new writer is taking over an old favorite series you have to worry. I've certainly seen that go wrong. But in this instance I'm not concerned. I feel like Mike Hammer is in good hands.

Settled In

Well the cats have completely acclimated now. They've reached the point where they think they live here. Even Amelia has lost all grumpiness and is more than happy to hop up on the couch beside me to have her head rubbed and her chin scratched. Bruce has been in extra pest mode the last couple of days. He is almost the stereotype of the curious cat. Whatever I am doing, he must be right in the middle of it.

Keeper of the Emerald Flame

Over the weekend I was re-reading some of Lin Carter's Thongor short stories. Thongor, the real one and not my alias on Yahoo, was Carter's answer to two of his favorite authors, Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Often referred to as 'Conan on Mars', Thongor was physically almost identical to REH's barbarian hero, but his adventures, at least in book length form, more closely resemble those of ERB's John Carter of Mars.
The six short stories, on the other hand, are almost pure Howard pastiches, being mostly straight forward barbarian adventures with very little of the sword & planet trappings of the novels. They could almost be Conan stories. Come to think of it, some of them were.
See in the 1960s, Lin Carter broke into the publishing world with his novel The Wizard of Lemuria, starring his Conan analog Thongor of Valkarth. The book had been read in manuscript by noted science fiction writer, L. Sprague Decamp. Decamp had recently been involved in re-writing some of Robert E. Howard's non-Conan adventure stories into Conan yarns, four of which were published as the book Tales of Conan. Decamp was also trying to get the various Conan stories printed as a series of paperbacks. Problem was, there aren't really that many Conan tales. Only 21, which wouldn't make for much or a series. Decamp's answer was to rewrite more of REH's other stories and to write some brand new Conan stories. He offered Lin Carter the chance to collaborate on the new stories.
Carter, who had already sold a few Thongor short stories and had plotted several more, jumped at the chance. He stole his own Thongor plots to write as Conan adventures. So the world was robbed of further short adventures of Thongor and given new adventures of Conan.
But years later, at least one of the original Thongor plots actually saw the light of day as a Thongor story, even though it had already been written as a Conan yarn. Thus we have Lair of the Ice Worm, the Conan version by Carter and Decamp, and Demon of the Snows, Carter's solo tale of Thongor.
Last night I read Keepers of the Emerald Flame, which is my favorite of the Thongor short stories. It's set early in Thongor's career, when he's a mere lad of 19 and making his living as a bandit chief. One of the kingdoms that Thongor and his men have been raiding has sent a troop of soldiers to wipe out the bandits. They pursue Thongor and company deep into the steaming jungles of Lemuria, but turn back when the bandits enter an area of the jungle thought to be haunted. As it turns out, there's a lost city in there and it is indeed haunted by a particularly gruesome fiend. Things turn bloody and ugly fast. Keepers is a rollicking action filled story with some vividly described settings and a couple of genuinely creepy moments. The vast, empty, castle/city reminds me of the black stone temple in the Decamp/Carter Conan story The Castle of Terror and of the weird city in REH's Red Nails. Carter was an uneven writer. Some of his stories don't hold together well, and some are just sloppy. But when he was on he could make a nice turn of phrase and tell a well plotted solid tale, like this one. I consider the Thongor short stories to be some of Lin's best writing and I find them superior to the novels. Most of the stories can be found fairly cheap in various anthologies. They're well worth seeking out.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different (Or a Tale of Two Beattys)

Picked up two new DVDs this week. Well, one actually came in the mail from Amazon and I picked the other up at Movie Stop. Neither film has anything to do with guys with swords. Guns yes. Swords no.
First off is Ring of Fear from 1954. This is a movie about a psychotic killer seeking revenge against a circus for more or less imagined wrongs. He escapes from the asylum and wreaks havoc by releasing animals, starting fires, sabotaging the trapeze, etc. So far just a standard fifties thriller. Here's where it gets weird. The circus in the film is the Clyde Beatty circus, which was a very real and very popular circus at the time. It still exists. Look here.
Clyde Beatty plays himself in the film and when he hits wits end with the sabotage in his show he calls in...Mickey Spillane. Yes, Spillane, the author of the Mike Hammer novels. Guy in all the beer commercials. Seems that the Mick is an old friend of Beatty so he hurries to the circus to track down the killer. Spillane basically portrays his own hero, Mike Hammer, questioning folks, cracking wise, and ogling dames. It's just a tremendous amount of fun. I had only seen the movie once before and that was on a bad video transfer, which I had gone to insane lengths to acquire in the early 1990s when the film was pretty much unavailable. (I'll explain this in another post. Long story.)
In a way this is an early example of what would later be termed, meta-fiction which is a self referring text that blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Some of the characters in ring of Fear are actors. Others are people playing themselves in a fictional narrative. We also see some of Spillane's paperback books in the film, so one medium refers to another.
The other DVD was the extended cut of Warren Beatty's Bugsy. This one's a bio pic of legendary gangster Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel. Along with Meyer Lansky and Charley 'Lucky' Luciano, Siegel got his start as a New York street punk and eventually became one of the most powerful gangsters of all time. He was also, oddly enough, the man who created Las Vegas. The real Bugsy was a sociopath, outwardly charming, and inwardly a monster. More than willing to kill anyone who crossed him, Siegel was known as 'Bugsy' (though not to his face) because of his unpredictable and volatile nature. Beatty does an amazing job of capturing this. His Bugsy is a ladies man and a clotheshorse and completely and utterly ruthless. It's an incredibly powerful performance as Beatty manages to show the simmering, dangerous nature that lurks always beneath his character's surface. Even in repose you can almost see the barely restrained violence and when it explodes suddenly, you can believe that this guy is nuts.
The rest of the cast is great too, and includes Ben Kingsley, Harvey Keitel, Joe Montegna, (playing Hollywood tough guy George Raft, who was a friend of Siegel's) and Annette Benning as the tough talking Virginia Hill. Hill's nickname was Flamingo and of course that is the name of the first ever resort hotel in Vegas. Hill was also a southern girl and in fact lived for a time in one of the houses on the Marietta Square just a couple of miles from where I sit as I type this.
Anyway, I have always loved this movie, so when I saw the extended cut with deleted scenes, documentaries and such, I had to pick it up.

Sunday Morning

It's Sunday at 6:24 am. I've been up about an hour. I've cooked breakfast and had a lot of coffee. It's 56 degrees right now and the high isn't expected to reach 80, so hopefully fall is here at last. I have the windows open and the ceiling fans going. Bruce and Amelia are fascinated by the trees right outside my front windows and they are sitting, side by side, on the window sill, sniffing the breeze and watching the outside world.
It's another restless weekend. Much pacing and an inability to concentrate. I'm still reading short stories and non fiction. Just don't seem to be in a novel kind of mood. It's to be expected. Autumn has traditionally brought out the wanderlust in me. I'll just have to fight it for now.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

House Guests

Trish is away for two weeks, serving her country with her Air Force reserves unit. She's somewhere near Portugal, I think. Anyway, as you've doubtless surmised, I am once again in posession of her two cats, Bruce and Amelia. So far this has been one of their easiest transitions yet. Amelia, though a little grumpy, has been sleeping well every night and not howling at all. Bruce has been his usual affectionate, crazy self. So far, so good.
One of them did throw up yesterday, but according to my cat owning friends, that's to be expected from cats. I'm keeping an eye on them to make sure they aren't actually sick. At least which ever of them it was was kind enough to go into the bathroom before hurling. In the past Amelia has usally thrown up in the living room or in my closet. Now I feel that I have the full pet owner experience...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sans Sandals

Lest you think I have lost all traces of taste as I wander through spaghetti historical movie land, I should probably point out that I haven't even finished quite a few of the movies I've begun. I usually give them about 10 to 15 minutes and if I'm not having fun, I bail. The ones I have abandoned so far have been so bad that they're not even so bad they're good. They're just bad. So far, this group includes Cleopatra's Daughter, The Giants of Thessaly, Hercules and the Masked Rider, The Last of the Vikings, (Yes, Italian Vikings.) Ursus in the land of Fire, and The Conqueror of the Orient. These have all been so abominable that I had to send them packing sans sandals.

The Giant of Marathon

Before switching to Xena, I watched yet another Sword & Sandal movie, so here's a review of The Giant of Marathon. This is a Steve Reeves vehicle, but he shaved off his beard so no one would confuse his character Phillipides with Hercules. Phillipides is a semi-historical character, who, depending on what legends you read, either ran all the way to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians at the battle of the plain of Marathon, or ran all the way to Sparta to seek help against the Persians, or in the movie, runs all the way to Athens to warn of the Persian fleet landing on the coast of Greece. In any event, he ran a long way for some reason and yes, that legend is the origin of the term Marathon.
This one seemed to have a much higher budget than many of the other sword & sandal movies, and apparently was picked up and distributed by MGM, as their Lion roars at the beginning of the movie. There are definitely more and better sets, costumes, special effects, and even some decent miniatures. Both the good Italian babe and the bad Italian babe are hot, with the winner probably being the blonde good babe who has sort of a Bridget Bardot pouty thing going.
The battle scenes are well choreographed, which in this genre means that the extras don't look bored while they make inappropriate fencing moves with swords that weren't designed for fencing. There's some nice underwater footage of the Greeks setting up traps for the Persian ships. All and all, I liked it, so we'll give it a 3 out of 5 Sandals.

Conan the Swordsman

Been reading the L. Sprague Decamp/Lin Carter short stories in Conan the Swordsman this week. Seems to me that these later Conan pastiches are somewhat better written than the ones which appeared in the Lancer Conan books in the 1960s. Don't know if that means more editing by Decamp to Carter's first drafts or less, of if both writers had benefited from the time between their last take on Conan and this. (Decamp and Carter wrote a few more Conan pastiches in the early 70s as well.) A lot of Robert E. Howard fans absolutely hate the Decamp/Carter pastiches, but I've only recently read them and haven't found them to be that bad. A couple have been very enjoyable in fact.
According to Decamp, in his autobiography Time and Chance, the process for his collaborations with Lin Carter was for Carter to write the first draft of the story and Decamp to do the second. This was a reversal of the process Decamp had used when collaborating on the Harold Shea stories with Fletcher Pratt. Decamp felt that the more seasoned writer should do the final draft. Decamp noted that he rewrote some of Carter's stories quite extensively, and only edited others. Unfortunately there's no good record of what was done to what story. I'd find that interesting.
The Gem in the Tower has been my favorite story in Swordsman, and it may be a sequel to the REH non Conan tale, The Garden of Fear. There is a winged man in a tower which has no doors or windows except at the top as in Garden, and the text indicates he's from some ancient alien race, which would also tie in. But the physical description of the winged man differs somewhat from the one in Garden so I can't say for sure that Decamp/Carter meant him to be of the same species. May have just been a tip of the hat.
The Ivory Goddess is a direct sequel to Jewels of Gwahlur and picks up just a couple of weeks after that story. It even manages to tie up a couple of loose ends from Jewels. Moon of Blood is also a sequel, this time to Beyond the Black River, and it may be the story in the book that comes closest to feeling like an actual REH tale. Sprague and Lin rose to the occasion of writing a 'frontier' Conan yarn quite admirably.
Swordsman came out in 1978, and all the Decamp/Carter stories seem to have been written specifically for the book with no prior magazine publications. There are also two Decamp collaborations with Bjorn Nyberg, one of which is a rewrite of Nyberg's The People of the Summit which appeared in the anthology The Mighty Swordsmen. I've found Nyberg's other Conan work to be all but unreadable, so I've skipped those

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Change of Xenary

I needed a break from all the sword & sandal films so I switched back to Xena for season three this evening. Watched the episode King of Assassins in which we learn that Joxer has a brother who while looking like the slightly klutzy wannabe warrior, is actually a deadly assassin. People end up getting them confused of course. This is one of the episodes played mostly for laughs and it not only co-stars Bruce Campbell as Autolycus, but Campbell directed as well. A lot of nice comedic bits for Renee O'Connor as Gabrielle tries to handle the situation by thinking 'what would Xena do', with far less successful results than the warrior princess usually gets.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hercules Against the Moon Men

Sunday afternoon's installment of Sword and Sandal Theater was Hercules Against the Moon Men. I expected this one to be pretty bad since I knew it had been used for an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it wasn't all that bad.
The improbably named Alan Steel stars as Hercules and fights a race of extra terrestrial moon men and their army of rock creatures. There's an evil queen who is fairly hot and a couple of nice girl princesses who are less so.
This movie is more like what I remember from when I was a kid, with its bad dubbing and over the top acting. Still as an early 1960s fantasy film, it isn't much worse than the stuff we were making in the US at the same time. From what I've read, this wasn't originally a Hercules film, but was instead about a homegrown Italian hero named Maciste. It was re-titled when it was released over here to capitalize on the popularity of the Steve Reeves Hercules movies.
I would almost bet money that this was one of the movies screened by the makers of the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys television series when they were in pre-production. Some of the moves in the show's fights come right out of this film, particularly the way the hero uses a spear or a staff against large groups of attackers and the way he never seems to hold on to any sword he manages to take away from a bad guy. Everyone knows that fists are better than swords. Plus this one has a high fantasy content, with several monsters and a lot of sorcery.
It also has one extremely overlong sequence in a sandstorm which annoyed me sufficiently to drop the movies rating from Three Sandals to Two Sandals.

Goodbye Golds

After right at seven years I'm canceling my membership at Gold's Gym in Woodstock. Part of that is because of the increasing indifference of the management and the lack of maintenance to the equipment. The main reason, however, is because I can't get to the cable machine. It is infested by yuppies.
I am, for the most part, an old fashion weight lifter. I use free weights for 90% of what I do. But for one muscle group, the triceps, which are the big muscles at the back of your arms below the shoulder, I like the constant resistance offered by the cable machine. There is tension during both parts of the exercise.
But here's the problems. Yuppies fear free weights. The idea that a barbell or dumbbell might fall on them fills them with terror. So they congregate at the cable machine, with their towels and their water bottles, usually doing nothing that will actually do them any good. The last half a dozen times I've been to Golds, there have been at least three people waiting to get to the cable stations, of which there are only two.
Now my work out is fairly intense. I try to move quickly from one station to the next, finishing the entire routine in about 45 minutes. (Weights only. Not counting cardio.) An adult male only produces testosterone for about that length of time, so if you're spending much more time lifting weights, you're not building muscle. You're mostly doing aerobics after 45 minutes. Anyway, I don't have time to wait for a bunch of people in color coordinated sweat suits to get off the freaking cable machine. Since that machine is pretty much the only thing I need other than free weights, and I can't seem to use it, I don't see much sense in giving Golds money every month.
So I have begun accumulating dumbbells. There is a cable machine at the small fitness center in my apartment complex which is almost always yuppie free. I'll get a bench once I have all the free weights I want and I'll start doing the 90% of my routine at home and the other 10% in the fitness center. I expect to have what I need by the end of the month, so pretty soon I'll be saying goodbye to golds.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Art of Thomas Yeates

Check out the new website for comics artist/illustrator Thomas Yeates. Thomas is my current favorite artist for Tarzan, following very much in the footsteps of classic Tarzan artist Hal Foster and joining Russ Manning and Jesse Marsh as one of the top Tarzan artists of all time. There are plenty of examples of Thomas's artwork at the site, including big galleries of Tarzan and other Edgar Rice Burroughs characters, and a nifty gallery of various commissions where Thomas draws Batman, Swamp Thing, and some fantastic renderings of Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane.
I'm the proud owner of three Thomas Yeates originals, but I don't have scans of any of them, so we'll have to make do with the nice Tarzan illo above. Thomas did the amazing pen and ink illustration of Tarzan and Conan that some of you have seen. It's one of my prize possessions.
Anyway, website is here:

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Sword & Sandal Theater

When I was twelve or so, one of the local channels (I think it was channel 17) used to show a lot of what were called 'Sword & Sandal' films on Sunday afternoons. My cousin Rick and I would watch them because they were just about the closest thing on TV to a Conan movie. Most of them were made in Italy and starred various body builders like Steve Reeves or Reg Park. There were usually a lot of guys in togas and a lot horses and a lot of hot Italian babes doing their best Sophia Loren pouts. And there was action. Lots and lots of action. I wasn't a huge fan of the genre but I have fond memories of watching them.
So anyway last night, while I was perusing author Steven Saylor's website, I noticed that he recommended a collection of 50 of these movies called simply Warriors. I had actually noticed the boxed set at Borders a couple of times but never paid it much mind. However, after reading Saylor's review (and after noting that the set was only $19.95) I thought 'What the Hey.'
I picked it up this morning and tonight I watched 'The Lion of Thebes' with Mark Forest. Mark plays a bodyguard to Helen of Troy (played by hot Italian babe Yvonne Furneaux). Seems that Helen while escaping the sack of Troy, gets shipwrecked on the coast of Egypt. She and her bodyguard get picked up by the Egyptians and The Pharaoh takes one look at Helen and goes ga-ga for her. There's a bunch of political intrigue, some nice costumes, a second hot Italian babe, a lot of chariots, and a lot of fighting. I actually had a good time with it. The dubbing was pretty good and the production values were higher on this one than on a lot of others I remember. Nice sets and what have you.
So anyway, now that I have 49 more of the things to watch I'm going to introduce another feature here at Singular Points to join the Department of Lost Barbarians called Sword & Sandal Theater. I'll review the various films, though probably not all of them, and let you know if I find them good, bad, or just laughable. Think I'll use a sliding scale of 1 to 5 Sandals. Tonight's entry makes a strong beginning with 4 out of 5 Sandals.

Reading Report

Hmmm, what have I read the last week or so? Read Master of Souls, one of Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries. These are set in Medieval Ireland. I think I like Tremayne's short stories better. He's a competent writer but his sleuth never comes to life for me and so spending an entire novel with her is kind of like a long trip with a boring companion. I think he's one of the absolute best at the short mystery, though.
Also read Dean Koontz's Fear Nothing. Sort of like Odd Thomas in that the narrator has a weird physical affliction. This guy has a disease that makes him extremely susceptible to ultraviolet light, so much that he can't go out in sunlight at all and even has to be careful of most artificial lights. Makes for some interesting suspense as he can be menaced merely by staying in a brightly lit room too long. The plot wasn't too thrilling though.
Read a couple of short stories from Steven Saylor's collection The House of the Vestals, featuring his Roman sleuth, Gordianus the Finder. I need to get back to reading Saylor's novels. I used to really enjoy them but kind of lost track. Might go back and re-read them from the start soon.
Other than that, just the usual assortment of non-fiction, comics, and news articles.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Even Tarzan's in Rome

Over at ERBZine they're continuing with the reprints of Russ Manning's stunning Tarzan Sunday comics pages. This is great for me because most of this stuff has never been reprinted in easily available volumes, so many of the stories, like this one, are absolutely new to me. NEW comics written and drawn by my favorite Tarzan comics artist. Gotta love it. The current reprint features Tarzan's adventures in a lost city that was founded by Romans and of course, through the logic of H. Rider Haggard style lost race romance, the culture is exactly as it was in ancient Rome.
The wicked empress thinks to trap some recently captured slaves between savage jungle animals and a legion of her crack troops for a little slaughter, but she hasn't reckoned on one of those captives being Tarzan of the Apes. Now he's leading his ape brothers against the Roman soldiers. Just look at that beautiful action panel on the lower left. Man, Russ could draw. Now of course the Empress will fall for Tarzan as all those evil queens always do. If you want to read the story as it's reprinted go here.

You're in for a treat, seeing one of the classic comics artists working at the top of his game on his favorite character.
Important safety tip. Try not to get a song called 'F*ck the Pain Away' stuck in your head. It's embarrassing when people ask you what you're humming and you have to say, "Um...some stupid song."

Guilty Pleasure

Have I ever mentioned that I love the old 1980s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon? Probably not. I'm not proud of the fact. But I do. It's just exactly the sort of cartoon that I would have wanted as a kid. Contemporary heroes thrust into fantasy world must fight monsters and magic as they try to make their way home. Of course I wasn't actually a kid when it came out in 1983, unless you consider 21 a kid. (And these days I do, come to think of it.)
Anyway, in case you aren't familiar with the show, a group of kids go for a ride on a Dungeons and Dragons themed roller coaster in an amusement park which somehow actually transports them to another world. There they are given magical weapons and assigned character types that more or less mimic the player types in the D&D game. You know. Ranger, wizard, thief, etc. My favorite character is probably Hank the Ranger, voiced by Willie Ames, (Eight is enough. Charles in Charge. Bibleman.) though the annoying kid Bobby probably has the best weapon, a club that can smash just about anything. Other characters were voiced by Ames' Eight is Enough co-star Adam Rich (Presto) and Donny Most, (Eric) who played Ralph Malph on Happy Days.
The kids have a mentor who's kind of a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, called Dungeon Master. He shows up to give clues and advice and to sum up each story's moral message at the end of the show. The primary enemy is a Darth Vader type called Venger.
Anyway I recently picked up the DVD boxed set of the entire series and I've only gotten around to watching it this week. There are one or two episodes that I never saw in their original run, so it's kind of cool to finally be able to see them all.
The show holds up pretty well. Most of the animation was done in Japan and the show looks like some of the lower budget anime from the 80s. (Think Star Blazers) There are some nice motion effects and some surprisingly ambitious creature animation for a Saturday morning kids show. I think that the main thing that makes the show still enjoyable (and has generated quite a cult following) is the strong writing and the relationships between the characters. There's a surprising amount of character development in the show and the kids all have recognizable personalities, speech patterns, etc. They have arguments. They give in to despair. They get tired of the constant battles and disappointments. Fairly impressive for the time.
The episode stories are well written by folks like Paul Dini and Mark Evanier, who would go on to bigger things, and always have strong plots with well defined beginnings, middles, and ends. The governing bodies of children's television at the time required a bit of moralizing, but it's not too heavy handed on Dungeons and Dragons. And the writers managed to slip the occasional bit of real drama into the series as in the Dragon's Graveyard episode where the kids actually considered killing Venger.
My favorite episodes are The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow and The City on the Edge of Midnight, both which explore how the alternate world the kids are trapped in is connected to ours. Both these shows give the impression that no time has actually passed in the real world while the kids are in the D&D world. Some nice little science fiction-ish touches.
The boxed set has some decent extras. There are audio commentaries on two episodes by various people who worked on the series, a nice documentary about the making of the show, plus a ton of storyboards, character sheets and other art. All and all, a nice package.
I'm not a player of the actual D&D role playing game, so my review is based entirely on the merits of the cartoon. I've heard that a lot of hard core D&D types absolutely hated the show, though other gamers, like my buddy Brett, are fond of it. I just thought it an entertaining cartoon with a lot of imagination and a good bit of heart.
The show ran for two seasons and ended with no real resolution. A final episode was written but never filmed, but as I said, Dungeons and Dragons has something of a cult following, and there are always rumors of a movie sequel or a new series. So who knows? The kids may get home yet.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Plotting Machine

Though I never really liked school, I'll admit to feeling a certain wistfulness as I wandered past the stacks of Back to School supplies in Wal-Mart Saturday morning. It was all I could do not to buy some spiral notebooks and theme books, because that's where I used to do all my writing. My first couple of novel length manuscripts were written in notebooks. They were Panthans of Mars and The Madman of Mars, sequels to Edgar Rice Burroughs' mars novels, in case you were wondering. And before you ask, a Panthan is a Martian soldier of fortune. I still have both of those manuscripts, some thirty years later. I re-read them not long ago. Madman is a little clunky, but Panthans is surprisingly well plotted. Seems like I could always plot, almost from the beginning. I'm known to many of my writer friends as 'the plotting machine'. I have always theorized that this ability comes from the fact that I have absorbed literally thousands of stories, not only from books but from movies, television, comic books, etc, and since I have a nearly photographic memory, I can access all of those plots and recombine them. However, it seems that even early on, I had a good grasp of how to tell a story. My pal Laura always says I should go to Hollywood and make a fortune as a script doctor. I don't think I'm cut out for life in L.A. though.

Fall in the Air

A cool 66 degrees this morning. Finally starting to feel like fall out there. Monday morning was the first morning in some time that I could open the windows and air the apartment out. The heat had been so intense for several weeks that my AC had been running pretty much non stop. We're still hitting highs in the 90s in the afternoons but the ten day forecast shows highs only in the 80s after Friday. About time.
I've never been a hot weather person. I am naturally warm natured and get hot very easily, so summer and me have never been on good terms. This year, since we had some record high temperatures, has been more annoying than usual.
Of course the approach of fall always seems to make me restless, and I felt just a hint of that this morning. I'm still badly in need of a vacation, but circumstances both financial and otherwise are conspiring to keep me stuck at home. (Hey, I've only been out of debt for a month. Need time to accumulate some funds.)
Still, fall is my favorite season. I like to see the trees turn color. I like the crispness of the air and that particular quality of sunlight that only occurs in the autumn of the year.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Strange Tale of The Black Stranger

Re-read the Conan story The Black Stranger this weekend for the first time in maybe twenty years. Fond as I am of Conan, I'd avoided that one because it's a very atypical story and doesn't contain most of the things I read Conan for. Check out this description:

"The stranger was as tall as either of the freebooters, and more powerfully built than either, yet for all his size, he moved with pantherish suppleness in his high, flaring topped boots. His thighs were cased in close-fitting breaches of white silk, his wide skirted sky-blue coat open to reveal an open necked white silken shirt beneath, and the scarlet sash that girdled his waist. A lacquered hat completed the costume. A heavy cutlass hung at the wearer's hip."

Long John Silver? Johnny Depp? Nope. That's Conan. Yes, Conan, in full Spanish Main pirate regalia. Now Robert E. Howard always played kind of fast and loose with the technological level of his imaginary Hyborian Age. Usually it fell somewhere between bronze age and early Medieval. But somehow, in this one story, it suddenly jumped to the level of the 17th or 18th century. It's a bit jarring, as if Julius Caesar suddenly showed up in Treasure Island.
The story is also strange in that Conan only appears in about a third of it. The rest of the story is concerned with Count Valenso, a nobleman seeking to escape some horrible supernatural fate, his niece Belesa, and her ward, a child named Tina. Throw in a couple of pirate captains and a horde of savage Picts to add danger and intrigue. Thing is, on re-reading the tale, I found that it's actually a very good story and probably contains some of Robert E. Howard's best prose. He handles the secondary characters with a level of polish and maturity that isn't discernible in much of his earlier work. Keeping Conan on the fringes of the story until the last third allows him to seem very mysterious and dangerous when he finally does appear. And the last few scenes of the story contain some incredibly suspenseful action sequences as the plans of the pirates fall apart, the Picts overrun the manor house, and the titular Black Stranger shows up to wreak his revenge.
Now here's where it gets even more weird. Howard failed to sell this story to Weird Tales. So he re-wrote it as a standard pirate yarn featuring a protagonist named Black Vulmea instead of Conan. That one didn't sell either so both versions went into Howard's stack of unsold manuscripts. Later, when all this stuff was unearthed, many people thought that Black Stranger, because of its differences from the other Conan tales, was actually a rewrite of Swords of the Red Brotherhood. I can see why. The story really does read as if Howard re-wrote a historical pirate adventure and grafted Conan into it. But, the late Karl Edward Wagner, who first published The Black Stranger in unaltered form (more about that in a moment.) says"

"There has been some confusion as to which is the original version. I have a photocopy of Howard's original manuscript of The Black Stranger, which clearly shows Howard's efforts to change the story from the Conan to the Black Vulmea version."

I mentioned above that Wagner was the first to publish The Black Stranger in unaltered from because L.Sprague Decamp did a rewrite of the original story which was published as The Treasure of Tranicos. Decamp made a lot of changes in the story so that it would better fit into the chronology he had established for the Conan stories. There are several different versions of Tranicos as well, as it was slightly rewritten by editor Lester Del Rey for its original publication in Fantasy Magazine in 1953, then almost completely rewritten again by Decamp for the version that appeared in the Lancer paperback, Conan the Usurper in the 1960s.
So there you have it. The strange tale of the Black Stranger.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

For the Love of Adventure

I've mentioned before that my pal Cliff always saves the Sunday Funnies out of his newspapers for me. This originally started because Cliff's hometown paper, The Rome News Tribune, was running the Prince Valiant strip and that strip was taken over a couple of years back by artist Gary Gianni. Gianni is an illustrator and a comic book artist and is probably best know for the beautiful paintings and line drawings he did for two of Wandering Star's Robert E. Howard books.
But wait. It gets better. Not long after Gianni took over the art on the strip it was announced that Mark Schultz would take over the writing chores on Prince Valiant. Schultz is yet another of the illustartors who worked on the Wandering Star REH books and is also the writer/artist of the cult favorite comic, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, which sought to recapture the 50s style look of the old EC science fiction comics.
So now we have two fans of Robert E. Howard and Conan drawing and writing Prince Valiant. And boy does it show. In the past year Val has traveled to Egypt and battled an ancient sorcerer who guarded the treasures of King Solomon. He's teamed up with Viking raiders and African tribesmen. Now it looks like he's about to run into a lost race of winged anthropoids in the African rain forest. Sounds like something right out of the Solomon Kane story, Wings in the Night.
It's the stuff of high adventure and it makes me feel very kid-like, poring over the four color panels as Val and his Viking pal run from one hairbreadth escape to the next. So thanks Gary and Mark, for bringing a sense of wonder back to the Sunday funny papers, and thanks Cliff, for seeing that I didn't miss out.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Lesser Conan

In the world of Robert E. Howard scholarship there are certain Conan stories which are considered classics. These would include such stories as Rogues in the House, The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, and the two stories generally touted as the 'best' Conan tales, Beyond the Black River and People of the Black Circle. (Howard had a thing for the word Black, it seems.)
Then there are the duds. The stories that aficionados of Conan believe were written merely for a paycheck and not through one of those bouts of feverish inspiration that make the aforementioned Conan stories so readable. These would include The Slithering Shadow, Jewels of Gwahlur, Shadows in Zamboula, and that "Spock's Brain' of Conan stories, The Vale of Lost Women. These then, are considered lesser Conan.
I don't necessarily agree in all four cases. Some would say this is because I am so obsessed with the character that my judgment is biased and sooner or later I will catch up with these people and render Crom's judgment on them. Er... I mean, I'm perfectly capable of identifying bad work, even by authors I really like. There are a couple of novels by John D. MacDonald, who is like a god to me, that I absolutely cannot stand. Same goes for Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker. They have all written phoned in work and so did Robert E. Howard.
For instance, I will wholeheartedly agree that The Vale of Lost Women is a bad story. Really, really bad. In this one, a pampered noblewoman is captured by jungle savages who plan to sacrifice her in messy fashion. Conan shows up and she offers herself to him if only he will save her. Conan, who is ever lustful, agrees. She escapes on a stolen horse as Conan hacks his way through the jungle savages. In like the third from the last page of the story, the naked girl rides into the titular Vale and is set upon by a gibbering, slavering Lovecraftian horror. Conan shows up and dispatches said horror in a paragraph. Now not only is this yarn poorly plotted, it's poorly written, containing some of the clunkiest prose Howard ever produced. Howard couldn't sell this one, and it was only printed many years after his death, when Conan-mania was rampant and someone could have sold a book of Howard's grocery lists. Probably would have been better if it had never seen the light of day.
I'd also agree that Jewels of Gwalhur is pretty bad. I just re-read it yesterday and found it to be rambling and disjointed in construction. It's not badly written, however, and contains some nice action scenes. Still, I can see why most Conan fans don't much care for it. (And Cliff, Conan does NOT wear bike shorts anywhere in this story.)
However, I don't see much wrong with the other two stories. Shadows in Zamboula is well plotted, moves very quickly, and has some imaginative sequences to it. The Slithering Shadow, which reads like a warm-up for the later Conan tale, Red Nails, is certainly a nice little horror tale with some deft touches and even some dark humor. Maybe hard-core Conan fans don't like to see their mighty hero cracking wise but I rather liked it. This one was also beautifully adapted in Savage Sword of Conan by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and Alfredo Alcala. (See illo)
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the 'lesser' tales of Conan.