Thursday, July 31, 2008

This Old House

When I got to Dr. No's last night I had a couple of packages waiting. One contained four old and eclectic sword and sorcery paperbacks and the other a book from Arkham House called Book of the Dead. I mentioned to Cliff that there's just something about a book from Arkham House. If you're not familiar with them, Arkham is a small publishing house originally created in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei for the purpose of keeping the works of the then recently deceased H.P. Lovecraft in print. Little did either man realize that the publication of The Outsiders and Others in 39 would lead to many other books and to the publishing house becoming something of a legend.
The early AH titles were works of art, printed on heavy paper and sturdily bound in thick covers. The old books have a heft to them, a solidity missing in today's mass produced volumes. The dust jackets were printed on heavy matte finish paper. I can remember years ago when I first ordered a couple of volumes of the Letters of H.P Lovecraft from AH being amazed and how heavy the small books were. And later, when Cliff loaned me other AH titles, I marveled at the quality of the books. Someone who truly loves books will know what I mean.
But there's more than that. Arkham House was such a small operation and their books of such a macabre nature that the publisher themselves somehow seemed tied to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. To me Arkham books felt like part of that mythos, almost as if they had published the Necronomicon, Mysteries of the Worm, and the Black Book of Von Juntz before settling down to turn out volumes of Horror fiction. The company didn't do anything to dispel such a connection. Back in the late 1980s if you called Arkham House you would get a terse message, something like, "You have reached the offices of Arkham House. If you would like to receive a catalog leave your name and address." Nothing more. You either knew what Arkham House was or you didn't and they didn't much care.
Over time the older books from Arkham have also become legendary. Books like Dark Carnival by Ray Bradbury, Skullface and Others by Robert E. Howard, Night's Black Agents by Fritz Leiber, Out of Space and Time by Clark Ashton Smith, The Hounds of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long, and The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft. Author and book names to conjure with. Most of these books are very collectible and very expensive these days.
There was a period in the mid 1970s, after the death of August Derleth, when Arkham House seemed to lose their focus and made a move toward publishing more science fiction and less of the macabre fiction that had once been their primary material. In fact from then right up to the 1990s it often seemed that AH was trying to distance itself from the kinds of books that put them on the map. Volumes by and about Lovecraft and his circle trickled out, but there wasn't anything like the old days. The quality of the books began to diminish as well and though still very nice volumes, they didn't have the look and feel of the old books.
But now and again an old style AH classic still shows up. In the last decade or so I've bought Miscellaneous Writings by H.P. Lovecraft, Lovecraft Remembered by Peter Cannon, Alone With the Horrors by Ramsey Campbell, and now Book of the Dead by E. Hoffman Price. Book of the Dead isn't as heavy or as well made as the older books but it's still a quality volume and it still has the familiar AH logo on the cover. And you know, there's still something about a book from Arkham House.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ask and You Shall Receive

Several posts back I mentioned that now that the letters of both H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard have been published, that I wished that someone would publish a volume collecting both sides of the many long discussions the two writers had over the years. And now someone is going to. In 2009 Hippocampus Press is going to release a two volume set collecting the correspondences between Lovecraft and Howard. The books are supposed to contain a lot of annotations from Howard and Lovecraft scholars. Can't wait.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Chasing Darkness

I wondered how Robert Crais was going to top last years novel The Watchman. Basically and perhaps wisely he didn't even try. Where Watchman was a high octane thriller, Crais's new novel Chasing Darkness is an intricately plotted mystery with very little action. And where Joe Pike took center stage in Watchman, Chasing Darkness is Elvis Cole's show all the way. Pike is on the fringes of the plot for the majority of the book.
In Chasing Darkness, Elvis Cole, the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Detective, is faced with the chilling possibility that a man he helped clear of a murder several years back may have actually been guilty, and worse, may have been a serial killer who has killed two more victims since Cole helped him beat the murder rap.
Needless to say, Cole goes into hyper investigation mode, digging up all the dirt he can find and managing, as usual, to annoy the hell out of the LAPD, who threaten to shut him down. Seems somebody high up in the Los Angeles political scene may have his own reasons for wanting the closed case to stay closed. Not on Cole's watch.
I enjoyed the book, though I was a little disappointed that Pike wasn't on stage more, but I guess Crais felt it was time to turn the focus back onto his series' original protagonist. Chasing Darkness is a well plotted mystery with some nice twists. Not in a class with The Watchman, but a decent read none the less.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rambo


Back in 1982 my uncle Ray wanted to go see a movie called First Blood that had just opened. His wife and kids weren't interested so I told him I'd go along. The movie starred Sylvester Stallone, who up to that point hadn't had a hit film that didn't concern rocky Balboa, so I didn't have high hopes for it. I ended up loving it. And of course it ended up being a huge commercial success and the name Rambo took on an identity of its own.
The first Rambo film had a reality about it that the next two movies in the series would lack. In First Blood John Rambo is a less a super human than he would become. He's a tortured, confused, lonely man who gets pushed too far until he finally pushes back and then there's hell to pay. A good solid story. The next two films strayed from the concept as Rambo became a camo-clad superman, mowing through armies of bad guys and basically doing impossible things. I watched both movies and enjoyed them for what they were but they didn't have the impact of first blood.
2008's Rambo manages to get a lot of the reality back. I watched it yesterday and was pleasantly surprised. Rambo has been pulled back to his roots. Still a loner. Still an outcast. And still not a man to push too far. And unless you count amazing accuracy with a bow or a handgun, this Rambo doesn't do anything superhuman. There's nothing in this one that a well trained former soldier couldn't actually do. Rambo is a dangerous human being, but he's human.
Now keep in mind, Stallone was 61 during the filming of this movie, You wouldn't think so to look at him. Sure he keeps his shirt on all through this one, but his arms are still well defined and when you see him running through the Burmese jungle you aren't going to think this guy is in his sixties. Check out the pic I included above to see what I mean. Go Sly.
Years ago when I was an auto parts salesman, one of the mechanics we did business with who knew I also taught martial arts and collected knives and handguns used to call me Rambo. I'm not much for nicknames but he always meant it in an affectionate way and from him I never minded. And once I owned a really nice replica of the knife Rambo carries in Rambo Three. Alas, it went missing in a burglary back at my old house. So as you can see, Rambo and I have some history. I'm glad he's back.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

10,000 Boring Cliché

Over the weekend I watched the movie 10,000 B.C. It was so bad that I didn't even bother reviewing it here. However I was talking with a fellow movie buff at work and he mentioned that when watching B.C. he noticed that it had the same plot as last year's Mel Gibson film, Apocalypto. I said that I'd noted the same thing. But then I went on to mention that the basic plot, an idyllic people are captured and taken into slavery by a more 'civilized' tribe and one of the members of the more primitive tribe fights through to rescue his people, is hardly new. I mean that story has basically been re-treaded since the story of Moses. (And even before that.) Sure, Moses didn't physically battle the Pharaoh, though if the Ten Commandments was remade today, he probably would. (I can see Moses and the Pharaoh squaring off at the foot of the Great Pyramid. They'd start off fighting with staffs, then maybe a little wu shu action and some wire work.)
Anyway, the plot has been used for Westerns, SF films, sword and sandal movies, and even more contemporary films. I guess 10,000 B.C.'s similarity to Apocalypto is just a bit more jarring because the two movies were made so close together. I'm surprised that Mel didn't sue.
In addition to the clichéd plot, the movie suffered from poor pacing, anachronisms galore, and uneven special effects. I thought the mammoths looked pretty good in the first few scenes, but really goofy toward the end of the movie. The saber tooth tiger looked like a cartoon. The CGI guys should have used more motion capture of actual big cats. There's some mystic mumbo jumbo that's never really explained and for some reason all the cave men have strange European accents. The movie's just a mess.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


The night before last I dreamed that I was at a horse farm in North Carolina with the late author Karl Edward Wagner. We were walking down a dirt road, talking about Manly Wade Wellman's writing. Now keep in mind, I never actually met Wagner so my sleeping brain was extrapolating what he might look like in 3D from photos I've seen. Wish I could remember more of the dream, but all I get are flashes of afternoon sunlight, the sounds of horses milling about and the dry dirt rising in clouds around our shoes as we walked.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Nightworld

Nightworld delivers, big time. After a build up over five preceding books, I had to wonder if F. Paul Wilson could bring off a climax worth the wait, and boy did he. I started the book yesterday morning, planning to only read a couple of chapters and then take care of some other things, but I read a third of Nightworld at a sitting. Then I forced myself to put it down so I could get some laundry started, eat some lunch, check emails and such. But soon I was back to the book and I read the other two thirds straight through.
In the two previous books we see the slow rebirth and rise of Rasalom, the ancient enemy from Wilson's novel The Keep. He has returned to earth through a series of events far too complicated to summarize here. At the end of Reprisal he is poised to begin his reign of terror and to plunge the world into a literal hell on earth. As Nightworld begins he gets right down to business.
One morning the sun rises five minutes late. It's not physically possible, but it happens. And the sun sets about the same amount of time too early. Then a huge hole opens in Central Park and as darkness falls even earlier, the hole spews forth an army of hellish creatures that begin slaughtering the citizens of New York. Over the next few days more holes open around the world, and larger and more savage creatures emerge, sort of like the extra dimensional monsters in Stephen King's The Mist. These are some bad boys. The creatures can't abide the light, so they only come out at night, but every day the sun rises later and sets earlier and soon there will be no sunrise and harried humanity will have no respite from the monsters.
Meanwhile, in a sort of chrysalis beneath the ground, Rasalom is growing and changing into a new form, feeding off the fear and despair his legions are creating above, and planning his revenge against his ancient enemy Glaeken.
Characters from the previous books play pivotal roles in Nightworld. I'd mentioned in reviews of the earlier books in the Adversary cycle that a couple of the books (The Tomb and The Touch) didn't seem to have much connection to The Keep and the last three books, but all becomes clear as the now old and feeble Glaeken gathers the surviving characters into a rag tag "army" to try one last battle against Rasalom before the earth falls into final darkness.
It sounds epic and it is. Wilson's signature mix of horror and action/adventure is at full blast here as the heroes rise to the occasion only to be struck down again and again. Pain, loss, and tragedy are ladled on the protagonists as Rasalom feeds off their despair. But Glaeken has a plan. He'll need the help of each of his allies and especially that of Wilson's urban mercenary Repairman Jack, and even that may not be enough.
In case you can't tell, I really really liked this book. The whole Adversary series seems tailor made for me. It has all the genres I read, crime fiction, fantasy, horror, action, and it begins and to some degree ends with sword & sorcery. So I guess it's fitting that I discovered the series through Wilson's short story, Demonsong, read in an old S&S anthology purchased on a whim. I do wonder what readers who never read Demonsong make of some of the dialog between Rasalom and Glaeken. Without that hard to find short story you don't really know why some of this stuff is happening. Of course it doesn't really matter in the end. The books can be read without even knowing the short story exists, but it certainly adds something extra for those who've read it.
Anyway, I highly recommend the Adversary Cycle. Just don't start it if you have other things to do.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Reprisal

Did I say that F. Paul Wilson's Reprisal was a placeholder? Teach me to pass judgment on a book midway through. At about the halfway point the horror really kicks in. And I mean this is some bad stuff. One of those where you're thinking, "Oh no, he's not really going to let that happen is he?" And he does. Yikes. Probably the darkest of the Adversary books in many ways. Not for the squeamish. I'd like to think I can hold out for a bit before leaping into the final volume Night World, but I don't think that's very likely.

Friday, July 18, 2008

My Top Five Books About Comic Books


Next on my list of lists is a subject near and dear to my heart. The American comic book. People are always asking me how I know so much about the history of comics, and the truth is, I learned a major chunk of that knowledge from the first three books on my list at a very early age. I was 10 when I got hold of All In Color For a Dime, which is the first book on the list, but I'll explain more about that as I go. So here's the list. If you read these five books I believe you will have an excellent understanding of the history of the comic book right up until the 1950s. Unfortunately I can't recommend a really good book about the 'Silver Age' of comics which occurred in the 1960s. There hasn't a really good book about that era yet, though there are quite a few good books about individual creators who worked during that time.

All In Color For a Dime

   This book of essays about comics opened my eyes to the vast history
of the comic medium. So many characters that I'd either never heard of or knew
very little about. It's where I got my knowledge of the original Captain Marvel (Shazam). It's where I learned all about the original Human Torch, about Golden Arrow, The Fin, Hydro-Man, Mr. Scarlet, The Face, Atoman,The Blonde Phantom, The Claw, Black Terror, and so may other long vanished superheroes. Most importantly it's where I found out how a man named M.C. Gaines had more or less invented the comic book by originally reprinting Newspaper Comic strips in booklet form and how Detective Comics number one was the first comic book to feature all original material and would eventually lead to the first appearance of Superman. Heady stuff. On a personal note, one of the two editors of the book was the late Don Thompson. Don, along with his wife Maggie, was the first person to buy my writing, hiring me as a columnist for the Comics Buyers Guide. He was also just a great guy and a lot of fun to be around.

The Steranko History of Comics Vol I & II

   I'm counting these two slender volumes as one book because basically one just continues the other. Jim Steranko, something of a legend in his own time, is one of the most influential comic book artists of all time despite a relatively small amount of published work. People who've never even heard of him are still aping his techniques by aping the styles of earlier artists who learned from Steranko. His two volumes of comics history are truly a treasure trove of information because Steranko conducted dozens of interviews with the surviving artists, writers, and editors of comic's Golden Age. These books don't just offer facts, but also anecdotes and remembrances and stories by and about the men and women who were there at the beginning. The first chapter in volume one covers newspaper comics and the second covers the Pulp magazines of the 1930s. These two mediums gave birth to the comic book as we know it. After that, the books go on to detail the histories of comic book companies like DC, Marvel, Fawcett, Quality, and smaller, lesser known outfits. Plus there are hundreds of cover reproductions and tons of new and old original art. All of this is put together with Steranko's amazing sense of graphic design. Unfortunately these books are out of print and usually command high prices these days. But if you can find them, buy them. They're that good. I only wish Steranko had gotten around to putting out the other projected volumes in the series.

The Great Comic Book Heroes

   Long before playwright, satirist, and cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer was famous, he worked as an assistant to Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit and one of the driving forces behind the early comic book industry. Before that, Pfeiffer was a wide eyed comics fan, dreaming of being a professional comic book artist. The Great Comic Book Heroes is part memoir, part history, and part collection of reprints. Pfeiffer talks about his exposure to comics and what an effect it had on his life, then goes on to tell anecdotes about his experiences in the comics industry. But for me, at age 11, the main draw of the book were the comics reprints, because almost all of them were origin stories. I'm pretty sure that this was where I first saw the (original, not a re-telling) origins of Superman and Batman, and I know it's where I originally saw the origin stories of Flash, Captain America, Green Lantern, The Human Torch, and several others. It's also where I got my first look at a Will Eisner Spirit story. I received this book as a Christmas present from my grandparents in 1973 and I still have it. The dust jacket is tattered, the covers are scuffed, and the pages are worn from re-reading. A much loved book.

The Comic Book Book

   This follow up to All in Color For a Dime is more of the same. Essays about various comics, creators, and companies. Probably my favorite in this one is The Rehabilitation of Eel O'Brian, which is about Plastic Man, one of my favorite Golden Age characters. There's also a cool chapter of the various jungle heroes that followed Tarzan into the trees. Another note here about Don Thompson. The last time I saw Don alive he got me to do a drawing of Captain Teddy, my funny animal superhero, in his copy of the Comic Book Book. It was filled with sketches by artists far better and far more famous and I was honored to be included.

Men of Tomorrow

   A somewhat more gritty look at the Golden Age of comics is Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow. Jones, a former comic book writer himself has an insiders knowledge of the industry and his history looks more at the creators than the creations. It's not a happy book, as Jones often focuses on the more bizarre or unfortunate aspects of the comics industry, and he does perhaps a bit more amateur psychology than I think necessary about how the dull and tragic lives of some of comics earliest creators turned into power fantasies on the four color page, but I'm sure there is some truth to that in many cases, so there ya go. Very well researched and worth reading.

   That's the list. I didn't do this one as a Top Ten list because I don't think there are ten books that really cover the subject well. I did mention there are some books about individual creators that I think would be good material for the student of comic book history. These include:

Curt Swan: A life in Comics

Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder

Forms Stretched to Their Limits:Jack Cole and Plastic Man

Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wally Wood

Gil Kane: Art and Interviews

Will Eisner's Shop Talk

Kirby:King of Comics

The World of Steve Ditko

  I'd also like to recommend Will Eisner's graphic novel, The Dreamer, a fictionalized bit of autobiography that gives a fairly accurate account of Eisner's life in the early days of comics. Names have been changed, as Jack Webb would say, but it's still easy to recognize the characters meant to represent Jack Kirby, Bob Powell, George Tuska, etc.

Reading Report

Not a big week for reading. Read two more of the stories in Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer. I'm spacing those out but they're still going pretty fast. Currently reading Reprisal by F. Paul Wilson. It's the next to the last book in his Adversary cycle, and thus, like the middle book in a trilogy, it's not as thrilling as the first book or the third because even though it contains important information and furthers the plot of the overall story, it's still something of a place holder until you get to the third final book. I mean you know the climax is still at least a book away and it lacks the feeling of potential of the book that proceeds it.
Not sure what comes after that. I might leap right into Nightworld, the final book in the series. Or I might read something completely different. I did swing by Barnes & Noble yesterday and browsed for a while but nothing really caught my attention. I didn't seem to be in a book buying mood and didn't even make it to the biography or history sections. Anyway, it's not like I don't have plenty of stuff at home to read. Just can't decide what I'm in the mood for.
I wish Nightshade Books would hurry up and get the next collection of the Complete Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith out. I would definitely like to have some more of Klar-Kash-Ton's fiction to read. Maybe soon.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Little Pony


Well he's not actually a pony. He's a horse. I bought him yesterday from a horse farm north of Bree. You can get a horse once you pass level 35 in Lord of the Rings Online, but I'd avoided buying one so far because A. They're fairly expensive, and B. I didn't really have much use for one. The main advantage to a horse in Middle Earth is that you can travel twice as fast, and I really didn't mind just running everywhere.
However I have recently been playing with some larger groups of players and they all have horses, so every time we had to cover some distance, everyone had to wait for me to get to our destination since I was on foot. Not wishing to hold folks up, I decided to buy a horse. Of course that meant I needed 4 gold and 220 silver or 4220 silver, which I explained in my previous post, I have to earn by killing things. Thus my last couple of days of Orc Farming.
However I got the job done, and now I can keep up with my teammates. I wanted a white horse like the Lone Ranger's horse Silver, but the closest I could get was this blond model. I'm thinking of calling him Bronze, or maybe Sparkplug after Barney Google's horse.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's a Living

If you're not familiar with the term 'farming' as it applies to MMORPGs (Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game) it basically means killing bad guys, not to further a quest or gain experience points, but simply to take their money and loot. On a larger scale it can mean doing so to make money in the real world by selling this virtual cash to lazy gamers for real cash. Check out ebay sometime and see WoW Gold, Guild Wars Gold, etc for sale. Reportedly there are warehouses full of low paid workers in China sitting in front of PCs and collecting game gold all day to be sold in the real world.
On a lower scale, however, it's how I make most of my cash in Lord of the Rings online's virtual economy. See the game has a crafting system where you can be a cook or a woodcutter or a metal smith, or any number of other crafts as ways to make money. None of these interest me so instead I'm a thug. I go to Orc camps and kill everyone there and take their money and their goods and then sell the goods when I'm in town.
Yesterday I needed to earn 1000 silver pieces. The average orc soldier carries three silver coins and some loot that can usually be sold for another two silvers. As you can see, I'd have to kill a couple hundred orcs at that rate. But I know of an area simply crawling with orcs and even some orc elites who carry 10 to 15 silver and some nicer articles of armor, clothing, weapons, etc, that I can sell. Plus there are five orc camps fairly close together.
So I went to the first camp and killed everyone there and took their loot. Then I went to the next camp and the next, and so on. By the time I'd made the circuit of all five camps, the orcs in the first camp had respawned, so I made the circle again. Took me a little more than an hour to earn the 1000 silver coins. See? I told you I was a barbarian.
Now if some other players show up who actually need to kill the bad guys as part of a quest I go somewhere else. I'm not one of those players who hogs an area when others need the quest. In fact if lower levels just need to get to the bosses in an area, I'll gladly let them follow in my wake as I kill the soldiers. Did that for a small group yesterday who kept getting killed. I'm a polite barbarian.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Saturday So Far

Started out the morning by helping a friend move a bed into her upstairs apartment. Then I went down to Trish's for a final cat-check before she gets home. Then I swung by Dr. No's and dropped off a DVD I'd promised to loan to Julie. After so many selfless deeds, I felt that I deserved a pizza. So I picked one up at Mellow Mushroom and ate it while I watched Ruby in the Smoke, a mystery based on a Phillip Pullman novel and starring that former Tardis cutie, Billie Piper. The movie didn't make a lot of sense but it had a lot of nice Victorian Age period detail and Billie looked quite fetching in her bustles and cinched waist Victorian finery.
Now I'm trying to decide what to read next. I have the new Robert Crais, Chasing Darkness. I have Reprisal, the penultimate volume in F. Paul Wilson's Adversary cycle. I've been eying Legion From the Shadows, which is the last thing by Karl Edward Wagner I've yet to read. It's a Robert E. Howard pastiche starring Howard's Pictish hero, Bran Mak Morn. Kind of been saving it for a rainy day. We'll see.
Anyway, that's Saturday so far.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Trish is out of town, but only for a few days so rather than bring the cats up to my place, I'm just stopping by her condo to check on them. I spent the night there last night to give them maximum company time. Bruce appreciates it, and I suspect Amelia does as well though she maintains her aloof cat pose.
Anyway, this put me near the Krispy Kreme Donut store on old HWY 41, right past the Big Chicken, near the old K-Mart. You all know where that is, right? So I swung by and picked up donuts for the office. Now unless you've ever had a Krispy Kreme glazed donut directly off the conveyer belt, still hot and melt in your mouth soft, you've never really had a Krispy Kreme. Grocery Store versions do not compare.
They were running a little late getting the place open when I got there at 6:00, so they didn't have the donuts quite ready. The young man behind the counter asked if I minded waiting about five minutes and I said not at all. We chatted a bit, then I took a seat and waited. A little bit later he brought me my two boxes of donuts. When I got to work, there were not twelve but fifteen donuts in each box. I thought that was a nice gesture. See? It pays to be polite.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Reborn

Reborn is the fourth book in F. Paul Wilson's Adversary Cycle, but it's the first one to really begin to tie events together. After writing The Keep, which I've reviewed in an earlier post, Wilson wrote two more books, The Tomb and The Touch, which are loosely tied in to The Keep. The ties of The Touch are particularly tenuous and reportedly only come to light in the final book in the sequence, Night World. According to Wilson, Reborn and the two books that follow, Reprisal and Night World (which I've yet to read) were written as one long book and thus have closer ties.
The basic idea of Reborn initially sounds like Rosemary's Baby, a work that characters in Reborn reference many times. An orphan, Jim Stevens, obsessed with finding his real parents learns that he had none. Stevens is the result of a cloning experiment performed toward the end of World War Two. He is the genetic clone of the doctor who developed the process and when that doctor dies in a plane crash, he leaves his considerable fortune to Stevens. Unfortunately, news of Stevens origins leaks out and after some supernatural occurrences he is marked by a religious order as the Antichrist since being a clone, he wasn't born of woman and therefore has no soul.
Turns out the order, known to themselves as The Chosen, are right and wrong. Stevens' "soulless" body did indeed become a vessel for a dangerous entity, but not Satan. (Readers of The Keep will recognize said entity, as well as another character who appears under an assumed name.) When Stevens dies in a freak accident the menace seems over but it turns out that the entity has migrated to Stevens' unborn child. The Chosen try to force Stevens' widow to have an abortion and things go horribly tragically wrong in a gruesome supernatural way.
Not quite as entertaining as The Keep or The Tomb, but still a fast paced supernatural thriller with some nice touches. Made me want to leap right into Reprisal, and I probably will tonight or tomorrow.

No Good Deed...

During the last week or so, while I was playing Lord of the Rings Online, I kept seeing one of the other players trying to get some people to help with one of the longer, more difficult quests. It was a quest that I had passed up mostly through chance, but at my current level the experience points wouldn't really be high enough to make it worth my while. Still, I began to feel sorry for the player because she kept posting and no one was offering to help. So Saturday afternoon I logged in at about 3:00 and saw that the player was once again in the LFF (looking for fellowship channel) asking for help. Sap that I am, I said I'd go along.
Once a few other players noted that a fairly high level character had joined up we got some more volunteers, including one who was a couple of levels higher than me, and so we set out to complete the quest. Turned out that even with me and the other higher level, we were still a little underpowered and so we kept getting killed and starting over and getting killed and starting over and getting killed and starting over and...
Ended up taking almost four hours to finish the darn thing. And of course it didn't really do me much good point wise or money wise. Pretty much shot my afternoon. The player was very appreciative though. I'm glad I helped her, but one of my favorite maxims 'no good deed goes unpunished' once again turned out to be true. Of course the next day I rushed in to help yet another player who was stuck on a quest. I wonder if I can get a big red "S" to put on my avatar's chest...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Ten Cornerstones of Fantasy

Continuing with my series of lists, here are ten authors you should read to have a good grasp of the history and scope of the heroic fantasy genre. These are some of the most influential writers in the genre, and in fact without most of them we probably wouldn't even have the genre. I'm listing authors instead of books because several of these folks only or mostly wrote short stories. I will suggest what I think are important works from each though. I'd also like to suggest three non-fiction works about the fantasy genre. They are Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers by L. Sprague Decamp, Imaginary Worlds by Lin Carter, and Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock. Read these books and the works of the writers below and you'll be able to hold your own in any discussion of the history and evolution of the fantasy genre.

William Morris

The guy who got the ball rolling. There's a pretty sharp line of demarcation between fairy tales and folklore and the modern fantasy novel and William Morris drew that line in the 1800s. The Well at World's End is probably the best of his fantasies, but I like The Wood Between the Worlds a lot. So did C.S. Lewis who ripped it off for his Narnia books.

Lord Dunsany

Amazingly original ideas and stunning dreamlike prose. A huge influence on writers from Lovecraft to Neil Gaiman. The King of Elfland's Daughter is probably his most famous novel but I prefer his short fiction. Try the Book of Wonders. My favorite story of his is The House of the Sphinx.


H.P. Lovecraft

Most people tend to think of Lovecraft as a writer of horror, but he also produced quite a bit of Dunsany style fantasy such as The Silver Key, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, and The Cats of Ulthar. But even without those stories, Lovecraft's influence on the fantasy field is considerable. His pantheon of elder gods and great old ones remain the model for many of the demonic entities faced by the heroes of today's fantasy novels. He also was a major influence on the next two writers on this list.

Clark Ashton Smith

Probably the best writer of the Weird Tales triumvirate, Smith was encouraged by Lovecraft to try selling fiction to Weird Tales and turned out to be a one of the magazine's top writers. His prose is elaborate without being overly Byzantine and his ideas are original and haunting. Even now, 50 sum odd years after their original publication, the dark fantasies of CAS have considerable power. Nightshade Books is publishing definitive volumes of the collected stories of CAS. Get em before they become collectible and the prices go sky high.

Robert E. Howard

The father of sword & sorcery, Howard took historical adventure and Lovcraftian horror and melded them together into a new sub genre. I think it's safe to say that next to Tolkien, Howard is probably the most influential writer in the fantasy genre. Conan is certainly one of the most recognizable fantasy archetypes. Most modern generic fantasy, particularly the works of writers like Terry Brooks, Bob Salvatore, David Gemmell, and Raymond Feist seems to be a mix of Howard and Tolkien. Del Rey Books is currently publishing affordable trades of Howard's fiction. I recommend The Coming of Conan and the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane to start with.

C.L. Moore

Catherine Moore is the first lady of heroic fantasy. Back in the 1930s she was the only woman writer to go toe to toe with Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith in the pages of Weird Tales. Her fiery heroine Jirel of Joiry is the godmother of all of today's women warriors. Moore's lush, descriptive prose remains powerful stuff even today. She deserves to be a lot more popular than she is. Paizo Publishing has recently put out a collection of all the Jirel of Joiry stories. Highly recommended.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is first major 20th century fantasy epic and still pretty much the driving force behind commercial fantasy today. The influence of Tolkien is simply amazing. One has only to look at the covers in the bookstores with their pseudo medieval settings and their elves ,dwarves, and orcs to see just how omnipresent the Lord of the Rings is. Unfortunately the success of the Lord of the Rings since the early 1970s has flooded the market with inferior clones and set the publishing model as doorstop trilogies, but that takes nothing away from Tolkein's work.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Not only the creator of Tarzan but of John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, Carson of Venus, and many other richly imaginative works. What would the world be like without Tarzan? Not nearly as much fun. Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars are still classics almost 100 years after their original publication. I have a fondness for At the Earth's Core and the other Pellucidar books as well.

Jack Vance

There's never been anything quite like The Dying Earth. A wonderful and original fantasy that I recommend to anyone who will listen. Vance was a major influence on the fantasy writers (and game developers) of the 1960s and 1970s and remains very readable today. Vance wrote a ton of other SF and fantasy but he'll probably always be best remembered for The Dying Earth.

Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock started setting fantasy on its ear back in the 1960s with his tales of Elric of Melnibone and he's still at it today. Not content to follow trends, Moorcock has always wandered in his own directions, be it in the fields of SF, Fantasy, or literary fiction. The only member of this list still with us today, Mike is still showing everyone else how it's done. Del Rey is publishing new trades of Mike's Elric stories, but used copies of his other books about Corum, Hawkmoon, and others are easy to find and worth tracking down.

Obviously there are a lot more people who are important to the history of fantasy, but hey I could only have ten on my list. I didn't get to talk about E.R. Edison, James Branch Cabell, or Peter Beagle. I didn't get to mention Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, or Tanith Lee. There wasn't space for L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Lieber or...well, you get the idea. Read the reference books I mentioned and you'll learn all about these people too.

Beyond the Gates of Dream

I've talked a bit before about the fact that I am a frequent lucid dreamer. That means that often during a dream, I am aware that I am asleep and dreaming. Not always. A lot of the time I just dream like anybody else, accepting the events of the dream at face value. But usually several times a week I become aware that I am dreaming. This happens in a couple of ways.
Last night as I was dozing off, I fell almost immediately into dreaming, before I was even completely asleep it seems. I knew that I was in bed and just beginning to slip away and then suddenly I was stepping through a revolving door and walking down a street in a strange city. However I remained aware that I had just gone to sleep, so I knew I was dreaming.
Other times it's because of a sudden lapse in the "logic" of a dream. The other night I dreamed that I was going to a new art supply store in a strip mall that doesn't exist in the real world, but that I've visited before in dreams. (This is another odd thing about my dreaming world. There are consistent locations in my dreams that don't exist in the real world. Some I've been visiting since I was a kid.) I saw the sign for the art supply store as I pulled into the parking lot, but then after I left the truck and started toward the stores, I suddenly couldn't find the art supply place. I made a slow circuit of the entire strip mall but the store wasn't there. I knew it couldn't have simply vanished since I had seen it from the road. At that point my brain made the jump in "logic" and I realized I was asleep and dreaming.
I'm putting quotation marks around logic because dream logic isn't the same as real logic. For instance, I might be dreaming that Tarzan, Red Sonja and I are on the Death Star for a surprise party for Elvis. The entire lack of logic for that plotline wouldn't bother me or push me into lucid dreaming. Dreams have their own internal logic and as long as nothing violates that, I go right along with things. However if I'm dreaming about being at a hotel in Florida and suddenly realize that I neither drove not took a plane to the sunshine state, I may realize that I'm dreaming. The other night I dreamed I was having a conversation with John Wayne outside of a gas station. Didn't bother me at all.
Anyway, I seem to be in a period of frequent and very vivid dreams, so we'll see what else I run into.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ten Books Everyone Should Read

My friend Julie is attempting to expand her reading, and she has asked her friends to give her lists of what they consider to be Ten Books Everyone Should Read during their lifetime. I'm assuming she meant fiction, so I'm going with that. I explained to Julie, that having read somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty thousand books, it might be hard to narrow things down to ten. As a result, I'll be posting sub-lists in the future of Top Five Private Eye Novels, Top Five Fantasy Novels, etc. But for now, I'm supplying a list of ten books that I do think everyone should read. Keep in mind, these are not my ten FAVORITE books. For instance you won't find any sword & sorcery on this list. I know S&S is a small sub genre and I don't think it's for everyone. But I'll definitely be posting a list of top five or ten S&S stories at some point. In the meantime, here are ten books I think everyone should read. All of these books were important to me at various stages of my life and remain so. If you'd like to make your own list, send it my way and I'll pass it along to Julie.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Others


Here there be Spoilers. You've been warned. Proceed at your own risk.

To begin with, let me say that I genuinely enjoyed The Others. It was stylish, creepy, well written for the most part, and beautifully photographed. However, I must point out to the marketing department that if you advertise something as having a "surprise, shock ending" that I'm probably going to deduce that ending well before the movie is over. And I did. Though it's entirely possible that I would have figured it out without the slogan on the box, I wouldn't have been LOOKING for it, if you take my meaning. About the time that Nicole Kidman's long missing husband (played by former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleson) shows up out of the blue, I says to myself, I says, "Oh. He's a ghost and she must be too. She and her kids are dead."
Fortunately the movie was a lot of fun so I kept watching, and they did throw a few surprises my way. I thought the idea that the new family in the house and the spiritualist they had hired were the ones "haunting" Nicole and the kids to be a clever bit of writing, especially when Nicole interrupts the séance with what to the living people looks like poltergeist activity. Once this revelation is made, most of the cryptic events of the previous couple of hours make sense. I say most, because a lot of stuff isn't really explained away.
Now as to the "Gothic" nature of the film, it's mostly cosmetic. The movie does take place in the expected old creepy house with it's winding stairs and dark corridors and there are obviously some supernatural occurrences, but the plot is missing the primary element of the true Gothic, the Hero-villain. What we have here is a twilight zone style ghost story with some gothic trappings. The Others is basically an updating of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw' which is often touted as a Gothic itself, but doesn't meet all of the criteria. Then again, the definition of the term has become somewhat blurred over the years so that a lot of horror fiction is often grandfathered in.
As I mentioned above, the film is beautifully photographed and artfully directed. There's a real claustrophobic atmosphere to the old house wreathed in a fog that never dissipates. The director uses candlelight and other indirect light sources to make the most of the lanky charms of his leading lady. Kidman is attractive but somehow unlikable in the roll of the haunted heroine.
Anyway, I definitely liked the movie and I'm glad I picked it up. Possibly should have waited until Halloween to watch it, but hey, I wondered what all the shouting in my various Gothic reference books was about. Seems to me that crowd was a little to eager to shoehorn The Others into the genre, but that's just my take.