Monday, January 26, 2009

Some Things I Have Learned About Cats

Cats do not like closed doors, be they closets, cabinets, bathrooms or whatever. Cats want all access all the time. Even when the bathroom has two doors, both doors must be accessible to cats.

Though cats will not learn English they are very put out that you do not speak cat. "That meow meant I wanted the faucet turned on so I can drink from the tap, not that I wanted the other door opened. Jeez. Though while you're at it, open that door."

If you attempt to lie on the floor and read, cats must recline upon your open book or magazine. Looking at cats is much better than those silly words you were staring at.

If you get out of bed at 4:30 five days a week, then cats expect you to get up at the same time on weekends. Walking up and down on your back as you attempt to snooze is one way of showing you that cats think you should be up now, even though they have food and water and everything else. Other methods include meowing, climbing on all the shelves in the bedroom and running back and forth to the living room. And if you get up, then half an hour later the cats will have gone back to sleep. And if you were thinking of putting them out of the bedroom and closing the door then you need to re-read the first thing about cats above.

No matter how many times you show cats that they do not like coffee, wheat bread, rice, or other foodstuffs they would still like to try it one more time just to be sure.

Whatever chair you are sitting in is where cats wish to be sitting and every time you get up you will find a cat in that chair when you return. Said cat will not be happy when asked to move.

If you are lying in bed reading, cats will curl up beside your head and purr.

If you open a window, cats will climb on the sill and watch birds and make odd little noises in their throats.

Cats do not like thunder.

Sitting on the couch watching a movie with two sleeping cats beside you is not at all a bad thing.

Those are some things that I have learned about cats.
If not for the Monday Rule there is no way I'd be going to work today. I have the blahs and the blues and I'm simply not in the mood. But that's why I have the rule, and boy do I need it today. In case you have forgotten, the Monday Rule states that I may not miss work on Monday unless I am very sick or have scheduled vacation. No calling in and taking a personal day just because I'm in a bad mood. I created the rule back when I worked at Lucent Technologies and hated Mondays even more than I do now. It's gotten me through many Mondays like this one. So now that I have made myself get up and get ready, I'll make myself drive to work. But I don't have to like it. And I don't. So there.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Alone With The Horrors

I never used to think of myself as a horror fan. In fact when people used to ask me if I read Horror I would say "Only H.P. Lovecraft and the occasional Stephen King book." And for many years that was true. My problem with the genre back then was that I considered it to be a negative genre in that most of the time most or all of the protagonists died. Even in Lovecraft, who interested me more for his cosmic visions than his creepy crawlies, the stories usually ended with the protagonist killed by some gibbering slavering thing. That's just not the way my mind works. Not the sort of thing I write. Like Jim Kirk, I don't believe in a no win scenario.
But over time I found that I could sort of see why horror is written that way and that it works with a completely different set of emotions and symbols that other forms of fiction, and part of the structure requires that everybody or most everybody dies. Because at its deepest darkest heart, horror is about death. In Stephen King's non fiction book Danse Macabre King puts forth the theory that the horror tale is a sort of rehearsal for death. A way of walking up to the grim reaper and shaking hands but still being able to back away. I'm not entirely in agreement, but I think their are definite elements of that in horror fiction. Other genres deal in death. Mystery, suspense, even fantasy. But none of them smack you right in the face with it the way that a well told horror story does. (And truthfully many 'mystery novels' come closer to horror than whodunit. I'm thinking of serial killer books in particular, where it's all about lingering over death and suffering.)
Anyway, looking over my reading for the last couple of years I find a large amount of horror fiction has crept in. There are a couple of reasons for that I think. One was my growing conviction that the best sword & sorcery stories are horror stories at the center. Robert E. Howard, who could write a mean horror tale when he wanted, set his heroes against the same sorts of dark menaces that appeared in his 'straight' horror tales. And yes, in many Conan and particularly Solomon Kane stories everybody or almost everybody dies. Being series characters Kane or Conan or Kull manage to escape at the end but often everyone else meets a gibbering slavering end just as surely as if they were in a Lovecraft tale. There are other connections between the S&S and horror genres. When Karl Edward Wagner wasn't turning out tales of his immortal warrior Kane, he was writing and editing mountains of horror fiction and he once noted that the Kane stories were really horror stories with just enough swordplay and action dropped in. Reading Ramsey Campbell's S&S tales of Ryre led me to reading his horror stories and novels. Reading a single story by F. Paul Wilson in a collection of S&S stories led me to reading Wilson's horror novels. Many connections as you see.
The second reason comes from my study of the Gothic novels of the 1700-1800s. Reading about The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Monk often led me to other Gothic tales and to discovering authors with whom I wasn't familiar and that led to reading more stories of horror. H.P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror, which I reviewed a few posts earlier has a good cross sampling of the authors I discovered or re-discovered.
So now when people ask me if I read horror fiction I say yes. I'm still pretty particular about what I read, but I've definitely become a fan of the genre. Don't look for me to write any pure horror anytime soon though. I still don't believe in a no win scenario.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Happy Birthday, REH

Today is Robert E. Howard's birthday. REH is, of course, the creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and so many other great characters. He is the father of the fantasy sub genre Sword & Sorcery and probably the second most important figure in the history of fantasy following J.R.R. Tolkien, which basically means that more writers have ripped off, er I mean paid homage to Conan and the Lord of the Rings than to any other fantasy creations.
This evening I'll probably re-read some favorite Howard stories, just to remind myself of what a powerful writer the man was. As if I needed to. If you've been following this blog then you already know how much I love the work of Robert E. Howard. He remains near the top of my list of favorite writers.
So happy birthday, Bob. I doubt you'd have ever believed back in the 1930s that people would still be reading and enjoying your yarns all these years later. But here we are.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Now THAT'S What I'm Talking About


Back in 1975 the only serious sword & sorcery comic book competition to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian was DC Comics' The Warlord. Written and illustrated by Mike Grell, and based on an unsold newspaper strip, The Savage Empire, Warlord was something of a cross between Conan and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar novels.
Travis Morgan, a U.S. Air force pilot flies through an opening in the Earth's crust to find himself in a world called Skartaris. Skartaris is a mix of cavemen and bronze age people with sorcery and dinosaurs thrown in for good measure. What more could a 12 year old boy want? I absolutely loved Warlord, almost as much as I loved the Conan comic. Others must have shared my fondness for the book as it was the only S&S comic to even approach Conan the Barbarian's 235 issue run with an impressive 133 issues between 1976 and 1989. Warlord actually got its start in 1975 in DC's anthology title, First Issue Special.
Anyway, it was one of my favorite comics. A couple of years back DC announced that it was bringing Warlord back in a new ongoing series. I was dubious when I learned that Mike Grell wouldn't be attached to the project because Warlord, even in the days before creator owned series became common, was very much the work of one man. Though other writers and artists worked on the title late in the series, they followed Grell's lead. The new series, written by Bruce Jones and illustrated by Bart Sears was to be a reboot, unconnected to the original title.
In two words, it tanked.
Now I like both Jones and Sears. Jones is currently writing DC's revamped War That Time Forgot and he's doing a bang-up job. And I've enjoyed Sears' work on many titles. I didn't care for either's work on the new Warlord. The art seemed to be all talking heads and lacking in detail and the writing was similarly uninspired. Again, I wasn't the only one who thought so and the title was cancelled after 10 issues. I was a little annoyed at first because usually when a relaunch fails, the comic company will wait several years before attempting to bring that character back again.
Last year, however, I began to hear rumors that DC was going to give Warlord another try, and this time Mike Grell would be back to write the new adventures of his signature character. Found out yesterday that the first issue should hit the stands in April. Grell won't be drawing the comic this time, though he will be supplying new covers, (See the illo above) and who knows? Maybe he'll get time to actually draw an issue or two down the line.
I've always been a fan of Grell's work. He strikes me as sort of a more cartoonish version of Neal Adams. His anatomy can be a little wonky at times but it works for comics. Grell has done some great work, not only on Warlord, but on Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Jon Sable, and any number of comics. He also was the artist for a memorable run on the Tarzan newspaper strip.
Grell is a huge fan of Tarzan and Edgar Rice Burroughs and in fact one of my prize possessions is a commissioned painting of Tarzan and John Carter that Grell did for me a while back. I don't have a scan of it because it's bloody huge, but trust me, it's beautiful.
Anyway, in case you can't tell, I'm really looking forward to new Warlord adventures from Mike Grell. That is, indeed, what I'm talking about.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

H.P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror


When students or aficionados of the genre of horror discuss the classics of the field, there are certain short stories and novellas that always come up. Remarkably, most of these stories, while available on the web, have been hard to come by in books currently in print. No more. You have only to hurry down to the Bargain Books area of your local Barnes & Noble or bump your mouse over to Amazon and get yourself a copy of H.P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror. This is a remarkable collection that you can get for six or eight bucks or even less.
HPLBoH is a fat, 500 plus page hardback that collects such horror classics as Guy De Maupassant's The Horla, Ambrose Bierce's The Damned Thing, Robert W. Chambers' The Yellow Sign, Ralph Adams Cram's The Dead Valley, M.R. James' Count Magnus, and Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan. Plus a bunch of others, some of which I haven't read.
AND the book is kicked off by Lovecraft's definitive essay of the horror genre up until his lifetime, Supernatural Horror in Literature. In fact, the collection is based around that famous essay with the contents being drawn from the stories mentioned in the article. Thus the book title. It really is a book of stories that old H.P. probably would have edited into an anthology had he been given the chance.
I had been meaning to pick it up since seeing the book around Halloween, and after discovering that I no longer owned a hard copy of The Great God Pan (Which I wanted to re-read owing to Stephen King's story N. mentioned in a previous post.) I went out yesterday and bought the book.
This is a brand new edition, published in 2008, but originally published in the UK in 1993, so if you're a collector you might own the original. If you don't have it and are looking for some great, creepy reading, you can't go wrong with this one. My only warning is, DON'T read Lovecraft's essay before you read the stories in the book. He discusses the stories in the essay and often gives away important plot twists. Stories first. Essay last.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

CHA-CHING

I sent off the last payment for the Super Computer yesterday. (That's how folks refer to my ridiculously suped up PC) You may recall that I bought it last March. I could have paid for it up front with last year's tax refund, but DELL was having a no interest deal, so not being foolish, I paid if off a month a a time for the next nine months. So that's about a couple hundred bucks spending money back in my pocket each month now that it's paid for. Frugal sort that I am though, I'll probably just ignore the extra money and let it accumulate.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cabin Fever

And speaking of fever, as I was just below, this weekend and now today are giving me a case of cabin fever. When I woke up Saturday morning and realized that Friday's draining head and scratchy throat had turned into a full fledged sore throat, I sat myself down and worked on battling another cold. I have learned over the years that the best thing for me when I'm sick is to rest. Sleep if I can, but definitely just stay put. Of course now that I'm going on my third day of that, I'm getting kinda jumpy. I've read a lot. I've watched movies on DVD. I've surfed the Internet and played Lord of the Rings Online and tried to nap. Looking at another day of that isn't making me happy. Still, I can tell that I feel better than I did yesterday, so hopefully this is just the standard three day cold and after today I'll be most of the way back to normal. Maybe I'll take a shot of Nyquil here in a bit and knock myself out for a couple of hours.

Seriously

Okay. Seriously. I said this last year but I'm not kidding. If you are sick. If you are contagious. STAY HOME. I've just barely gotten over one cold and now I have a second one, not as severe but still annoying and I can point out the co-worker who gave it to me. A 'trooper" who just has to come in no matter what. Even if that means days of hacking and coughing and sneezing and running a fever in a small office with poor ventilation. Thanks. Thanks a whole lot. Now I'm the one running a fever and unable to sleep here on an early Monday morning. And am I going to work and sharing? Oh my no. Here on the second week of the new year I'm blowing a sick day. Did I say thanks already?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

N.


This weekend I've been reading Stephen King's new short story collection, Just After Sunset. I had planned to space them out, maybe read one a night for a while, but I once again got caught up in King's particular brand of Twilight Zone sort of fiction and now I've read 8 of the 13 stories. Going to try and stop there for a bit, but no promises.
It's been a nice mix so far. Of the eight stories I've read, four have no supernatural occurrences at all. King can still make me uneasy even without things that go bump in the night. In fact the harrowing little tale of The Gingerbread Girl actually made me kind of jumpy. Go Steve.
Of the other four, Stationary Bike and N. are probably the ones that most people would consider "Stephan King" kind of stories and N is one of the best contemporary horror stories I've read in some time. It has a very H.P. Lovecraft sort of feel to it, though King says that the story's primary influence was Arthur Machen's tale The Great God Pan. I can definitely see what he means though it still seems more Lovecraftian to me. Of course Machen was a major influence on Lovecraft so there ya go. He was also a favorite of Robert E. Howard's. Been quite a few years since I read Pan. I'll have to dig that one out.
Anyway, N. is one of those slow building stories, a tale within a tale within a tale, where the horrors are gradually revealed and for a while you aren't sure if the terrible things that the protagonists are seeing are real of just a shared delusion. Maybe you're never sure.
I was so taken with N. that it made me want to go back and read King's Cthulhu mythos short, Crouch End, which is in the collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes. And so I did, and it's still a darn unsettling little tale. King is one of those writers who can make you feel the same unease that Lovecraft did without aping old H.P's style. Too many would be Lovecraft pastichers merely pick up the surface aspects of the Cthulhu tales. The names of the books and the gods and such. I've been guilty of that myself. Not King. He can see into the same scary places that Lovecraft (or Machen) could and come back to tell us about it.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Illuminated Bruce

Bruce the cat has figured out how to turn the bathroom light on. Why he would want to do this, I've no idea. He leaps up and grasps the light switch with both paws, pulling the switch down. Now this turns the light ON because the bathroom light is one of those with two switches (one by each door) so one of them turns the light on by being flipped down.
Fortunately for me (and possibly for Bruce) the first time he did it I was awake. I was stretched out in bed, looking toward the bathroom when the light suddenly came on and Bruce dropped to the floor beneath the switch. Had the light simply popped on in the middle of the night I'd have probably rolled out of bed thinking I had an intruder and ready for mayhem. Cats.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Paying the Piper

December was a slob month. I ate too much and exercised too little. I did it in full knowledge of my actions, intending to just have a fun Holiday season. And so I did. However, now it's time to pay the piper. My weight, always a problem, has crept up again. Not to the level before my famous 50 pound weight loss, but high enough that I'll have to take action or buy new pants, so it's back to lean eating for a while. I don't really mind. I've recently begun to feel something of a 'food hangover' which is what I get when I eat too much rich food and don't work out much. Punished myself the last couple of days with extra push ups and crunches. So anyway, time to back off the pizza and other carb laden foods for a while. The never ending battle continues.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Red Nails Revisited


In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard refers to Red Nails as "the grimmest, bloodiest, and most merciless story of the series so far."
He's not kidding. Red Nails is a blood drenched yarn of murder and battles and torture and sadism and cannibalism and madness. And through it all stalks Conan the Cimmerian. It had been a couple of years since I sat down and read Red Nails and last night, being in a Conan kind of mood, I decided to give it a re-read. Still has the impact of an uppercut.
Conan, in the company of the beautiful but dangerous lady pirate Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, comes across a strange city in the middle of an open plain. The city is constructed basically as one huge building, roofed over, and lacking any real streets. Conan and Valeria wander through chamber after chamber, originally thinking that the city is abandoned. When the inhabitants do show up they turn out not to be the original builders of the city but another race entirely. I won't summarize the whole tale here, (read it yourself) but the basic idea is that there are two warring factions of the city's inhabitants who live on opposite sides of the city. They have been warring on one another for decades and now they are close to exterminating each other. The vast, empty center of the city is their battleground. Conan and Valeria get caught up in the war and also face black sorcery, monsters, and a seemingly immortal villainess. It is indeed strong stuff.
Sadly, it was also the last story of Conan that Howard wrote. In fact he was dead before the three part serial finished running in Weird Tales. It was at least, a strong point to go out on, since many people consider this the best of REH's Conan stories. (The main contenders seem to be Red Nails, The People of the Black Circle, and Beyond the Black River.)
I did notice one thing that had escaped me in previous readings of the tale. Very little of Red Nails is actually from Conan's point of view. Though he is present in most of the scenes, the majority of the yarn is told from Valeria's point of view. Only occasionally do we see what Conan is thinking. In some ways this makes the character stronger since we see only his actions and don't get a play by play of why he does anything. At some point I need to see how many of the Conan stories are told this way. Seems as if many of the later ones use a character other than Conan as the central viewpoint.
Anyway, I was once again borne away by the dark imaginings of Robert E. Howard. There is a force to the man's writing that few other writers can match. It's the reason that his work keeps being read and re-published all these years later when the writings of so many of his pulp era competitors are forgotten.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Reading Report


Since I've been off since Christmas Eve I've (not surprisingly) done quite a bit of reading. Read yet another of F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack novels. In Infernal, Jack's estranged brother Tom shows up after the sudden and unexpected death of Jack's father. Tom, a crooked judge, has gotten himself into some serious legal problems and after spending some time with Jack he begins to realize that his little brother may actually be the key to escaping his situation. But being a Repairman jack novel things quickly take a turn into supernatural territory and soon one of the people who Jack loves the most becomes the victim of an ancient curse. This one has a slower pace than many other RJ novels but once things hit the fan it steamrolls to the conclusion.
The Writer's Tale started off as an idea for a possible magazine article by UK writer Benjamin Cook. The idea was to have Russell Davies, head writer and Executive Producer of the BBC's wildly successful Doctor Who relaunch since 2005, provide a blow by blow account of how he writes a Doctor who script, from the first glimmerings of an idea to the final draft.
The idea turned into a massive coffee table book, following Davies through the entire fourth season of Doctor Who. The thousands of emails between Cook and Davies provide an absolutely fascinating look into the production of a TV show, but of more interest to writers, you really do see Davies' often painful writing process. I guarantee that if you are a writer of fiction, you'll find much to identify with in Davies amazingly candid emails. I don't know if Davies realized it at the time but this is in many ways his autobiography, since he poured so much of his life and history into the writing. It is indeed a writer's tale, and of interest, I think to all writers, and not just fans of Doctor Who. Of course if you are a fan of the Doctor, you're also going to get a ton of nifty photos and behind the scenes stuff. A really cool book.
A new issue of Adventure House's High Adventure came out this week, featuring two short novels of Ki-Gor the Jungle Lord. Read one of them, The Golden Claws of Raa, yesterday and it may be the best of the Ki-Gor stories so far. Get's off to a fast start as Ki-Gor comes upon the mutilated corpse of a pygmy woman in the jungle. Marks on her neck show that she had been the prisoner of slavers. Ki-Gor goes after the slavers of course with the help of his Masai buddy Tembu George. Non stop action follows as Ki-Gor battles not only the slavers, but a sort of female Tarzan who rules a tribe of dangerous gorillas. Ki-Gor's wife Helene makes a good showing in this adventure, saving her husband's life with a well placed arrow and standing up to the bad guys be they beast or human. I'll save the other novella, Zomba Has a Thousand Spears, for a rainy day.

A New Year

I finished off 2008 with 250 posts, coming in 168 posts shy of 2007's total. We'll see what 2009 brings. I've no major plans for the New Year. I have a couple of ideas for possible trips but those won't firm up until later in the year after Trish has returned from Iraq and my feline house guests have departed.
At the moment my world is fairly stable. Job seems secure, though given the state of the economy, one never knows. I'll burn that bridge when I come to it. My parents remain in good health. Here on the first day of the new year, I'm not looking at any big problems. Hopefully that will continue to be the case for some time. Happy New Year.