Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ack.

If you have cats you know that sometimes they just throw up for no apparent reason. Not a hairball, but just out of the blue, cat barf. Fortunately Bruce and Amelia's visit this time has been barf free until yesterday. I was sitting at my desk, when I heard Amelia making the sort of gurgling grunting sound that usually means she's about to hurl. I spun around wondering of I could get a newspaper under her or something if I was quick, but it was a bit too late for that. Just as I was rising she managed to throw up on the only object in the living room floor, my DVD boxed set of Xena Season 3.
It's okay. She didn't actually hurl on any of the DVDs. The set was open, but folded up, so mostly I just had to take a cloth and wipe the box down. It did amaze me that Amelia managed to miss the entire bare, wide open, living room floor and hurl on the one thing that was available. Hopefully that wasn't a review of the Xena series. My pal Jeri would be really disappointed in Amelia.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Filming Lovecraft


I learned just recently that Universal Studios has picked up the rights to the Image comic book The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft, a comic that mixes elements of Lovecraft's life with his fiction. The comic isn't out yet so I can say nothing about its quality, (though that hasn't stopped some of my peers) but I do have to wonder why anyone would want to make a movie of the comic when no one has ever made a really good movie of one of Lovecraft's actual works. I mean, it's not as if Lovecraft is exactly a household name even now.
Coincidentally, I was discussing the difficulties of filming Lovecraft with my friend Ralph just this week. The biggest problem I can see with mounting a big budget version of Lovecraft would be finding the right story. The Call of Cthulhu is the first thing that leaps to most folks minds, but Cthulhu is not one story but three, and common wisdom is that 'anthology' films or films with a lot of flashbacks are box office death. The recent amateur version of Cthulhu ,which I reviewed a while back, shows that the story could be filmed as written, but I don't see Hollywood doing that. They like a nice straight through story arc for their movies. I can think of a couple of ways that the basic story could be re-written to be more linear, but then we're drifting away from Lovecraft.
The Dunwich Horror might be a good candidate, though it too suffers from much non-liner storytelling. It has a couple of good monsters though, and references to Lovecraft's iconic book, The Necronomicon.
For a more linear story with a lot of chills, The Shadow Over Innsmouth might be a good bet. It's a very suspenseful tale with a lot of creepy atmosphere. The biggest problem I can see there is that it lacks much reference to Lovecraft's more famous creations, the elder Gods, Necronomicon, etc, and therefore might not be considered 'Lovecraftian' enough to be representative of Lovecraft's work. That and the fact that most of the menace is supplied by men with fishy facial features. Wouldn't be hard to work in some true 'Deep Ones' though toward the end of the film.
Anyway, the comic book might surprise me. It's not as if mixing Lovecraft with his own fiction is a new idea. Richard Lupoff did it in his novel, Lovecraft's Book back in 1985. More recently the novel Shadows Bend took up the idea again. I even did a little of that sort of thing years ago in a short story called The Dunwoody Horror. (Dunwoody is an Atlanta suburb for those of you not from the area.)
To my mind, the most successful fictional use of Lovecraft was in Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving's The Necronauts, a graphic novel serialized in the UK comic book 2000 A.D. That one featured not only Lovecraft, but Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well. So as you can see, I've no prejudice against Lovecraft comics. I'm just a little surprised that a major studio has optioned a pastiche when the originals are readily available.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The White Sybil


The white Sybil is one of Clark Ashton Smith's tales of the mythical land of Hyperborea, and it's one of the more haunting of Smith's stories that I've read.
A restless poet named Tortha has just returned from far wanderings to his home city of Cerngoth. One day he spies the supernatural creature known as the White Sybil walking through the city. No one knows exactly what the Sybil is, ghost, goddess, or demon, but like all Sybils she is a prophetess. Unlike most of the inhabitants of the land, who scatter at the sight of the strange apparition, Tortha is smitten by the Sybil's unearthly beauty. He develops a serious case of unrequited love which causes him to wander in the lonely mountains where the Sybil is thought to dwell. There he eventually finds her and...well. read it yourself. It's a wonderful story.
I think what impressed me the most about the tale was the way Smith handles Tortha's eventual meeting with the Sybil. The Sybil isn't human and Tortha's attempts to communicate with her have a feeling of utter unearthliness that's hard to explain. Her reactions to his declarations of love aren't anything you might expect.
In some ways this is almost CAS's take on Robert E. Howard's The Frost Giant's Daughter, though Smith hadn't read that story. It hadn't been written at the time that Smith wrote The White Sybil. It wasn't published in unaltered form until after Howard's death. And Sybil wasn't published except as a small private booklet until long after Frost Giant was written, so CAS didn't influence REH either. Just a similar idea taken in two vastly different directions by two talented writers.
The Hyperborea stories always strike me as sword and sorcery without swords. They have the same sort of exotic feel to them that some of the Conan yarns have, but they lack a stalwart hero and usually play out like horror stories or just weird tales. They seldom end well for the protagonists. As I've noted in previous posts I've recently really come to appreciate the works of Clark Ashton Smith. He is definitely the most under appreciated of the 'big three' from Weird Tales but lately he seems to be getting more exposure and more critical acclaim.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tarzan and the Ant Men

Having had such a good time reading Tarzan and the Lost Empire, I decided to re-read Tarzan and the Ant Men, another Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that I hadn't read since I was a kid. The plot of Ant Men is perhaps the most fantastic of the Tarzan novels (Discounting Tarzan at the Earth's Core, but that's a cross-over with another ERB series.) because not only does Tarzan run into a race of 18 inch tall warriors, but he ends up being miniaturized and has all sorts of adventures in the cities of the Ant Men. This is Burroughs letting his not inconsiderable imagination run free and Tarzan and the Ant Men is almost an overdose of ERB's concepts.
It begins with Tarzan taking an ill advised solo flight in his son Jack's (Korak) bi-plane. Being Tarzan he gets a bit reckless as he approaches a forest of impenetrable thorn trees and ends up crashing the plane in an open area deep with the forest. Here he is initially captured by a member of a race of Cro-Magnon amazons before escaping to meet the titular Ant Men. That's what I meant by and overdose of ERB. Before you get to the main course, Burroughs serves up a mini adventure with yet another lost race. Basically the Amazon cave women have complete control over their wimpy males, but once the cave boys get a load of Tarzan they decide it's time to fight back and re-establish the natural order with men in charge. Not too politically correct a plotline these days but hey, the book came out in 1925.
Once he's free of the amazons, Tarzan wanders into the land of the Minunians. Burroughs goes to great lengths setting up the comparisons between ants and these tiny warriors. They live in great stone domes like ant hills, and Tarzan sees lines of workers coming and going, carrying supplies and materials as they build yet another dome. When the city is attacked by another group of ant men, Burroughs draws more comparisons between ants and ant men, stressing the tenacity and utter fearlessness of the small warriors.
The rival group of ant men manage to overwhelm even the mighty ape man with their vast numbers. though he kills man of them. Tarzan is rendered unconscious and when he wakes he is a prisoner of people who, while looking like the ant men in form and dress, are the same size as Tarzan. It's a while before he learns that these are indeed the ant men and that their greatest scientist has found a way to shrink Tarzan down to the size of a Minunian. Tarzan is made a slave and taken to the underground quarries to work, but this is Tarzan we're talking about and soon he escapes and turns the tables on his captors. Fortunately for the lord of the jungle, the miniaturization process isn't permanent and he eventually returns to his normal size but not before he has a sword swinging good time among the ant men.
It's funny because in many ways, Tarzan and the Ant Men is a lot like one of ERB's Mars or Venus books. Once Tarzan is shrunk down and can interact with the Minunians, the adventure becomes much like a sword and planet story, with Burroughs' usual romance subplot and lots of derring-do. The culture of the Minunians is exotic, barbaric, and war like, as is most of that of Barsoom in the John Carter novels. Of course having Tarzan in the mix just makes things even more fun.
Obviously I had a good time with Tarzan and the Ant Men. I remember really liking the Gold Key Comic adaptation of the story well before I read the novel itself, and in fact, while re-reading the book last night, I imagined most of the scenery, costumes, and such pretty much as they had been illustrated by comics artist Russ Manning. It left that kind of impression on me.
Anyway, for mile a minute story telling, it's hard to beat Edgar Rice Burroughs when he was writing at his peak, and in Tarzan and the Ant Men, he definitely was at the top of his game.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Beyond Kazad-dum

Presumably, Lord of the Rings Online opens a new area today, Lothlorien. I'm pretty psyched about that because the chapters where the Fellowship enters the lands of the elves were always among my favorites in The Fellowship of the Ring. I say presumably because Game Servers being what they are, I'd say there's a good chance there will be some sort of technical difficulties just as there were the first days they opened the Mines of Moria. However, I have already downloaded the new patch and it will supposedly be activated after 12:00 noon today, so we'll see.
According the LotR website, you can't just go strolling into Caras Galadhon though. You have to earn the trust of the elves first by doing a bunch of quests in the forest area of Lothlorien. Only after completing these quests can you gain audience with the Lady Galadriel. Also, following the timeline of the game, which parallels the events in The Lord of the Rings books, the fellowship is resting in Lothlorien having just passed the Mines of Moria and having lost the wizard Gandalf to the balrog, so players can reunite with Frodo and the gang, last seen in Rivendell.
I'm always tickled when events of the game allow me to interact with the Fellowship. Silly I know, but I guess I'm still just a fanboy at heart. And Galadriel is one of my favorite characters from the books, so I'm looking forward to meeting her. The attention to detail in the game and the adherence to the lore of Tolkien's books continues to impress me. See you in Middle Earth.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading Report


Been a while since I gave a reading report. It's not that I haven't been reading. Just haven't been in the mood to blog about most of it. I read 'Another Life' the final volume in Andrew Vachss' Burke series. I've been reading Vachss since 1988 when I picked up his third novel, Blue Belle, because of a review I read in the Atlanta Journal Constitution one Sunday morning. I bought the book at the late lamented Oxford Bookstore on Peachtree Battle and never looked back. There were several years when Vachss was my absolute favorite crime writer. In 1991 I interviewed Vachss and became even more impressed with him. He literally changed my life, but that's a long story and one for another time. Another Life brings the saga of career criminal Burke and his 'family of choice'to a close. It was perhaps not as satisfying as I'd hoped, but at least no one was killed off.
After cruising the mean streets with Vachss I needed something lighter and I switched to a re-read of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Lost Empire. This was only marginally a re-read because I hasn't read the book since I was a kid, so I'd forgotten most of it. In this one Tarzan finds yet another lost civilization, this one settled by Romans who had entered a hidden valley in Africa way back when, and of course, following the logic of these sorts of books, hadn't advanced much in the ensuing centuries. Basically it was just a way to have Tarzan visit ancient Rome. And of course he ends up in the games where he fights gladiators and kills a lion with just a dagger. The self styled Emperor makes a mistake though when he tries to kill the Lord of the Jungle by releasing half a dozen apes into the arena. Some of these bad boys recognize Tarzan and end up helping the ape-man escape and lead a revolt against the tyrant. Yay apes. (I've included the cover for the Gold key comic book adaptation of Empire because it's cooler than any of the book covers.)
Then I jumped to Tim Severin's Viking trilogy, which begins with Odinn's Child, moves to Sworn Brother, and ends with King's Man. Severin is an expert on Vikings, pirates, and other historical subjects and has written quite a few non-fiction books as well as a growing library of fiction. Pulling incidents from historical accounts and from the Norse sagas, Severin weaves a fine story that carries his Norseman hero Thorgils through a rousing series of adventures across the Viking world. Volume three was my favorite since it takes place primarily in Constantinople where Thorgils has joined the fabled Varangian Guard. Not quite as over the top as Bernard Cornwell's similar series Lords of the North, but well researched and well written with plenty of shield walls, ship to ship battles, and action of all sorts. I'll be seeking out his pirate series soon. Yaaarr! I've supplied a link to Severin's web page at the bottom of this post.
Somewhere in there I read the Scions of Shanarra which I've already reviewed in an earlier post. Right now I'm reading The Collected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, Tarzan and the Ant Men, and assorted short stories. I've got a couple of books coming in the mail, including two Viking books by Poul Anderson, one of the few remaining books by Michael Moorcock that I haven't read yet, and Philip Jose Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz, which I've been meaning to re-read for some time. Got a few things in the too be read pile too, but this post has rambled on far enough.

http://www.timseverin.net/index.html

Friday, March 13, 2009

Not What They Appear To Be


This week, DC Comics, in their continuing program to get all of Jack Kirby's 1970s output for the company into hardback volumes, released a collection of Jack's 12 issue run on the World War Two series, The Losers. I haven't read any of those comics since I originally bought them back in the late seventies so it was interesting for me to go back and re-read them. There were also a couple of issues that I hadn't owned back then so there were at least two 'new' Kirby stories. Always a thrill.
As I read my way through the first couple of stories I began to notice something. Kirby, one of best, if not THE best and most influential comic book artists in the history of the medium was known for having a 'tin ear' when it came to dialog. Even those of us who dearly love Kirby sometimes wince at his syntax and we do a lot of good natured kidding about his cover blurbs. (Grab it Chum!) Kirby's dialog was often overblown and overly melodramatic, even for comic books.
But as I read the Losers volume I began to realize that Kirby's dialog was pared down, almost to the point of minimalism and much more naturalistic than in his super hero comics. The four man special military unit known as The Losers spoke in quick terse sentences.
Now someone who doesn't know much about jack might think that he simply wasn't putting in the effort he had on some other series. Not Kirby. The man didn't know how to give less than 100%. Another idea might be that it was the more realistic nature of the stories Jack was telling, and that's more possible.
But I think it had more to do with the fact that Kirby had served in World War Two and that he was drawing on his personal experiences, his memories, as he spun the tight and hardboiled tales of the Losers. Folks who knew Kirby well always mentioned how he never tired of telling stories about the war. In my one meeting with Kirby, back in the late 1980s, he spent a good deal of the hour or so I sat listening to him talking about World War Two. And in fact, the plots of two of the issues of the Losers are roughly based on two stories that he told me, one about getting stuck in a small ruined European town as the Nazis moved in, and one about seeing German soldiers in lines for Broadway shows in New York. (They had presumably taken their submarine up into the Hudson River and gone ashore.) As Jack said, it was a nutty kind of war.
Reports vary on how Kirby came to the Losers assignment and about what he thought of working on the comic, but there's no questioning the effort he put into it. Kirby is known for his fantastic science fiction machinery, but here he depicts handguns and machine guns and tanks and jeeps and grenades every bit as convincingly as he ever drew the Fantasti-car or the S.H.I.E.L.D. Heli-Carrier. His soldiers looked rumpled and unshaven, as if they've slept for days in their clothes. Their uniforms change in different climates and Kirby always took the time to draw the scarves wrapped around the heads of the freezing men or the layers of clothing and the ill fitting boots. His web belts and canteens and such are dead on.
So yeah, I figure Kirby enjoyed working on the Losers and finally getting some of his old war stories told on paper. It is a personal work and it seems closer to real life than anything else of Jack's I've ever seen. Along with my pal Cliff, I was once fortunate enough to actually sit with Kirby and his wife Roz and listen to Jack tell his war stories. For those of you who didn't get the chance there's the new collection of the Losers. Jack's gone now, but his work remains. Grab it, chum.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yeesh!

I just came up with an idea for a monster that's so hideous I actually scared myself. And no, I won't tell you what it is. It's for a sword & sorcery story idea and you'll just have to wait until I write it. But yeesh, how do I think of this stuff?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Scions of Shannara

I mentioned a while back that after enjoying Terry Brooks' current Shannara trilogy, The Genesis of Shannara, so much that I wanted to go back and read some of the earlier books in the series. However I also mentioned that I doubted I'd enjoy previous books as much as the current three because they wouldn't feature protagonists form the here and now, but would instead be more like other Tolkien derived series. You know, elves dwarves, etc.
Turned out to be a self fulfilling prophecy. Over the weekend I read Scions of Shannara, the first volume in a series of four detailing the adventures of the descendents of the heroes of the original Shannara trilogy. Taking place several hundred years after The Wish Song of Shannara, Scions follows the adventures of Par Ohmsford, one of the few humans left in the Four Lands who still possesses true magical powers. Like other members of his family before him, Par, along with his brother Coll, is pressed into the service of the druid Allanon to save the world from the forces of evil.
I found the pace a little slow and the characters somewhat bland. Brooks' prose is certainly serviceable, but it ultimately fails to stir the blood. I had noticed this in the Genesis of Shannara trilogy, but the concept, combing post apocalyptic fiction with Tolkien style fantasy, appealed to me enough to get me past the slow parts. Scions is pretty standard quest fantasy, very much in the Lord of the Rings mode. I mean if you like this sort of thing then this is the sort of thing you will like. I found Scions to be a bit of a slog to finish, and I won't be rushing out to snatch up the next volume in the series. Guess I'll just have to wait for Brooks next Shannara book, which supposedly picks up after the most recent trilogy.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Lost Hour


Daylight savings time started this morning. Spring forward and all that, meaning that we lose an hour of sleep Monday morning and onward until we adjust. I planned to get a jump start by getting up at 3:30, now 4:30, just so it wouldn't be as much of a shock to my system come Monday. I needn't have worried. Bruce the cat was wide awake at 3:30 and as always, thought that if he was awake, I should be awake.
I blundered around for a while, waiting for the new 7:00 am, formerly 6:00 am. I hadn't stocked up on breakfast food so I decided to go out for breakfast at Cracker Barrel. Neither Conan nor Tarzan were willing to get up so early so I went solo.
That's when I learned that the lost hour was still lost. Normally the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel in my neck of the woods is filling up by 7:00 on a Sunday. By eight you'll have to wait for a table. Popular place with the locals. Not this morning. Three cars in the lot. People still desperately clinging to that last hour I guess.
The wait staff was still half asleep, moving like zombies through the lost hour. "Too early", I kept hearing people mumble. Place was still pretty deserted when I left.
Came home for a bit, then decided to head over to Barnes & Noble so I could browse without crowds. No problem there. The new 9:00 is still 8:00 to most people this morning. Sunday is usually very busy at the local B&N and especially at the Starbuck's attached to the place. Usually all the tables both inside and out of the coffee shop are full, taken up by regular groups who meet on Sunday mornings. This morning? Ghost town.
I was beginning to feel like one of the characters in Stephen King's novella The Langoliers, as if I had stepped slightly out of time/sync with the rest of the world. I was an hour in the past, moving like a ghost through a lost and forgotten bit of time. I have the windows open to the spring weather and as I write this I can hear the sounds of traffic beginning to pick up outside. Time is snapping back into place. By next Sunday most folks will have adjusted to the new time and the lost hour will be no more, absorbed back into the normal passage of time. But it was there this morning, just at the edges of my waking mind.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Real Kharrn


The other day I was helping a fellow Lord of the Rings Online player do some quests, and after we waded through a mass of bad guys he asked me why I didn't wear any armor. I told him to hold on a second and toggled off Kharrn's 'Conan' outfit to show him what my avatar actually looked like.
That's the real Kharrn on the left in the picture above, bristling with heavy armor, most of it supplied by my pal Nav who gets more high level armor than the knows what to do with in his various raids and instances. I was surprised that my fellow player didn't know about the outfit screen which allows you to have two cosmetic outfits besides your actual appearance. Some folks, far more interested in fashion that me, have some very ornate outfits they can switch to. I have real Kharrn and Conan Kharrn. It's nice because I can reap the benefits of the heavy armor, but still look like my favorite barbarian. So there ya go. The real Kharrn.

Monday, March 02, 2009

In Like Kimba

March came in like a white lion as a freak winter storm dropped about three inches of snow around my place on Sunday. It snowed hard from about 10:00 am until about 3:30 pm. Fortunately we'd had warm weather for the preceding few days and initially the snow melted as soon as it hit the ground. But as the big, wet flakes continued to fall, the grassy areas began to turn white and soon there was significant accumulation on trees and cars. I began to wonder if I'd make it to work on Monday as about three o'clock a layer of slush had begun to solidify into ice on the entire parking lot at my apartment complex. But once the snow stopped falling the slush melted away.
In many ways this was a perfect storm for me. I'm old enough now that I don't have much interest in playing in the snow, but I love to watch it fall. One entire wall of my place is windows and it was a great place to sit and watch the snow. Bruce the cat was absolutely fascinated. I don't think he'd ever seen snow before and the quarter size flakes were just so many moving objects to him. He stood on his back legs, front paws on the window sill, and watched the snow fall, occasionally making the same odd little noises he makes when he sees birds in the trees outside the window.
We so rarely get snow in Georgia that it's always a treat for me. (I can see Beth just shaking her head at me.) I watched the snow fall for a while, and then I sat around and read most of the day while the cats napped. Not a bad Sunday.
This morning most of the snow is gone, though there are patches of the infamous 'black' ice on the roadways, so hey, let's be careful out there.