Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thucydides


I got Donald Kagan's book Thucydides for Christmas. This is a study of the author of the classic Peloponnesian War, a man who actually participated in the conflict. Kagan, who wrote his own massive history of the war, (which I recommend) focuses this time on how Thucydides came to write his history and what his motivations might have been.
Someone once said that history is written by the winners, which is true in many, if not most, cases. Whoever survives the war writes the history. Thucydides is an interesting case, because he basically found the time to write his history after being exiled. Thucydides was the commander of Athenian naval forces in the Thracian area, whose chief city was Amphipolis. When the Spartan general Brasidas took the city by surprise, the Athenians held Thucydides responsible and sent him into exile.
Thucydides apparently saw this as an opportunity to use his insiders knowledge of the war to write his history.
Kagan raises the idea that it's Thucydides who should be considered the father of history rather than Herodotus because of Thucydides methods, which are based in facts and rational thought, as opposed to good old Herodotus, who apparently believed everything he was told. Herodotus also apparently read from his 'histories' in public as a form of entertainment.
For the most part Thucydides ignores myth and religion, leaving out references to the will of the gods and such and sticking to facts. However, Kagan goes on at length about how Thucydides, like most historians, had his own agenda and thus the 'facts' themselves have to be examined in view of Thucydides own interests and ambitions. All in all a fascinating book. It's only a couple of hundred pages, and the concise history of the Peloponnesian War in the book's introduction is worth the price of admission by itself. Kagan, a Yale professor, knows his stuff.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

9:00 and all is Quiet

I had told my manager at work that I'd swing by Tuesday morning and see if anything needed to be drafted. Could have saved my time and gas. Nothing stirring at work. I stayed for three hours and nothing came up, so now I'm off to buy a couple of tires for my truck. Figured I'd get all the mundane stuff out of the way today. Then it's back to being off until Jan 3rd.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Lion of Cairo


Scott Oden's The Lion of Cairo is one of those books that I can easily imagine Robert E. Howard reading and enjoying. There's blood spilled by page two and more before page 20 and the hero, Assad, aka The Emir of the Knife, is just the kind of no nonsense fighting man that REH wrote about.
I've noted that if you hear me use the term "hits the ground running" I'm probably a happy reader and that's definitely the case here. I've enjoyed Oden's books before, notably Men of Bronze, but I can see a slightly different approach here. Plot, character description, exposition and background all come flying at the reader at lightning pace, letting you know you'd better be ready for a fast ride with this one.
Assad is an assassin of the order of Alamut. His masters bid him return to Cairo, the city where he was born, to assist the current Caliph, a man who is said to be a figurehead for more ambitious men, a veritable prisoner in his own palace. Assad is to do whatever he can to aide the caliph, whether the caliph wants him to or not. Intrigue and bloodshed ensue.
This is historical fiction but it strays into sword & sorcery territory. Assad carries a salawar, a two foot knife, which seems to be both sentient and evil, and there are other references to sorcery being a real force. In a short forward, Oden mentions that the Cairo of the book is not strictly the historical Cairo, but more the Cairo of Scheherazade, "a city where the fantastic occurs around every corner." But that doesn't mean this is a full blown fantasy novel. It fits into that area I've discussed before where it's mostly realistic but there's just enough shadowy magic to make things interesting.
Not surprisingly, the book is dedicated to Robert E. Howard. But don't worry. Oden is his own man and this isn't just a pastiche. The spirit of Howard is there but also that of Harold Lamb and other writers of pulp historical fiction. From what I understand, Lion of Cairo is the first in a trilogy. I'll buy volume two the day it hits the bookstore. Now I want a salawar...

Fantasy Fan-tastic


During all the years that I've read and studied the works of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, I have continually come across references to a fanzine called The Fantasy Fan. This was an amateur journal of weird fiction, produced by a young man named Charles D. Hornig, which amazingly, often featured stories and poems by some of the major fantasy writers of the day. Sometimes when Smith or Lovecraft, and in one case Howard, had stories rejected by the ever mercurial editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, the writers would allow Hornig to publish these stories in his publication. Thus, this tiny fanzine, which ran for only eighteen issues, is an important source of weird fiction.
Given this content, the age of the fanzines (1933-1935) and the small size of the original print runs, you end up with extremely scarce and expensive items. No telling what a complete set of The Fantasy Fan would set you back IF you could find a whole set in good condition.
But now another fan, a fellow named Lance Thingmaker, has made it possible for modern day fans to read The Fantasy Fan in something that comes very close to the magazine's original format. Thingmaker has produced a book which collects all eighteen issues of The Fantasy Fan, shot from the original zines, and has done everything in his power to make the contents as much like the actual zines as possible.
One of the first things you'll notice is that all the pages aren't the same color. Some are tan. Some are orange. Some are off-white. That's because Hornig's printer didn't always use the same color paper, and Thingmaker has tried to make each individual issue the same color as the original. That's the kind of attention to detail I'm talking about.
The text has been cleaned up but not altered. Every typo and misspelling remains as it was seventy something years ago. In his introduction, Thingmaker says, "My underlying goal for this project was to make it available to people who want to read the zines as they originally appeared."
Thingmaker goes on to say that he wanted the book to appear as if Hornig had taken unsold copies of The Fantasy Fan and had them bound into books. He has succeeded admirably. What's so cool for the fanboy in me is that I'm basically looking at what Robert E. Howard looked at when he received copies of FF. Far better than just reading the re-typeset contents of the zines.
Once I started reading, I realized why people make so much of the fantasy fan. Everybody who was anybody at the time in SF/Fantasy is involved. Not only does it have stories by the big three, but also by August Derleth, Robert H. Barlow, Robert Bloch, Eando Binder, and a passel of less well known writers, some of who also worked for Weird Tales. There are columns by Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz (Names all fans of Superman should recognize) and letters and articles from Forest J. Ackerman. I mean, history just drips from these pages.
Among Lovecraft's stories which appeared in the Fantasy fan are The Other Gods, Polaris, and Beyond the Walls of Sleep. Clark Ashton Smith gave them such classics as The Ghoul, The Coming of the White Worm, and The Primal City. Robert E. Howard's single prose appearance is Gods of the North, aka The Frost King's Daughter, which is the alternate version of the Conan story The Frost Giant's Daughter. I've read all this stuff before, but to see it as it originally appeared is a real kick. There are also numerous poems, letters, comments, etc from REH, HPL, and CAS. The Fantasy fan was also the place where Lovecraft's famous essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature" first appeared. The zine suspended publication before the entire essay was published, but Mr. Thingmaker has you covered. He includes the complete essay in the back of the book as a bonus.
I could go on and on, because seriously, you just can't imagine how nifty this book is. For me it's even more so because I received it as a Christmas gift from by good friend Cliff who thought it belonged on my bookshelf. If it belongs on yours, I'd get a copy quick. I guarantee this book will be yet another sought after item in just a few years. Thingmaker includes a note with the book saying the books are limited but folks who want one can contact him at: lance@planetbomb.com

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

And out of the blue, it's a white Christmas. Been snowing steadily since about 11:00 this morning and still falling fast and heavy. Probably a couple of inches out there now. The ground was fairly warm or there would be more accumulated. The flakes are big and wet and if the temperatures drop after dark we'll probably have the usual icy mess we get with snow, but that's fine. I've nowhere I have to be tomorrow and I have plenty of food and coffee and cat food. As the song says, let it snow...

Merry Christmas!


I was looking at last year's Christmas post and today's is much the same. Supposed to have brunch at my brother's place at 10:00 and I've been up since 6:00. After I get back from Canton, Christmas will be pretty much over for me.
I have to go in to work for one day next week and with any luck that won't be an entire day, so I'm more or less off until the 3rd of January.
I hope all of you are having a good Holiday season. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Fritz Leiber!


Today is the birthday of my favorite fantasy writer. No, not Robert E. Howard. Fritz Leiber, creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who broadened the scope of sword and sorcery with his dark humor and his sparkling prose. There are few originals in the world of S&S, but Leiber is truly a writer who took REH's framework and ran with it in a direction that was purely his own.

Christmas Eve Morning

Christmas Eve morning. I'm at my desk with a big cup of black coffee and a slice of Jenny's homemade banana bread. The day is basically mine until 6:30 or so this evening when I have to head up to Canton for various Rutledge family Christmas stuff.
Spent last evening at my pal Brie's house, watching the George C. Scott version of a Christmas Carol with Brie and her family. Brie cooked a wonderful dinner and she and my friend Nav (with a little help from the ever sneaky Cliff) had conspired to give me a shirt emblazoned with the words

Crush Your Enemies,
See Them Driven Before You,
Hear the Lamentations of Their Women.

Now if that doesn't say Christmas, I don't know what does.
I plan for today to be a goof off day. I'm going to read some comic books and maybe a book, and watch some Christmas movies and such. I'm well stocked with food for the weekend so I don't have to go out if I don't wish to. Bruce is playing with a catnip mouse that Brie sent him and Amelia is pretending that she doesn't want to play with it too. All and all a nice morning. And now I think I need a little more banana bread. Talk to you later.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tarra Khash:Hrossak!


In my never ending search for more Sword & Sorcery books, I came across a recommendation for Brian Lumley's Primal Lands series. I picked up the first volume, The House of Cthulhu, and was somewhat confused, as the stories seemed to be more Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance influenced than anything else, with much sorcery and very little sword swinging, and while there were one or two barbarians hanging about, they tended to be the bad guys in the stories and to die horrible, Lovecraftian deaths. I checked with my source and he said, "Oh yeah, you need to get to volume two, Tarra Khash:Hrossak!"
When I had looked at the covers of the three Primal Lands volumes, I'd assumed Tarra Khash:Hrossak was some sort of Cthulhu-ish gibberish, but as it turns out it's the name of the protagonist. Tarra Khash is a man of the steppes, a Hrossak. Think Cossack with an HR instead of a C and you're pretty much there. And yes, in the volume that bears his name, Tarra Khash functions in the Conan role, fighting bloody battles and facing horrible creatures from the outer dark. However, while Tarra Khash is no slouch with a blade, he's not in Conan's class. Still, he is wily and clever and often escapes peril more by his wits than his sword arm.
Lumley is perhaps best known for his Necroscope series and other horror novels. His horror writing serves him well in the Primal Lands series and the majority of the Tarra Khash stories seem to be horror with a dash of adventure thrown in, much like some of Robert E. Howard's work. (At least in premise. Lumley isn't a mile a minute action writer like REH.) The fun thing about these stories is that while other sword & sorcery writers may use pseudo-Lovecraftian tropes, Lumley's series is set in the actual Cthulhu mythos and Lovecraft fans will find much to enjoy. The pre-Atlantean island continent, Theem'hdra is sort of Lumley's version of the Hyborian age or perhaps more like CAS's Hyperborea or Zothique. It teems with wizards, monsters, elder gods, and all manners of sorcery. Tarra Khash:Hrossak can be read as a series of short stories or as a serial novel, since each story connects to those that precede and follow it. I found it best to read a story every few days.
I've yet to start the third volume in the Primal Lands series, Sorcery In Shad, but presumably it's a novel featuring Tarra Khash and characters from the first two books. Should be fun.

Comic Book Report

Had another (slightly) long weekend as I used up the last of my vacation time. I didn't work Friday, but since I normally only work four hours on Friday, and I start at 6:00 am, it wasn't that different. I spent a lot of that time reading comic books. See, I used to collect comic books. I owned over 18,000 comics at one point. They had their own room. But I pretty much had stopped collecting by the year 2000, only reading a very few comics and those mostly related to other interests like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I moved a few years ago I got rid of my collection, keeping only three long boxes or roughly 900 comics, most of which either related to sword & sorcery, or had some sentimental value, such as my mom's original collection of Tarzan comics.
But I still love comic books. I love the medium and the characters and the artwork and the stories. I own tons of volumes reprinting OLD comics, but I just can't work up much enthusiasm for today's comic books. Perhaps it's just my age, but I don't think that's entirely it. I mean, I'm not one of those people whose tastes are stuck in the time period when they grew up. I like new music, new writers, new video games, new movies and TV shows, and all forms of new technology. I'm an internet addict. But somehow most of today's comics leave me cold.
That's why I appreciate my pal, Cliff Biggers. Cliff owns a comic book store and he probably loves the medium of comics more than I do. He and I have been friends for over a quarter of a century and we've spent untold hours talking about comics, so Cliff knows what artists I admire, what kind of writing I like, and what characters I have a history with. In other words, he knows what I like. So when he recommends stuff, I give it a try. This was a pretty big week for things he had recommended. The New Thunder Agents. A new issue of Jim Shooter's revival of Doctor Solar and the first issue of Shooter's new take on Mighty Samson. Victorian Undead, the best Sherlock Holmes comic pastiche in some time. All of those were great. So, thanks, Cliff. You're a pal.
Two others were comics I'd picked out myself, the first issue of Roy Thomas's new Conan mini-series, which I reviewed the morning I read it, (See post below.) and the second issue of IDW's Dungeons and Dragons, which was even more fun than the first issue.
But it didn't stop there. A while back Cliff and I found a company that was selling DVDs containing old comic books which have fallen into public domain. I'm still working my way through a bunch of those, and this weekend I read a lot of comics from Quality Comics . I'll have to devote an entire post to Quality at some point. Their name was apt, since they employed some of the best artists and writers ever to work in the Golden Age of Comics.
I also finished off volume seven of Dark Horse Comics' reprint series, Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years. Another one that needs its own post. I'll try and get to that soon. So, anyway, big weekend for comic book reading, as I said.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Conan: Road of Kings #1


"Back in Cimmeria, I broke a bull's back on the day of my manhood. If I can't swim for a full night, what am I good for?"
This is a paraphrase of a line that Roy Thomas used many times in his run on the original Conan the Barbarian comic book way back when. I suspect he dropped it in as a wink to long time fans in his first issue of the Dark Horse Comics Conan:The Road of Kings 12 issue series. Roy needn't have bothered. There's no mistaking anyone Else's Conan for Roy's.
From the first page, with its tightly written introductory captions and its 'start right in the middle of action' beginning, this very well could have been an issue of Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan magazine. (Not the color Conan comic since there's a bit more partial nudity and implied sex than probably would have flown in a spinner rack comic book in the 1970s.)
Now depending on your take on the old Conan series, this could be good or bad. I'm a major league fan of Roy Thomas, so for me it's great to read Roy's particular way of turning a phrase again and to marvel at his narrative driving dialog. This is a guy who knows how to get the most out of captions and speech balloons, using them just as surely as the artist's panel to panel storytelling to keep the comic moving swiftly from first page to last. It's a skill sadly lacking in many of today's comic book writers. (Or maybe it's the editors.)
It's funny because though this is the first issue of the new series it's also kind of a throwaway, because Roy has to use this issue as a segue-way from the last issue of Conan the Cimmerian to the new series. Cimmerian ended with the last part of an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Iron Shadows in the Moon, which left Conan the new captain of a pirate crew and saddled with the lovely Olivia, a former princess of Ophir.
Roy said in an interview that in issue one he had to get rid of the pirates as quickly as possible and set up the premise for the Road of Kings. In just twenty two pages he does this admirably. There's plenty of sword swinging action and adventure and a nice plot twist or two.
As to the art, I'm reserving judgment on that for now. Penciller Mike Hawthorne is new to me, but it looks like he hasn't decided exactly where he wants to go with his style yet. The guy can draw, but the art bounces between cartoonish and more realistic with no apparent pattern. The inking by John Lucas, also new to me, is a little uneven too. Anyway a lot of this may settle down as the series progresses. We'll see.
So yeah, if you liked Roy Thomas's Conan back in the day then, you'll probably like it now. If not, best to wait for the Tim Truman scripted adaptation of Robert E. Howard's The Scarlet Citadel, coming out later next year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Slip Sliding Away

We had a fairly serious ice storm last night. Fortunately I was home from work before it started and made a good call not to go out in it later as there were something like 1000 accidents in the metro Atlanta area. Had to go into work a little later than usual this morning but didn't hit much trouble. The temperature is well above freezing now and we've had some rain which is fast washing away all traces of the ice. Still, it's awful early in the year for us to be having this much frozen precipitation in Georgia. Could be a rough Winter.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another One Down

Finished up the Jerry Cornelius story I was working on. Like most of my stories it turned into something other than what it started out as. It came in at about 12 thousand words. I keep swearing off pastiches, but I couldn't resist the urge to write something in Michael Moorcock's universe. Back to my own stuff now, though. Really.
These days, whether a story is meant for publication or done purely for my own entertainment, I'm just always glad to finish. I had a lot of years where I just kept writing fragments and couldn't seem to finish anything. I've completed more stories in the past three years than the five years that preceded them. So anyway, glad to get another one in before the end of 2010.
One thing I did enjoy about this story was that I wrote it with no plan at all, but things still dovetailed neatly at the end. If I didn't know that it wasn't plotted in advance, I'd swear it was. Stephen King would be so proud of me...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I dreamed about my grandmother last night, the one who lives in an assisted living home now and doesn't always know who I am. But in my dream she was much younger and my dad and my uncle and I were in her kitchen on a cold day and she had cooked us biscuits with cube steak in them, and in my dream they tasted just as good as they used to in real life.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Touch of Snow

We had some snow yesterday. Just enough to dust the grass and the hoods of cars. It fell on and off all during the day, adding a nice Holiday feel as we approach Christmas. Bruce the cat enjoyed it tremendously, running up to the windows and trying to catch the fluttering snow as it struck the panes.
I have to report that I have absolutely no Christmas spirit at the moment, but I remain hopeful that I'll get more interested as the day approaches. I did watch The Christmas Invasion (Doctor Who) last week and I'll start watching more Christmas movies and shows this week, so we'll see.

Happy Wold Newton Day!

I explained below about December 13th being Wold Newton Day and now the day has arrived. So to all friends and fans of Philip Jose Farmer and the wonderful game of fiction that he devised with his Wold Newton family tree, a very happy Wold Newton Day.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Time's Continuing Gift


Tomorrow, December 13th is Wold Newton Day, the anniversary of the day when a meteorite fell to Earth near the English Village of Wold Newton. This was a remarkable event in real life, buy it became even more remarkable in the fiction of author Philip Jose Farmer. I've explained what the Wold Newton family is several times here at Singular Points so this time I'm just going to point you to an essay by my pal Win Scott Eckert which does a far better job of explaining it than I could. (See the link at the bottom of this post.) I basically just want to focus on one small aspect of Farmer's fiction, and that is the potential for amazing adventures left by Farmer's novel Time's Last Gift.
Time's Last Gift is about a group of time travelers who go back in time to 12,000 BC. As it turns out, one of the travelers, a man named John Gribardsun, is in reality Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes. This isn't stated in the book but rather implied by a series of clues as the novel progresses. (I do my best to avoid spoilers, kids, but I can't write this article without revealing this plot point.)
When the time travelers return to the far future, Gribardsun elects to remain in the past. Tarzan, being immortal, therefore lives through all of Earth's history from 12,000 BC far into the future.
Now let's think about that. Though it's shown in Farmer's two Opar novels, Hadon of Ancient Opar and Flight to Opar, that this version of Tarzan prefers to stay in Africa, at least early on, I'm sure that the ever curious and restless ape man would want to travel in the ancient world. Thus, a pastiche writer could have Tarzan meet any figure from history. Socrates. Cleopatra. Julius Caesar. Benjamin Franklin. Wyatt Earp. You name it.
Tarzan could visit Mesopotamia, Rome, Greece, or Egypt. He could see the Library of Alexandria and meet Vikings and Knights and Native Americans. And this version of Tarzan would have some interesting aspects in that not only would he have the physical attributes we all know, his strength, speed and agility, but he would probably be the smartest man alive. This is a guy who taught himself to read and write and who could pick up most languages in a matter of days. We know his mind was way above average. Now give him literally thousands of years of learning and experience.
But wait, there's more. The possibilities for one of Win Scott Eckert's other favorite things, the crossover, are immense. Gribardsun/Tarzan could meet Mr. Darcy or Robin Hood or King Arthur or Solomon Kane or Simon Magus or Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel or the Three Musketeers or any other figure from historical fiction. (In a throw away line in my short story, The Silent History, the Red Wizard Llath reveals that his plans were thwarted in 13th century Constantinople by the time traveling barbarian Kharrn and his ally Gribardsun.)
The first such crossover that occurred to me after finishing Time's Last Gift was that an immortal Tarzan would eventually come into conflict with another immortal, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane. Since Kane is the biblical Cain, son of Adam and Eve, he too has the knowledge and experience gained from a lifespan of thousands of years. Kane and Tarzan wouldn't get along so sooner of later, there would be trouble. Another favorite character that Tarzan could run into would be Elric of Melnibone, who spent a thousand years in Earth's past at one point. He could meet F. Paul Wilson's immortal Glaeken and fight Rasalom. He could run into Highlanders and Vampires and Captain Jack Harkness and other immortals or near immortals. The possibilities are truly endless.
Anyway, please forgive my fanboy ramblings. I always get this way when I think of the amazing work of Philip Jose Farmer, a man who enjoyed a good time traveling crossover himself now and again. Here's the link to Win Scott Eckert's Wold Newton essay at All Pulp:

http://allpulp.blogspot.com/2010/12/wold-newton-primer-article-written-by.html

And for more Wold Newton Goodness hit win's own site.

http://woldnewton.blogspot.com/

Saturday, December 11, 2010

In the Fullness of Time


Reading through the annotations in The Last Hieroglyph, the fifth volume of the collected fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, I noted that several times Smith mentioned in letters that he hoped to eventually see his stories of Zothique and Hyperborea collected into individual volumes. Smith didn't live to see this dream realized but it did eventually occur. Lin Carter, while he was editor of the fabled Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, compiled volumes of both story sequences as well as two other books, Poseidonis and Xiccarph, which collected shorter sequences with unrelated but similarly themed stories.
In the notes to the final section of Poseidonis, Carter mentions that he hoped to get all of Smith's stories back into print. For various reasons this didn't work out for Carter, but his dream, like Smith's, did eventually come to pass.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Expendables


The Expendables is kind of what I expected and kind of not. I was expecting a throw back to the 80s-90s style of action film and it is partially that. There is much shooting and fighting and things going boom. It is sometimes necessary to use the same willing suspension of disbelief that one had to use when watching those sorts of films.
But writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone has learned a few lessons about drama over the years and he apparently tried to bring some of that to The Expendables. The plot, involving a small island country under the thumb of a dictator in league with a slimy drug lord (Eric Roberts) is reminiscent of Stallone’s most recent Rambo movie. Stallone’s character, Barney Ross, is a long time mercenary who has begun to go sour on his profession and question his motivations. Like Rambo he has to see people suffering and witness the self-sacrifice of someone else before he rises to the occasion and decides to kick butt for the right reasons.
Stallone, now age 62, shows he’s still got the action movie chops, though watching the extras shows that he certainly got hurt a lot while filming the movie.
The other stars get their own chances to shine, particularly Jason Statham as Stallone’s right hand man. Something that struck me as interesting is that while Statham and fellow martial arts star Jet Li both have extended fight scenes, director Stallone seemed to be trying to bring their fighting styles down to Earth a bit. There are few high kicks or overly acrobatic movements. Both men look more dangerous as a result, as if they could really do some damage, which is what I think Stallone was going for. The fights in The Expendables don’t come off looking like something from a kung fu movie.
Mickey Rourke, who really should leave off with the plastic surgery, turns in a subdued and affective performance. The surprise great performance though comes from Dolph Lundgren as Gunner, a member of Stallone’s team who has become addicted to drugs. Lundgren manages to be scary, likable, and sympathetic all at the same time.
If you saw the commercials then you know that Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzeneger are also in The Expendables, however they are only there in cameo roles and if you blink, you’ll miss them.
All in all, I really enjoyed The Expendables. While not quite in the class of the last Rambo or Rocky movies, it’s still a fine addition to the later work of Sylvester Stallone and a fun homage to the action movies of the past.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Push up Passenger

Today when I was working out, my cat Bruce came over to watch me do push ups. During the third set of push ups he decided to join me and leaped onto my back where he rode up and down until I finished the set. Cats...

Saturday, December 04, 2010

December is Science Fiction and Fantasy History Month


Over at his blog, The House of Sternberg, writer/editor Stewart Sternberg has suggested that we SF/Fantasy fans support a movement to make December Science Fiction and Fantasy History Month and he invites bloggers to post about the writers of the past and their importance to the development of the genres, in order to promote quality work and to perhaps point new readers towards writers and books they might not be aware of. I think this is a great idea. I don't want anyone thinking something like Twilight is as good as it gets.
My own interest in SF/Fantasy began pretty much from the time I could read, and really from a bit before that. I've talked before about how my mother collected Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and the Gold Key Tarzan comics. Pouring over those comics I was already enthralled by lost cities, dinosaurs, beast-men and such before I could read a word. In the school library, I gravitated toward works with fantastic elements almost immediately. There was a series about a boy scientist named Danny Dunn and those were my early favorites. Danny traveled in time and got accidentally miniaturized and had all kinds of SF adventures. From their I moved on to Madeleine L 'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and it's sequels. I remember being pleased that one of the protagonists was named Charles. Somewhere in there I discovered the Chronicles of Narnia. (I recall that I began with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader because I liked the cover.)
All of this reading led to good grades in school and a ravenous desire for more books and stories. My brother Doug becomes important at this point. Doug was two years my senior and three years ahead of me in school. He didn't like to read (He does now.) and he knew I would read anything I could get my hands on, so he often did did book reports by giving me books he had been assigned and then having me give him a verbal summary of the book. One of these books was Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. I can't tell you what an effect that book had on me. I think I read it three times in a row and then I sought out all the Ray Bradbury books I could find. Dandelion Wine. Something Wicked This Way Comes. The Illustrated Man. The October Country. The Halloween Tree. By the time I reached fifth grade, the state wide reading tests concluded that I could read on a college level. That's what a love of reading can do for you, kids.
I began to think of myself as a science fiction fan. I read Frank Herbert's Dune series, Issac Asimov's Robot and Empire books, and various books by Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Keith Laumer, Arthur C. Clarke, L. Sprague de Camp, and many others. In the early 1970s I discovered Alan Dean Fosters Pip and Flynx in the novel The Tar-Aiym Krang. I loved the mighty minidrag Pip. Pip was a tiny, flying, extremely venomous snake-like creature. What kid wouldn't want such a pet? I read through all of Fosters 'Humanx Commonwealth' books as they came out. Great SF and great adventure.
At Christmas of 1973 a favorite aunt gave me a stack of new comics, one of which was an issue of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian. That was my introduction to sword and sorcery. I learned pretty quick that Conan was a character who had appeared in books and that those books were out of print, but that didn't stop me from tracking down other sword and sorcery writers including Lin Carter, John Jakes, Gardner Fox, Michael Moorcock, and best of all, Fritz Leiber. Leiber's 'Swords' series, (Swords Against Wizardry, Swords Against Death, etc.) collecting the adventures of Fafhrd and the gray Mouser should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of fantasy. I kid you not. Eventually I would get my hands on actual Conan books when ACE took over the property from the defunct Lancer books. I didn't know at the time that the Robert E. Howard stories had been 'edited' by l. Sprague de Camp, but that's another story.
A high school teacher had tried to interest me in The Lord of the Rings early on, but I initially found J.R.R. Tolkien slow going and didn't finish The Fellowship of the Rings. a couple of years later, after reading Steven R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant trilogy, I decided to try LotR again, and this time enjoyed it thoroughly. Sometime after finishing The Lord of the Rings I became enamored of crime fiction and wandered away from SF/Fantasy. But I would be back.
Anyway, there's a Reader's Digest version of MY history with Science Fiction and Fantasy. I didn't get around to talking about John Carter of Mars, or Andre Norton, or C.L. Moore, or Larry Niven, or Lin Carter's Ballantine Adult Fantasy series or any number of other authors, but you can find posts about all of those somewhere on the blog. (with more coming) Science Fiction and Fantasy have been a big and wonderful part of my life and I'm always glad to recommend books in both genres. Now get out there and get to reading.

If you want to support Science Fiction and Fantasy History Month, step over to Stewart Sternberg's blog:

http://house-of-sternberg.blogspot.com/

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On the Way


The picture that accompanies this post is of the latest two offerings from the inestimable Robert E. Howard Foundation. The REH Foundation is responsible for many of the more esoteric items in my collection, including the three volume Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard and The Last of the Trunk, a book which collects most of Howard's unpublished and incomplete stories that no one had ever collected before. (REH kept his old manuscripts in a large trunk.) They also leap in to fill gaps left by other publishers. Last year when Del Rey published their excellent collection of El Borak stories, the REH Foundation put out a companion book which featured all the fragments, early versions, and related El Borak stories that Del Rey left out. Great stuff.
The latest two books collect a lot of Howard's pulp material that the average reader probably isn't aware of. Everyone knows Conan and Kull and Solomon Kane. Those who delve a bit deeper might know Bran Mak Morn and Cormac Mac Art. But it takes a pretty serious REH fan to be familiar with Steve Harrison and Kathulos.
Kathulos or the Master or the Scorpion, is also the titular character in Skull-Face, REH's take on the yellow peril pulp novel and his homage to Sax Rohmer's devil doctor, Fu Manchu. Skull-Face is one of Howard's longer stories and will probably be the anchor in the book Tales of Weird Menace. Weird Menace was a sub genre in the pulp magazines. Sort of a cross between the hero pulps of the day and horror,(with the occasional detour into the 'spicy' pulps)the covers for the Weird Menace books usually featured some scantily clad dame in danger from a leering madman, often a criminal mastermind. There are actually a couple of stories in this collection that I haven't read, and a ton of fragments and such, so I'm really looking forward to this book.
Steve Harrison's Casebook collects all the stories and fragments featuring Howard's hardboiled detective, Steve Harrison. Howard didn't care for mystery fiction, could barely stand to read it in fact, but he was trying to find other markets besides Weird Tales, 'splashing the field' as he called it. Oddly enough, though he didn't seem to hold his own crime fiction too highly, REH was ahead of his time in that what he mostly wrote instead of whodunits were stories of suspense, which is a major category on the mystery scene these days. There are easily as many 'thrillers' put out every year as whodunits and more of those make it to the best seller list than any other mystery subgenre. Howard would have fit right in with Lee Child, James Patterson, and the lot. I've blogged before about one of Howard's Harrison stories, Names in the Black Book, and it's really an adventure yarn featuring a PI, much more Mike Hammer than Miss Marple. It's interesting to note, since these two volumes are being published simultaneously, that there's really a good bit of crossover, since Harrison often comes up against his own Fu Manchu-like enemy, Erlik Khan.
Anyway, both Cliff and I have preordered both books (there will only be 150 copies printed of each) which are supposed to ship towards the end of January. A final note, the covers to these books were painted by Jim and Ruth Keegan, a husband and wife team of vastly talented artists who have done quite a few REH related covers and illustrations and who do the wonderful comic strip Two-Gun Bob, which tells vignettes from the life of Robert E. Howard. To see the paintings without text, and to view tons more artwork, head over to their blog, via the link provided at the bottom of this post. I'm throwing in a link to the Robert E. Howard foundation too at no extra charge.


http://www.rehfoundation.org/


http://twogunblog.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Last Hieroglyph

Over the last four years, Nightshade Books has been publishing a five volume series collecting the Fantasy short stories of Clark Ashton Smith. The Last Hieroglyph, the fifth and final volume, arrived last week and I've been reading through it, allowing myself one story per night when possible, sometimes one every two nights. The fiction of Clark Ashton Smith should not be rushed through. The good stories, which far outweigh the bad or the mediocre, should be savored, read slowly and appreciated. Smith's best work is 'prose poetry' and a reader should take the time to enjoy the feast of words.
Not that CAS's stuff is by any stretch of the imagination slow, stuffy or outdated. Some of his horror stories still pack quite a jolt. The Death of Malygris, from the newest volume, features a particularly grisly fate for some sorcerers who really should have known better. The night phantoms visited on the hero of The Witchcraft of Ulua, a story with surprisingly erotic undertones, will visit you too late at night if you think on them too long. Smith creates images that linger in your mind long after the book has been replaced on the shelf.
There's a quality to Smith's work that is difficult to pin down. The sheer strangeness of his ideas is part of it. He seemed to excel at creating things that no one had thought of before. Lin Carter was fond of using the word lapidary when describing Smith's work, likening the composing of each story to the faceting of a jewel. That's a bit flowery for me, but I see what he meant. Smith obviously put a lot of work into his stories. The annotations in the back of each of these volumes bear this out. Editors Scott Connors and Ron Hilger have supplied exhaustive information and notes about each story. I enjoy reading this material almost as much as reading the stories and in fact, upon finishing each tale, I immediately turn to the back pages to read all the notes about it.
Also, the editors have gone through original typescripts, manuscripts, published editions and Smith's notes and letters to try to bring the readers the stories as Smith intended them. They've even included excised scenes and alternate endings and such when possible. You aren't going to find any more authentic Clark Ashton Smith work anywhere else. That's why I recommend these volumes to CAS fans who already have these stories in other forms.
Limited edition publishing being what it is, there was sometimes a long wait between volumes, with the span between volume three and volume four being long enough that I'd begun to worry a bit, but now all five volumes have been published. If you're interested, don't wait too long. I did notice that volume 1 is becoming collectible, with mint copies going for up to 150 bucks and used ones in the $65 to $100 range, but you could probably find one cheaper with some digging, and the other four volumes are still available for cover price or less at Amazon.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Long Weekend

I didn't blog much during the Thanksgiving Weekend. That's because I was busy goofing off. I had already decided to spend the majority of my five day weekend just having fun. I did a little housework, but only what I had to. I had a lot of good breakfasts, my favorite meal to cook. I ate out some, but mostly just slapped meals together from provisions I had picked up Tuesday afternoon on my way home from work.
Thanksgiving itself was the usual mix of family foolishness and moments of introspection. The details are boring, so I'll let it go at that.
I did a lot of reading. Read Black Hats, which is reviewed below, and Andrew Vachss new one, The Weight. Also re-read various Michael Moorcock books and short stories as research, as I am writing a Jerry Cornelius story, something that every Moorcock fan has to attempt at some point, I think. Cornelius is a character that Moorcock has allowed other writers to use in various stories over the years, sometimes to his regret. Mine is not terribly serious, fan fiction really, and I'm bouncing all over the Multiverse with it. So yeah, I did some writing too.
I read some more Darkhorse Tarzan reprints and a few new comic books, including the final issue of Darkhorse's Conan the Cimmerian. That series ended with issue 25, finishing up the adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Iron Shadows in the Moonlight. Next up for Darkhorse is Conan:The Road of Kings, not an adaptation of the Karl Edward Wagner Conan pastiche, but a new 12 issue story arc by original Conan comics writer, Roy Thomas. Also read the first issue of the new Darkhorse Kull mini series, The Hate Witch. Decent story and decent art, but nothing to write home about. Increasingly it seems that Darkhorse's REH pastiches become more and more throw away, like back up features from the old Marvel Savage Sword of Conan. If they're going to do short series, I'd like to see them make more of an event of it, not just another monthly comic, if you take my meaning. You've got the time folks. Do something spectacular. Get some creators in there who the fans have always wanted to see work on Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane and the lot. (Speaking of which, I noticed in an old Marvel Letters page that at one point Gene Colan was supposed to have been working on a Solomon Kane story. Now that's something I would have liked to have seen. Apparently it didn't come off.)
I watched another Zatoichi movie, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman. This is one I had always wanted to see as it represented a crossover between the Japanese Toho Studio and the Chinese Shaw Brothers Studio. Jimmy Wang Yu, the titular one armed swordsman was already the star of many Hong Kong films, so to have his one armed swordsman character meet Zatoichi was a big deal. It's interesting to note that the director didn't seem to quite know what to do with a Kung Fu swordsman and Wang Yu's fight scenes look a little awkward when compared to his Hong Kong movies. Fun stuff though.
I also watched a couple of episodes of the old Ultraman TV series. It doesn't hold up too well, I'm afraid, but I absolutely loved it when I was a kid, so nostalgia carried the day. I was amazed at how well I remembered the origin episode.
I also started reading the stories in volume five of the Nightshade Books' Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith. I'll blog some more about that one later. This was the last volume in the series and I'm glad to have all of Smith's work in one spot and in the order in which it was published. Interesting to watch Smith's style change over time.
So that was pretty much the weekend. Movies and comics and books. Not a bad way to spend the time off.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Black Hats


Max Allan Collins is what you'd call a prolific author. That means he writes a lot of books. A few of these appear under pen names and recently one of those pen names got past me. Collins wrote a book called Black Hats which came out in 2007 under the name Patrick Culhane. I'm glad I finally became aware of it, because it's a very good book. It takes place in 1920 and it follows former gunslinger Wyatt Earp, now 70 years old, to New York City where the son of Earp's late best friend Doc Holliday has run afoul of mobsters. A young up and comer named Al Capone is leaning heavily on Holliday, trying to get Doc's kid to buy prohibition booze from the outfit Capone works for. Earp and old pal Bat Masterson step in to back Holliday's play. Sounds like fun, eh?
If you're not familiar with Collins, he's something of a master at historical mystery/thrillers. Probably best know in the book world for his Nathan Heller novels (True Crime, True Detective) a private eye series that often involves various true cases, such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, he may be best known to casual readers for writing the graphic novel that became the Tom Hanks film Road To Perdition.
Collins authored several books featuring Elliot Ness (who also shows up in the Heller books) as the protagonist and he did a series of books a couple of years back which featured various authors playing amateur detectives. My favorite was The Pearl Harbor Murders. The protagonist in that one was Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The things that all of these books have in common are scrupulous research, clever plotting, and Collins' solid writing. I started reading Collins many years back with his Mallory series, followed by his Richard Stark homage books about a professional thief named Nolan and the Hellers. Along the line I read the Elliot Ness books and the Dick Tracy novels. (Collins was the writer for the Dick Tracy newspaper strip for many years.) Not to mention Collins comic book work. He wrote Batman and Wild Dog for DC and created, along with artist Terry Beatty, what I consider to be the best private eye comic book ever, Ms. Tree. he also revived the old Pete Morisi PI, Johnny Dynamite.
Recently Collins has been editing and finishing the Mike Hammer manuscripts left by Mickey Spillane. Collins and Spillane were good friends and Collins is definitely the man for the job. He's also been writing new books about his hitman protagonist Quarry. Somewhere in there he's turned out any number of TV and movie tie-ins and adpatations. Everything from CSI to the Scorpion King. Oh and he also writes cozy whodunnits with his wife under the pen name Barbara Allan. I told you the guy wrote a lot of books.
Anyway, Collins is in fine form with Black Hats. He really manages to evoke prohibition era new York. The speakeasys and the clubs and just the whole feel of the city. I learned quite a bit about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and Al Capone for that matter. In the last few pages of the book Collins gives the names of the books and other research material he used in great detail. I'm going to have to track a few of those books down. Amazon.com has plenty of used copies of Black Hats. Order yourself a copy and let an expert transport you back to the 1920s where you can stalk the mean streets of New york with Wyatt Earp. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Commandos Are Coming


One of the things that has always impressed me about the comic book work of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby is that no matter what comic publisher they worked for, what you got was a Simon-Kirby comic. They didn't conform to house styles of writing or drawing. Heck, many times they created the house style, dethroning the previous approaches by the sheer power and energy of their work. If you look at Captain America, Sandman, The Newsboy Legion, Stuntman, or any of S&K's output, they seem to belong less to the Marvel or DC or Harvey universes than to the Simon and Kirby universe. The imprint is that strong.
I was thinking about this as I read through the latest release in DC's Simon and Kirby Omnibus series, The Boy Commandos. I've blogged before about how I used to love the DC 100 Page Super Spectaculars because they reprinted tons of old comics as backups to the lead features. This is where I first met the Boy Commandos. Later, I kept an eye out for those reprints. I found quite a few, but this new volume contains several stories I haven't read.
From the first story which introduces the multinational gang of lads (Pierre from France, Jan from Holland, Alfy from Britain, and Brooklyn from the USA) we are firmly in Simon and Kirby land. I used to think that just meant those running, leaping, punching, figures that Kirby did so well and the over the top storytelling, but it seems, on re-reading some of these stories, that the writing is more solid than in a lot of comics from this period. Each Boy Commandos story in this volume is a mini-war movie, filled with pro ally propaganda, patriotism, and the sort of heartfelt can-do spirit that was part and parcel of the World War Two era. Reading Boy Commandos made me want to run out and buy war bonds and stamps right now. I can only imagine what affect it had on the readers of the time period.
Checking the DC Sandman and newsboy legion volumes, I find that the writing is just as strong. Simon and Kirby told stories about people and the heroes, rather than being the focus of the tales, were often merely bystanders until action was called for. There's just some very strong writing in these stories. That's as much a S&K trademark as the bombastic artwork.
If you're not familiar with the Boy Commandos, the crew are war orphans who have been adopted as mascots by the Commando units, at least in the early stories. They are watched over by Rip Carter, a dashing commando Captain who acts much as the Guardian does in the Newsboy Legion, kind of a Pat Ryan to his four Terrys. As the series progresses, there is less talk of mascots and the boys actually seem to BE commandos, showing up in dangerous situations without much explanation. The stories range all over the world, as did the war. Wherever Hitler and his goons are causing problems, you're likely to find the Boy Commandos right in the thick of it. (It seems to me that the Boy Commandos stories are tighter and more realistic than those of the Newsboy Legion, but that may just be because of the war backdrop.)
It seems that in most of the Simon and Kirby kid gang comics, Jack Kirby usually had a character that mirrored his younger self. Kirby grew up on the lower east Side of New York and he says, in an interview with Jim Steranko that he knew all the kids you see in his comics. he wore the baggy pants and the turtlenecks. Using that as a visual clue, Scrapper is probably Kirby's self projection in the Newsboy Legion. Brooklyn is an easier call in Boy Commandos since in addition to talking like a Warner Brothers' gangster and wearing the turtleneck, he's the only American kid in the gang.
Anyway the Boy Commandos are another example of just why Simon and Kirby were the first real super-stars of comics. Solid writing, great art, and characters that kids could identify with. What more do you want?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Weekend That Was

I had sort of an unfocused weekend. I didn't get much reading done and what I did was mostly comic books. I read reprints of old Tarzan comics and I may blog about that soon. I picked up the Boxed set of Doctor Who Season Five so I watched a lot of the extras on that. I watched a historical action movie called Centurion, which wasn't bad, but I had some issues with the way the Roman soldiers used their swords and shields in combat. I played Lord of the Rings Online a good bit Friday, none on Saturday, and a little on Sunday. I did some research for a short story idea and I wrote a little of the story last night. I re-read a couple of my older stories and found that they held up okay. I cooked some really good omelets. I had some Chocolate ice-cream. I did some house cleaning and played with the cats and otherwise just sort of puttered about. As I said, an unfocused weekend, but not a bad one. Now I have to work for two days and then the FIVE DAY WEEKEND begins. Maybe I'll be a little more productive. Then again, maybe I won't.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

FIVE DAY WEEKEND

I get Thursday and Friday off from my job next week for Thanksgiving. Since I still have some vacation time left I have scheduled Wednesday off as well. That gives me five days in a row from Wednesday to Sunday. Woo Hoo!

Four Years in the Trenches

I just noticed that I missed the blog's anniversary this year. I've been blogging away for four years now as of Nov 1st. I had begun to think this was going to be yet another year when the post total dropped from the year before, but looking at the numbers, I've really been quite the blogging machine over the past few months. If the trend continues, I should equal last years posts by the time I hit the end of the year. Just more going on I guess, or maybe I've just been in the mood to write more reviews. I mean, even in the weeks where I don't review any books, I probably read several. Just wasn't moved to talk about them. I've had a good run of luck in that the last four novels I read were all good and so I reviewed them all here. I tend not to review stuff I don't enjoy. I figure what's the point? Unless I sincerely feel that I'm saving someone money by panning a book or movie, I usually just figure it's a matter of taste and someone else may really enjoy something I didn't like.
Anyway, scanning the posts, I see lots of reviews and a few stories about my life, so about the same level of content as 2009. Thanks to everyone who reads Singular points and thanks for all the comments and emails. I'm still having fun, so I'm still here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Wolf Age

One thing I'll say for James Enge is that he isn't one of those writers who writes the same book over and over. His second novel about Morlock the Maker, This Crooked Way, isn't much like his first, Blood of Ambrose, and the third isn't much like the other two. Oddly enough, while reading the first part of his new one, The Wolf Age, I was reminded of Edgar Rice Burroughs. If you've read much of Burroughs' Mars and Venus stuff, or even the Pellucidar books, you may recall how whenever the hero discovers a new civilization he's usually taken prisoner and learns the civilization's language, customs, and such while he's incarcerated. The first third of The Wolf Age is a lot like that. The wandering Morlock is captured by a race of werewolves and held prisoner for several months. During that time he learns to speak the language, picks up a lot of the local customs, and even gains a certain amount of respect, even as John Carter did while a prisoner of the Tharks in ERB's A Princess of Mars.
As the book progresses, Enge spends as much time with the werewolves as he does with Morlock, so you learn all about their culture, which is well realized and very in depth. Werewolf class system. Werewolf politics. (Elections are not pretty.) Werewolf romance. Werewolf language. (They have two. One language for when they're in human form and one for wolf form.) You name it. Enge works hard, not so much at world building (though he's good at that) but character building. You learn about the werewolf civilization by watching the werewolves. Meanwhile Morlock, the centuries old maker (A maker is a magic user who makes things. You'll just have to read it.) engages in bloody battles, loses his second sight, and briefly goes mad.
Enge's Morlock stories are hard to describe. I've yet to read a 'typical' one. Some approach Jack Vance in their strangeness and use of odd magical abilities. Then in the next we're hip deep in Robert E. Howard land as Morlock wades into battle against man and/or monsters. He is a magic user, but if you're looking for Gandalf, Morlock Ambrosius is not your boy. He'll walk away from a fight if he can, but he knows how to use a sword and doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. He's not a do gooder, but he has his own sense of honor and he'll go far to uphold it. A complex and interesting character.
As I noted in my review of This Crooked Way, Enge's imagination is formidable. His plots twist in unexpected directions and he seems to be endlessly inventive, tossing out interesting and just plain weird ideas left and right. Best yet, he seems to be getting better as he goes. The Wolf Age is a deeper and richer book than the two that preceded it. Can't wait to see what Enge does next.

Monday, November 15, 2010

You CAN Go Home Again, but You Have to Kill Zombies

I watched the first episode of AMC's The Walking Dead Friday night. I'm not a huge fan of zombie movies, but I enjoyed it. Part of that was because it's filmed in this area, and I recognized some roads and things. The funny thing was, later that night I dreamed about zombies, which is unusual, since I rarely dream about anything the same day I see it. Usually takes time for my subconscious to process stuff. Not this time.
In the dream I was in the past about twenty years. I was at my Grandparent's house, and my grandfather L.B. Rutledge (Who passed away several years ago.) and I were in the kitchen. We had knocked some window panes out and we were shooting zombies as they came into the carport and tried to reach the back door.
I don't recall much more about the dream, but it was kind of fun killing zombies with my late grandfather. I told my mom about the dream and she laughed and said, "Well, I'm sure if zombies had shown up at the house, your grandfather would have shot them."

Those Blasphemous Books

My pal Jim loaned me a movie, Dead Birds, a nifty little low-budget horror film, and I watched it this weekend. It's definitely a creeper, and it shows what someone can do with a limited budget. It's set during the Civil War and concerns a bunch of deserters who rob a bank, kill some innocent bystanders, and then hide out in an old mansion deep in the Alabama woods. Things don't go well. It actually made me jump a couple of times. (Though the DVD box art gives away one of the big scares. duh.) Jim figured I would like it because it has echoes of Robert E. Howard's Pigeons From Hell in its abandoned Antebellum mansion setting and because it pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft in that all the horrific happenings are set in motion by a book of spells. The late plantation owner was attempting to bring his wife back from the dead using the book, but instead he opened a gate to a bad bad place and let some things cross over to our side.
As soon as I saw the book I knew it would be at the root of the problem. It's strange how often spell books, scrolls, and Grimoires of arcane knowledge turn out to be the main plot point of so many horror stories. I think we can blame H.P. Lovecraft for most of that since the majority of these books are shadows of Lovecraft's fabled Necronomicon. And knowing the gentleman from Providence, I think he would be pleased. Back when Lovecraft was writing his Cthulhu mythos stories for Weird Tales, he encouraged other writers such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Aston Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth to join in the fun. These writers came up with their own tomes of dangerous lore, such as Nameless Cults, The Book of Eibon, Mysteries of the Worm, and Cults of the Ghouls. Other writers over the years added more volumes to the library of Cthulhu.
But it doesn't stop there. There have been other dangerous books invented over the years, most at least partially influenced by the Necronomicon. F. Paul Wilson created the Compendium of Srem for his Repairman Jack series, an ancient volume of eldritch Lore. The Compendium of Srem is probably the most cooperative evil book out there, as it translates itself into whatever language you happen to read.
Terry Brooks' entire Tolkien-ish Shannara series was set into motion by a sentient grimoire called the Ildatch. It was reading this book that would eventually transform the Druid Brona into the Warlock Lord. Even a single page from the Ildatch posed a threat to the world in the novella Indomitable. A very bad book.
The movie In the Mouth of Madness, which I reviewed last month, revolves around a horror writer whose books drive his readers mad and eventually allow a doorway to the outer dark to open into our world.
Over in Marvel Comics we have the Darkhold, kind of a Necronomicon equivalent for Marvel's Cthulhu knockoff, Chthon. Various Lovecraft inspired tomes of terror have turned up on TV shows such as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hercules and Xena, and many others. It's a powerful trope. (I used it myself in my story The Silent History. The titular book must never, ever be read aloud.)
So where did Lovecraft get the idea for his blasphemous book? Obviously there have been real (Real in the sense that they existed, not that they were magic) spell books over the years. John Dee supposedly had quite a collection. Lovecraft was aware of several books about the occult but he considered most of them boring and useless as fodder for his fiction. He preferred to just make everything up. The most probable inspiration was Robert Chamber's book The King in Yellow, which features a story about a play called the King in Yellow, which drives mad anyone who reads it. I suppose it was never performed. Lovecraft mentions The King in Yellow in his pseudo essay The History of the Necronomicon, saying that King in Yellow was probably influenced by the actual Necronomicon. More likely it was the other way around.
(It just occurred to me that a fun Cthulhu mythos story would have some idiot scanning the Necronomicon and uploading it to Google Books. Feel free to steal the idea. Just send me a copy.)
Anyway, somewhere in the vast library of books that were never written is a section kept separate from the rest of the library. A dark corner with one blinking overhead light, where the shelves tilt and the geometry seems wrong. Here are housed those blasphemous books of arcane knowledge and eldritch lore.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

IDW's Dungeons and Dragons


I've always wondered, given the wealth of potential behind the worlds of the Dungeons and Dragons game, why no one has been able to do a decent D&D Comic. I mean, come on, a world full of elves, dwarves, haflings, dragons, monsters and magic galore. An almost unlimited background for adventure, yet over the years one comics company after another has pretty much blown it. Someone may be about to break that losing streak.
So far there's only one issue of IDW's Dungeons and Dragons comic out but I liked it a lot. The writing by John Rogers was nice and snappy and the story got off to a fast and frenetic start. We're introduced to a group of adventurers right out of D&D central casting. Amid the apparent attack of evil zombies (everyone loves zombies) we neet a smart-ass Elf, a rambunctious dwarf, a sneaky halfling, and an over confidant human. The adventurers have just signed on a new member, a spell caster, when things go bad and off we go.
The artwork, by Andrea Di Vito is clean and sharp and very comic-bookish. Di Vito has apparently done some work for Marvel Comics though I'm not familiar with him.
The best thing about the comic was that it was fun. I'm not a table top gamer, but I do game online and this comic reminds me of the banter and ribbing that goes on as you and your friends charge into trouble. I got the feeling that the writer was going for a mix between an actual adventure and the feel of a gaming session. Works for me. Anyway, we'll see how things shape up over the next few issues. I'd certainly like to see an entertaining, fun comic set in the D&D universe. Maybe this is it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Moonlight Mile


I remember buying Dennis Lehane's first novel, A Drink Before the War, brand new in hardback from a bookstore that no longer exists. That was back in 1994, when I was still reading private eye novels hand over fist, and I remember reading the inside of the dust jacket and seeing that Lehane's book was set in Boston and thinking that was a pretty gutsy move since Robert B. Parker, then the current PI heavyweight, had staked out Boston as his own territory.
As it turned out, Lehane owed little to Parker. Spenser exists in a Boston of nice restaurants, College functions, and an overall atmosphere of very upper middle class to rich. Lehane's Boston is blue collar, working class all the way. His two detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are definitely more human and down to Earth than semi-Superman Spenser. The only thing that struck me as Spenser-like about Lehane's series was the character Bubba, a killer redneck who acts much in the role that Hawk fills in the Spenser books. He's the guy who will do the things that the main character won't. (I blogged before about how when I first read A Drink Before the War, I was put out because I was then five chapters into the writing of a private eye novel featuring a sidekick named Bubba who was a killer redneck. I still have that manuscript somewhere. Such is life.)
I liked A Drink Before the War quite a bit, and over the next five years I picked up the Kenzie/Gennaro books that followed, right up to 1999's Prayers for Rain. And there the books stopped.
Lehane's next book was 2001's Mystic River, a stand alone that won an award or two and was later made into an Academy Award winning movie by Clint Eastwood. I started the book but didn't finish it. Just not my sort of thing, I guess. I gave Lehane kudos for branching out and trying other things, but I missed the Kenzie/Gennaro books. I was reminded of this when I watched the 2007 movie adaptation of the novel Gone, Baby Gone. I thought it an excellent adaptation, and I liked Casey Affleck as Kenzie. Made me wish that Lehane would get back to his original series, but by that time eight years had passed and I'd begun to think I wouldn't be seeing any new stories about Patrick and Angie.
Jump forward about three more years to Tuesday. I was browsing in Barnes and Noble, looking through the New Hardback section and I spotted Lehane's name on a cover. I almost passed it by, figuring it would be just another stand alone like Mystic River, Shutter Island, or The Given Day, but I thought,"Gee wouldn't it be cool if that was a new Patrick Kenzie book." I picked up the book, titled Moonlight Mile, and lo and behold, it was indeed a return to the private eye genre.
I read most of Moonlight Mile Tuesday night and let me tell you, the layoff did Lehane good. The writing is sharper, the characters more well drawn. I was instantly drawn back into Lehane's world and the lives of his characters. The only reason I didn't finish the book was it was getting late and I didn't want to rush through the end. I finished it yesterday afternoon as soon as I got home from work and it did not disappoint.
Moonlight Mile is a sequel to 1998's Gone, Baby Gone, perhaps Lehane's most controversial book in the series. At the end of Gone, Patrick Kenzie has to make a choice that pretty much ruins his life. He made the right choice based on his ethics, but a lot of people paid a terrible price. Just how terrible becomes clear as Moonlight Mile unfolds. Now it's twelve years later, time having passed in 'real time'. Kenzie and Gennaro, just into their 30s in Gone are now in their early 40s. They're married and have a four year old daughter. The recession has hit them hard and they are barely squeaking by on what Kenzie makes as a private eye, while Angie has gone back to school. They're struggling with the present when the past rears up and smacks them right between the eyes.
Amanda McCready the little girl who's abduction set the events of Gone, Baby Gone in motion, has gone missing again. Now aged sixteen, she's vanished without a trace. Amanda's aunt confronts Patrick, saying he owes a debt for what he did twelve years earlier and it's up to him to find Amanda again. Patrick tries to ignore her and get on with his life, but finds he can't let the case go.
In typical PI style, Patrick has barely begun to look into the case when he is beaten up and warned off. But anybody who knows Patrick Kenzie knows that he isn't going to stand down and trying to force him will just make him all the more determined. He and Bubba go looking for the guys who roughed up Patrick and took his laptop and the bad guys learn why you don't mess with the friend of a killer redneck. Soon Patrick finds that Amanda is into some seriously bad stuff with some seriously bad people in a world where human life is worth nothing.
If I have any problem with the book it's the near the end where Lehane sacrifices logic and probability for a 'surprise plot twist' but he's done that before. (And I wasn't surprised then either.) For the most part his snappy yet literate prose and his skill at writing complex characters makes me ignore the occasional plot wonkyness.
Overall I really enjoyed Moonlight Mile. The end is written as a possible finish for the series. If Lehane decides to stop writing about these characters he's given them a fine send off. But I hope he'll revisit Patrick and Angie again. It was good to see them.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Ichi and Zatoichi: The Blind Leading the Blind

Back in the day, when I was teaching Shotokan karate four nights a week, I was fascinated by all things Japanese. (Still am to some degree.) In particular I liked Samurai movies. My favorites are probably Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, all directed by Akira Kurasawa, but I also have a fond spot for the movies about the blind sword master, Zatoichi played by Shintaro Katsu. I wasn’t the only one fond of master Ichi. The series spawned 26 films between 1962 and 1989, and well over a hundred episodes of a Zatoichi television series. There was also apparently a remake a couple of years ago, but I haven’t seen that one yet.
However my buddy Chris, who is also something of a Japanophile, told me that there was a new film out called simply Ichi, which dealt with the adventures of a young blind girl who used a sword in the same style as Zatoichi, and had an intriguing connection with the blind swordsman. I found a DVD of Ichi for cheap at Moviestop (handy place, that) and watched it Saturday.
Ichi is very much in the tradition of Zatoichi, as the blind girl, who calls herself Ichi, wanders the Japanese countryside during the Edo period, seeking a blind sword master who may or may not be her father. (This point is never confirmed and is left up to the viewer, which is good since the possible fate of the man she is seeking might put off some Zatoichi fans.)
It’s a fun little movie with a lot of good fight scenes and some nice character bits. The lead character has an interesting story arc and actually grows and changes as the film progresses. Takao Osawa portrays Ichi as a girl wronged by the world and seeking one final meeting with the only family she has ever known.
I wish I could say that her skill with a sword is up to Katsu’s but she lacks his impressive footwork. I enjoyed Ichi enough to go to Hulu and watch one of the original Zatoichi movies, Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, and marveled a Katsu’s performance and his skill with a sword. Possibly only a martial artist would be bothered by the footwork thing, but most Japanese martial arts stress stance and footwork as the foundations of all technique. Anyway, a small thing. All in all I really enjoyed Ichi. Of course now, I feel the sudden need to watch all the original Zatoichi films and maybe check out that TV show…

Blue-Eyed Devil: The Last Round Up


With the confusion over the last Spenser book by Robert B. Parker, I hesitate to say that Blue-Eyed Devil is the last we shall see of Parker’s cowboy heroes Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, but as far as I know, it is the last roundup for the boys from Appaloosa. If so, it’s a pretty good one. There is much horse riding and gun shooting and philosophizing about the nature of men, women, personal honor and such. In other words, about what you’d expect from a Robert B. Parker Western.
One thing I did note, and this may or may not have been Parker’s intention, but it seemed that Cole and Hitch were becoming aware that the nature of civilization in the oncoming 20th century might soon make them outmoded. Blue-Eyed devil is about the growing level of civilized laws and rules and politics in the former wild and wooly town of Appaloosa. The boys find themselves at odds with the new Sheriff in town. The Sheriff is running an extortion racket and you know he and Virgil Cole are going to clash, but Cole’s motivations seem a lot less clear than in the earlier books because, right or wrong, crooked or not, the Sheriff is the law and Cole is breaking the law by fighting him. The days of frontier justice are fast fading and it looks like the day may come when Cole and Hitch won’t be laws unto themselves. But as Aragorn would say, it is not this day, and the lead flies and the boys take care of business one more time.
Another thing that caught my attention this time was how Virgil Cole’s love interest, the fickle and unfaithful Allie, is the exact opposite of Spenser’s long time love, Susan Silverman. I guess Parker felt the need to write a female character who wasn’t the perfect woman.
A second Susan connection is Cole mentions that Everett Hitch went to West Point almost as many times as Spenser mentions Susan went to Harvard in the average Spenser book. Kind of funny.
Anyway, I read Blue-Eyed Devil in a sitting and enjoyed it quite a bit. Wish that Cole and Hitch could hit the trail a few more times, but that’s not to be.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How I Met Elric of Melnibone


Recently Michael Moorcock has been writing new stories about his best known character, Elric of Melnibone. These 'new' adventures are designed to fit into the established Chronology between the 'classic' Elric books Elric of Melnibone and Stormbringer. The most recent, the novella Red Pearls, appeared in the anthology Swords and Dark Magic, which I reviewed here a while back.
Unlike some of my book purchases, which have faded and run together in my memory over the years, I remember my discovery of Elric pretty well. I was fourteen, perhaps the best age to first encounter the moody albino prince, and my cousin Rick and I were scouring the bookshelves at the B. Dalton store in Cumberland Mall. Cumberland was one of two Malls that my parents frequented back in the day, and those were the only places to find chain bookstores at the time. Since I couldn't drive yet, I had to wait for my parents or grandparents to make a run to the mall. I'd spend most of the time we were there in the bookstores. B.Dalton was upstairs and Waldenbooks was downstairs. B. Dalton seemed to have a better stock of fantasy (I bought Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books there and Lin Carter's Thongor books as well) but Waldenbooks had a better collection of art and comics related books. That's where I found Steranko's History of Comics.
So anyway, Rick and I were looking through the books, searching for anything that resembled Conan and I spotted a cover with a garish red background. In the foreground a man with long white hair was jabbing a sword into the prone form of what looked like an ogre of some sort. Glowing purple energy writhed around the sword. The title of the book was The Weird of the White Wolf and the author was someone named Michael Moorcock. Down at the bottom of the cover a small blurb said, The Third Novel of Elric of Melnibone. Third volume? So it was a series. Maybe something like Fritz Lieber?
The bookstore had three more volumes in the series, though not the first or the last. I bought the four they had. I think Rick did too. Though he and I swapped a lot of books back and forth, we generally wanted our own copies of series sword & sorcery.
I'd like to pretend that I had good taste in my selection of books, but truthfully I think it was the Michael Whelan covers that originally sold me on Elric. They were colorful and pulpish and the scenes depicted promised adventure galore. Of course the books themselves didn't disappoint. I learned pretty quickly that Elric wasn't much like Conan. Instead of a brawny adventurer, he was a sickly albino who got his strength and vitality by stealing it from others by killing them with his cursed sword, Stormbringer. In some ways I think that is a large part of the appeal of Elric, especially to adolescents. You don't have to be big and strong or fast and athletic to be the most dangerous hombre around. You just need that magic sword.
And Elric was moody and depressed and angst ridden. Once again, perfect hero for a teenager. I was very taken with the books and read the four I'd purchased back to back. Book distribution being what it was in the 1970s, I had trouble getting the missing two and it was actually a few years before I got a copy of the first one. (It wouldn't have occurred to me back then that the bookstore could order it specifically for me.) I re-read those four Elric books several times over the summer. And I still like to re-read the series every year or so.
I was musing the other day how I wished the new Elric novellas could be collected in a paperback with a Michael Whelan cover so I could put it on the shelf beside the original six books. Unlikely, I guess, but gee, that would be fun. Just like old times.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Andrew Vachss' Heart Transplant


I just read Andrew Vachss' Heart Transplant, a graphic novel about bullying and let me tell you, if you know any kids you suspect might be being bullied in school, you need this book. It would be a great way to open a dialog with a child and it might teach you a few things and blow away any preconcieved notions you might have about bullies. It's that good.
It's also a very good graphic novel, written with the razor sharp prose I've come to admire from Lawyer/Author Andrew Vachss over the years. Vachss has a way of going straight to the heart of a matter, pulling no punches because they shouldn't be pulled, and never flinching from uncomfortable truths.
If you're unfamiliar with Vachss, he is the author of the long running series of Burke crime novels and many other books. More importantly, he's a remorseless enemy of anyone who would harm, abuse or neglect a child. I interviewed him many years ago for Comic Shop News and it changed my life. Many of the hardest and most important lessons I learned about the world, I learned from Andrew Vachss. Some day I'll go on about that in more detail, but just let me say that when Vachss talks, I listen. When he said join PROTECT. org, a non partisan organization for the protection of children, (Kind of like the NRA but lobbying for kids instead of guns) I signed on. I'll provide a link at the bottom of the post. Help out if you can.
The art for Heart Transplant is by Frank Carruso, a talented cartoonist who uses mixed medias in this book to carry the story along. His art is catoony when it needs to be and more realistic when that will get the point across better. It reminds me somewhat of Will Eisner's later work, such as A Contract With God and The Building.
The last few pages of the book contain an informative essay on violence and bullying by Zak Mucha. I learned a lot from that as well.
Anyway, I highly recommend Heart Transplant. Like most of Andrew Vachss' work, it might make you a little uncomfortable, but that's okay. There are things we should be uncomfortable about, and we're lucky there are writers and artists who take the hard looks.

For more about PROTECT go here:

http://www.protect.org/home


And for more about Andrew Vachss, go here.

http://www.vachss.com/

Monday, November 01, 2010

Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest

I was browsing at Moviestop on Saturday morning and came across a used copy of Doctor Who: The Infinite Quest. This is one of two animated features featuring the voice of David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. The other one, Dreamland, is also available on DVD. Quest features 2D cell style animation mixed with some computer graphics and Dreamland is a full CGI cartoon.
The first thing I noticed about Quest was the rather limited animation, looking something like the old Filmation cartoons where the same stock animation was used over and over. You know. Left profile of Doctor. Right Profile of Doctor. Left three quarter view of Martha. Right three quarter view of Martha. Doctor walking. Martha Walking. Etc, etc.
Doesn't really matter. Still gets the story told.
The second thing that stood out for me is how well animation works for a SF series because you can show things that it's difficult or prohibitively expensive to show in live action. The cartoon features space cruisers, metal birds, walking oil rigs, and a bunch of robots. You could probably do most of that with CGI, but not on the budget of a weekly TV series. Plus, you don't need stuntmen, caterers, carpenters, lighting techs, etc. Just voice talents and people who can draw and animate.
The Infinite Quest follows The Doctor (David Tennant) and Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) in a race across several galaxies to try and find The Infinite, an ancient object said to be able to grant people their heart's desire. Unfortunately a nasty space pirate named Baltazar is also after The Infinite and his heart's desire is to see the Doctor dead and the Earth destroyed. The animators use their unlimited location budget to send the travelers to a desert planet, a tropical world besieged by giant insects, and the frozen prison planet Volag-Noc.
It's a fun cartoon, very much in the spirit of the live action show. The DVD has some cool extras, including interviews with all the voice talent and footage of Tennant and Agyeman recording their lines. Also it's a chance to visit with the 10th Doctor yet again, even if it's just his voice. And I got it for four bucks, used.

Looking Back

I was doing a little research last night, reading through the six volumes of DAW books' Years Best Fantasy series that writer/editor Lin Carter had edited back in the 1970s. In the introduction to each book, Carter gave a report on the state of fantasy fiction as it stood. It forms a strange time capsule. In volume one, which came out in 1974, Carter mentions that J.R.R. Tolkien died the previous year without finishing The Silmarillion, and that Lancer books had gone bankrupt, leaving the fate of the Conan paperback series in doubt.
In the next few volumes Carter will mention the publications of Watership Down, The Book of Merlin, and the Sword of Shannara. (Carter hated the Sword of Shannara, by the way. He thought it too derivative. You'd need to be familiar with Carter's own writing to realize how funny this is.) It will take three more years for the Lancer problem to be cleared up and for ACE books to take over the publication of the Conan series. Carter will eventually report that J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher has resigned his position as a professor and taken his family to France so he can complete the editing of the Silmarillion.
The amazing thing is, at this point in time, the future of fantasy as a viable genre was still in doubt. It's hard to believe these days, when the fantasy/SF section at Barnes & Noble takes up more floor space than any genre besides Romance, that once upon a time there simply wasn't that much fantasy out there. I remember that when I first started reading fantasy, coincidentally in about 1974, that the SF section at Waldenbooks was a single six foot tall shelf unit, and the majority of books there were science fiction. I woud dig through the books, looking for anything with swords on the cover instead of spacecraft.
With Conan out of print, the sword & sorcery pickings were slim and comprised mostly of Conan knock-offs like Brak and Thongor, though thankfully Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were available. One nice thing was that almost all of Edgar Rice Burroughs books were in print and I bought shiny new copies of the Mars, Venus, and Pellucidar books. By the time I abandoned the genre about 1980, the size of the fantasy section had increased to four or five shelves. When I returned about two decades later, the fantasy genre had grown by leaps and bounds and the shelves were full of authors I'd never heard of.
The other strange thing, which I've just thought of as I write this, was how loosely defined fantasy/SF was. Waldenbooks and B.Dalton often shelved such diverse writers and books as Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Doc Savage, Tolkien, and even early Stephen King in the same area. I think King's eventual success caused the creation of a 'horror' section in the chain stores.
But yeah, it's strange to look back at the state of fantasy circa 1974. The Tolkien clones hadn't really ramped up yet. Authors like George R.R. Martin, C.J. Cherryh and Tanith Lee were just beginning their careers, and the old timers were folks like Poul Anderson and Andre Norton. Seeing Watership Down and the Silmarillion on the New York Times bestseller list was a big big deal. How times have changed.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Well, Halloween is almost over as I type this. I think I've gotten my money's worth this year. I've watched all the scary movies on my list and a few extra. I've read tons of creepy stories old and new.
The day itself has been almost anti-climatic. I think reading Michael Moorcock's new book over the last couple of days sort of bumped me out of the Halloween spirit, which is fine since I had almost a month's worth of ghostly goings on. And once again, it looks like I'm not going to have any trick or treaters show up.
Been doing a little reading in other genres tonight, and I have a couple of ideas for upcoming blog posts, including the return of the Department of Lost Barbarians. So that's it, I guess for Halloween 2010. Hope you all had a good one. I think I may re-read a short H.P. Lovecraft story before bedtime though, just to see the season off properly. Night!

The Coming of the Terraphiles


When I first heard that Michael Moorcock was writing a Doctor Who novel, my immediate response was, why? I mean this is Michael Freaking Moorcock, creator of fantasy icon Elric of Melnibone, author of something like 80 books, short listed for the Whitbread Prize. Why would he be writing a media tie-in book?
The short answer is, he wasn't. The BBC didn't want a Doctor Who book by Michael Moorcock. They wanted a Michael Moorcock novel that featured the Doctor. Well, they got it. In spades.
Imagine, if you will, that P.G. Wodehouse had written for Amazing Stories instead of The Strand. Then throw in some Space Pirates, a country house mystery farce, and a few British Schoolboy stories. Add The Doctor and the lovely Amy Pond, and then mix all that with elements of Moorcock's Multiverse, including Law and Chaos, the Second Aether series, The Cosmic Balance, the nefarious captain Quelch, and more insider references than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at. Oh yeah, and the entire universe is in peril. It is the Doctor, after all.
The book begins with some of Moorcock's more beautiful and lyrical writing as he describes the arrival of space pirate Captain Cornelius, in his ship the Paine, above the planet Venice. A few pages later, you're in the TARDIS with the Doctor and Amy as the Doctor intercepts a badly garbled transmission. It seems that "Someone 's messing with the normal rules of the energy flow. Time and space are all over the place. quite literally, I mean. Growing increasingly unstable." Imagine Matt Smith spewing that line. Moorcock manages to get Smith's Doctor to the page, despite the fact that he had limited access to the series as he was writing the novel. The new season hadn't been broadcast when he began writing and he was only able to see a couple of episodes a bit later.
The Doctor and Amy end up traveling to the far future where a group of history re-enactors , known as the terraphiles because they revere old earth, are involved in a series of games. The winner of the games gets the fabled Arrow of Law, an object that the Doctor realizes he must have to save the day. The ever resourceful Time Lord pulls a few strings to get himself on one of the sporting teams and we're off. Deprived by circumstances of the TARDIS, the Doctor must take a rambling path to the planet Miggea, (Another insider reference.) traveling on an old "nuker" style space craft, a space faring cruise liner, and eventually on one of the ships of the Second Aether. The Second Aether( or Ether) is the space between the worlds of the multiverse, between Law and Chaos, life and death, love and hate, matter and antimatter. It's Explained in greater detail in books like Blood, Fabulous Harbours, and The War Amongst the Angels, and touched on in many other Moorcock books, including the DC Comics series Michael Moorcock's Multiverse.
As I said, this is a Michael Moorcock book that features the Doctor, and I did wonder as I read, if people less familiar with Moorcock's work might have some trouble following this one. Ultimately the book stands alone, but if you know a lot about Moorcock's other books, you're going to get a lot of references that someone only steeped in Doctor Who is going to miss. I've seen a few other reviewers complain about the book's somewhat leisurely pace, but I think that's part of the way Moorcock approached this one. It gives the author the chance to visit some fun SF tropes like the wonderfully realized spaceport of Desiree. No stranger to SF, Moorcock supplies robots, ray guns, spaceships of all kinds, and aliens of every type.
Moorcock's fans won't find many references to his other pet theme, The Eternal Champion in The Coming of the Terraphiles, but there are one or two. Nobody shows up with a cursed black rune-sword. (Though that would have been really cool!) I suppose one might make a case that the Doctor is the EC in this one, and after all, who better than an eternal man? Does that Make Amy Moonglum? She does have red hair.
Anyway, I had a lot of fun with The Coming of the Terraphiles. It wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but then that's what I've learned to expect from Michael Moorcock.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Top Five Conan Stories


Over at The Blog That Time Forgot we were talking about introducing Conan and REH to new readers and what would be good Conan stories to give to someone just discovering the character. This led to a discussion of what do we various REH fans think are the top five Conan yarns. So this will be my list of what I consider to be the top five Conan stories. They are also the five I would give to a Conan newbie.

The People of the Black Circle

If I could only use one Conan story to introduce the big Cimmerian to someone, this would be it. As Stan (The Man) Lee used to say, This One's Got it All. It's some of Robert E. Howard's best prose, I think. The secondary characters are every bit as well fleshed out as Conan. It has some of REH's most effective depictions of sorcery as Conan makes his way into the stronghold of the Black Seers. The magic here is weird and creepy. Not at all reader friendly. Conan himself is very well drawn, at turns fierce, crafty, loyal, ruthless and even humorous. Any of Howard's detractors who consider Conan a one dimensional character need to give this one a closer look. For my money, this is one of the top sword & sorcery stories ever written.

The Tower of the Elephant

A story from early in Conan's career, while he was still making his living as a thief and still often mystified by civilization. This one shows Robert E. Howard in full Weird Tales mode, as Conan comes face to face with Yag-Kosha, an alien being from the trackless outer gulfs of space and time. Howard manages to make this creature a sympathetic character and by the end of the story, you're rooting for the bad guy, who cruelly tricked and mistreated Yag-Kosha, to get his strange and horrific comeuppance. And he does. There's not a tremendous amount of action in Tower of the Elephant but for mood and atmosphere it's hard to beat.

Rogues in the House

This is my favorite Conan story. I've always been partial to urban fantasy and I think it works particularly well with Conan, because he's such a fish out of water in a city at this point in his career. This one has court intrigue, revenge in various forms, death traps, a dangerous man-beast, a vile and sneaky sorcerer, and an interesting companion in adventure in the somewhat foppish Murilo. Through it all stalks Conan, dealing with everything thrown at him. It also features the famous scene where Conan tosses a woman who has betrayed him into a cesspool. One of the best.


Red Nails

Robert E. Howard himself thought Red Nails might be "too much raw meat" for many readers, but man, what a story. Howard had written before of a lost, but still inhabited city in the wilderness in The Slithering Shadow (Xuthal of the Dusk) but he really (ahem) nailed it in this story. The supporting cast in this one is great, from Techotl, the warrior who guides Conan through the winding streets and tunnels of Xuchotil, to Tascela, the creepy queen of one of the decadent warring tribes, to the incomparable Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, a woman warrior who certainly puts lie to the words of those who say Howard didn't write strong female characters. Oddly enough, Valeria is also the primary viewpoint character through much of this story. Swordfights, monsters, sorcery, and a brooding atmosphere of violence and treachery. This one vies with People of the Black Circle as the possible best Conan tale. It was also the last one.

Beyond the Black River

Another story often championed as the 'best' Conan yarn, and it is a great one, no question. In this one, Robert E. Howard seemed to be trying to take Conan in a different direction. Beyond the Black River is sort of 'Conan the Indian Fighter' but with Picts standing in for Native Americans. There's still some sorcery, enough to market the story to Weird Tales anyway, but this is closer to a tale of the American frontier than of the Hyborian Age. Late in his writing career, REH seemed to be moved to write more of the world he knew and lived in, or at least was close to the history of, and so he brought Conan into a setting of log cabins and frontier forts, where characters wore buckskins and beaded belts. No glittering cities and silk clad dancing girls here. Conan, of course, is still Conan. Still the toughest hombre on the block and the only man around who can match the Picts at their own woodcraft. While I would recommend this one for a new reader, I'd warn him to read the other four on my list first, as Beyond the Black River isn't a good example of the overall tone and setting of the Conan stories.

Okay, so that's my top five 'best' Conan stories. Now, unlike some of my fellow fans, I can differentiate between best and favorite. If I tried to make a list of my top five favorite Conan stories, I might have to juggle a bit. I really like The Black Stranger, which doesn't seem to make it onto too may people's lists of favorite Conan yarns. I like its almost Gothic plot structure and I think it shows Howard's growing ability to write multiple viewpoints. (Lady Belesa and the young girl Tina are particularly well handled.) I'm also fond of The God in the Bowl, because I think the early scenes do a great job of showing the differences between a barbarian and the civilized men around him. Would I replace any of the above with either of these two? That would be telling.