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.