Monday, February 28, 2011

Pardon Me While I Rant

Okay, one more time. Just because a story is written in the first person, doesn't mean there's no suspense because you know the main character isn't going to die. I don't know who started this old chestnut, but I know of many cases where that doesn't turn out to be true. (Double Indemnity comes to mind.) I just saw this in a book review and couldn't believe someone was still saying this.
Besides, beyond the point of danger to the narrator, last time I checked, most books had more than one character to worry about. And, as far as that goes, if you're reading a third person book about an established character like Tarzan or Drizzt or James Bond, I think it's a forgone conclusion that that guy isn't going to die either, but does that ruin the suspense for you? Jeez.

End of rant.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Shades of the Pale Prince

Picked up a couple more interesting items over the weekend. Both related to Michael Moorcock's albino hero Elric of Melnibone. One was the 1981 Archival Press edition of the slip-cased hardback of The Vanishing Tower. This one has a cover and interior illustrations by Michael Whelan. Pretty darn nifty.
The other was the 1973 Lancer paperback of The Stealer of Souls with a cover by Jeff Jones. This cover would appear to be done in pen & ink and watercolor, but according to a recent interview with Jones, the pigments are not water colors but rather oil paints thinned down to a transparent consistency.
I already own both of these books in other editions, so I have to admit that it was purely the collector in me that coveted these two bits of sword & sorcery goodness. And they are very cool. So there.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Desert of Souls

Many of the blurbs for Howard Andrew Jones debut novel, The Desert of Souls compare it to, among other things, Sherlock Holmes, The Arabian Nights, and the works of Robert E. Howard. Having just finished the book I can see where those comparisons come from. The scholar Dabir is somewhat like Holmes in his ability to discern information from physical evidence. Obviously the setting, 8th Century Baghdad, is going to bring to mind the Arabian Nights, what with all the Viziers and Caliphs and such. And certainly there is quite a bit of the sort of sword swinging action that we expect from Robert E. Howard, not only the father of sword & sorcery, but also quite the teller of historical adventures.
However to call Desert of Souls a mish mash of other authors or other genres is to do the book a disservice. Souls is a very original book, a tale of historical sword & sorcery with a setting very different from the quasi-European background so prevalent in today’s fantasy novels and a narrative viewpoint unlike any other in current fantasy fiction. What struck me about the protagonists of Desert of Souls, Dabir the wise man and Asim the soldier is how likable they are. How real. These are characters you’d like to hang out with. (I should also point out that despite the above descriptions, the pair is not neatly divided into brains and brawn. Asim is quite clever and capable, and Dabir will wade in with a blade when he needs to.)
You’ve heard me mention Howard Andrew Jones before, usually in reference to his editorship of the Bison Harold Lamb collections, and in fact it’s kind of funny that two of the things I mentioned in my review of Lamb’s story Forward! Can also be applied to Jones in Desert of Souls. The first is how Jones’ often deceptively easygoing narration lulls you into a sense of calm so that you get smacked in the face when the action breaks out. The other is that Jones seems very comfortable using protagonists of a different culture. To paraphrase something Scot Oden said about Lamb, the nationality of Jones’ characters is far less important than their humanity.
The plot gets rolling with “whickering blades” as Dabir and Asim attempt to rescue a man pursued by a group of armed attackers. The man dies but not before leaving the pair with a cryptic dying message and a strange artifact, a golden door pull inscribed with weird markings.
Soon Dabir, Asim, and their master Jaffar learn the hard way that they should have obeyed the old adage about Greeks bearing gifts when some visitors show up seeking information about the door pull. Things go awry and dark sorcery is employed to steal the door pull and its mate, owned by the Caliph, and Dabir and Asim find themselves turban deep in swords, sorcery, monsters and mayhem. There’s also romance, mystery, and suspense, all told in an engaging voice by Jones. All this and a lost city too. I read Desert of Souls in two sittings. If I hadn’t had to go to work I’d have read it straight through.
Anyway, if you’re tired of the latest Lord of the Rings clones and looking for something different, or if you just enjoy a well-told story of adventure, romance, and magic in an exotic setting, then pick up Desert of Souls. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kull, Carter, and King Conan

Another swashbuckling Wednesday at the Comic Book store. Dark Horse's Warlord of Mars collection came in. It's a massive 632 page trade paperback containing the full run of the Marvel Comics John Carter comic and all three annuals. There's some beautiful Gil Kane art in this collection and a ton of other neat stuff, including an early art job by Frank Miller and an introduction by one of my favorite novelists, Michael Chabon.
Also, the fourth volume of the Dark Horse Chronicles of Kull, featuring artwork by John Buscema and John Bolton. Who says this isn't the Dark Horse Age of Marvel Reprints?
And finally the first issue of King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel arrived. This is an adaptation of the classic Robert E. Howard story, scripted by Tim Truman and drawn by Tomas Giorello, the team from the Conan the Cimmerian comic book. Glad to have Tim and Tomas back in action. And, just like last week, I had to leave all this junk and go to work, so it will be the weekend before I get to properly peruse any of these comics. Crom giveth and he taketh away.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Jade Man's Eyes

Got hold of a nifty little collectible this week, a copy of the 1973 chapbook The Jade Man's Eyes by Michael Moorcock. It's something I've been trying to get a good copy of for a while. It has the dimensions of a paperback book, but it only has about 50 pages so it's a very lightweight booklet. It has a cover by long time Moorcock friend and collaborator Jim Cawthorn, and get this, it's printed with green ink on the interior. It was originally published by the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton UK in 1973, though the story may have been written as early as 1966. A bunch of us were asking Moorcock about it over at his forum and he said he couldn't remember exactly when he wrote it. Mike said that he might have written it for Ken Bulmer's aborted magazine Sword & Sorcery.
I pointed out that the story was also published in 1973 in Lin Carter's Anthology Flashing Swords Volume 2. Whenever it was written, Mike thinks he might have let Unicorn Bookshop owner Bill Butler have it first to get his small press established. Then it went to Carter for Flashing Swords.
To make things more confusing, when DAW books began issuing new Elric Books, Mike did a rewrite of Jade Man's Eyes, changing it to the third part of The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Sailing to the Past. The story was changed considerably, especially in the first section and Elric's sidekick Moonglum was changed to a different character. Having read both, I prefer the Jade Man's Eyes version. At some point I'll try to do a post breaking down all that was changed between the two stories.
From a collector's viewpoint, I was glad to get a nice copy of the booklet. The listing on Amazon had the book's condition as "like new" and I'll admit I was a little dubious, but when I got it, the book did indeed look as if I'd purchased it from the Unicorn Bookshop back in 1973. Good price too.
Another odd note, comic book writer and novelist Neil Gaiman mentioned The Jade Man's Eyes in his short story 'One Life Furnished in Early Moorcock', and noted that the print was in green ink. I thought he made that part up. heh.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forward! by Harold Lamb

If you've read all of Robert E. Howard and you're looking for something else, and tepid fantasy is letting you down, might I suggest some historical fiction by one of REH's favorite writers, Harold Lamb. Lamb was one of the heavyweights of the top selling pulp magazine Adventure and later became a writer of historical novels and historical biographies, and a screenwriter/advisor on numerous historical films. Back in the day, when people thought of history told in a vivid fashion, they thought of Harold Lamb.
Amazingly though, Lamb had fallen into obscurity, save for collectors of pulp magazines and old books, and I have to admit that as of about a decade ago I had never read any of his stuff and knew only what I occasionally picked up from comments by Robert E. Howard in Howard's letters. Enter Howard Andrew Jones, a fellow I met through our shared interest in Sword & Sorcery. Howard was an authority on Lamb and he sent me pdf files of various hard to come by Lamb stories, allowing me to read some tales that hadn't seen the light of day since their original publication. I was intrigued enough to order an old collection of Lamb's fiction called The Mighty Manslayer, which I loved. (I also wanted business cards that read Mighty Manslayer.)
And now, thanks to the aforementioned Howard Andrew Jones, you too can read some of the best historical adventure writing this side of Robert E. Howard without spending a mint at Ebay. Howard has assembled eight volumes so far of Lamb's short stories and novellas which are being published by Bison Books. Within the pages of these thick volumes Lamb runs the gamut of history. You'll meet Cossacks, Vikings, pirates, Cossacks, knights, corsairs, soldiers, crusaders and more Cossacks. Lamb liked writing Cossack stories. What can I say.
I was reading one of those Cossack adventures last night, a longish short story called Forward! from the collection Swords From the Sea. This one concerns a Cossack named Ivak, who is given a mission from the Russian Empress to escort a foreign advisor from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea. Ivak soon learns that it won't be a simple mission and that there is much intrigue and treachery afoot. There are shadowy figures lurking in the background who don't want the mysterious "Pavel' to make it to the Black Sea. Ivak is offered a bribe to kill Pavel on the road himself, but he turns it down when he realizes that some of the military are working against the plans of the Empress.
A couple of pages later, Ivak learns that the man known as Pavel is actually and American named John Paul Jones, once a pirate, but now slated to take over the reordering of the Russian fleet . If he can stay alive long enough to do so. Along with a British officer named Edwards and a couple of Tatars, Ivak and John Paul set out. This is where Lamb plays one of his favorite tricks. For the next few pages, things are reasonably calm. The bad guys try to slander John Paul by hiding a girl in his carriage and charging him with abducting her, but the wily Ivak clears that up. The travelers manage to stay clear of their enemies for a while, but then, when they are traveling downriver on a borrowed raft, the bad guys show up in full force. Because things have been so calm for the last few scenes, the impact of the attack is sudden and brutal. After that it's all out action for the rest of the story. Swords clash and pistols roar and blood flows. Just a great story, full of honor and base treachery and brave men and cowards.
As a narrator Ivak is a classic Lamb Cossack, at turns clever and comic, stubborn, loyal, and deadly in a fight, but at heart a good soul. That's one of the other great things about Lamb. Anybody can be the hero. Arab, Norseman, Hindu, Mongol, Russian. It doesn't matter. Far ahead of his time, Lamb seemed to have a very global view. Europeans are villains as often as they are heroes.
Anyway, the various Bison Harold Lamb volumes are readily available from Amazon. So far my favorites have been Swords of the West, which contains Lamb's tales of the crusades, and Swords From the Sea which features Lamb's Viking stories, but those address my own interests. I also like the Cossack tales a lot, particularly several in Warriors of the Steppes. But really, you can't go wrong with any of the books. I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction or old school sword & sorcery will have a good time with the writings of Harold Lamb.

Monday, February 21, 2011

On Writing

Sometime last year I said that I wasn't going to let 2010 end without my having written a novel. I am here to admit that I failed to accomplish that goal. I did a lot of writing and threw away a lot and finally decided that I was on the wrong track and stopped and wrote a couple of short stories, because hey, a writer writes and I had some stories to tell. However I am gearing up to try a novel again, so we'll see where that takes me.
In the meantime here are some recent thoughts about writing. A couple of years back I posted about how much I loved writing in the first person viewpoint and how much trouble I had with third person but how I was still working on third because I refused to be defeated by a viewpoint. I am happy to report that I am much better at third person now. I won't say that I've mastered it. My third person prose still takes lots more editing than my first person writing. However I have written my last four stories, including one novella, in third and one of them is due to be published soon, so I must have gotten something right. Third continues to be a challenge, but it definitely has its uses. Besides, challenge is good. Keeps you from getting complacent.
After three stories in the last two years with barbarians as protagonists, someone asked me if I only wrote about barbarians. I explained that those three stories were actually the first I'd ever completed with barbarians as protagonists, and of course none of them were pure sword & sorcery. Two involved time travel and the other involved alternate universes. I've yet to write an all out Conan style pastiche. I enjoy writing fish out of water characters so I've had a lot of fun putting barbarians where you don't expect them. In fact one of my possible novel ideas would be another such story. I don't think it's very commercial, but then again I don't worry much about those things these days.

Sunday at The Hotel with Caine

As I mentioned below I did watch an episode of the 1990s TV series, Kung Fu:The Legend Continues. Some kind soul has uploaded a ton of the episodes to Youtube in high Def, which is great, since the series has never been released to the American DVD market. I have seen some bootleg DVDs, but I'm always leery of ordering bootlegs as you never know what you'll end up with.
Anyway, in case you're not familiar with the series, it was a made for syndication follow-up to the 1970s TV show Kung Fu. The late David Carradine plays the grandson of the character from the original series, both named Kwai Chang Caine. (Though reportedly, Carradine claimed that he wasn't playing Caine's grandson, but that Caine was actually the same guy from the original series, his mystic abilities having kept him alive all those years.)
The series was filmed in Canada and the production values usually weren't very high, but I liked the show quite a bit. It didn't take itself too seriously and there were a lot of fun episodes, including one titled Dragonswing which reunited the stars of various 1960s spy shows (Patrick McNee from the Avengers, Robert Vaughn from the Man from Uncle, etc), and the episode Sunday at the Hotel with George, which was the one I watched yesterday.
I remembered enjoying this one when it aired originally because it took a standard Die Hard plot and had some fun with it. Caine and his son Peter are attending a wedding on the top floor of a fancy hotel. A group of thieves decide to rob the hotel's vault the same day. The leader of the thieves, a guy named George, recognizes Peter as a police officer and realizes that Peter has seen one of the thieves weapons. George goes up to the ballroom with some of his men, and basically tells Peter that he is robbing the hotel and if Peter or anyone else interferes, his men will open fire into the wedding party.
What I liked about this one was that Caine and Peter have to deal with the gunmen in the ballroom without anyone at the wedding realizing that anything is going on and without the crooks figuring out that their numbers are being depleted. It makes for some funny scenes.
I really do wish someone would release an official DVD set for King Fu: The Legend Continues. But at least, for the moment, I can watch it on my computer.

Restless Weekend

I had one of those weekends where I couldn't seem to settle down and do any reading. I started two different novels and gave up on each after about 50 pages. I don't think it was either author's fault. I just wasn't in the mood to read a long book, I guess. Similarly I couldn't seem to watch an entire movie. I'm doing the free Netflix trial this month, so I had plenty of downloadable choices, but again, I'd watch ten minutes and then my attention would wander. I did manage to watch an episode of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues on Youtube. More about that later.
I also finally settled down enough to read the middle novella in the Elric book, The Vanishing Tower and read about half of the Howard Lamb story Forward! right before bedtime. I'll finish the Lamb tale tonight.
No idea why I was so restless over the weekend. We had some nice spring weather, but Spring doesn't affect me the way Fall does, so I don't think that was it. I played Lord of the Rings Online some and I paced the apartment and I looked at some comic books and just sort of flittered the weekend away. Hopefully I'll be back on track this week.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Top Five Michael Moorcock Books

I mentioned in the post below that Michael Moorcock's book Letters From Hollywood would make it into my top five of the man's work, and then said I'd have to give some thought to what the other four would be. I have taken the time to do some thinking and here's the list as it stands today.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

This is my favorite Elric book. Not the first or the last, but one of the middle books. Either this one or Weird of the White Wolf was the first Elric I read. I can't recall for sure, because I think I read both within a couple of days, but anyway I have always liked this one best. It takes place during the period when Elric was out exploring the Young Kingdoms in an attempt to learn more about the race of man. His greatest tragedies were yet to come. This was also the first time I had a hint of Elric's doppelgangers, the other Eternal Champions who are in reality all the same being. Elric meets several of them in the first third of the book. Plus, I just really liked the Michael Whelan cover on the DAW paperback. Something about the ship in the mist with all the warriors gathered at the prow.

The War Hound and the World's Pain

To my mind the best melding of Moorcock's literary style with his sword & sorcery. There's plenty of action and magic and monsters, but also quite a bit of fine writing and complex ideas. The plot itself is the sort of thing only Moorcock would attempt. It seems that Lucifer has decided he wants to reconcile with God and he needs a mortal's help to carry this out. Lucifer has selected Ulrich Von Bek, a mercenary and not the nicest of fellows, to seek the Holy Grail, the cure for the world's pain. By doing so, Von Bek can also save his own soul.(Wait a second, this IS the recent Solomon Kane movie.) Anyway, an impressive book.

The Silver Warriors (Phoenix in Obsidian)

The middle book of the John Daker Eternal Champion sequence. Daker, the only EC who can remember all his other incarnations and who knows he's the Eternal Champion, finds himself in the form of Count Urlik Skarsol, a burly Warrior of the far future when the Earth is dying a slow death. He is pitted against the silver warriors, presumably beings from the moon which has at this point crashed into the Earth. But as so often happens in the Daker books, nothing is what it seems and the silver warriors aren't the real threat. Sort of a tribute to Jack Vance but at the same time a pivotal book in the saga of the Eternal Champion where much is explained about Daker's lot. A warning. This one doesn't end well.

Letters From Hollywood

Begun as actual letters to J.G. Ballard during Moorcock's self imposed exile in Hollywood, this eventually became a memoir of Moorcock's rather strange journey across La La Land. I think it would make a good movie itself. Mike has comical adventures with directors and screenwriters, gets a tattoo, meets his current wife, and sadly, has to watch the extended death by illness of an old friend. Hard to come by, but highly recommended.

The Singing Citadel

Partly because this is the book that brought me back to reading Moorcock, almost by accident, and partly because I consider The Singing Citadel to be a little gem of a lesson for plotting a fantasy novella. The story is beautifully constructed, and I'd use it as an example were I teaching a class. It's also a very good story, as are the three others included in this slender volume.
As to the accident thing, about six years ago I was browsing in a used bookstore and I saw a battered copy of the Singing Citadel. I had recently read an issue of Alan Moore's Tom Strong comic book that had been guest written by Michael Moorcock, and not having read any of Moorcock's prose in a couple of decades, I picked Citadel up on a whim. That's what got me back into reading Moorcock.

So there you go. The first four titles leapt to my mind as I sat down to write the list, but the fifth was a tougher choice. I almost said The Weird of the White Wolf because that's the DAW Elric book which contains the Singing Citadel, so it covers some of the same territory. And I almost said Death is No Obstacle, but that's a non-fiction book, mostly a series of interviews with Moorcock. However it does contain an interesting discussion about how Moorcock writes his sword & sorcery books so for a writer it's very much worth reading. I also considered the King of Swords, which is my favorite of the Corum books. But in the end, I stuck with The Singing Citadel for the reasons stated above.
I would advise anyone just starting out reading Michael Moorcock to try a good cross section of his books because he has written so much and some books are so different from others that you many love some and not care for others. Elric is generally considered Moorcock's signature character and those are my favorites of his books, but I like the six Corum books a lot as well.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Modem Times 2.0

Modem Times 2.0 is a slender little book, part of the Outspoken Authors series, written partially about and partially by Michael Moorcock. It contains a new Jerry Cornelius story, Modem Times 2.0, as well as My Londons, a reminiscence by Moorcock about the changing face of the city he grew up in, and a long interview with Moorcock titled Get the Music Right, in which he discusses everything from his early days as a writer to his involvement in the 1960s rock scene, to his most recent literary works.
One of the fascinating things about Michael Moorcock is the sheer length of time he's been a working writer and the many phases his career has encompassed. Sword & Sorcery. Comic books. Science Fiction. Editor of New Worlds. Musician. Songwriter. Literary Author. Activist. Screen writer. You name it.
My Londons is probably my favorite section of the book, as London is my favorite city in the world, and I always enjoy Moorcock's autobiographical stuff. His memoir, Letters From Hollywood would be in my top five Moorcock books. What would the other four be? I'd have to think about that.
The weakest part for me was the Jerry Cornelius story, one of Moorcock's non-linear tales, but then Jerry has always been sort of hit or miss for me. I really like some of the Cornelius stories, but others have left me cold. I tend to like the ones with Jerry's family more than the stream of consciousness super spy political satire stories. But that's just me.
Anyway, Modem Times 2.0 is worth picking up for the interview alone. A fascinating look into the restless mind of one of the most influential, original, mercurial writers of our time

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Dark man/Night of the Dark God

Some of you may have noticed that often, when I review one of Robert E. Howard's stories, I include a review of the Marvel comic book adaptation. This is primarily because in a great number of instances I read the adaptation long before I read the original. Such was the case with Night of the Dark God, a Conan-ized version of REH's Turlogh Dubh O'Brien story, the Dark Man originally published in Savage tales #4 back in 1974.
Conan scripter Roy Thomas was a big REH fan and in various interviews he talks about how much he enjoyed adapting Howard's Conan stories into comics form. However there were a very few Conan stories to adapt and Thomas, wanting to get as much REH into the comic book as possible, began looking around for other, non-Conan Howard stories to adapt. In this, he may have been following in the footsteps of L. Sprague de Camp, but to my mind, Thomas had a better grasp on the character of Conan and did a better job with the adaptations. Unlike de Camp, who seemed to feel that Howard's work needed 'fixing', Thomas seemed to feel 'the more Howard, the better."
Thomas had a guide for identifying how much rewriting he had done on an adaptation. If the credit box read simply "adapted from the story by Robert E. Howard", then Thomas had stayed very close to the original. "Freely" adapted meant that Thomas had taken more liberties, and this was usually the case with the non-Conan adaptations. However, as we'll see, in comparing Dark God with Dark Man, even many of the free adaptations stay very close to the originals. Thomas begins Night of the Dark God with the same quote Howard put at the front of the Dark Man.

"For this is the night of the drawing of swords,
And the painted tower of the heathen hordes
Leans to our hammers, fires and cords,
Leans a little and falls."

In the Dark Man, Turlogh Dubh learns that a member of his clan, the same clan that cast him out, has been kidnapped by Norsemen, more particularly by one Thorfel the Fair and taken to the Norseman's island stronghold. The kidnapped girl, Moria, is the daughter a chief of the Dalcassians, but her people are embroiled in a border war with two other clans and can't spare many men to search for her. Turlogh, though outcast, is determined to rescue Moria.
In Dark God, a weary Conan has returned for a visit to his homeland of Cimmeria only to find that Mara, a girl he might have married if not for his wandering spirit, has been taken in a raid by the Vanir. The Vanir are enough like Norsemen that Thomas leaves most of their names intact, thus Conan too is seeking Thorfel the Fair.
Conan 'borrows' a fisherman's boat to get to Thorfel's island. (It's on a lake, not the sea, since Cimmeria isn't near the ocean.) In this scene, Thomas uses as much of Howard's prose and dialog as possible, changing mostly place names and adding Hyborian age references, though he does somewhat alter the fisherman's motivations for handing over his boat.
Conan takes the boat out into stormy waters. While seeking the island he comes across a drifting wooden ship. On board he finds a bunch of dead Vanir and about half their number in corpses of smaller, dark swarthy men who Conan recognizes as Picts. In the prow of the boat, Conan sees a statue carved from some strange black stone. He realizes that the Picts have died for this statue and that it was a king or a god to them.
The scene plays out mostly the Same in the Dark Man, though Turlogh finds Norsemen and Picts (Turlogh doesn't recognize the Picts as such) on a small island rather than a drifting boat. Both Turlogh and Conan load the statue into their respective boats, finding the solid relic amazingly lightweight and easy to carry.
The next few pages of the Conan story follow The Dark man almost scene per scene. Conan/Turlogh becomes lost in a sudden storm but hears a voice, that he somehow knows is the Dark Man, guiding him. When the storm clears he is looking at Thorfel's island. Going ashore Turlogh/Conan makes his way slowly and carefully through the woods to the back of Thorfel's great hall. But before he can approach, Conan/Turlogh hears someone coming from the same direction he just came and hiding, he spies two Norsemen/Vanir lurching along, carrying the statue of the Dark Man. Amazingly, two huge men can barely carry the statue which Turlogh/Conan lifted with ease. Conan/Turlogh lets the men go past, then tries to sneak up to the hall. He is almost undone when someone comes out a side door, but he crushes the man's throat and kills him soundlessly. Entering through the side door Turlogh/Conan finds himself in a storeroom which leads to a small, hide hung door through which he can see the goings on in the main room.
Here, Moria/Mara is being forced to wed Thorfel. In the Dark Man it is a Christian priest who is to reluctantly perform the ceremony, and in the Conan tale it is a priest of Mitra. Even Conan/Turlogh, though consumed by rage, realizes that he can't win a fight against the entire roomful of warriors and he plans to allow the wedding to take place, then attack Thorfel when he and his bride are alone, but fate steps in. Moria/Mara refuses to marry Thorfel and the Viking threatens to make her a slave if she won't be a bride. Moria/Mara, unaware that possible rescue is at hand, tells Thorfel that she will be neither, and snatching a dagger from Thorfel's belt, she drives it under her own heart and falls to the floor.
This is a moment of catharsis in The Dark Man. Turlogh's anger has been building and building for the entire story and with this one line, Howard turns his hero loose:

"Silence reigned for an instant, and in that instant Turlogh O'Brien went mad."

Turlogh lunges into the room in a scene that only Robert E. Howard could write.

"Lamh Laidir Abu!" the war cry of the O'Briens ripped through the stillness like the scream of a wounded panther, and as men whirled toward the shriek, the frenzied Gael came through the doorway like the blast of a wind from Hell. He was in the grip of the Celtic black fury beside which the berserk rage of the Viking pales. Eyes glaring and a tinge of froth on his writhing lips, he crashed among the men who sprawled, off guard, in his path. Those terrible eyes were fixed on Thorfel at the other end of the hall, but as Turlogh rushed he smote to right and left. His charge was the rush of a whirlwind that left a litter of dead and dying men in his wake"

Conan's entrance is almost word for word and both men wreak havoc in their respective halls, but eventually the weight of numbers begins to take its toll. However, just when it looks like Conan/Turlogh must fall, a Pictish war band breaks in. They have been seeking their stolen idol and the slayers of their kin. The hall runs red.
I noted, as I was reading the Dark Man, that while Howard's sympathies were doubtless with the Picts and the Gael, he still shows the Vikings as equally fierce and skilled. The battle is anything but one sided, and there are many Picts slain before it's over.
As the battle winds down, Conan and Turlogh each finally gets to his version of Thorfel. Turlogh cleaves him almost from neck to waist and then severs his head. Conan pins him to a door with his sword. When Turlogh reaches the dying Moria, he shows the grizzly head to his clanswoman so that she may know she was avenged. Conan shares a more tender moment with Mara before she slips away.
The Picts recognize Conan/Turlogh as a friend of the Dark man so they not only let him live, but also tell him about the statue. To Turlogh they explain that The Dark Man is a statue of Bran Mak Morn, and they believe that Bran's ghost resides within the statue. REH fans will of course recognize Bran Mak Morn as the hero of Howard stories like Kings of the Night and the matchless Worms of the Earth.
Now here, Roy Thomas could have hit a stumbling block, because Conan lived many thousands of years before Bran Mak Morn, so obviously the Dark Man statue can't be Bran in the Conan story. But Robert E. Howard himself supplied an answer. Brogar, the chief of the Picts tells Turlogh O'Brien:

" Rome broke the Britons and came against us. But there rose among us Bran Mak Morn, of the blood of Brule the Spear-slayer, the friend of King Kull of Valusia who reigned thousands of years ago before Atlantis sank."

And so Thomas made the Dark Man a statue of Brule the Spear Slayer, which works well in context. Kull had his own comic book at the time, so he and Brule were probably know to readers of Savage Tales.
Both stories end the same, with Turlogh/Conan vowing to take the body of Moria/Mara home to be buried among her own people. The priest, seeing the dawn turn the waters of the sea/lake to the color of blood, asks Conan/Turlogh when the reign of blood will cease and the Gael/Cimmerian answers "Not so long as the race lasts."
All and all, a fine adaptation and I think even those who don't approve of writers turning non-Conan tales into such will agree that if an adaptation has to be done, one done with respect and attention to detail of the source material is preferable.
Since I am discussing the comic book story as well as the original, I should say a few words about the art. Gil Kane, one of my personal favorite artists did the pencils in cinematic style. Kane's pacing, visual story telling, and knack for drawing figures in action all shine here. The inking is by the somewhat odd combo of Neal Adams & 'diverse hands'. Most of it looks like Neal, so I suspect he missed a deadline and the other folks had to pitch in. Pablo Marcos added the gray tones for the black & white magazine.
A final note. A character from the Dark Man who isn't seen in Night of the Dark God is Athelstane the Saxon. Thomas needed no analog for Athelstane in this story, however the Saxon would play a big part in the next Turlogh O'Brien tale, The Gods of Bal-Sagoth, which was also adapted as a Conan story for the color comic Conan the Barbarian issues #17 and #18. For the burly Saxon, Thomas used Fafnir, originally a throw away character meant to represent Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd in Conan the Barbarian issue #6. Athelstane would have presumably continued as Turlogh's companion in adventure since he and Turlogh are still together in the unfinished story Shadow of the Hun, which picks up immediately following The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.

Friday, February 11, 2011

California Dreaming

Last night I dreamed that I was out in California during the 1970s and I was staying at Jack Kirby's House. Jack and his wife Roz were having a cookout for friends and Jack and I were wandering at the edge of the yard and he was showing me a creek which wound through the woods beyond his house and these really huge ants (about the size of chipmunks) that lived near the creek bed. I think he was planning on using the ants in a comic book story.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor Volume #2

Dark Horse Comics' second volume of the collected Occult Files of Dr. Spektor showed up at the comic book store last night. Coincidentally, the cover DH used for the book was the front cover of Dr. Spektor issue #10, which was the first issue I bought off the stands. I remember it well because I bought the comic because of the cover. I had no idea who Dr. Spektor was or why the mummy bursting in through a window was out to get him, but it didn't matter. The image caught my attention and I had to get that comic book. Can't recall where I bought it but I believe it was at the drugstore/diner that was next to the Men's Clothing store that my mother's father owned for many years.
As Spektor Writer Don Glut explains in the introduction to volume 2, this issue marks the point where he was really starting to hit his stride and challenging the staid conventions of Gold Key comics. Gold Key, the successor to Dell Comics had a fairly strict set of guidelines for their comic books and one of the things they considered a no-no was continuity. They didn't want any two part stories or any stories that used reoccurring villains or flash backs to earlier issues. Glut wanted to do all of these things in the titles he wrote, because he felt maybe that way Gold Key could actually compete with the 'Big Two' comic book publishers, DC and Marvel. A long time comics fan himself, Glut knew what fanboys liked. He also tried to write more realistic characters and to show his characters changing over the course of the series.
The stories in volume two feature reoccurring villains, flashbacks to earlier issues, and a continuing story line where Spektor becomes a werewolf for three issues. In the introduction, Glut (pronounced Gloot) tells some humorous anecdotes about how he got these things past the editors. Some nice bits of comics history. Also within the span of these issues, Glut began to solidify his concept of the Lovecraftian style deities, the Dark Gods, and he began linking Dr. Spektor to another title he wrote for Gold Key, Dagar the Invincible, a sword and sorcery comic I've blogged about before.
In the next volume in the Dark Horse series we should see Glut's biggest team-up/crossover event at Gold Key where one of the characters from Dagar actually crosses time to help Dr. Spektor fight an ancient sorcerer and the Frankenstein Monster too. For a preview, check out my blog post from 2007:

I find that these solidly written comics hold up very well after close to 40 years. The best thing for me about these collections, is that owing to spotty distribution back in the day, I never got a complete run of Dr. Spektor, and though I bought quite a few back issues over the years, I think there are two stories that I still haven't read, which should show up in volumes 3 and 4. So I still have a couple of 'new' issues to read. Plus, these volumes collect obscure Dr. Spektor appearances from Gold Key's various mystery and horror digests and anthologies, some of which I don't own. This makes me happy.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

In Praise of Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was one of those authors who I was aware of for most of my reading life, but only recently, within the last five years or so, began to appreciate. I can recall seeing his books on the shelves when I was a kid, but somehow, even when I was in the midst of my big science fiction period, I never tried one of his books. I did eventually try one of his Time Patrol collections about a decade ago, and while I enjoyed it, it still didn't lead me to reading more of his books.
Enter Michael Moorcock. In many interviews and essays, and in his book, Wizardry and Wild Romance, Mike mentioned what a tremendous influence Poul Anderson's book The Broken Sword had been on Mike's writing. This made me curious enough to finally track down a copy and give it a read. I got what Mike meant immediately. Coincidentally published the same year that The Fellowship of the Ring was published in America, The Broken Sword was the OTHER book based heavily in Norse history and mythology. Elves and dwarves and Norsemen. Oh My.
But Anderson's book was by far the darker of the two. The tale is rather tragic and the elves are dark and dangerous, presented more like their Norse predecessors. There is a lot of Poul Anderson's elves in the citizens of Elric's Melnibone. More about Moorcock and Anderson in a bit.
So I read the Broken Sword and was suitably impressed. I went to the trouble to find a nice copy of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of the book to add to my collection. And speaking of BAF, while I was at it, I picked up Anderson's recreation of the Norse sagas, Hrolf Kraki's Saga. Here my interest in Vikings and Norse history dovetailed perfectly with my growing appreciation for Poul Anderson. (Poul is pronounced somewhere between pool and pole according to Moorcock by the way.)
Further research led me to Anderson's other Norse related works, War of the Gods and The Last Viking trilogy, a retelling of the career of real life Viking Harald Hardrade. The first volume in that series, The Golden Horn, remains one of my favorite Viking novels. According to various sources, Anderson's library about the Norse was truly amazing. The man knew his stuff.
A chance mention of Anderson's Multi-Dimensional Tavern The Old Phoenix in an article about such pan dimensional structures and places caused me to track down the stories and one novel (A Midsummer's Tempest) which featured the place. Basically an Inn at a nexus point where many levels of alternate universes meet, it's a bar that almost anyone can wander into, so you might see Abraham Lincoln talking to Gandhi or Leonardo Da Vinci arguing with Albert Einstein. Funny thing was, when I read A Midsummer's Tempest (A book about an alternate universe where Shakespeare's plays are history rather than fiction) I noticed two characters that Anderson was paying a lot of attention to in the chapter featuring The Old Phoenix, but I didn't know who they were. Turns out one was from Anderson's book Operation Otherworld and the other was Holger Carlsen, the hero of Anderson's novel Three Hearts and Three Lions. I had read neither book at the time.
I am currently reading Three Hearts and Three Lions and enjoying it tremendously and I'm sure I'll write a full review, but for now I'll take us back to discussing Anderson's influence on Michael Moorcock. Mike recently brought up Three Hearts in another interview about his influences and I decided it was time to give it a read. As with the Broken Sword it's pretty easy to see how much Moorcock was taken with Three Hearts and Three Lions. It's about a battle between the forces of Law and Chaos and there is much talk about alternate universes, very much in the mode of what Mike would eventually write about Elric, The Eternal Champion and the Multiverse. Keep in mind, Elric was also influenced by Melmouth the Wanderer, Conan the Cimmerian, and Zenith the Albino, but there is a lot of Poul Anderson in the Eternal Champion saga.
Anyway, I just wanted to say a few words about Poul Anderson and how much I've been enjoying his work lately. His fantasy writing is really just a tiny section of his output. He wrote far more science fiction than fantasy and occasionally delved into historical fiction and mysteries. But those are subjects for another time.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Post # 1000

I noticed the other day that I was at post number 992, so as I've been posting the last couple of days I've been aware that my 1000th post was coming up and I thought, "Gee, I should do something spectacular for post 1000." But instead I've just decided to thank all the folks who've come by to read my often meandering thoughts on books, movies, comic books, etc. Thanks to everyone who has posted a comment, and especially to all of you who have recommended books and stuff. I've gotten a lot of great suggestions from folks who have taken the time to post. I've also discovered some wonderful blogs and made some good friends by following links back from comments. It's amazing how many of the spots in my bookmarks are taken up by blogs now. Lastly, a special thanks to my good friend Beth, who talked me into blogging in the first place.

The Colossus of Greece

If people relating their dreams bores you, skip this post. I have so many strange dreams that I usually just shrug and move on. I had one last night though that I found amusing and strange. Where does my mind get this stuff?
Basically I dreamed a 1950s movie called The Colossus of Greece, and it was sort of a sword and sandal/fantasy film. I wasn't in it. I was just seeing it. There was this giant bronze statue terrorizing the countryside, sort of like Talos from Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts. He would just appear, seemingly from nowhere, and destroy entire towns. There was a captain from the army of Athens roaming around, trying to find where the monster came from and how it could be stopped.
There was a scene where the captain was in a curio shop, talking to this young blond haired guy and I noted in the background that there was a small statue on a shelf that looked just like the colossus, which the captain, of course, didn't see. Later it turns out that the blond guy's parents were put to death on some trumped up charge by a king of one of the Greek city states and the kid had found a way to make this statue grow huge and do his bidding. As I said, very much a 1950s sort of monster movie.
In the end, the captain figured it out and stopped the colossus by killing the blond guy as the monster was about to destroy Athens. There was a nice slow motion shot as you see the kid, stabbed through the heart, falling to the ground and the giant bronze statue falls in the same posture. I was pretty entertained by this imaginary film. Nice going, brain.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Sword Woman and Mistress of Death

The uncompleted story Mistress of Death, featuring Dark Agnes de Chastillon, is a story I've been waiting a long time to read. Dark Agnes is a red-haired she-devil actually created by Robert E. Howard, unlike Marvel Comics Red Sonja, who is often credited to Howard, but was really the creation of Roy Thomas. (Though loosely based on REH's Red Sonya of Rogatino, who appeared as a supporting character in a single short story, The Shadow of the Vulture.)
I first came across Agnes in a used copy of Sword Woman, a Zebra paperback from 1977 with a cover and interior illustrations by Stephen Fabian. This slim volume contained the two Dark Agnes tales that Howard had completed, Sword Woman and Blades For France. It contained Mistress of Death too, but the story had been completed by Gerald W. Page and I had reached a point in my reading of REH where I didn't want any posthumous collaborations unless I had first read the original fragment unaltered. So I skipped that version of Mistress of Death.
Now, several years later, thanks to the publication of Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures, Del Rey's latest quality volume of the works of Robert E. Howard, I was able to read the unadulterated Mistress of Death. MoD is something of a departure from the previous two Dark Agnes yarns. Sword Woman and Blades For France were pure historical fiction, taking place in 16th century France, with no supernatural elements, whereas Mistress of Death features a sorcerer, thus taking the story into the realm of historical sword & sorcery. Since the other two stories had failed to find a market, perhaps Howard was thinking of sending his third Agnes yarn to Weird Tales and wanted to make it more attractive to editor Farnsworth Wright.
Dark Agnes is a fascinating character for several reasons. One is that she's ahead of her time in terms of feminist attitudes. Mistreated by her father and about to be married off to a man she despises, Agnes is given a dagger by her sister, a woman beaten down by life, who hopes her younger sister will take her own life rather than be made the slave of her brutal husband. But Agnes sees another use for the dagger. She stabs her groom through the heart and escapes into the night. Later she learns to use a sword and becomes a mercenary. Hardly the cowering female clinging to Conan's leg that those unschooled in the works of Robert E. Howard often think is a typical REH female character. In all the Agnes stories, she is the best fighter. The toughest, the fastest, and the most skilled. Her blade work is "like summer lightning". Dark Agnes is a true REH hero, just like Kull or Solomon Kane.
Another thing I've always found interesting about Dark Agnes is that Howard chose to tell her stories in the first person. I've always steered clear of female viewpoints in my own writing, figuring I'd best stick to what I know. Not Two-Gun Bob. Howard writes Agnes with the same sort of intensity he displays in other, male point of view first person narratives and he does a great job. Dark Agnes lives on the page.
Anyway, the Del Rey Sword Woman collection features mass quantities of Howard's historical fiction, including the Cormac Fitzgeoffrey stories, which are some of my favorites, and such classics as The Sowers of Thunder, The Shadow of the Vulture, and Spears of Clontarf. Plus fragments and other extras, an introduction by Scott Oden, and a nifty afterward by my pal Howard Andrew Jones, looking at Howard's historical fiction and REH's influences. Rumor has it that this is the last of the Del Rey Volumes. I hope that's not the case, but if so, they're going out on a high note.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


One of the best gifts you can get for your birthday is something you really like but didn't know existed. Cliff, having read my post about the Spawn of Cthulhu anthology, and having discussed it with me at length, recalled a Fanzine from 1972 which was equally important and influential to the growing popularity of the Cthulhu Mythos, a massive 144 page amateur magazine titled simply HPL. (subtitled on the inside cover, A Tribute to Howard Phillips Lovecraft. )
Don't let the term "amateur" confuse you. There is material in this magazine that many an editor of professional anthologies would have given an eyetooth for. There is fiction by Manly Wade Wellman, Gary Myers, Ramsey Campbell, and even the first chapter of Brian Lumley's Arkham House novel The Burrowers Beneath. There are articles by Joseph Payne Brennan, Robert Bloch, E. Hoffman Price, Richard Tierney, and Fritz Leiber. There are also tons of illustrations by artists like Steven Fabian and Richard Corben, plus poems from L. Sprague de Camp and Robert E. Howard and a couple of (at that time) unpublished letters. An amazing package that went for three bucks back in the day and is almost impossible to find now. My copy is actually made from Cliff's own copy of the original.
What I particularly like about this magazine is that while it contains material from all the professional writers and artists mentioned above, there is also a wealth of articles, stories, and art done by fans of Lovecraft. This gives the mag its 'fannish' feel, which greatly appeals to me. I have always loved fanzines. In the pre-internet days, APAs (amateur press associations) were the way that fans communicated with and hopefully informed one another.
Fans would type out long and often well researched articles about their favorite subjects and mimeograph copies to send to fellow fans. Sometimes groups of fans would mail such fanzines to a central mailer and those zines would be collected and stapled together by the CM, who would then send copies of the collected zines out to all the folks who had contributed. I once belonged to just such an APA (though we had photocopy machines by that point) and my blog still reflects the sensibilities of those days. A little autobiography and a lot of articles. Much like blogging. They even had comments. You just had to wait until the next issue of the APAzine to read or reply.
Anyway, as I mentioned, I'd never heard of the HPL zine until Cliff presented me with a copy on Wednesday. I have spent much time perusing it, and it is a fine addition to my Lovecraft collection. HPL was put together by Meade and Penny Frierson and there's an interesting article on how the zine came about here:

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Long Live The Super Computer Mach II!

This is the first post on my new PC, which is basically an upgraded version of the previous one. For the tech heads this is an XPS8100 with a Core i7-870 Processor, an ATI Radeon HD 5770 graphics card, and a 1TB hard drive. It has the same specs as one of the Alien Ware gaming computers. Should get the job done.

Friday, February 04, 2011

R.I.P. The Super Computer

Almost three years ago to the day I purchased a new Dell XPS PC. My friends and I jokingly called it the Super Computer because at the time it was the most souped up, top of the line PC available, with all the bells and whistles one could imagine. Last night, in the course of its daily duties, the Super Computer suffered a fatal hard drive failure.
I can only say of the Super Computer that it was a good machine and served me faithfully for its lifetime, through countless games of Lord of the Rings Online and thousands of emails, chats, forums, and what not. Some have said that perhaps I could have it rebuilt, but I prefer to let it die with dignity, going as it did, in the midst of the tasks that it loved and performed so well. It died with its boots on.
The Super Computer is survived by its High-Def monitor, mouse, and keyboard.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Barbarian Madness in Marietta!

Big Robert E. Howard Night at the comic book store last night. My copy of the new Del Rey REH collection, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, came in. Also the 9th volume of the collected Savage Sword of Conan. And my Vikor action figure showed up too! Plus, I got a really nifty early birthday present from Cliff. I'll have more to say about some this stuff a bit later. Right now I gotta go to work. I feel kind of like a kid on Christmas morning. You have all this neat stuff and now you have to leave it and go to your grandparent's house or something...


The clips I've seen from this historical fiction movie look really really good. This is about the siege of Rochester Castle, (1215 AD) an important battle in English History when King John basically decided to renege on the Magna Carta. It stars Paul Giamatti as the King and features James Purefoy (Solomon Kane) as a Templar knight leading the battle. I'm looking forward to this one. Trailer, clips, and info here: