Thursday, March 31, 2011

Limited Editions Unlimited

I am coming around to the idea of e-books. I have seen circumstances recently where I could have made good use of an e-book reader. So I'm not anti-e-book by any stretch of the imagination. But...I love books. Real paper books. Always have, since I fist started reading many years ago. Probably always will.
With that in mind, there's one area where the e-book isn't likely to ever take the place of actual books and that's in the realm of collectible volumes, limited editions and such.
In the last few weeks I've added several limited editions to my collections. The Donald M. Grant volume Act of Providence, which I mentioned in previous posts. A Grant volume of Harold Lamb's Durandal. Two hard to come by limited edition Elric hardbacks by Michael Moorcock. The most recent were a couple of Robert E. Howard volumes that I hadn't originally intended to pick up.
Yeah, I know it's hard to believe that I would pass on anything by Howard, but see, after I finally got the third Wandering Star deluxe Conan volume, I figured I was done buying the rather expensive REH limited editions. I had the Wandering Star volumes of Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn, and the Subterranean Press Kull volume. Along with the three Conan books, that gave me all of Howard's main series characters in collectible hardbacks. (I also had the Frank Frazetta illustrated REH collection, The Ultimate Triumph.) I'd been buying the Del Rey Trades of Howard's other stories and though I knew Subterranean was going to bring out some of them in deluxe limited edition hardbacks, I didn't think I'd pick them up. The series characters were my main interest hardback-wise.
But my buddy Cliff found deals on the two most recent Subterranean volumes, Crimson Shadows and The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, and of course he passed them along to me. He is evil that way. Basically the deals were too good to pass up for brand new copies of these beautifully made hardback, slip-cased volumes, so yeah, I bought them. That means I have a full collection of the Wandering Star/Subterranean limited editions of the works of Robert E. Howard. That's going to make it hard to pass up future volumes. Part of the collector mania is having entire sets, what can I tell you.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Doctor Who: The Jade Pyramid

The good news is Doctor Who: The Jade Pyramid audio book is read by the actor who plays the Doctor, Matt Smith. The bad news is, the writing on the book doesn't really live up to the potential. The dialog doesn't sound like the Doctor. Think about that for a moment. The Doctor is reading the book and it still doesn't sound like the Doctor. The writing is certainly competent, but the writer, Martin Day, doesn't seem to have the knack of writing the somewhat frenetic speech patterns that have been established for the character on the show. Smith never gets the chance to do one of those mile a minute speeches where he suddenly reverses everything his just said, or realizes he's not making sense. The banter with companion Amy Pond isn't really there either. Keep in mind, I'm not picking on Day. Writing the Doctor to sound like the TV Doctor would take some serious effort.
The plot finds the Doctor and Amy in Medieval Japan, so it's a good time period for me. There are samurai and ninjas and a power mad Shogun. Add aliens, robot monsters, and the titular Jade Pyramid and you have the makings for a decent Doctor Who adventure, so it's not a bad book.
Smith does give it a good shot, trying to read his lines in his Doctor persona, but because of the issues I mentioned above it often falls flat. It is interesting to see Smith reading Amy's lines. He does it in a more broad Scottish accent than the actress or character actually has, but sometimes he does get Amy's inflections. It's funny how many actors are gifted mimics. William Shatner comes to mind. In his readings of the Star Trek novels he 'wrote' he often manages to catch the feel of characters like Spock or Bones, even if his voice isn't right. He does a dead-on Scotty though.
Anyway, I had fun with the Jade Pyramid Audio adventure. Just not as much as I thought I would. I need to try one of the audio books read by 10th Doctor, David Tennant, and see how that goes.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Act of Providence Redux

I was talking about the book Act of Providence, which I recently reviewed, last night at dinner and Cliff filled me in on why the book is credited to Joseph Payne Brennan and Donald Grant. (I forgot Cliff knew Grant. I think he knew everyone involved in 1970s/1980s SF Fandom.) It had been Grant who suggested that Brennan write the book and who had provided a germ of the plot. Grant had originally intended to have the book be a Roman a clef, using thinly disguised versions of real people but in the end Brennan had just used the real people and gotten their permissions before publication.
I also mentioned in my review that there was a guy named Bob Booth in the book whom I knew nothing about. Turns out my pal Jim knows Booth and he told me that Booth was and is one of the main guys behind the World Fantasy Con.
So I guess that goes to show that answers to odd questions don't always require a lot of digging and research. Sometimes you just have to know people who know people.

The Horrors, The Horrors

You've heard me go on and on about the writing of Karl Edward Wagner, creator of the hero/villain Kane and writer of countless horror stories. Wagner was also a tireless champion of the horror genre and he became editor of DAW Books' annual Year's Best Horror anthologies beginning with volume 8. I had a couple of those volumes and had been meaning to track them all down (Wagner edited volumes VIII through XXII) but they proved hard to come by and unexpectedly expensive, and whenever they popped up on Ebay, they tended to get bid out of the range I was willing to pay pretty quickly.
Anyway, I had mentioned several times at my weekly Mexican dinner with friends and fellow pop culture fans that I was hunting the series. Last night, one of that crew, Jim Moore, better known to horror aficionados as writer James A. Moore, author of Deeper, Serenity Falls and many other horror novels, gave me an almost complete collection of The Year's Best Horror stories, not only the Wagner volumes but those edited by Gerald W. Page and Richard Davis. To say I was surprised would be an large understatement.
The books had belonged to Jim's late wife, Bonnie, who passed away last year and she had gotten several of them signed by Karl Edward Wagner and some of the writers showcased in the books at various conventions over the years. I asked Jim if he was sure he wanted me to take them since they had apparently been very dear to his wife and he told me he would prefer they go to someone who would really appreciate them rather than sit stored in a box.
I certainly do appreciate them. I sat up late last night, paging through the contents. Everybody who was anybody in horror circles is there. Stephen King. Robert Bloch. Ramsey Campbell. Brian Lumley. Tanith Lee. Joe R. Lansdale. Dennis Etchison. Harlan Ellison. Richard Matheson. Kim Newman. You get the idea. I have a lot of reading ahead of me.
The set was only short four volumes of the 22, so I'll track the others down soon enough. So thanks again, Jim. The books have a good home.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Act of Providence

If you're not familiar with author Joseph Payne Brennan's Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth Lucius Leffing, you're probably not alone. Leffing is sometimes included in the same breath with other fictional occult detectives like Jules de Grandin and Carnacki and John Thunstone, but Leffing's cases which involved the supernatural only made up a small portion of his career. According to Brennan this was because he wanted Leffing to sell to the regular mystery magazines, and in this Brennan was successful. The majority of the Leffing tales appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne Magazine.
But among Leffings adventures that did involve the supernatural is a strange novella called Act of Providence. What's strange about it? Well to begin with most of the supporting cast are real people who attended the first World Fantasy Convention, in 1975. Such familiar names as L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, Jeff Jones, and Karl Edward Wagner make cameos in the book. Robert Bloch has one extended scene, and a fellow named Bob Booth, (Who I know absolutely nothing about but who I know was a real guy because I checked) ends up driving Leffing and his assistant around Providence. Of course Leffing's assistant through all his cases is a real guy too, Joseph Payne Brennan, who used himself as the 'Watson' to Leffing's Holmes. (And yes, Brennan was at the 1975 Con. I've seen pictures.)
Anyway, the other strange thing is that events in the story eventually lead to the real life 'Shunned House' that served as the model for H.P. Lovecraft's short story, The Shunned House. In fact, Act of Providence is almost a sequel to Lovecraft's tale of horror. I won't give away what lurks beneath the house but it's both eldritch and gibbous, and maybe a tad squamous.
This is a fun, if odd book, and now I'm a little curious as to how it came to be written. It came out in 1979 from publisher Donald M. Grant and Grant appears as a character too. The book is actually credited to Brennan and Grant, which strikes me as a bit odd. I'm wondering what Grant had to do with it.
As always I am fascinated by the line where fiction meets reality and Act of Providence is one of those books that makes the line hard to spot. To make things more fun, writer Chet Williamson, who was himself at the convention, has posted 61 photographs from WFC 1975. Link provided below. What I wouldn't give to travel back in time to that Con.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Putting a Face On It

I was looking at a map of the hardest hit areas in Japan following the recent Earthquake and Tsunami and I recognized Sendai, a city in the North which I visited in 1985. This was one of my favorite parts of my trip, because the city, chosen at Random as a destination on the train line, wasn't really a big tourist spot and so I felt I was getting a closer look at the real Japan. The people there were unfailingly friendly, helpful, and welcoming. Anyway, I've sent a donation to the Red Cross this morning. If you can spare some money to help out, please do so.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Star Wars Story

Reading this book about the Making of the Empire Strikes Back reminded me of my one brush with Star Wars in real life. Nothing dramatic. Just a funny vignette.
Many years ago, oh best beloved, I visited the San Diego Comic Con. This would have been 1989 or 1990, when the Con was still mostly about comic books, before the media people took over. Anyway, if you've ever been to a comic book convention, some dealers have comic book boxes set end to end on their tables so that if you're on one side flipping through old comics, someone else is often on the other side flipping through another box directly across from you, both of you working toward the center of the table.
I don't remember what comics I was looking at, but anyway I was flipping along and it happened that when I reached the end of the box, the guy on the other side also reached the end of his box, and as we were facing each other across the table, both of us looked up. The fellow on the other side of the table was Mark Hammil, Luke Skywalker. He was wearing a baggy t-shirt and shorts and he had a ball cap on and there were sunglasses around his neck, so I suppose he was in disguise, but he had the glasses off so he could look at comics. I didn't say a word. I just shook my finger at him, like "I know you" and went right back to what I was doing. He cracked up and asked me how I was and I said fine and you, and that was pretty much it. Just one of those funny things that happens at Cons. Oh, and what comics was Hammil looking at? Star Wars. What else?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hither Came Harald

He came down from the cold lands of the north to travel among the great cities of the ancient world. He became a soldier, a mercenary, and one day a king. Conan the Cimmerian? Nope. Harald Hardrada, probably the best known Norseman to serve in the fabled Varangian Guard. The Varangians were mercenaries who served the emperors of Byzantium from the 10th to 13th Centuries AD. Most of them were Russian early on but Norsemen from all parts of Scandinavia eventually wandered down to Constantinople to serve in the armies and navies of the lands belonging to the Byzantine Empire. Many of these Norsemen earned huge fortunes and fame and are mentioned in the Norse Sagas. It's not surprising, I guess that so many Norsemen served well in the Byzantine Navy. They knew their way around a ship for certain.
If you want to study the Varangians then The Varangians of Byzantium by Sigfus Blondal and Benedikt S. Benedikz is generally considered the best book on the subject. I picked up a copy last week and have been enjoying it quite a bit. The Varangians fought bloody battles everywhere from Syria to Sicily, with Harald Hardrada reportedly seeing action in Greece, Bulgaria, Jerusalem, and Sicily, and he may have battled Arab pirates who preyed on Byzantine shipping. (For a great fictionalized account of Harald's life, check out Poul Anderson's Last Viking Trilogy. Or just read King Harald's Saga in Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson.)
Oddly enough, Harald's last battle took place in England just a few weeks before William of Normandy's conquest in 1066. After the Norman conquest many expatriate Anglo-Saxon's ended up traveling to Constantinople and becoming Varangians. Toward the end of the Byzantine Empire, Englishmen had pretty much replaced the Norsemen.
Anyway, though I'd like to claim I'm just a studious, scholarly type, I have to admit that various parallels in Conan's career and that of Harald Hardrada certainly add to my enjoyment of reading about the adventures of Norsemen in the civilized lands. If you read contemporary reports from Arab sources of early encounters with the Norse, you'd sure think they had run into the barbarians from hell, though later studies would show that the Viking folk were really a pretty cultured lot. It just didn't pay to be between them and something they wanted. The Varangians of Byzantium is a fairly fact heavy tome, but not at all dry or boring. One of the last chapters gives enough historical information on various men who became Varangians that a writer of historical novels could probably make an entire career out of chronicling their exploits. Fun stuff.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Conan:The Road of Kings issue #3

Yes I know I've already posted this cover a few posts ago, but this time I'm reviewing the Comic Book. Now that three issues of Conan:The Road of Kings have hit the stands, I'm beginning to see a pattern. it seems that even though The Road of Kings has an over-arching plot, writer Roy Thomas is determined to make every issue of the series a standalone story. Obviously I've no problem with that. Might help bring in readers because even if you missed issues one and two, you still get a story with a beginning middle and end, followed by a cliff hanger. This pretty much mimics Thomas' approach during his marvel days, particularly his second run on the Savage Sword of Conan. The big story might continue over six issues, but each issue would usually have a complete story as a chapter. It certainly adds to the deja vu feeling of reading Thomas' Conan again.
This issue finds Conan and Olivia in the city of Thessalo. They're running short on traveling money, so Conan decides to see if he can get some paying work from an old "friend" Murilo, the young nobleman from the Robert E. Howard short story, Rogues in the House. Here the feeling of alternate realities gets a little heavy for me, as I first read Rogues as a Marvel Comics adaptation in the Conan the Barbarian comic book. I will always see Murilo as the curly-haired, rather foppish young dandy as illustrated by Barry Windsor Smith, so I had a little moment of disconnect when the dark Horse version showed up.
Anyway, while Conan is out looking for Murilo, a somewhat drunken Olivia gets herself tangled up with a local criminal who has a nasty habit of feeding people to a monster which lives in and underground lake. This isn't Olivia's fate, however, since the thug has decided she might be worth more alive than dead, having overheard her talking about be a princess. (This is why if you really ARE a princess, you shouldn't get drunk in seedy taverns with buxom dancing girls. I'm Just saying.)
Conan comes back and finds Olivia gone. He follows what turns out to be a false trail to the underground lake, where of course he has to rescue the aforementioned buxom dancing girl from the monster in the lake in bloody Conan style.
The artwork in this issue is Mike Hawthorne's best yet. I thought him a little shaky at first, but he's won me over at this point. All and all, a good solid issue. Thomas is still a formidable writer. His years of experience make it look easy. looking forward to the next issue.

Friday, March 11, 2011

William Preston's Old (Big) Man

If you're a fan of the 1930s pulp hero Doc Savage, then there are two recent stories by an author named William Preston that you definitely need to read. The first is called 'Helping Them Take the Old Man Down', and it originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Asimov's Science fiction Magazine, and is now available at the author's blog as a pdf file. I'll supply a link at the bottom of the post. The second is called 'Clockworks' and it's in the issue of Asimov's that's on the stands right now. (April/May 2011)
I don't want to give away too much about the plots so I'll just say that I think Phillip Jose Farmer would have been very pleased with this take on the Man of Bronze. The stories are well thought out and Clockworks especially has some nice SF turns. Not to mention Mr. Preston writes very well. Now hurry over and pick up this month's Asimov's SF Mag, and check out the first tale here:

Monday, March 07, 2011

Days of Empire

The only positive fall out from the closing of Borders Books here was that I got a copy of The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, J.W. Rinzler's exhaustive account of the making of what many consider the best of the Star Wars movies, at a big discount. And when I call the book exhaustive, I'm not kidding. Rinzler had access to the Lucas Films archives and there is so much information in this book that it is almost overwhelming, even to someone as fascinated by the behind the scenes stuff as I am.
Oh sure, there are all the things one would expect from such a book. Production drawings and blueprints and explanations of special effects shots. But there are also photos of company picnics, office meetings, and more candid shots of the cast than you can shake a light saber at. This book may have even more stuff in it than Rinzler's previous volume about the making of the first Star Wars film.
I'm about halfway through this 372 page monster and a couple of things struck me. The first was, how after the unexpected runaway success of Star Wars, there was no merchandizing, because this was the first film of that sort. No action figures. No replica light sabers. No books or anything. I was there and I remember how desperate we fanboy types were for anything to do with Star Wars. There was a Marvel Comic Book, a T-shirt and a poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt. That was it. Now the next Christmas there was everything you could imagine and I bought a ton of it, but yeah, early on, no stuff.
The other thing was how in flux all the story elements were. In interviews George Lucas has said that he always planned for Darth Vader to be Luke Skywalker's father. The early drafts of screenplays and scripts don't bear this out. At one point in one script Luke actually talks to the ghost of his father who is in the Force with Obi-Wan. And Luke's twin sister wasn't always Leia. After Mark Hamill was in a serious car accident there was some talk that he might have to be replaced, so the twin sister was a way of hedging the producer's bets. Fortunately Mark's facial scars were minimal and they were explained in the movie by frostbite, battle injuries, and such. Hamill said that Lucas told him they never considered recasting Luke Skywalker, but would have replaced him with a relative.
Anyway, the book is full of that sort of thing. There are even bits about the first Star Wars Tie-In novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which I sat up late one night to finish, and the disastrous Star Wars Holiday Special. Everything is in there.
Thing is, I'm not even a huge Star Wars fan. I liked the movies as a kid, but it didn't stick with me as some things have. Still, reading this book brings back a little of the excitement of that time, when Star Wars was something that we had never seen the like of. I turned one page and saw the painting for the Re-release poster for 1978, the first year I could drive. I remember driving over to a theater (in my 1973 Mustang Mach One) in Roswell to see the film again for the first time since the initial release and how cool that was. In the pre-VCR-DVD days, a re-release was a big deal. So yeah, my enjoyment of The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is tempered by nostalgia. But even without that, it's a fascinating read.

Farewell Borders Books

I learned last week that the Borders Books in my area is closing, as are most of the Borders stores in Georgia. The chain has been struggling and may not even exist in a fairly short time, but that remains to be seen. My local store is on the way out for sure and that makes me a little sad.
See, back in 2004 when I moved to the Kennesaw area it was partly because that's where the bookstores were. I got tired of driving from the small town I grew up in to Kennesaw all the time to go book browsing. One night when I was driving home from my pal Cliff's Comic Book store, I thought, "I seem to spend all my time driving home from Kennesaw. I should just move here."
With Border's gone, that leaves only Barnes & Noble and though I shop at B&N, I always preferred Borders because they were better stocked in their art books and History departments. Their staff usually seemed more knowledgeable as well. More "book people" seemed to work there.
Anyway, back in better days, I could be found most Sunday mornings at Border's when they opened the doors at 9:00. I liked to wander around before the after church crowds hit and the staff got so used to me, they joked about having a reserved parking spot for me. I even considered going to work there at one point. Guess it's good that I didn't. I also have a lot of pleasant memories of browsing the Border's in Buckhead back in my Decatur days. I understand that it too is closing.
So farewell Border's Books. I had a lot of fun there and I bought a lot of books. Between E-Books and Online stores, I figure the days of the brick and mortar bookstores are numbered, and that's a pity. Sundays won't be the same.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Follow Through

My Lord of the Rings Online avatar Kharrn the Barbarian shows good Conan-ish form as he sends a half Orc to eternity.

A Bad Day

I mean, even if you're CONAN, this is a not a good situation to find oneself in. And the girl doesn't look nearly concerned enough, but then she may not be able to see the dinosaur because of Conan's broad back.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Well This is Pretty Darn Cool

The Age of Marvel's Ideas

I was around for the first run of Atlas Comics back in the 1970s and my favorite of the short lived line was, not surprisingly, Wulf the Barbarian. The series showed a lot of potential but Atlas imploded pretty quickly and that was that. Thus, when I heard that Atlas comics was coming back and that Wulf would be one of the first titles, I hoped for a new and original sword & sorcery comic. I got Beastmaster Two or more precisely Marvel Comics What If #13.
I've nothing against 'barbarian comes to the future' storylines. I've written a couple myself. But really, I was thinking maybe someone could produce a decent sword & sorcery title that wasn't based on a work of Robert E. Howard's. You know, mine the same territory but tell some different stories. DC's recent Claw reboot went away fast. We won't even talk about Marvel's Starr the Slayer, which could have been a great chance to have a new marvel S&S book.
Anyway, there's only been one issue of the new Wulf so far. Maybe the whole series won't be set in the present day and I'm just jumping the gun. I did like the art on the first issue by Nat Jones quite a bit. Time will tell.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Short Sword & Sorcery Reading List

Someone was asking me the other day how to get started reading sword & sorcery. I'd been meaning to put up a recommended reading list, so now's the time. This isn't an all-inclusive list, but something meant to give a reader a good grounding in the genre. I'm also working on a table of contents for a Sword & Sorcery Anthology which would also serve as a good introduction, but let's say that you, as the reader, have time to read entire books. The good thing is, most of the stuff I'm going to suggest is actually in print, so you won't have to haunt Ebay and Amazon or your local used bookstore too much. Anyway, let's jump right in.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey 2003)

Anybody who wants to be an authority on S&S has to read Robert E. Howard. He's the founder of the genre as well as being a really good writer. I would suggest all three of the Del Rey Conan volumes, but by reading the first one you'll get a good feel for Conan and Howard. REH's other creations, Kull and Solomon Kane have their boosters, and I certainly recommend the Del Rey volumes of these as well, but for a short list, I'm putting Conan at the top. Available at bookstores, comic book shops, and Amazon.

Black God's Kiss (Planet Stories 2007)

This book collects all of C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories. Jirel is the first lady of sword and sorcery and the original red-haired she devil. Beautiful, haunting writing. Available at bookstores, comic book shops, and from Amazon.

Swords Against Death (Dark Horse Books 2007)

The second book in the collected tales of Fritz Leiber's pair of S&S heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. To my mind this may be the best of the collections. It has several really good short stories such as The Jewels in the Forest and The Howling Tower. Leiber was the next major S&S author after Howard, and he's very important to the history of the genre. Dark, funny, and exciting tales. In print and available at bookstores, comic shops, and Amazon.

Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Del Rey 2008)

This book collects the earliest stories of Michael Moorcock's anti-Conan Elric of Melnibone. More pulpish and raw than the series later became, and very fun to read. This one isn't only available at bookstores, comic shops, and Amazon but also for E-Readers. S&S hits the cutting edge.

Okay, those are the easy ones. And if you stopped there, you'd still be in good shape regarding old school sword & sorcery, however there are a couple of other authors I think very important.

The first is Karl Edward Wagner, whose hero-villain Kane (Karl didn't care for the term anti-hero) is another original and influential S&S character. Sadly all of Wagner's work is currently out of print and usually pretty expensive to come by. A few years ago Nightshade books put out two hardback volumes collecting all the Kane stories and novels. Both of these books go these days for between $75 and $250 bucks each, depending on condition. If you keep a close eye on Ebay, ABEbooks, etc though, you might get lucky and find a copy cheaper.
Even the old Warner paperbacks can be pretty steep, but looking at Amazon today I see most of them available in the 20 buck range. The collections Death Angel's Shadow and Night Winds would be my recommendations since I think KEW's short stories and novellas superior to his novels, but that's just me. Any Kane is worth reading.

The next author is Charles R. Saunders, creator of the first major black Sword & Sorcery hero, Imaro. Great blood and thunder tales set in a fantasy version of ancient Africa. Originally published in three DAW paperbacks in the 1980s, some of the Imaro stories were recently reprinted by Nightshade books. Those two volumes, Imaro and Imaro 2:The Quest for Cush, are available from Amazon. More recently Saunders has been self publishing Imaro books through Lulu. Well worth your time.

That's the short list. As I mentioned, I'm trying to put together contents for an imaginary anthology of S&S, which would cover more authors and discuss the history of the genre. But for now, off you go to the bookstore or Internet. Get to reading!