Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Home Owner

So I bought a house. Don't be too shocked. It's in Middle Earth. Laura emailed me that a house in one of the Elven neighborhoods had become available with a nice river view and that I should go immediately and buy it. She even sent me the extra cash in case I didn't have enough. So I went up to the mountains where the Elves live and bought the place. Now I need some furniture and a troll's head to hang on the wall...

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Complete Kane

Well, no sooner than I mention that I don't have all the Karl Edward Wagner Kane paperbacks, it turns out that I do. Won the whole lot on Ebay and picked them up today. All five books are in very nice shape and all have Frank Frazetta covers. (Not pictured above is the cover to Darkness Weaves.) I already owned copies of Bloodstone and Dark Crusade, but I never had copies of the other three and the new copy of Bloodstone is a different edition with a slightly different cover. I have all the Kane stories and novels in the two Nightshade Books Hardbacks, but I wanted the paperbacks as well. Another collection completed in one fell swoop.
I had what John D. MacDonald would call a slob weekend. Barely left the apartment. Didn't shave for three days. Hung out and read and watched DVDs and played on the internet. Just couldn't think of much I wanted to do. The bookstores have been such a disappointment lately that I didn't even bother making my usual Sunday morning run.
Of course this morning I paid for not shaving. I have the unfortunate combination of a very tough beard and fairly sensitive facial skin, so I basically had to scrape the whiskers off my jaw this morning. Razor burn, anyone? I should never go more than one day without shaving.
Overall the weekend was dull but fairly pleasant. I wouldn't want too many like that in a row, however. Makes me think too much of Kris Kristofferson's lyric, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Dying Earth

Jack Vance's The Dying Earth is one of the most original and most entertaining fantasy novels I've read in quite some time. Long considered a classic, it is (as Beth pointed out) rather odd that I hadn't gotten around to reading it before now. That's mostly because I'd never come across a copy in all my bookstore wanderings. Though all the Dying Earth material has been reprinted in one volume in recent years, I can't recall ever seeing a copy of the original. It has this in common with Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, another fantasy classic that I never seemed to encounter and have read only recently.
Last Sunday, while at a favorite used bookstore in Marietta, I was wandering the end of the SF section, looking for Karl Edward Wagner books (Yes I've read them all but I don't own all the paperbacks.) I looked up and saw The Dying Earth. Since I'd been meaning to read it for some time, I took this as a sign that the time had come.
In case you're not familiar with the book, it's not really a novel, but rather a collection of loosely related short stories that tell of our world in the far future, when our sun has almost gone out, and the world has been returned to a technological level roughly equivalent to the late middle ages. Magic works and there are quite a few strange and dangerous monsters and inhuman races wandering the lands. There is some indication that this may be the result of nuclear cataclysm or some other great disaster, but it's never really spelled out.
This is a darkly poetic book about the end of many things and Vance writes in a suitably poetic style. I've read some of his science fiction (The Big Planet series) and the style he uses there, while certainly well crafted, isn't as rich or ornate. Nor should it be. The prose is The Dying Earth is suited to the material. I think I can hear the echoes of Clark Ashton Smith in Vance's elaborate turns of phrase, though he's a far more straightforward writer than Klar-Kash-Ton.
Probably the most interesting thing to me about The Dying Earth is the sheer level of imagination. This is a pre-Tolkien fantasy and contains none of the elements that have come to dominate the fantasy genre in the last decade or so. No elves, dwarves, or any other recognizable creatures. Instead, Vance populates his world with his own races and monsters. With tkk-men, grues, and leucomorphs. My favorites are the deodands, a race of humanoid cannibals that lurk in the deep woods. For some reason I see them as looking like comics artist Wally Wood's character Ani-Man.
There is considerable dark humor in the book. In that way it reminds me a little of Fritz Leiber, and in fact the hero of many of the later Dying Earth stories, Cudgel the Clever, is a rogue much like Leiber's Gray Mouser. In one story, the nominal hero Liane the Wayfarer runs across a character called Chun the Unavoidable, who as it turns out, is truly unavoidable. All the names in the stories have an exotic feel to them. Turjan of Miir. Mazirian the Magician. The mad T'sais and her sane sister T'sain. The coining of names for a fantasy world isn't as easy as it looks and Vance's sound just right.
Now a word about the magic system used in the book. I'd long heard that the creators of Dungeons and Dragons had ripped off Vance. It's true. Magicians in the Dying Earth use spell books from which they can only memorize four or five spells at a time. Once a spell is used, it vanishes from the mage's mind and has to be memorized again. One of the spells Vance's magicians favor is the Prismatic Spray, which I remember using in the D&D Baldur's Gate PC game. But you know what they say. Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.
Speaking of which, as much as I admire the Lord of the Rings, I do wish some of the current crop of fantasy authors would draw influences from something else. It certainly wouldn't hurt more of them to do their homework and go back and read some of the other classics of fantasy. Lord Dunsany. E.R. Eddison. Clark Ashton Smith. And Jack Vance. Definitely Jack Vance.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Reading Report

Finished up David Carradine's Kill Bill Diary. This is a book that I started a couple of months ago but put aside after I'd read about half of it. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the book, but it was slow and kind of meandering, so I found it easier to read in two sittings. Basically Carradine (Caine on the old TV series Kung-Fu) kept a diary while he was involved in the making of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill parts one and two. If you've ever wanted an inside look at the making of a film this is the book for you since Carradine gives an almost overwhelming amount of detail, including the days he wasn't even on the set and the follow up trips to Cannes, the premier, and the long, drawn out process of promoting the films. On the way you get much autobiographical information about an actor who while never quite making it to actual stardom, has become an icon in his own right.
Then I switched to Tarzan and the City of Gold. This was brought about by receiving DVDs of the 1970s Filmation Tarzan cartoon series. The pilot episode was a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, right down to some of the dialogue. More about the cartoon later, but watching it made me want to re-read the book.
In this one, Tarzan rescues a strangely garbed man from a group of Shiftas (Arab slavers). The man turns out to be from a lost city called Athne, The City of Ivory. He has become lost in the jungle and can't get home. Tarzan, always curious, decides to help the man get back to his home. However, Athne is located on the far side of a valley, on the opposite side of the city of Cathne The City of Gold, the ancestral enemies of the Athneians.
Tarzan and his companion attempt to slip past Cathne at night during a storm, but Tarzan is caught in the currents of a storm swollen river and washed right into Cathne where he is captured. He ends up fighting for his life in an arena of course. All these lost cities have arenas. And the queen of the city falls for the ape man of course. All the queens of these lost cities fall for Tarzan. This one is a little different though because the queen, Nemone, is actually sort of a tragic character, and Tarzan does find himself attracted to her.
Where's Jane during all this? Never mentioned. There was a period during the middle range Tarzan novels where Tarzan's wife and son aren't mentioned, almost as if they didn't exist. Reportedly Edgar Rice Burroughs had considered killing Jane off, but instead he just ignored her for a while. She's in some books and she isn't in others. I think this is one of the better 'lost city' Tarzan adventures. Burroughs excelled at portraying strange races and exotic cultures. It's what made his John Carter of Mars books so fascinating and I think it works well in Tarzan's adventures as well.
Also read a couple more of the essays in Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends. Only got a couple left now. Last night before bed time I began Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, a fantasy classic that I never got around to reading. I've read some of Vance's later Dying Earth short stories in various anthologies, but reportedly the original is the best. I'll let you know.

Casting Your Bread

So Saturday I was playing Lord of the Rings Online and I encountered another player who was having trouble with some quests. We teamed up and both of us were able to complete a bunch of quests that neither of us could have finished solo. He was a Lore Master which is one of the magic users in the game, and I am a Champion, which is basically a killing machine. The problem I have been having with the Champion class though is while they deal a massive amount of damage, they can't block or evade while they're in full out killing mode, so my health level kept dropping dangerously low as we fought wave after wave of monsters. Good armor is an answer to this problem but I haven't made enough cash in the game to buy much in the way of heavy armor. We still had a great time and we finished up and each went offline. Didn't think much more about it.
Next day I checked my in-game mailbox only to find that my new found friend had had one of his friends send me a complete suit of steel armor, far better than anything I could purchase right now. Made a LOT or difference, let me tell you. I continue to be amazed at the thoughtfulness, generosity and helpfulness of a lot of the folks playing this game.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tower of Blood

I've mentioned, in an earlier post, how mysterious towers have figured prominently in an inordinate number of sword and sorcery stories. The Howling Tower. The Vanishing Tower. The Tower of the Elephant and the Strange High Tower in the Mist. To that list add Tower of Blood, a two part story that appeared in issues 43 and 44 of Marvel comics's Conan the Barbarian waaaaay back in 1974. I remember reading those two issues as a kid and really enjoying the story. What I didn't remember was that the two-parter had been adapted from a prose magazine story. I always assumed it was an original tale by long time Conan scripter Roy Thomas.
It was Roy who set me straight though, a couple of years ago in an article in the back of Dark Horse Comics The Chronicles of Conan volume 7. Here Roy explained that back in 74 he had happened across the story Tower of Blood in an issue of the now long defunct magazine Witchcraft and Sorcery. While this may sound like a magazine title designed to scare the same mothers who fear Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, it was actually sort of a later day version of the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales. Oddly enough, the editorial staff was mostly here in Atlanta.
Anyway, Roy liked the story enough to contact its author David A. English, and request permission to adapt the story into a Conan tale. English said yes and Roy stretched the short story into two issues of Conan. I've mentioned before that Roy Thomas often adapted the works of other sword and sorcery writers into Conan yarns. Some folks have taken Roy to task over this, saying that he should have provided more of his own original tales, but I think that Roy wanted to get the feel of the then burgeoning S&S field by adapting the works of many of the authors working in the genre. He solicited plots from John Jakes and Michael Moorcock and adapted stories by Gardner Fox and Norvell W. Page. Besides, whenever Roy DID write his own stories, I think they often felt more like Robert E. Howard Conan tales that those written by a lot of the folks chosen to continue the Conan books.
But back to Tower of Blood. I had long wanted to read the prose tale and through the magic of Ebay I finally got the chance, scoring issue #5 of Witchcraft and Sorcery a week or so ago. In the original magazine story, the hero is a warrior type named Cromek. We first encounter him as he rides into desert country, pursued by a group of mounted warriors. Cromek has apparently dallied with another man's concubine and now the man's minions are out for his blood. He manages to escape but ends up in a strange valley where he is menaced by some half glimpsed winged creatures before being captured by the masters of the aforementioned Tower of Blood, a creepy pair of siblings named Uathacht and Morophla. Morophla is a sorcerer of considerable power and Uathacht is his vampy sister. The two are apparently very ancient, kept alive by the life energies they drain from the subhuman creatures they breed in the dungeons of their tower. It seems that the blood of these creatures needs renewing and they'd like Cromek to act as stud service to the pale, strange things that live in the darkness. Uathacht is pretty interested in ole Cromek's bod as well. Horror and violence ensue.
I have often stated that any true sword & sorcery story needs to have some element of horror, since Robert E. Howard created the genre by melding the historical fiction he loved with the weird tales style horror stories that he could sell. He wrote for money and he knew that WT editor Farnsworth Wright would buy his action stories if he stuck a Cthulhu style monster into them. Tower of Blood delivers. The brother and sister sorcerers are suitably macabre and the fate they plan for Cromek is repulsive in the extreme. Plus there are the winged things, results of some of Morophla's other experiments.
For the Conan adaptation, Roy Thomas kept most of the plot to tower of Blood intact, including the sexual elements, which is pretty amazing for a Comics Code approved comic book from 1974. To English's plot, Roy added more action sequences and a big monster just to give Conan something to do. If I have any complaint about the original prose story it's that Cromek is fairly passive after the first few pages. Not so with Conan. Roy knew his readers would want more action out of the big barbarian. The other major difference was the addition of Red Sonja to the two parter. She doesn't really have a lot to do in the story, but she's drawn so beautifully by Big John Buscema that I doubt anyone minded. Buscema, who excelled at drawing gorgeous women, did a nice job illustrating Uathacht too, contrasting her slinky looks with the more wholesome but no less sexy Sonja.
I've no idea if David A. English ever wrote any more stories about Cromek. I'm looking into getting some of the other issues of W&S just to see what other gems might be hiding in the yellowing pages. It will be hard to top Tower of Blood though. As Roy points out in his article, the story had a lot more verve and imagination to it than many stories by 'name' authors of the time. So, Mr. English, wherever you are, take a bow. You know how to tell a story.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

But You're Not Fat...

Whenever I decide to drop some weight, and therefore begin turning down donuts, cakes, etc, people invariably inquire if I'm "dieting". Once I admit that I am indeed attempting to shed a few pounds, I always get the comment, "But you're not fat."
I always smile and thank the commenter. If they're actually interested, and not just making conversation, I usually then go on to explain that I probably weigh more than they think I do. People were guessing my weight at 230 or so when I weighed 285, so I know that folks tend to underestimate my size. I'm right at 6'2" and I'm built like a linebacker (or a gorilla if you ask my pal Brian) and this tends to let me carry more weight without looking overweight.
See, one of the things that makes people, and men in particular, look fat is the shoulder to hip ratio. The wider your hips look in comparison to your shoulders, the more you look like a pear. So the broader your shoulders are, the bigger your waist can be without you looking rotund. You still have something of a V shape.
The other thing is that I don't have a gut. I don't tend to gain weight in my stomach, but rather across my entire body. I refer to this as 'the nesting doll effect.' It's like there are extra layers of me. I lose weight in the same way, shedding an outer layer or two as the weight drops off. This also means that I have to lose a whole lot before people actually notice. I think I had lost about 30 pounds last year before anyone realized I was getting smaller.
The other comment I tend to get is something like, "Yeah, but you're a weightlifter and muscle weighs more than fat." Yes it does, and while I have a lot of muscle mass, it is surrounded by an ugly layer of fat, thanks.
Anyway, it's not that I don't appreciate the folks who think I look fine at my current weight. I really do. But I can feel that extra fat on the sides of my body when I bend or sit, and I don't like the way that feels. I don't like the fact that my pants are a little snug or that I've had to loosen my belt one notch. It's a lot easier to just fix the problem while it's not that noticeable to anyone but me.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Charles's Chicken Ranch Wrap

And with low fat eating in mind, here's a brand new recipe of my own creation, based on a dish I had at Taco Mac. You'll need:

2 7" low carb/low fat tortillas
1 Package Perdue Chicken Strips
1 Package Uncle Ben's Spanish Rice (Microwavable)
Shredded lettuce
Chopped Onions
Kraft 2% Milk 4 Cheese Mexican Cheese
Kraft Free Fat Free Ranch salad dressing.

Here's what you do. Nuke the Spanish Rice. Takes 90 seconds. Then set it aside. This is a cold dish, so don't worry if it cools. Warm the two tortillas either by nuking or in a pan, just to soften them up. Takes about 30 seconds in the microwave oven.
Place chicken strips on the tortillas, then add rice, lettuce, and onions. (Portions are up to you. I used about a quarter of the pack of rice per tortilla and a quarter of the package of chicken. So a full recipe would make four servings. I only made two and put the rest in the refrigerator.)
Sprinkle in cheese, then add enough Ranch dressing to moisten mixture. Remember, the dressing is fat free, not calorie free so don't get carried away.
Now roll up your wraps and go eat them while you watch television. Each wrap has about 300 calories and virtually no fat. If you wanted them hot, you could grill the chicken strips yourself, but it works well as a summertime cold dish.

Tale of the Scale

As some of you may recall, I spent the first half of last year losing 50 pounds and four pants sizes. I've done pretty well in terms of maintenance, at least right up until the last couple of months. I noticed, however, that my pants had started to feel a bit snug, and after weighing I found that I had regained between eight and ten pounds. Now I don't want to have to go through the struggle of dropping 50 pounds again, so I am slacking off the eating for the next couple of months. No more Mellow Mushroom pizzas or Five Guys hamburgers until my weight is back to where I want it. Figure I'll lose an extra few pounds while I'm at it, just to get a little more maneuvering room. So it's back to the high protein, low fat eating plan for me. Seems to suit me best.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Weekend

Weekend got off to a good start. Friday the owner of the company I work for came by and took the entire office to lunch. Went to Longhorn where I had a giant hamburger with mashed potatoes, and some amazingly good banana cheesecake.
Saturday Whitney emailed me to let me know that a DVD I'd ordered had been shipped to Dr. No's, so I swung over and picked that up. It's a two disk documentary about Byzantium. Four hours worth of Byzantine history. I watched the first hour and enjoyed it tremendously. Actually learned some stuff I didn't know.
Then I watched a couple of episodes of Torchwood. Only two left to finish season two. I'm still not finding it to be as strong as season one, but it remains an enjoyable show and Gwen is still cute.
I played Lord of the Rings Online quite a bit Saturday afternoon. One of the members of my Kinship, (like a club or guild) who's a high level player and an in-game metal smith, made me two swords which deal a tremendous amount of damage, so suddenly I'm much more dangerous. I've put the weapons to good use, killing everything in sight.
Sunday I was up early and drove over to the Marietta Square to have breakfast at the Three Bears Cafe, a very hip restaurant owned by my pal Anthony. (Check the link at the bottom of this post.) I had a gigantic omelet with bison meat, jalapenos, and jack cheese. Chatted with Anthony a bit and drank a lot of coffee. The Three Bears is more like a place you'd expect to find in Virginia Highlands, Candler Park, or even Little Five Points but it's right in the middle of Marietta. I like to go early during the summer and eat outside.
I made a quick stop at Starbucks and got a Caramel Macchiato, then went to Borders and browsed for a bit. I bought a low carb/high protein cookbook. I need some new ideas for stuff to cook. Then got a nice surprise when I found a new book of Essays by Pulitzer prize winning novelist Michael Chabon. I'll talk more about that later, but I've already read a couple of the essays and it's a very nifty book. Spent the rest of Sunday reading and chilling.
So that's the weekend that was. I've certainly had worse.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Lost Kingdoms

In James Branch Cable's book, Beyond Life, there is a library of books that were never written. This is a concept that has always fascinated me. Such a library would contain the plays Shakespeare never finished and the novels that Mark Twain never got around to. It would also contain fictional books like Abdul Alhazred's The Necronomicon and the Complete Works of David Copperfield.
I thought of this last night when I was perusing the latest acquisition to my collection of the works of the late fantasy writer and editor Lin Carter. Kingdoms of Sorcery was one of a pair of anthologies that Carter edited for Doubleday books in the mid 1970s. The companion volume, which I already owned, was Realms of Wizardry. In the front of both books are lists of Carter's other books and both those lists contain books that never existed. I wonder if Carter prepared the lists himself and included titles for books he had in the works, because he would have presumably been the only person with advanced knowledge of the titles.
The titles for two of the books are rather intriguing. The first, Robert E. Howard and the Rise of Sword & Sorcery, looks to have been a volume in the tradition of Lin Carter's trio of books about the fantasy genre. These are Tolkein: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings, Lovecraft: A look Behind his Cthulhu Mythos, and Imaginary Worlds. Carter was ahead of his time with all three of these books, since Tolkien was one of the first studies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Lovecraft, one of the first in depth books about H.P. Lovecraft's work. Imaginary Worlds is one of the earliest and most comprehensive histories of the fantasy genre, and really deserves to be reprinted. Presumably, the Robert E. Howard book would have been much the same sort of thing.

The other title, The Stones of Mnar, is a bit more interesting. Mnar is a city mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft's The Doom That Came to Sarnath. The star stones of Mnar figure in Lovecraft pastiches by both Carter and August Derleth. I wondered if perhaps Lin was considering a Lovecraftian novel or a collection of his Lovecraft inspired short stories. As often happens, my subconscious continued to worry at that long after I'd put the book aside and I suddenly recalled something Robert M. Price had said in one of his Call of Cthulhu anthologies. Unfortunately I remembered this after I had gone to bed and was forced to get up, turn on the lights and go digging through my books for my copy of The Xothic Legend Cycle, which reprints most of Lin Carter's Cthulhu mythos stories. Actually I guess it's rather fitting to be digging through musty tomes late at night for answers to a Cthulhu related question.)
Sure enough, in the introduction, Price mentions that Carter had tried to interest Arkham House in publishing a 'novel' made up of five interconnected Cthulhu mythos tales, much as they had done with August Derleth's Trail of Cthulhu. Arkham house declined. According to Price, Carter's title for the proposed book was The Terror Out of Time. However, since the stones of Mnar play a role in one of the five stories, The Winfield Inheritance, I wonder if Stones of Mnar was a possible alternate title.
The third non-existent book is the most easily explained. It was Jungle Maid of Callisto. This was an early title from an early draft of the novel that would eventually be published as Ylana of Callisto. So this one isn't exactly a book that never existed, but since the final version has a different title and isn't exactly the same story, I'll include it. Much like the earlier Red Empress of Callisto, which eventually became Mad Empress of Callisto, the book changed in the writing.
Lin Carter succumbed to cancer in 1988 at the age of 58, which isn't very old at all. It's always interesting and a little poignant to speculate on what a writer might have written had he lived to an older age. To think of the books that never existed, but might have.

Monday, April 07, 2008

I Had Ice Cream For Dinner

Because I'm a grown up and I can. Nyahh.

A Yellow World

The entire world was coated in yellow dust this morning. The pollen was so thick, it almost looked as if it had snowed during the night. There were tire tracks in the pollen leading out of my apartment, showing the dark asphalt beneath the veneer of yellow. I am one of those people fortunate enough not to suffer any allergies to pollen. No hay fever. Nothing. To me it's just so much yellow dust. But I'm still amazed at the sheer quantity of the stuff.

A Moment of Wrong Thinking

Last week, while casting about for something to read, I pulled down Lawrence Block's massive short story collection, Enough Rope, and read one of his Matt Scudder stories, A Moment of Wrong Thinking. It reminded me of how much I used to love Block's work. At one point he would have been in my top five writers. Now he's dropped off my radar.
Back in the mid 1980s I was reading mostly hardboiled detective fiction. There had been something of a revival of private eye books, brought about by the success of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series and the growing popularity of women crime writers like Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton. Seemed like every time I turned around, someone was starting a new PI series. I tried them all. Liked some, didn't like others.
Lawrence Block was at the top of the heap. His character, Matt Scudder, was an alcoholic ex-cop, living in a run down hotel in New York and operating as an unlicensed private investigator. The stories were street smart, well written, very hardboiled, and contained a certain melancholy that appealed to me back then. I would still consider 'Eight Million Ways to Die" to be one of the top five private eye novels of all time. Just stay away from the movie made from it. What are the other four? I'll save that for another post.
Anyway, Block had written five or six Scudders by the time I discovered him and I tore through them hand over fist. Then I anxiously awaited each new hardback release. But over time something happened. I'm not sure how much of that was Block and how much of it was me. I always wonder, when I start to be less taken with an author than I once was, have they simply moved into a direction that doesn't interest me, or have my tastes in reading changed? I suspect it's a little of both.
1993's The Devil Knows You're Dead is the last Scudder I can remember really loving. I dutifully read A Long Line of Dead Men (1994) and Even the Wicked (1997) but I had to struggle to finish Wicked. I can't exactly recall why now. It seemed as if Scudder had changed and had ceased to be the character I had originally been drawn to. I didn't finish 1998's Everybody Dies or 2001's Hope to Die. When All the Flowers Are Dying came out in 2005, I never even looked at it. Just cast a sidelong glance at the cover on the bookstore shelves as I passed. From what I understand, Flowers was written so that it could be considered an end to the series. Perhaps I wasn't the only one who fell out of love with the world of Matt Scudder.
These days Block seems to be doing most of his writing about his hit man character Keller. That series never caught my attention, even when I was a big fan. Neither did Block's other series character, a part time burglar named Bernie Rhodenbarr who starred in many comic crime novels such as The Burglar in the Library and the Burglar Who Thought he was Bogart. Just not my cuppa.
But reading A Moment of Wrong Thinking reminded me of just how good a writer Block is. Nothing wrong with the man's prose. I guess that, much like real life, sometimes friends just go in different directions. Maybe I'll go back and read some of the older books ands see if they still have the same appeal.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Reading Report Redux

And to the list, add an Ellery Queen short by Ellery Queen, several horror shorts by Ray Bradbury, two Harlan Ellison shorts, and two Solar Pons adventures by August Derleth. Plus a re-read of Bradbury's non fiction book, Zen and the Art of Writing.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Reading Report

I remain somewhat at loose ends as far as reading goes. I'm still not in a novel reading mood and have therefore been reading a lot of short stories and novellas. In addition to the Stephen King story mentioned below, in the last few days I've read the Doc Savage novellas The Red Spider and Mad Mesa, the Michael Moorcock Elric novella The Singing Citadel, and short stories by Ed Hoch, Keith Miles, Kim Newman, Ross Macdonald, Martin Edwards, and Lawrence Block. (More about Block later.)
I've also re-read Terry Brooks' non-fiction book, Sometimes the Magic Works, assorted comic books, and an issue of Doctor Who magazine. Apparently I still read more than most people even when I don't read what I would consider a lot.

Mrs. Todd's Shortcut

Cliff and I were talking the other night about Stephen King and how after his last few books we had begun to think that we might never get to enjoy any new work from him, but then Duma Key had come along and we'd both loved it, and that got us to talking about King's work in general and how I had recently enjoyed The Mist and how much I liked Bag of Bones. Then Cliff mentioned that his favorite of King's short stories was a strange little Twilight Zone kind of story called Mrs. Todd's Shortcut.
I remembered the story vaguely, not having read it since 1985 when I bought the short story collection Skeleton Crew. I dug it up today and gave it a read. It is indeed a very cool story. The titular Mrs. Todd is a woman who is obsessed with finding shortcuts. With locating the shortest possible route between one place and the next. Her little sports car is filled with maps of all sorts and she has a notebook of little known side roads and paths. Slowly, as the story unfolds, you begin to realize that all of her shortcuts aren't necessarily through our own world.
The story, told in a sort of dreamlike first person by a man who is remembering his friendship with the now vanished Mrs. Todd highlights what I have come to think of as King's main strength as a writer, which is his storytelling voice. Reading good King is like having some amazingly gifted storyteller sitting there and spinning a yarn just for you. He slowly pulls you in and then completely submerges you in the world he is building. No matter how far fetched things get, for the time that he has you under his spell you will believe that what he says is true. That it happened. It's why his stuff can be so scary, I think. Because for that moment it seems real.
Though this is mostly a fantasy story, it still has elements of King's signature horror. At one point, right after Mrs Todd has made an impossibly short trip down to Castle Rock, the narrator finds some things stuck to the sides and front of her car that aren't of this world. Dangerous things. Things with teeth. The routes Mrs. Todd is driving aren't for the faint of heart.
Anyway, this is a wonderful, creepy, and somehow moving little story. I'm glad Cliff brought it up and glad I re-read it. You should read it too. But drive carefully.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Knee Deep in Giant Spiders

So I've been playing Lord of the Rings online for a few weeks now. I'm finding it much more fun than Guild Wars, as evidenced by the fact that I actually play by myself and don't wait until Laura comes online. I'm still in the low levels, having just made level 20 as of yesterday, so playing solo can still be a dangerous enterprise. Too many things out there that can kill me pretty easily.
If you've ever played an MMORPG (Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Game) then you know that you spend a lot of time on quests, usually given to you by NPCs (Non Player Characters). Works like this. NPC hobbit says, I need 15 mushrooms from the Farmer's Dale to stop a plague. If you go collect them I'll give you a shiny button and you'll get eleventy seven experience points. When you get to the dale, you find that the mushrooms are guarded by 14 level 30 orcs on a bender who reduce you to ground beef in short order. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.
There's one quest that I've been having a particular problem with. In this one, a hobbit who hangs out in the old forest lost his back pack and was forced to flee when a bunch of giant spiders attacked his camp. He asks me to go and retrieve his backpack. I first tried this when I was level 12. Little did I realize that the spiders were all level 15, so they made short work of me. The other problem was, I couldn't find the darn pack. The directions from the hobbit were fairly vague. Go south over the river, then south east. Well duh. That's kind of like telling me that I can get to your house by crossing highway 75 then heading south east.
Anyway, I went back at level 15 and made it much further. You can usually kill at least two enemies that are your same level if you have decent armor and weapons. Three can turn ugly and anything over that and you're probably toast, unless you can beat a hasty retreat. I ran into a trap of five spiders, so of course I got killed.
Now some of you are probably saying, "Gee, Charles. Couldn't you get another player to help you?"
Well sure. I belong to a kinship and there are any number of higher level players who would have been glad to help me out. Plus, you can usually find some other lone player who's willing to team up. I've had a lot of fun teaming with folks.
This particular quest though, had become a point of contention with me and I was determined to solo it. Giant spiders are the natural enemies of barbarians so I felt that my honor was at stake. (Yes, I know there's no barbarian class in LotR but much like Mr. T with his elf knight mohawk, I insist on at least pretending I'm a barbarian.) So at level 19 I decided to try it again. First time through I again ran into too many spiders at once and got slaughtered. Second time I blundered into an Elite Oak (like level 7012). I managed to run away from him but my energy level was so low that a passing rabid bear killed me. Plus, I still couldn't't find the @$##ing pack.
Demoralized and annoyed, I turned to the forums. I don't like to go to the LotR forums too much because I always learn something I don't want to know about coming adventures in the game. But I figured I'd never find the pack without help so off I went.
I felt better immediately. There was post after post with titles like, 'Can't Find bloody backpack' and 'I keep getting killed in Old Forest quest'. Apparently I wasn't the only one. About six pages in I found a post where someone had put up a link to a fairly nice map of the Old Forest which showed the location of the pack. I recognized some of the landmarks and knew I'd been close at least twice. It wasn't where I thought it would be though.
Armed with my map and a boatload of animosity, I went once more into the Old Forest. I took my time, patiently killing spiders, drawing them out one by one so I didn't get mobbed. I got to the point on the map where the backpack was supposed to be and saw why I'd missed it. The glade was just a tiny little spot in the maze like forest. And it was absolutely CRAWLING with giants spiders. I stuck to my plan, moving carefully so that I didn't pull too many spiders at once. (They attack automatically when you get within a certain distance.) Finally I reached the pack and picked it up.
Now the smart thing to do have done at that point would have been to use my map icon which allows me to basically teleport home once an hour. But that would have been admitting that the spiders were too tough, so I slowly fought my way back out of the glade and back along my original path. Somewhere during all of that I leveled up to 20. I missed it during the battles.
Anyway, I completed the quest and beat the spiders, so my barbarian honor has been avenged. Now I want the hides of the level 22 orcs who killed me up by Trestlebridge...

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Well Trish came by last night and picked up the cats. She brought take-out so we had a picnic in the living room floor while she got reacquainted with Bruce and Amelia. Having food is a good way to get acquainted with Bruce, believe me.
As always, just like it takes me a couple of days to get used to having the cats, it takes a couple to get used to not having them as well. It was very quiet in the apartment this morning with no one meowing or dashing about. By the weekend I'll be back to normal. And I'm sure they'll be back soon.