Monday, January 31, 2011

The Saga of Eric Brighteyes

Given my enjoyment of the works of authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and so forth, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed a book that's over a hundred years old, but I'm amazed at what a good time I had reading The Saga of Eric Brighteyes (first published in 1889) by H. Rider Haggard. Really, I don't know why it took me this long to get around to it. I mean, it's Haggard and it's about Vikings. Duh.
H. Rider Haggard, in case you're unaware, is the author of such Victorian classics as She and King Solomon's Mines. He is credited with starting the whole 'lost race romance' sub-genre in fiction and was a major influence on writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. In fact, it was while researching the post about Haggard's possible influence on REH's James Allison tales that I was reminded of Eric Brighteyes. I promptly ordered a copy from a friendly Ebay seller and he shipped it out in time for me to read the book over the weekend.
As it turned out, it was a Zebra paperback and it had an introduction by Lin Carter, making it sort of a bastard child of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. An added bonus for me.
Basically, The Saga of Eric Brighteyes is what the name implies, an attempt at a modern version of a Norse saga. Long before J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would become fascinated by 'the Northern thing' and use it in their fiction, Haggard attempted to write a book that mimicked the feel of the original sagas, but written in more contemporary language. I've read quite a few of the Norse sagas, including the Saga of Grettir the Strong, King Harald's Saga, the Volsung Saga, and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (both the original and the version by SF writer Poul Anderson), and I can say that Haggard did a fine job of pastiching the style and feel of the sagas.
The book is about Eric Thorgrimursson, nicknamed Eric Brighteyes, and his adventures in 10th century Iceland. Eric is the object of affection of two women, the golden haired Gudruda the Fair and the raven tressed Swanhild. Eric loves Gudruda but Swanhild, being the daughter of a witch has certain supernatural powers and she uses these to try and win the handsome Norseman for herself. This causes all kinds of problems for everyone involved.
The book is full of epic battles on land and sea, and heroic deeds aplenty. Eric fights men, monsters, and sorcery. In fact I'd be willing to term The Saga of Eric Brighteyes proto-sword and sorcery, as it contains many of the elements that would eventually make up that particular sub genre. I found myself grinning ear to ear during a pitched battle between Eric's long ship and two other Viking ships. (At one point in the book Eric is outlawed for three years and so goes a-Viking.) Just an amazing action scene.
One of my favorite characters in the book is a berserker named Skallagrim who almost runs away with the narrative. I get the feeling that Haggard was very taken with this crusty, hulking ax man. Skallagrim becomes Eric's blood brother and they often fight back to back against armies of foes.
If it sounds like this is a manly book, well it is, but I have to admit it has a great deal of heart too. I was a little put off by the style of the book as I began reading, since it does echo the sagas more than a modern novel and I figured characterization would be pretty minimal, but the farther in I got, the better I came to know all the characters, good and bad. I felt a lot of sympathy for Swanhild because even though she did evil things, it was out of her all encompassing love for Eric Brighteyes. This isn't a simple story of blonde girl good, brunette girl bad. At one point she even tells Eric that none of her crimes would have occurred if he had returned her love. There are a surprising amount of layers to the characters in this book.
Anyway, if you love a good epic tale, or if your pulse quickens to heroic deeds and star crossed love, I heartily recommend The Saga of Eric Brighteyes.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Conan: The Road of Kings #2

My take on the second issue of Conan: The Road of Kings pretty much continues with what I said about issue one regarding the return of Roy Thomas to Conan. As I noted last time, if you liked Roy's original run on the series, and I did, then you'll probably like this, and I do.
Conan, his current squeeze, Olivia (From Iron Shadows in the Moon), and the comedy relief pirate Krimsar are in Shadizar the Wicked, trying to get together enough cash for Conan and Olivia to travel the titular Road of Kings. To this end, Conan has returned to thievery, an occupation he's lost his taste for, but a quick way to get some money. Unfortunately Krimsar turns out to be so spectacularly bad at thieving that he almost manages to get himself killed and to take Conan with him. Twice.
Roy gets a couple of Marvel Call-back bits in this one. The first is a repeat of the oft used line 'Cimmerians learn to climb before they learn to walk.' The next is a homage to Uncle Scrooge McDuck's money pit as Conan learns in this story, just a he did in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #24, The Song of Red Sonja, that gold coins are not for diving into. (Though it seemed to work for Uncle Scrooge.) Roy's having no trouble adapting to Dark Horse's slightly more mature version of Conan the comic book character, but then it's really no more adult than many issues of Savage Sword of Conan.
Artist Mike Hawthorne turns in another solid art job. His version of the big Cimmerian is beginning to grow on me. He seems to have a good feel for fight scenes and he draws cute girls. Both are good things for a Conan book.
By the end of issue 2 it looks like Conan and Olivia are finally ready to begin treading the Road of Kings and they've also picked up what looks to be a continuing villain in the guise of Gamesh, a disfigured sell sword with one hand replaced by a knife, who looks to be held together by spit, bailing wire, and sorcery. All and all, another good issue.
After snow and ice and freezing rain, we have a sudden warm spell here in Georgia. About 45 degrees out there right now with a high expected in the upper sixties. Should be a pretty day. I have the windows open already, airing the apartment out. Bruce is on the sill, frightening birds with his basilisk stare.
Cold will return by Wednesday, with temperatures dropping back into the 20s, but for now there's a hint of spring. I sat outside for a while, drinking coffee, watching the sun rise, and musing on days gone by.

Vikor the Barbarian

Though I collect many things, I have generally stayed clear of the action figure bug. Toys just take up too much room, and I barely have room for the books as it is. Still, I have a few. A Conan figure my pal Lanny Gave me. A Darkseid and Orion from my friend Chris. A deluxe Disney Tarzan from my buddy Brian. I've purchased one or two others over the years.
But when I saw Vikor the Barbarian, I knew I'd have to get one. Vikor is part of the He-Man Classics line, in fact, if I understand the various stuff I've read on the internet, the figure is based on one of the original unused designs for He-man. If so, old He-Man started out as a Conan wannabe. He-Man was after my time and I didn't own the toys or watch the cartoon, so there's no nostalgia factor here.
Vikor is about as close as I'm likely to get to an action figure of the Barry Windsor Smith style Conan with the horned helmet, and as toys go, he's just a good overall sword & sorcery hero action figure. So I have one on the way. And yes, I will take it out of the package and stand it on the shelf over the desk. None of this mint in box crap for me.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You ever have one of those times when you type like a 1200 word post and when you get to the end of it you decide it wasn't nearly as interesting as you thought it was so you just delete it. Yeah, that would be me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Ancient Allison

In most of the articles and studies I've read about Robert E. Howard's reincarnation tales, stories about men who remember their past lives, Jack London's novel The Star Rover is usually pointed out as the most likely influence on Howard for writing these yarns. I believe this is the case for the most part, however I think there is one more additional source, H. Rider Haggard's novel, The Ancient Allan.
In this novel, Haggard's protagonist Allan Quatermain inhales the fumes of a plant called Taduki and this causes his spirit to return to a past life.

"Once, before we took our great homeward journey across the desert, Lady Ragnall and I had a curious conversation about this herb whereof the property is to cause the person who inhales the fumes to become clairvoyant, or to dream dreams, whichever may be the truth."

After inhaling the fumes, Quartermain lapses into a trance and begins to see himself as figures from different points in history. He sees himself as a spear wielding tribesman fighting another spear man to the death and then speaks of other past lives before settling down to the main plot.

A couple of years back, when Del Rey brought out a paperback of the Wandering Star Bran Mak Morn volume, a recently discovered REH novel fragment was included in the miscellanea in the back of the book. The untitled novel had been started sometime prior to 1923 and began thus:

"Men have had visions ere now. Men have dreamed dreams. Faint glimpses of other worlds and other ages have come to us, as though for a moment the veil of time had been rent and we had peered fearfully into the awful vistas."

The interesting part comes a few paragraphs later.

"But in my manhood the clearest sight was reached, in manhood when I purchased, for ten times its weight in gold, the Mystic Plant of the Orient."

"Taduka," I shall call it, though it is not Taduka, nor is it anything known to or by, white men. It is not an opiate, nor is its effect harmful in the least. It is meant to be smoked and when smoked the world of today fades from about me and I travel back into the ages or forward into the future."

Howard's protagonist follows this with descriptions of the different time periods he has visited, pausing for the occasional vignette as Haggard did. I think the Taduki/Taduka speaks pretty much for itself. Now as far as I know Howard never mentions Taduka again. Howard's most frequent time traveler, James Allison, is a crippled and disease stricken man who can remember his past lives for no apparent reason. The protagonists of The People of the Dark and The Children of the Night get bumped into past lives by blows to the head in the time honored tradition of Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee. In The Thunder Rider, a modern day Comanche relives his past life through an Indian ceremony.
I did notice one other thing in the James Allison stories that might be an echo of Howard's reading of Haggard. Allsion is quick to remind the reader in two of the stories that when he is seeing his past lives he still remembers that he is James Allison. From The Valley of the Worm:

"Yet it is not alone with the mouth of Niord that I will speak. I am James Allison no less than I was Niord..."

And from the Garden of Fear:

"I must speak of what I saw, not alone as Hunwolf, but as James Allison as well."

And from the Ancient Allan:

"I, please remember always that I knew it was I, Allan, and no one else, that is, the same personality or whatever it may be which makes each man different from any other man, saw myself in a chariot drawn by two horses..."

A quick check over at Rehupa's Bookshelf feature, a vastly impressive alphabetical list of all the books that Howard was known to have owned, read, quoted, or spoken of, does include The Ancient Allan as one of three H. Rider Haggard books REH had read. The Ancient Allan was released in 1920, so plenty of time for it to be read and absorbed by the young Robert E. Howard before he began his attempt a a novel.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Spawn of Cthulhu

Cliff and I were talking the other day about how widespread the popularity of H.P. Lovecraft's concepts has become across fandom. Movies, books, comics, video games, television series. All showing the influence of Lovecraft's sense of cosmic horror or just riffing on his tropes. Cliff, ever insightful, noted though that a good many of the younger fans out there might not even know where the tentacled creatures, elder gods, and ancient books of eldritch lore they keep seeing originally came from. They are looking at second, third, or even fourth generation Lovecraft knockoffs.
If you want a good crash course on the development of the so called Cthulhu Mythos (so named by Lovecraft disciple August Derleth) then one of the earliest studies of the mythos, the 1971 book The Spawn of Cthulhu, is an excellent place to start.
The Spawn of Cthulhu is a volume from the almost legendary Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by the late Lin Carter and featuring some of the important horror tales that influenced Lovecraft's writing, one very important tale by Lovecraft himself, and then several stories written by other writers following Lovecraft's lead.
More importantly, the book contains an introduction and notes by Lin Carter, explaining why these stories matter in the history of the Cthulhu Mythos. While Carter's abilities as a fiction writer are often denigrated, most fantasy aficionados agree that he was an important figure as an editor and did yeoman work in getting many of the great classics of fantasy back in to print. When Lin was on, he knew his stuff and Spawn of Cthulhu is, I think, one of his finest moments.
He begins with a short introduction talking about Lovecraft's writing, (Pointing out that of all of Lovecraft's stories only 12 are actual mythos tales.), then presents Lovecraft's story The Whisperer in Darkness. After you've read Whisperer, Lin comes back to show you why this is probably the pivotal Cthulhu Mythos yarn. Within the space of one paragraph in Whisperer, Lovecraft not only mentions much of his own lore, (the Necronomicon, R'lyeh, Great Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc) but also his influences, (Hastur and Hali from Ambrose Bierce, The Yellow Sign from Robert W. Chambers, Bethmoora from Lord Dunsany) and then goes on to mention the mythos creations of his friends Robert E. Howard (Kathulos, the Bran Mak Morn cult) and Clark Ashton Smith (Tsathoggua).
But Lin doesn't just tell you. He shows you, following Whisperer with Bierce's An Inhabitant of Carcosa, Chamber's The Yellow Sign, (Complete with notes and quotes from Lovecraft's letters telling Clark Ashton Smith much of what Lovecraft borrowed from each and what Chambers took from Bierce) Robert E. Howard's Children of the Night, and Clark Ashton Smith's The Tale of Satampra Zeiros. He rounds out the collection with stories from 'Lovecraft Circle' members August Derleth and Frank Belknap Long and a latecomer to the game, one of my favorite horror writers, Ramsey Campbell.
Even without Lin Carter's editorial comment, this would be a great collection of Lovecraft Mythos stories, but with the notes it also functions as a textbook. A short history of the Mythos as it stood circa 1971. This isn't one of the super collectible volumes from the BAF series, and often shows up on Ebay and at Amazon at a reasonable price. Grab a copy and read some terrific tales of eldritch horror and maybe learn a few things while you're at it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

One Who Walked Alone

It's Robert E. Howard's birthday today. As you can imagine, as much time as I spend reading his works, this is a day where I give his life a good bit of thought. With that in mind, I'm rereading Novalyne Price Ellis' memoir, One Who Walked Alone, which was about her friendship and brief romance with Howard and which was made into the movie The Whole Wide World, starring Renee Zellweger as Novalyne and Vincent D'Onofrio as Robert E. Howard.
This is one woman's memory of the creator of Conan and crew, and so perhaps a bit subjective, but still the best first hand account of part of REH's life that we have. I recommend the book and the film highly, though I sometimes thought D'Onofrio's performance a little over the top.
Still, he won definite points with me in an interview, when asked what his take was on REH as a person, he said that from his conversations with Novalyne and others that he thought the people who thought Howard was crazy just didn't get the picture. He referred to Howard as "Very much in his head." He goes on to say that Howard was a writer and very much into his work. "I think basically that's it. I've known artists in my life who were like that, that are very deep in their heads." He does make one unfortunate mention of Howard's attachment to his mother, but the movie does highlight Hester Howard as sort of the villain of the piece. That's a part I don't necessarily agree with but that's how Novalyne saw it. She thought Hester saw her as a rival for Howard's affections.
Anyway, I'll also probably read a few letters from the collections of Howard's letters this morning, and maybe some of REH's fiction later. Happy Birthday, Bob.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conan the Champion

I've talked a bit before about the TOR Books Conan pastiches. There was a long stretch in the 1980s-1990s where the only Conan stories you could buy new, oddly enough, were ones that weren't written by Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard. (And generally Howard's name didn't appear on the covers, but that's a matter for another time.) A few of the TOR books were reprints of pastiches originally written for other publishers, such as Karl Edward Wagner's The Road of Kings and Poul Anderson's Conan the Rebel, but most of the run of books were written specifically for TOR by a group of authors which included Roland Green, Steve Perry, a pre-Wheel of Time Robert Jordan, and the writer of today's subject book, John Maddox Roberts.
I was already familiar with Roberts from his SPQR books, a historical mystery series set in ancient Rome, so I knew the guy could write and I figured he would have a better grasp on the Hyborian Age's pseudo-historical setting than a lot of the pastiche writers. Both things turned out to be true. In terms of quality of prose, the John Maddox Roberts Conan books are some of the best and the "historical" details add considerable verisimilitude. However, Roberts writing is nothing like Robert E. Howard's, so anyone seeking ersatz Howard is going to be disappointed. I think Roberts decided early on that he was just going to write exciting sword and sorcery adventures in his own style, so while he gets an A for overall writing, some folks may feel that he wasn't writing Conan pastiches so much as his own barbarian adventures. I've no problem with that.
What I do find amusing is Roberts' approach to plots and situations. The first JMR Conan pastiche I read was Conan and the Treasure of Python. In this one, Robert's basically swipes the plot from H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and casts Conan in the Allan Quartermain role. There are changes, of course, to make things work in a Hyborian age setting, but Roberts' plot is very close to Haggard's.
The next one I read was Conan the Rogue which pulls elements from two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. Now, as I mentioned before, JMR is a mystery writer, so it's not surprising he might borrow Hammett's plots, but it's still kind of amusing to hear Conan saying slightly altered Sam Spade dialog. "You will take say, 100 dinars?" "I will take, say, 200 Dinars."
So when I started Conan the Champion this week, I was watching to see if Roberts would 'borrow' the plot of some other book I'd read, but if he based this one on any particular book, I'm not aware of it. However he did borrow a culture and a period of Earth history for Conan the Champion, because the book could have been called Conan and the Vikings. The tribes that Conan encounters after being washed up on the northern shore of the Vilayet sea are for all intents and purposes Vikings without ships. There are three warring factions vying for power in the area, and Conan ends up working for a queen named Alcuina. She's hot of course. There's always a hot chick in a TOR pastiche, usually more than one.
Not that this sort of borrowing of Viking culture is unusual in fantasy. Robert E. Howard's own creations, the Vanir and the Aesir are in many ways Norsemen. J.R.R. Tolkien's Riders of Rohan are very much Vikings with horses instead of long ships. Recently, Joe Abercrombie has done much the same thing in his First Law books. So Roberts is in good company.
Anyway, Conan spends a lot of time in great halls, feasting and drinking mead. He receives golden arm bands from his employer for jobs well done. He even makes a mid-book side trip into Norse myth, encountering some decidedly elf-like bad guys in another plane of reality. (There are dwarves and giants too.) Aside from this visit, there isn't a ton of magic in Conan the Champion. Some frozen zombies and some spells and counter spells from competing wizards. There's a demon in there too. But most of the book is spent in Viking-like pursuits. Those are the parts I liked the best, Viking fan that I am. I had a good time with Conan the Champion, but really, it's not all that Conan-ish. Just a fun sword & sorcery adventure which would have worked just as well for Brak or Thongor or any other barbarian hero.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fantastic Swordsman

I bought this 1976 issue of Fantastic on Ebay today, mostly because of the cover. I already have the Lin Carter Thongor short story in a paperback collection, but I liked the Doug Beekman Thongor cover painting. And I do own two other issues of Fantastic with Thongor stories, so what the hey. Besides, isn't that a great sword & sorcery cover?

Weekend Report

My weekend was a bit strange. Because of the ice, my workplace was closed for three days, so we ended up working all day Friday. Normally my Friday is over at 10:00 am, so I practically have a three day weekend ever week. (Mon-Fri are nine hour days.) A two day weekend seemed very short.
I didn't get much reading done because I was in a drawing mood, and spent most of Saturday and part of Sunday sketching away. I also played Lord of the Rings online longer than I usually allow myself on Saturday because some kin mates needed help on an instance which takes forever. I usually only allow two hours of gaming on any single day. I am a man with an obsessive personality and discipline is required or I would just play video games all day.
I did read a few issues of Savage Sword of Conan magazine. You may recall that a couple of years ago I managed to complete a collection of the entire run of that magazine. For a while there I was reading them straight through, but I got sidetracked. I picked up with issue #196, which begins writer Roy Thomas and artist John Buscema's second story arc in the comic after Thomas returned to the mag after a layoff of about a decade. I've never read these so they're new comics for me. Pretty fun stuff as Thomas seems to be trying to give some background for the pirates Black Zarona and Strombanni, who Conan will later come up against in the Robert E. Howard tale, The Black Stranger. Of course in Marvel continuity, The Black Stranger is unfortunately replaced by the heavily rewritten L. Sprague de Camp version, The Treasure of Tranicos. Every time someone mentions Tranicos I get a twitch in my left eye. (Hope Dark Horse gets around to adapting The Black Stranger.)
The writing is up to Thomas's usual level, but the art is so-so. John Buscema was doing layouts on Savage Sword at this point and inker Ernie Chan was moving into his 'put unnecessary cross hatching on everything' phase, so there's no appreciable difference between foreground, middle ground or background.
I did manage to get to the bookstore Saturday and pick up Robert Crais's new Joe Pike novel, the Sentry, but due to all the drawing and comic book reading and gaming, I didn't get started reading the book. I also picked up Jim Butcher's short story collection Side Jobs. I've enjoyed Butcher's Harry Dresden novels and I like short stories, so I figured this would be a fun book. Read a couple of the stories and there's one, where some real vampires show up at a vampire LARP party, that every Twilight fan ought to have to read. It ain't pretty.
Anyway, that was the slightly odd weekend. Hopefully this will be a regular work week and next weekend things will be back to normal.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Happy Birthday Clark Ashton Smith!

My pal Al Harron's blog reminded me that today would have been the 118th birthday of the third member of the three musketeers of Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith. Smith is often overshadowed by his two contemporaries, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, or more likely by the creations of the other two writers. I mean, it's difficult to find more recognizable figures in fantasy circles that Conan the Cimmerian and great Cthulhu.
CAS never created a signature character like Howard and Lovecraft, possibly because he rarely used characters more than once. Though he did occasionally revisit a character, such as Satampra Zeiros who appears in two stories in Smith's Hyperborea series, Smith seemed more interested in creating fully fleshed out secondary worlds than series characters. (I suppose it could be argued that Lovecraft didn't really have a series character either, but Cthulhu and his fellow elder gods appear or are mentioned in many tales and thus take on a kind of identity.) But in his tales of Hyperborea and Zothique, and in his stories about his fantastical French town Averoigne, Smith built worlds. With his elaborate prose-poems, Smith wove these worlds into being and took his readers on many strange, wondrous and sometimes frightening adventures.
Some personal favorites:

From Zothique

The Charnel God
The Master of Crabs
The Witchcraft of Ulua

From Hyperborea

The White Sybil
The Ice-Demon
The Tale of Satampra Zeiros

From Averoigne

The Maker of Gargoyles
A Rendezvous in Averoigne
The Colossus of Ylourgne

Anyway, I've raved about Clark Ashton Smith many times at this blog. Check out my review of The Charnel God

And The White Sybil

And general Blathering about the most recent CAS Collections

Then get over to the Eldritch Dark, like I keep telling you, and learn all about the prose, poetry, and life of Clark Ashton Smith.

Back in Action

Well I made it to work today, even if the drive in was a little treacherous. So presumably the worst has passed. Still a lot of ice on the road I live on, but once you get to a major road or highway, things are passable. You just have to pay attention because there are big clumps of ice everywhere. Sunny out there today so hopefully that will remove more ice, but its' still very cold. Presumably temperatures are supposed to get above freezing tomorrow and Saturday, which will help some more. Still, this is the biggest winter weather event we've had in maybe a decade, so it's been pretty wild. I've seen a lot of folks complaining that the DOT didn't handle things well or quickly enough, but seriously, you can't have a giant fleet of salt and sand trucks just sitting around in a state where it hardly ever snows.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Flooding in Australia

On a personal note, some of you may have been following the news about flooding in Australia. One of my online gamer friends lost her house yesterday to the flood waters. She's okay and her pets are okay. The good news is, she does have flood insurance, but still, she's lost most everything she owned and some things can't be replaced. So if you can spare some positive thoughts for all the folks in the path of the flood and for my friend, who is just a wonderful person, I'd appreciate it.

Ice Day 2?

Good morning. I'm just in from trying to get up the rather steep hill upon which my apartment building sits. I didn't make it. My truck is now parked a little higher on said hill, but that's it. Enough ice melted yesterday to clear some areas of asphalt, but not enough for me to get traction all the way up the hill. My office will be opening at 9:00 today but I won't be there.
The good news is, while temperatures will probably remain below freezing all day, it's supposed to be clear and sunny, so that should clear the rest of the asphalt. I might be able to get out of here by lunchtime. At this point I'd even be happy to go to work.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Avoiding Arnold

I've mentioned before that I pretty much hate the movie Conan the Barbarian. It has so little to do with Robert E. Howard's creation and it's so much better known to the general public that it has caused me no end of problems. However it's been like 20 years since I last watched it, and I've been trying to talk myself into pulling out the DVD and watching it and perhaps blogging about it. I had thought to do that this weekend, but somehow, even with two snow days, I still didn't get around to it. I think I'm stalling...

Ice Day

Well, as I predicted, temperatures got just warm enough for the heavy layer of snow to melt a bit, then we had some freezing rain last night, so this morning, much of Northern Georgia is a skating rink. My employers wisely decided to close for a second day, not that I could have gotten to work in any event. The forecast says the high today will be 36, so maybe enough of the ice will melt from the asphalt that I can get back out into the world before too long. I like being off, but I have things to do. Fortunately I'd made my usual Friday grocery store run so I have plenty of food, both for me and the cats.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow Day

5:40 Monday morning. Normally I'd be on my way to work right now, but there's somewhere between 5 and 6 inches of snow on the parking lot surface and more snow and sleet is still falling. So, I'm thinking I won't be going in to work today. It's supposed to snow and sleet most of the day with some freezing rain as well, and then drop into the 20s tonight, so there's a good chance I won't be going in tomorrow either, or at least not until the sun is up. We'll see.
But right now I have a steaming mug of coffee, a hot bowl of oatmeal, and two very curious cats who are prowling the windowsills, staring out at a world suddenly turned white and silent.
Be a good day to sit home and read, I think.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Thank You, Dr. Roberts

In the introduction I mentioned below to Terror in the House:The Early Kuttner, Dr. Garyn G. Roberts says:

"Not unlike the twentieth century's master of Heroic Fantasy, Robert Erwin Howard, Kuttner died way too young."

Note that the good doctor didn't mention Howard's suicide, merely that he had died too young. None of the amateur psychology so many writers feel that they have to throw into any mention of REH's death. No groundless speculation on the motive for his suicide. Just a plain and simple statement. That's something we need to see more of. Thank you, Dr. Roberts.

Terror in the House:The Early Kuttner

I think it was Ray Bradbury who said that if Henry Kuttner hadn't been such an all around good writer he might be better remembered today. Kuttner never really found a niche and stuck with it. He wrote horror, science fiction, heroic fantasy, mystery, suspense, and any number of other genres equally well. He also apparently used a lot of pen names and thus no reliable record of how many stories he wrote for the pulps exist. But there is no question that Kuttner was both talented and prolific.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, he's not that well known to general readers. My own knowledge of Kuttner has been limited mostly to his Cthulhu Mythos stories, the occasional reprinted horror tale, and to his forays into sword & sorcery. (Ellak of Atlantis and Prince Raynor) So I was very pleased to get my hands on a new book called Terror in the House:The Early Kuttner. Starting with Kuttner's first published story, The Graveyard Rats, this massive book collects a ton of never before reprinted and hard to come by stories.
You'll find Cthulhu Mythos and other horror stories from Weird Tales and Strange Tales, Science Fiction yarns from Thrilling Wonder Stories and Marvel Stories and mystery and suspense tales from Spicy Mystery and Thrilling Mystery. A nice cross section of Kuttner's early work. My only complaint is that there are perhaps a few too many stories from the "Weird Menace" pulps. Not really my cup of tea, but a big market in the pulp magazines of the 1930s. Kuttner was a working writer who wrote in any genre that paid and even these stories are well written, so that's a small complaint, and the majority of the stories in the book are more to my taste.
There's also a nifty preface by Richard Matheson and a fascinating and informative introduction by Dr. Garyn G. Roberts.
This massive hardcover is volume one of a projected two volume set and a steal at only 40 bucks. Available from Haffner Press.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A Witch Shall Be Born

According to Patrice Louinet's excellent essay, Hyborian Genesis, Robert E. Howard's story A Witch Shall Be Born was probably begun only a few days after Howard had finished his only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Louinet goes on to point out that Witch isn't Howard at his best. I'm pretty much in agreement with that, though I think the story does have some good points. (It's also justly famous as the story where Conan is crucified.)
It looked to me as if Witch was another example of Howard's continuing experimentation with the Cimmerian because Conan is almost a secondary character in this one. The story is more about Taramis, the queen of Khauran and her sister the titular witch, Salome, once again showing that some uninformed critics of Howard, who claim that all the Conan stories are written to some sort of formula, obviously aren't paying attention. The further REH went with Conan, the more experimenting he did with story structures, characters, settings, etc.
The story begins late at night in Taramis's bedchamber when the queen sees what she at first thinks is an apparition, a glowing version of her own face, but this face is twisted by hatred and evil. We learn in short order that this is Taramis's twin sister, Salome, who had the misfortune to be born with a crescent shaped birthmark, a sign that she is a witch. (She also weighs the same as a duck. Just kidding.) As a result, the newborn Salome had been taken into the desert and left there to die.
Unfortunately for Taramis and her subjects, Salome was found by a magician from far Khitai, returning home after a journey to Stygia. The magician recognized the crescent mark and rescued the girl, planning to make her a powerful sorcerer. Salome proved a poor student and she and the magician eventually fell out, allowing her to pursue her own plans of bloody revenge. Impersonating her sister the queen, Salome, aided by the Kothic warlord Constantius and his Shemitish mercenaries, begins a systematic reign of terror against the kingdom that exiled and abandoned her. Human Sacrifices, wild orgies (featuring unwilling participants, both male and female) , public torture, and the conjuring of a nasty Lovecraftian demon are just a few of the things that Salome does to say thanks to her home town.
What impresses me about Witch is that while Conan is offstage for probably 80 percent of this story, he is still a powerful presence. People talk about him quite a bit, keeping him in the readers thoughts and making those places where he does appear all the more impressive. When the big Cimmerian gets back on his feet after being crucified and left for dead, you know that heads are literally going to roll. You don't want to be in town when Conan comes for payback. As I said, perhaps not REH's best Conan, but definitely an interesting story with some nice bits of characterization. Certainly not the worst Conan yarn by any stretch.
I originally encountered A Witch Shall Be Born as a comic book adaptation in Savage Sword of Conan #5. After re-reading Robert E. Howard's original story a few nights ago, I dug out that issue of SSoC for a re-read too. Holds up very well. Roy Thomas did his usual bang up job of adapting REH's work, keeping much of Howard's dialog and staying close to the source material. Most of the few changes he made were to give Conan a bit more screen time. He extended Conan's battle with Salome's pet demon, but it still ends the way it did in the original story. The art is by Big John Buscema at his savage best, with inks by Tony deZuniga and the Tribe. (The Tribe was any and all inkers that happened to be working for Tony when a deadline loomed.) The comic adaptation can be found in volume one of Dark Horse Comic's current Savage Sword reprint series, along with other Thomas Buscema adaptations, such as Iron Shadows in the Moon and Black Colossus. The original story is in Del Rey's The Bloody Crown of Conan. Great stuff.

True Grit

Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of the John Wayne version of True Grit. It is, in fact, the only John Wayne movie that I own. I watched it just a few weeks ago, not in preparation for seeing the new Coen Brothers version, but simply because I like it. However, that meant that it was fresh in my mind when I went and saw the new film. Now that the movie has become a huge success, I've noticed in almost every interview with stars, directors, whomever, that the interviewee goes to great lengths to say that the new movie is not a remake of the John Wayne version, but rather a straight adaptation of the book by Charles Portis, almost as if they're trying to distance themselves from comparisons before they can be made.
Now here's the thing. I've read the novel and yes, the new version is closer to the book than the John Wayne movie. But, that basically means that they added some scenes that weren't in the first film, not that the John Wayne version didn't follow the book. There were a couple of changes, one a major spoiler that I'll leave out, but really the two films aren't that different. In fact there were several places where I almost felt I was watching an alternate reality version of the John Wayne movie.
Mostly it was the dialog. Both movies pull most of their dialog almost word for word from the book. So some scenes, particularly the ones with the bad guys Lucky Ned Pepper and Tom Chaney, are very very close. Also, and I've no idea how many times the Cohen brothers might have seen the first True Grit, the staging of several scenes is very close.
The differences I did note were things like the relationships of the characters. John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn and Glenn Campbell's Laboeuf seemed more like friendly sparring partners and by the end of the film they seemed to have a grudging respect for one another. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon as the same characters just don't get along. They don't like each other and that doesn't change much. This is indeed closer to the book.
A great fuss has been made over the performance of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, and she did indeed do a great job. However a similar fuss was made over Kim Darby in the same role back in 1969.
Anyway, I really did like the Coen Brother's True Grit. The actor's performances are more naturalistic. The look of the film is, ahem, grittier. The violence is more realistic. I saw it with my dad, who had virtually no memory of the John Wayne film and he enjoyed the new one tremendously. So I'm glad it's a hit. However, concerning the remake question, to paraphrase the bard, I think they're protesting too much.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Cat Toy

So my friend Brie gave Bruce and Amelia catnip mice for Christmas. Amelia, of course, gave hers a quick sniff and walked away. Bruce has been playing with his non stop. However he keeps knocking it under the couch. Then he rolls around on the floor trying to reach it and meows until I lift up the couch and drag the mouse out. At this point I'm not sure if he's playing with the mouse or with me...

The Ape-Man Completed

Back in the early 90s, a company called NBM began the ambitious task of trying to reprint all the Tarzan comic strip work of two artist's, Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth. These were very nice books, printed in full color and in a large format to mimic the size they had been published in Sunday newspaper sections. I remember seeing the books at various bookstores and comic book shops, but at that time I was more into my crime fiction phase and no longer seriously collecting the pulp heroes of my youth. Still, my interest in Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic jungle hero Tarzan of the Apes, if somewhat diminished, remained, so when I saw the Tarzan in Color (as they were known) books go onto the remainder tables at the late, lamented Media Play, I picked up a copy of each of the volumes that was available, ending up with eight or so of the 18 volumes that would eventually see print. (18 and a half, really, but that's another story.)
I put the Tarzan volumes on one of my bookshelves and mostly forgot about them for the next few years until a resurgence of my interest in sword & sorcery and related genres brought Tarzan back into focus. I was also gaining a growing appreciation for the artwork of Hal Foster, an artist I had been aware of for decades but never seriously studied. In any event, I decided I needed to finish up my collection of the NBM Tarzan books. I checked my friend Cliff's comic book store, Dr. No's, and he still had a few volumes that I didn't own, so I bought those, bringing the number of volumes I needed down to four. And there is where I hit a snag.
Over the years, since the completion of the publishing of the NBM Tarzan books, various other collectors had also started seeking them out. Apparently sales on the books had dropped during the project and while volumes 1-14 had print runs of 2000 copies each, Volumes 15-18 only had print runs of 500 each. Checking on Ebay and Amazon and ABE Books, I was somewhat surprised to find that the volumes I still needed were not only scarce, but extremely expensive.
And so I did what I usually do in such situations. I bided my time, checking the various online booksellers every week or so, waiting for someone who either didn't know prices a collectible book was bringing or didn't care. (I once bought a very scarce Sherlock Holmes book, valued at $300 for seven bucks.) I ended up finding one Tarzan volume on Ebay cheap and another one way under priced at Amazon.
The second of these two arrived last week. I was showing Cliff what a nice copy of the book I'd gotten and he asked which two volumes I still needed. Then he checked with some fellow comics retailers and found someone who had those two books at a very reasonable price, and just like that my collection was complete. The last two volumes arrived last night and I placed them on the bookshelf. This weekend I plan to start reading through all the volumes in order.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Adventures of Superhero Girl

I followed a link from the HeroPress Blog to Faith Erin Hicks' Adventures of Superhero Girl comic strip. I find it to be charmingly written and very well drawn. I really like Hicks' thick/thin inkline. She also spots her blacks well, which is one of the hallmarks of a good cartoonist. Hicks worked in animation and it shows in her fluid figures and expressive characters. In some ways her work makes me think of the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets) and also of Golden Age Tarzan artist Jesse Marsh. Very energetic cartooning.
The Adventures of Superhero girl appears in The Coast, a free local (to Hicks) paper and is also available as a web comic. (Link provided below.) It's one of those strips that's just plain fun and makes you think about what it might really be like to have super powers. I like it a lot. I emailed Faith Erin Hicks and she gave me permission to post a strip. Here we see Superhero Girl facing off against a monster from space who turns out to be unexpectedly cute but still deadly.
Hicks is also the writer/artist of the Graphic Novels Zombies Calling and The War at Elsemere, both from SLG Publishing, and of an Online comic called ICE which I plan to give a read soon.
Anyway, if you like fun comics, go over to The Adventures of Superhero Girl page now and check out the rest of the strips. You'll find links to Hicks' webpage and other fun stuff there as well.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A New Year

And here we are in 2011. Looking at my blog numbers I see that I actually reversed the downward trend of posting, beating 2009's posts by 5. A lot of that came in toward the end of the year as various things caught my interest, causing me to blog more than I had in the first half of the year.
No idea if that trend will continue. I'm making this up as I go. I do have several things I want to review though so things should get up and running here soon.
I don't make resolutions and so far I have no major plans for 2011, but as always, I have an idea or two. I'll keep you posted. Happy New Year.