Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Tolkien is the man

"Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it."

--J.R.R. Tolkien

Everyone to some degree or another is in "prison." It may be a lousy job, poverty, a bad relationship, an unhappy social life, or the prison that encloses all mankind--frail bodies of flesh, our own mortal coil. Tolkien, a World War I veteran who saw several of his best friends die in the muddy trenches of France, and lived through World War II and the Nazi blitz, knew that as well as anyone.

But why should we put our heads down and accept banal realities? If you don' t like the look of your prison walls, choose another path. There are other worlds to explore. Tolkien didn't like the look of our own world, so he went ahead and created Middle-Earth. Although we cannot "see" this world and the worlds of our imagination with traditional senses, they are no less real than gray prison walls. They live within our minds and hearts, and as long as we pass down great works of art like The Lord of the Rings, are eternal.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I found the holy grail--and it is Excalibur

Part 2 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Excalibur is, by most standards, an odd film. It has knights running around in full plate who inexplicably overlook helmets; shouted lines of over-the-top, Shakespearian dialogue; a guy who has sex wearing armor; odd bits of graphic violence; and a script that refuses to extend a helping hand to the viewer, making it tough to figure out what's going on. To get this film, you need at least some familiarity with the Arthurian myths.

Despite these flaws, Excalibur is easily one of my favorite movies of all time. I find it genuinely moving; I love the casting choices almost to a man (and woman); the costumes and sets capture the romance and violence of Malory perfectly; and it isn't afraid to explore the complex themes of many of the Arthurian tales. Plus, it has a great score and some kick-ass battle sequences!

I like films that don't feel the need to stoop to the lowest common denominator, and Excalibur certainly fits this category. For instance, director John Boorman is obviously well-versed in the Fisher King myth (the health of the land is tied directly to the health of the king), yet apart from a few shouted "One Land One King," and "The Land and the King are one" references, we're left to figure this out on our own.

In another example, when the quest for the holy grail begins, the viewer assumes they're looking for an actual, physical cup. Or are they? Boorman hints that the quest is really a search within the individual--that the quest for the grail is actually the voyage of a soul seeking spiritual perfection. You have to look hard for this, as its revealed only by a single cryptic line from Arthur, "[Look for] signs, portents... the edge of within.".

Nicol Williamson plays an amazing Merlin and perhaps renders the best performance of any wizard put to film (Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is a marvel, too). Williamson is simultaneously funny and mysterious, and he injects the role with an eccentric flair that imbues the character with a life of its own. He utters such great lines, fraught with meaning:

When a man lies he murders some part of the world.

The days of our kind are numberèd. The one God comes to drive out the many gods. The spirits of wood and stream grow silent. It's the way of things. Yes... it's a time for men, and their ways.

And look upon this moment. Savor it! Rejoice with great gladness! Great gladness! Remember it always, for you are joined by it. You are One, under the stars. Remember it well, then... this night, this great victory. So that in the years ahead, you can say, 'I was there that night, with Arthur, the King!' For it is the doom of men that they forget.

There are other worlds...this one is done with me.

Several scenes in this film make my eyes well up and place my heart firmly in my mouth: The young Arthur kneeling in a moat, handing Excalibur to his enemy, Uryenes, to knight him, is one; a wild-haired Lancelot returning from his self-imposed exile and madness to fight and die for his king is another. Arthur's impassioned speech to Guievere before he goes to fight Mordred in the last battle is a third:

I have often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man, that we may meet, and you will come to me and claim me as yours, and know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have...

And who can fail to be moved by the scene of Arthur and his knight's galloping through the falling petals, set to the beautiful Carmina Burana? Watching this scene makes me realize I was born in the wrong time and the wrong world: I should have been a knight of the round table, fighting for Arthur and for civilization against the encroaching dark.

In short, Excalibur rocks hard.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Behind the DM screen again, part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series about my experience dungeon mastering a game of Dungeons & Dragons after a long, long absence.

As I stated in a previous post, I recently stepped behind the screen again and dungeon mastered my first game of Dungeons & Dragons in more than 17 years. The module was "Legends are Made, not Born," from the excellent Dungeon Crawl Classics line, published by Goodman Games.

The adventure background is as follows:

For the past few years, an ogre has demanded monthly tribute from the town of Dundraville. Since the demands were ale, sheep, and occasional mundane supplies, the town complied with these demands. The ogre was content to collect his extorted goods, and leave the town alone. However, last month, the tribute changed. In addition to ale and sheep, the ogre demanded gold and building materials!

But the situation has grown even more grim. The ogre returned yesterday with yet more demands of ale and worse: townsfolk! The town was in an uproar and denied the ogre’s request. The brute flew into a rage and grabbed two townsfolk and hauled them back to his lair. They’re destined for his gullet, no doubt!

But amidst all the turmoil, six brave townsfolk have vowed to confront the ogre, and bring him to justice. The brave ones include a noble’s son, a gnomish alchemist, a member of the town militia, a wizard’s apprentice, a local trapper, and a mysterious elven witch that lairs in a nearby forest. With the aid of the local druids and brewer in town, the last batch of ale the ogre took was laced with a mild poison to help incapacitate the brute. Now it’s time for brave heroes to finish the deed.

Overall, the experience was very rewarding and a lot of fun. In several hours of play we managed to cram in a good mix of role-playing, which involved interacting with a half-dozen NPCs in Dundraville, gathering rumors, and buying equipment. The PCs entered the cave from a little used rear entrance and, once inside, did some exploring and fought a few cave denizens, including a ghoul (the animated corpse of a long-dead warrior). The evening culminated with a great brawl with the ogre Blogg, and a cliffhanger (we weren't able to finish, unfortunately), and I think we all left happy.

Of course, looking back, I made some mistakes and wish I had a couple "do-overs." First, the bad:

  • About 15 minutes into the session I was was feeling lost and nervous and felt like quitting. Fortunately, this feeling passed.

  • I did a poor job portraying two NPCs, in hindsight due to lack of preparation: Sherynella, a female druid, and Kerwin Krell, a local shopkeeper.

  • I had meant to have the townspeople give the PCs a rousing send-off as they left town, but forgot. In this module the PCs are townspeople who decide to become heroes, and I had planned a dramatic exit as they marched off to fight the ogre.

  • I didn't know enough about the pregenerated PC's backgrounds to weave them fully into the fabric of Dundraville. As a result, occasionally the PC's interaction with the town's NPCs seemed stilted and artificial, as though the PCs were outsiders instead of locals. Again, this was due to a lack of preparation on my part.

Now on to the good, which I (think) outweighed the bad:

  • I liked my characterization of Tarik One-Arm, a grizzled old fighter living on the edge of town, as well as the way I handled the bartender Clay and his staff at the Merry Riot Inn. Tarik came off as suspicious and gruff, only warming up when the PCs offered to help him chop wood. Clay was a jovial halfling coping with the loss of his three barmaids (one of whom was taken by the ogre), and two replacement serving wenches struggling at their job. Not surprisingly, I had thought about these NPCs' motivations in advance and how they would react to the PCs.
  • There was good description and game play during the PCs' exploration of the ogre's cave. It seemed tense and fraught with danger.
  • We had a great concluding fight with the ogre Blogg. The encounter started with the party's gnome setting off a log deadfall trap, which roused Blogg from his sleep and started a running fight that eventually involved a wolf and his hobgoblin keeper. Three members of the party threw up a wall of crates, which wound up on fire in the midst of the melee. I had to make several ad-hoc rulings when Blogg burst through the wall of crates and bowled over two PCs, but it went very smoothly.
  • I was able to weave some of the PCs backgrounds into the story. For example, I made Bowen, a PC farmer who is destined to become a ranger, familiar to several local farmers, and took care to have the townsfolk react to Lord Castimir--a well-known noble--with a mixture of awe and scorn.

I'll leave you with three lessons learned:

1. Preparation is critical. Some DMs are excellent at flying by the seat of their pants, but I'm not one of them. The best encounters and most memorable NPC interactions during my adventure were all those for which I had made the most preparation. The lesson? Know your material.

2. When you start, start with a bang. I wish I had began with an encounter that required immediate reaction by the PCs. This would have removed the early feelings of awkwardness and nervousness. It also gets everyone engaged in the adventure immediately. The tendency of most players at the start of an unfamiliar campaign is to wait to be led into the adventure (guilty as charged).

3. Weave the PC's backgrounds and personality into the adventure/campaign at every turn. This makes for greater player involvement and keeps them engaged. The PCs are supposed to be on the center stage, after all, and everyone likes their chance to shine. Having been a player for the last seven years, some of my favorite gaming experiences were those times when the DM drew on my character's background or motivations and wove them into the tale. Involving your PC makes you feel like you're a part of the scenario or campaign world, and not just an observer.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Behind the DM screen again

Part 1 of a 2-part series about my experience dungeon mastering a game of Dungeons & Dragons after a long, long absence.

About a month ago I had an experience I can only describe as simultaneously terrifying, draining, exhilarating, and rewarding. After more than 17 years, I stepped back "behind the screen" and found myself dungeon mastering a Dungeons and Dragons game.

It was, frankly, a surreal experience. Staring over the top of a cardboard screen at four expectant players, an adventure module (pictured above) spread out before me, the time had come to finally run a game again. Not unlike a disc jockey at a wedding, it was my job to help deliver the night's entertainment, and either send everyone home happy or fail miserably in the attempt.

So how did I get there? Let me explain.

As I've stated in a previous post, D&D is my primary hobby and has been a big part of my life. As a 10-year-old kid, my parents bought me the basic D&D rules, and I was off and running. Being the official keeper of the game books, and one of (or perhaps the only) person in my group--which included some neighborhood friends and my older brother--to have read the rules, I became the de-facto DM. I didn't know what I was doing half the time, and I'm sure there's many rules we either misinterpreted or broke, but it didn't matter. We were all having a blast.

When I entered high school, however, my gaming slowed, and by the time I hit college, it had stopped. I was playing sports, starting to date, and D&D was no longer "cool" (aside--D&D never was cool, but until my teenage years, I never felt the need for it to be so). I kept all my old box sets and hardcovers, of course, and from time to time (under cover of darkness) I'd break them out and read them. But my playing days were effectively over.

Fast forward to 2001. D&D had received a shot in the arm with the release of third edition. I was married, working full-time, and thinking about having children, and the days of being "cool" were long gone. Naturally, the time was right to start up D&D again. Through the EN World Web site, an online community of D&D players, I located a gaming group in Southern New Hampshire, and for the last six years or so have been happily playing.

Let me rephrase that. While I've been playing for the last six years, it's been as a player only. With two committed DMs in our group, I was not required to DM. This had its perks, I soon discovered. All I had to do was show up with my character sheet, slip into and out of my role when I felt like it, and roll a D20 when it was my turn in combat. I was even free to get up to eat or use the bathroom whenever I wanted to.

But fun as playing was (and is), after a while I felt that something was missing. You see, when you're the DM, you own the game. The world is yours, so to speak, and you are its creator. You create the NPCs, their motivations and personalities, you map out the dungeons, pick the monsters, place the treasures and traps. It's a whole new ballgame from simply running a single player-character.

We were wrapping up one DM's campaign arc and about to switch gears and resume our second campaign with the other DM. There was a natural break in the action, and I opened my big mouth and offered to run a game. I pitched it as a one-shot adventure with pregenerated characters, and, much to my surprise, the group accepted.

Of course, with great power comes great responsbility, and I was about to find that out first hand.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A landmark is gone, and life is a little more mundane

Every morning, my one-hour commute to work down I-95 in Northern Massa-chusetts takes me past Danvers State Hospital. It's the building in the picture above, a creepy, gothic-looking asylum built in the 19th century to house mentally ill patients.

Danvers State has gained plenty of noteriety over the years. Before it shut its doors permanently in 1992, it was known as a house of horrors. Frontal lobotomies were perfected at Danvers State, electric shock and water immersion "treatments" were commonplace, and hundreds of its inmates were buried in unmarked graves. Only recently did a petition by former patients result in the creation of a cemetery to memoralize the forgotten dead.

Danvers State is famous for other reasons, too. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft may know that Danvers State Hospital made appearances in a handful of his short stories, including "Pickman's Model," "Herbert West Reanimator," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Then, in 2001, the decaying and dilapidated structures became the site of a film shoot--the low-budget but well-crafted psychological horror/suspense film Session 9. If you haven't seen Session 9, rent it now--you're missing out. The Kirkbride building is the star of the movie, and with good reason--no expensive effects were necessary to infuse the film with horror and dread. Danvers State oozes with it.

It's a feeling I experienced first-hand, in fact. Watching Session 9 prompted me to visit the site one day. Driving past a threatening "No Trespassing--Police Take Notice" gate, I proceeded up an old access road, under a foreboding canopy of trees, and onto the old hospital grounds. Stopping my car on a weed-choked parking lot, I stepped out to take a close look at the old buildings.

It was creepy. I felt a presence there, as if something--the souls of countless inmates who lived a life of isolation and torment, perhaps--were hovering about, watching. An old church was on my right, the rotting steeple casting a long shadow. The silence was complete and deliciously eerie. With my curiosity satisfied (and my heart beating a little faster), I turned and drove away. Little did I know at the time that it would be my one and only visit.

Much to my chagrin, I soon learned that the buildings were slated for demolition in the name of "progress." The local newspaper said that a developer had bought the land to build a sprawing condominium complex. When the demolition finally began, my heart sank. Now, only a single brick facade remains. Uniform grey condos now cover the top of the hill, and an irreplaceable piece of this area's past--and a source of haunted wonder--is gone for good.

Now, I'm no luddite and I realize that progress is inevitable. Our population isn't shrinking and new housing is constantly in need. But it was nevertheless sad to see Danvers State go the way of the wrecking ball. Danvers State was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its my opinion that more should have been done to preserve the site. A half-assed effort by the developer to save the shell of just one building didn't go nearly far enough.

Now, a ghostly relic of New England's past is gone for good, and life in these parts is a little more mundane.

To view more pictures and learn about the history of this great old structure, go to these Web sites:

Friday, September 21, 2007

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: My love affair with Blade Runner (director’s cut)

Part 1 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

    I've … seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost ... in time, like tears ... in rain. Time ... to die.

The death-speech of Roy Batty (as played magnificently by Rutger Hauer) in the rain on the rooftop at the conclusion of Blade Runner is one of my favorite moments in all of cinema, the culmination of a film that transcends its (admittedly beautiful) sci-fi trappings to take a piercing look into the heart of the human condition. It asks, and tries to answer, the eternal questions—what does it mean to be a human? Are humans mere machines, with circuitry of flesh of blood, or are they something more?

The most obvious and immediately striking feature of Blade Runner is its visuals. At the time they were an unparalleled accomplishment in cinema, and later films like The Terminator and The Matrix show an obvious debt to Blade Runner. Director Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision seems almost cliché now, but coming as it did hard on the heels of popular films and TV shows like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lost in Space, etc.--films in which the future was portrayed as fun and/or progressive-- it was truly groundbreaking.

The replicants—artificial creations made to look, sound, and even react emotionally as humans do— provoke all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Their creator, Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation, calls them “more human than human,” and indeed their passion and will to live (due to their short “life” spans) makes them seem more alive than the real humans in the film. Because they are programmed with memories, they have personality, perspective, independent thought, and emotional reactions, though a sophisticated empathy test can betray them as replicants.

Hauer’s terrific portrayal of Batty, the “perfect” replicant, is my favorite piece of acting in Blade Runner. The parallels between Batty and Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost are intentional (witness Batty in the elevator leaving Tyrell’s apartment following the murder of his creator—those stars in the background are an obvious reference to his “fall”). And this exchange between Batty and Tyrell:

    Tyrell: What… seems to be the problem?
    Batty: Death.
    Tyrell: Death? Well, I’m afraid that’s a bit out of my jurisdiction…
    Batty: I want more life. Fucker.

…is Satan voicing his displeasure with a God that controls all the strings. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, indeed.

I vastly prefer the director’s cut over the theatrical release of this film. For one thing, the theatrical release is not director Ridley Scott’s vision; the studio reportedly forced the addition of a tacked-on voice over by Harrison Ford to make the film more accessible. I think it cheapens the film. The director’s cut also adds some important scenes, such as the infamous origami unicorn, which has subsequently provoked fierce debate as to whether Ford’s character Deckard is himself a replicant. The director's cut also removes the tacked-on feel-good sequence at the end of the studio release.

From a few conversations I’ve had about this move, Blade Runner seems to be one of those love it/hate it films—you either love it for its novel-as-cinema qualities, its measured pace, and its thought provoking questions, or you hate it for the same reasons.

Personally, I love Star Wars and other shoot-em-up space opera faire, but I revere Blade Runner for vastly different reasons.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dungeons and Dragons fan, and (proud?) of it

I'm a huge fan of Dungeons & Dragons and of role-playing games in general. I've been playing D&D since roughly age 10 when my parents, after some begging, bought me the Tom Moldvay box set (you D&D historians know the one--it has the fighter and the fireball-flinging female mage about to battle a green dragon on the cover). Despite a long break with the game in the 1990's, D&D has always been a big part of my life and my chief hobby.

There, I've said it!!!

So why is it that only my immediate family and a few close friends know about my favorite pastime? Why do I keep my keen interest in RPGs a carefully-protected secret at work, at family functions, and from society at large?

Let's not kid ourselves--there's still a huge stigma attached to these games, that's why.

No, I'm not talking about the devil-worshipping, underground steam tunnel/black magic stigma associated with D&D that had parents panicking for the souls of their children in the 1980's. I'm talking about the stigma of nerdiness.

Extreme nerdiness.

Despite the fact that the Harry Potter novels are selling through the roof, that millions of "normal" people flocked to the theatres from 2001-2004 to watch Lord of the Rings, and that no one bats an eye when husbands and wives play computer role playing games like the crazily-popular World of Warcraft, D&D is different. It and other pen-and-pencil, table-top RPGs remain a subject of derision, and its players the object of skepticism. In my own experience, at least, the myth persists that D&D players are fundamentally flawed, out of touch, overweight, cat-piss smelling freaks hovering at the edge of society--and it probably always will.

Never mind the fact that I'm a middle-aged, happily married man with a loving wife and two children. I have a decent paying job in a publishing company. Despite my recent growth of beard, I'm well-kept and in reasonably good shape. At work and elsewhere I'm regarded as an (semi) intelligent, run-of-the-mill, family man. The good folks I play with are all successful, hard-working, great people with lives and families.

Nevertheless, I fear that this veneer of normality would be irreparably shattered into a thousand fragments were I reveal that on some Saturdays I assume the role of Kos Vilmirian, a hard-drinking, wealth-mongering fighter/rogue from the seaside city of Marsember in the Forgotten Realms. I quail at the thought of letting slip the fact that I enjoy rolling 20-sided dice and pushing around painted minatures on maps of sprawling underground dungeons with other grown men (and women) once or twice a month.

I can imagine the conversation at work:

(Me): "So Steve, what did you do this weekend?"
(Steve): "Watched the Pats game with my buddies, went out drinking Saturday night. "You?"
(Me): "Well, we slew the archmage Antarax and his undead minions who were planning to overrun the village of Rithwic. And I scored an awesome +3 Frostband longsword!"
(Steve): *Dies on spot*

You get the picture.

Perhaps my thinking is wrong, and that my friends and co-workers would accept my hobby. Maybe someday I'll grow a backbone and declare to the world that I like slaying pretend orcs, tramping through imaginary dungeons, and searching for make-believe treasure hordes.

But for now, baring my soul to cyberspace will have to suffice.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Book rankings

Somewhere around 2000/2001, I started reviewing all the books I read, using the five-star rating system below. These rankings are based solely on my opinion; your opinion of course may vary.

I would unhesitatingly recommend any books rated as 4-star or 4 ½ star. 5-star books are, in my opinion, must-reads if you are a member of the human race.

*****stars =Perfection, everyone must read these
****1/2 stars =Sheer awesome, great books with a few extremely minor quibbles
****stars =Extremely well done, highly recommended (i.e., great stories that lack literary depth, or fine literature that lacks a bit in storytelling)
***1/2 stars =Recommended, with flaws
***stars =Passable entertainment/beach faire
**1/2 stars =Very flawed, some redeeming features but not recommended
**stars/less =Crap, stay away
Zero stars =Could not finish (not necessarily sucky, just did not engage me)

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
The Once and Future King, T.H. White
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
Watership Down, Richard Adams
1984, George Orwell
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque
Flags of our Fathers, James Bradley
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, E.B. Sledge
Deliverance, James Dickey

****1/2 stars
No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
Eric Brighteyes, H. Rider Haggard
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
IT, Stephen King
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Beowulf, Seamus Heaney translator
The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin
Conan: “The Hour of the Dragon,” “The People of the Black Circle,” “Red Nails,” Robert E. Howard
Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield
Stonehenge 2000 B.C., Bernard Cornwell
Tides of War, Steven Pressfield
Gates of the Alamo, Stephen Harrigan
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose
Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
1776, David McCullough
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer
Night Shift, Stephen King
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
The Dark Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 5, H.P. Lovecraft
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created A New Mythology, Tom Shippey
Dracula, Bram Stoker
The Sea Wolf, Jack London
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
"The Sword of Welleran," Lord Dunsany
The Iliad, Homer
The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien
Unfinished Tales, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Book of Merlyn, T.H. White
The Undiscovered Self, C.G. Jung
2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
Styrbiorn the Strong, E.R. Eddison
Grendel, John Gardner
Swords Against Wizardry, Fritz Leiber
The Spell of Seven, L. Sprague de Camp ed.
The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion, Richard Purtill
Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, John Skipp ed.
Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
One Who Walked Alone, Novalyne Price Ellis
The Company They Keep, Diana Glyer
Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay
Legend, David Gemmell
Roots and Branches, Tom Shippey
The Return of the Sorcerer, Clark Ashton Smith
On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, C.S. Lewis
Brotherhood of the Revolution: How America's Founders Forged a New Nation (The Modern Scholar), Joseph J. Ellis
The Medieval World I: Kingdoms, Empires, and War (The Modern Scholar), Thomas F. Madden
Airwar, Edward Jablonski
The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury
Carrie, Stephen King
The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis, Clemence Housman
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation), Isaac Asimov
Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton
Mucho Mojo, Joe Lansdale
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis
The Willows,” The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood
Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
On Writing, Stephen King
Lost Souls, Poppy Z. Brite
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin
The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula LeGuin
The Farthest Shore, Ursula LeGuin
The Year’s Best Horror Stories, volume VIII, Karl Edward Wagner, ed.
October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween, Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish, ed.
War of the Gods, Poul Anderson
Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Poul Anderson
The Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur), Bernard Cornwell
The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror—1999, Stephen Jones, ed.
Salem’s Lot, Stephen King
Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, H.P. Lovecraft
The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart
We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, Joseph Galloway
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula LeGuin
The Face of Battle, John Keegan
At War, at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the 20th Century, Ronald Spector
Hitler and the Holocaust, Robert Wistrich
The Sea of Trolls, Nancy Farmer
J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, Tom Shippey
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
The Pale Horseman, Bernard Cornwell
The Longest Day, Cornelius Ryan
Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, Kenneth C. Davis
Hiroshima, John Hersey
Egil's Saga, The Sagas of Icelanders
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth
The Lords of the North, Bernard Cornwell
World War Z, Max Brooks
The Children of Men, P.D. James
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter ed.
Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, Mark Finn
The Dark Barbarian, Don Herron ed.
The Barbaric Triumph, Don Herron ed.
The Face in the Frost, John Bellairs
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway
World War II, James Jones
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis
Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, Robert E. Howard
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
The Fantastic Swordsmen, L. Sprague de Camp ed.
Warriors, George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois eds.
The Case for God, Karen Armstrong
The Golden Apples of the Sun, Ray Bradbury
Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison ed.
Dark Crusade, Karl Edward Wagner
Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Brian Rosebury
The Heroes, Joe Abercrombie
Carnage and Culture, Victor Hanson
The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil
The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, Robert E. Howard
The Children of Odin, Padraic Colum
Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, Allan Turner ed.
Swords and Deviltry, Fritz Leiber
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen

***1/2 stars
Black God’s Kiss, C.L. Moore
The Pacific, Hugh Ambrose
The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks
The Years Best Fantasy Stories 11, Arthur Saha ed.
Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, L. Sprague de Camp
Heroic Visions, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, ed.
The Demon of Scattery, Poul Anderson and Mildred Downey Broxon
The Rising, Brian Keene
The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch
Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman
Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings, Lin Carter
Imaro, Charles Saunders
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, John Joseph Adams editor
Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, Jane Chance editor
Phantastes, George MacDonald
The Desert of Souls, Howard Andrew Jones
Resolute Determination: Napoleon and the French Empire, (The Modern Scholar)
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell
The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett
Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Marjorie Burns
Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature, Michael Drout
The Eyes of the Dragon, Stephen King
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane
Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World, Verlyn Flieger
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Literary Life, Joseph Pearce
The Living Dead, John Joseph Adams ed.
Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell
The Cold Commands, Richard Morgan
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
Over Sea Under Stone, Susan Cooper
Thinner, Stephen King
Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King, Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, eds.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Three Hearts and Three Lions, Poul Anderson
Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons
The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
Secret Worship,” The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood
Dragonlance Legends (Time of the Twins, War of the Twins, Test of the Twins), Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
The Illearth War, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Power that Preserves, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Swords of Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber
Swords Against Death, Fritz Leiber
Whispers, Stuart Schiff, ed.
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
The October Country, Ray Bradbury
The Nightmare Chronicles, Douglas Clegg
A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay
Fantasy, Poul Anderson
Savage Season, Joe Lansdale
Bad Chili, Joe Lansdale
The Two-Bear Mambo, Joe Lansdale
The Wendigo,” The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood
The Fantastic Imagination, Robert Buyer and Ken Zahorski, ed.
The Dying Earth, Jack Vance
The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany
The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road), Guy Gavriel Kay
The Lost, Jack Ketchum
Modern Masters of Horror, Frank Coffey, ed.
Sound of the Beast, Ian Christie
The Archer’s Tale, Bernard Cornwell
Vagabond, Bernard Cornwell
Heretic, Bernard Cornwell
Freezer Burn, Joe Lansdale
Lost Boy Lost Girl, Peter Straub
Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter
Between Time and Terror, Robert Weinburg, ed.
The Bottoms, Joe Lansdale
The Devil’s Horsemen, James Chambers
The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell
Eagle in the Snow, Wallace Breem
Waking Nightmares, Ramsey Campbell
The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, Robert E. Howard
Fly For Your Life, Larry Forrester
The Girl Next Door, Jack Ketchum
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Fallen Angels, Walter Dean Myers
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
Boys’ Life, Robert R. McCammon
The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander
Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris
Dreamcatcher, Stephen King
Last Citadel, David Robbins
Flashing Swords #1, Lin Carter ed.
Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne
Hide and Seek, Jack Ketchum
Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman
Meditations on Middle-Earth, Karen Haber, ed.
Abandon Ship: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Richard Newcomb
The Year’s Best Horror Stories, volume XI, Karl Edward Wagner, ed.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Paingod and Other Delusions, Harlan Ellison
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens
The Modern Scholar: Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion, Peter Kreeft
Strange Wine, Harlan Ellison
No Regrets, Ace Frehley
The Dragon Lord, David Drake
Warlocks and Warriors, L. Sprague de Camp ed.

Last Call, Tim Powers
The Hook, Donald Westlake
Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, Jane Chance ed.
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan
Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich
The Dark Tide, Dennis McKiernan
The Dirt, Motley Crue
Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny
The Brothers Bulger, Howie Carr
Grails: Quests of the Dawn, Richard Gilliam, Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton editors
City of the Dead, Brian Keene
Dark Harvest, Norman Partridge
A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Tritonian Ring, L. Sprague de Camp
Desperation, Stephen King
Bag of Bones, Stephen King
Cell, Stephen King
The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
The Dark Fantastic, Ed Gorman
“Ancient Sorceries,” The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood
Dragonlance Chronicles (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, Dragons of Spring Dawning), Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Lord Foul’s Bane, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Elric Saga, Part I (Elric of Melnibone, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf), Michael Moorcock
The Year’s Best Horror Stories, volume VII, Gerald W. Page, ed.
Borderlands, Thomas Monteleone, ed.
Shadows, Charles L. Grant, ed.
Down the Long Hills, Louis L’Amour
The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
A Tolkien Compass, Jared Lobdell, ed.
Dead Image, Charles L. Grant, ed.
The Hammer and the Cross, Harry Harrison
The Shapes of Midnight, Joseph Payne Brennan
Shadows 2, Charles L. Grant, ed.
Gallery of Horror, Charles L. Grant, ed.
Fears, Charles L. Grant, ed.
The Well at the World’s End, vols. 1 and 2, William Morris
The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw
Dark Dreamers, Stanley Wiater
On to Berlin, James Gavin
Everything’s Eventual—14 Dark Tales, Stephen King
Understanding Tolkien, William Ready
The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander
The Modern Scholar: Discovering the Philosopher in You, Colin McGinn
The Darkest Day, Dennis McKiernan
Red Moon and Black Mountain, Joy Chant
We’re Alive: A Story of Survival, season one, various
Lost World of Time, Lin Carter
Death of Kings, Bernard Cornwell

**1/2 stars
Kothar and the Wizard Slayer, Gardner Fox
The Well of the Unicorn, Fletcher Pratt
Seven Princes, John Fultz
Shadows of Doom, Dennis McKiernan
Perdido Street Station, China Mieville
The Land that Time Forgot, Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, HP Lovecraft
The Keep, F. Paul Wilson
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Stephen King
The Elric Saga, Part II (The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword, Stormbringer), Michael Moorcock
Swords in the Mist, Fritz Leiber
The Year’s Best Horror Stories IX, Karl Edward Wagner, ed.
Confederacy of the Dead, Richard Gilliam, Martin Greenberg, Edward E. Wagner, ed.
The Drive-in: A Double Feature Omnibus, Joe Lansdale
Master of Middle Earth, Paul H. Kocher
New Terrors, Ramsey Campbell, ed.
White Wolf, David Gemmell
The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXI, Karl Edward Wagner, ed.
From a Buick Eight, Stephen King

Black Trillium, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, Julian May
The Year’s Best Horror Stories X, Karl Edward Wagner, ed.
The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror—2000, Stephen Jones, ed.
Parsival or a Knight’s Tale, Richard Monaco
Pay the Devil, Jack Higgins
Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold, Terry Brooks

*1/2 stars
Brak: When the Idols Walked, John Jakes

Swords and Ice Magic
, Fritz Leiber
Brak vs. the Sorceress, John Jakes

Zero stars
Neuromancer, William Gibson
Hero in the Shadows, David Gemmell
The First Man in Rome, Colleen McCullough