Monday, December 29, 2008

Buying used books online? Guilty as charged. But should I feel guilty?

The following post is a detour from the usual posts on fantasy, but it concerns books and publishing, another love of mine.

The New York Times on Dec. 27 published this thought-provoking piece by David Streitfeld about buying used books online. Streitfeld asserts that purchasing used books from ebay or from used online book dealers in lieu of buying new books is severely hurting brick-and-mortar book stores and the publishing industry as a whole.

To be honest, I'm feeling a little stung after reading the article since I'm very much guilty of this practice. For example, I got a $40 Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, and instead of using it to buy one or two new books at a B&N outlet, I chose to pop online and purchase five used volumes from a handful of authorized B&N booksellers (the titles, if you're interested, include four books on or about J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis. I can't wait to get started!)

Now, I don't buy all my books used. I will buy new books for currently publishing authors that I particularly enjoy (Bernard Cornwell and George R.R. Martin spring immediately to mind). Also, if I love a book so much that I plan to read it again and again, or if I'd like to have said book in a handsome hardback volume--The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, for instance--I'll buy it new.

But I do purchase far more used books than new. Basically it boils down to the fact that I'm a fairly heavy reader and I purchase a lot of titles. New books can get expensive. Why should I feel obligated to buy a new copy of The Worm Ouroboros, or an H.P. Lovecraft short story collection, when there are plenty of used copies floating around online for a buck?

It also seems wasteful to stop purchasing perfectly fine, lightly used books. If someone wants to sell a book, why should I, or someone else who wants to buy and read it, feel guilty about buying it cheaply? What's the alternative for such books--a recycling bin or a landfill?

On the other hand, I also bemoan the loss of brick-and-mortar book stores and hobby shops, and for every book I buy over the internet, I know that it's one less sale at my local Borders. I don't want to see real bookstores go away, to be replaced by online sellers. There's something to be said for holding an actual book in your hand and browsing through real shelves. It's a rich, tactile experience that you will never get from plugging in keywords in an internet browser bar or viewing a JPG of a dust-jacket cover.

So what's the answer? I'm not sure myself, but Streitfeld's story is certainly food for thought.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Coming home to the dark: A review of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.

—Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising

In the height of a blinding pre-Christmas snowstorm, and with the uncertainty of the New Year looming on my mind, I recently re-read (after the passage of some 20-odd years) Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. For anyone familiar with Cooper’s novel, the second in her acclaimed five-book The Dark is Rising Sequence, you’ll understand why I couldn’t have picked a better time to re-visit the series.

The setup for Cooper’s book is not terribly original: Forces of the dark and light are locked in an ageless struggle, and into this conflict is thrust Will Stanton, a boy of portentous birth (a seventh son of a seventh son). Will is an Old One, a small group of immortals who exist outside time, and it is up to him to combat the forces of the dark, whose power waxes over the midwinter and casts a pall over the Christmas season until it threatens to consume all of the Thames Valley.

Although he has the potential to combat the dark, Will’s power is unfocused and weak. He must harness it by recovering six symbols, one each of iron, bronze, water, fire, wood, and stone. As Will seeks out the symbols, a dark agent, a rider in black, marshals the forces of the dark in an attempt to foil Will and bring him to despair. Bitter cold, choking snow, floods, and dark flocks of birds are a constant menace in the story.

But while its themes are well-trodden, what makes Cooper’s book an enduring work of young adult fantasy is its execution. Cooper is a fine writer and uses her considerable skill to craft a tale that literally feels timeless: The setting of The Dark is Rising is at once familiar and remote, modern and ancient. Although Cooper wrote The Dark is Rising in 1973, and the events of the story take place in 20th century England, I can’t recall a single mention of an automobile or a telephone in the story, for instance. If you squint a little it could take place in an isolated 18th century farming village. The whole book feels like a dream of an 11-year-old—and in many ways, that’s exactly what it is.

The war in which Will finds himself has been raging for 4,000 years—predating Christ, who is notably absent in Cooper’s book. Cooper infuses her story with Welsh legends, including the horned huntsman Herne and the legend of King Arthur. Merlin appears in the book as Merriman Lyon, a character who first appears in Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in the sequence.

The forces of dark and light are quite vague, portrayed deliberately as broad archetypes by Cooper (I found this at turns compelling and maddening), which has the dual effect of making the story seem mythical, and every character and event allegorical. The Dark is Rising is loaded with symbols and archetypes, all the way down to the main character’s name—Will is not chosen lightly, as his will, and our will, is necessary to save us from the dark.

For example, the symbols that Will seeks out are in the shape of a circle evenly quartered by a cross (not to be confused with a Christian cross). Cooper never reveals their significance, but my own take is that these six elements represent different ages of man, and that we can find answers by tying together the lessons of the past and present. The dark gains its strength from fear and chaos and disharmony, a situation which brought about the rise of the literal Dark Ages. Yet we have within each of us the rough elements to find an inner peace and master these fears. Cooper alludes to old roads that, if followed, offer protection from the power of the dark. These roads can be viewed as a mindset, a map to our own salvation.

The story can also be viewed as the end of innocence and the arrival of adulthood. Twelfth night is the conclusion of the 12 days of Christmas, the end of merrymaking. In Cooper’s story, it coincides with Will’s 11th birthday, which marks the end of his childhood and the arrival of power and responsibility. The time for tough choices has begun. As a young adult, he will be sorely tested and must choose his own road.

I dislike books which feature “chosen ones,” or characters fated to do great things and blessed with plot immunity. I’d rather read about characters that create their own fate and succeed and fail on their own merit. At times, Cooper crosses this line in the sand. For instance, Will is frequently bailed out of trouble by Merriman Lyon (Merlin), a powerful Old One who is the light’s equivalent of the dark rider. J.R.R. Tolkien had a similar character (and a similar problem) in Gandalf, but he wisely kept him off the stage and allowed the hobbits to (mostly) fail or succeed on their own. At times, Will becomes as a passive participant in the struggle, pushed along in a tide of events in which he apparently has no control.

But Cooper adds depth to her tale by including The Walker, a symbol-bearer who betrayed the light by choosing to ally with the dark, and is cursed to wander the ages as an outcast. The Walker is obviously inspired by Tolkien’s character Gollum, a pitiable figure that also failed out of his own weakness, and serves as a reminder of the consequences of ill choice.

The true magic of the story is Cooper’s message that there are things older and stronger than the dark, and that, while it can sew fear and havoc, the dark cannot destroy us if we choose not to give in to despair. In all, The Dark is Rising is a terrific read and certainly worthy of inclusion on any fantasy fan’s bookshelf.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Talking Beowulf, Steven King, Robert E. Howard, and more on

Merry Christmas everyone! I'm relaxing in the afterglow of a great Christmas day spent with friends and family. I hope you all enjoyed the holiday as well. What better way to end the day than with a new blog post, so without further ado...

Anyone who reads The Silver Key probably knows that I write occasional reviews for, a cool Web site which carries reviews, news, and links to various science fiction and fantasy stories around the internet. Hosts Jesse Willis and Scott Danielson recently asked me to participate on one of their weekly podcasts. We spent an hour chatting about a wide range of subjects, including
  • Seamus Heaney's Beowulf
  • Steven King
  • Bernard Cornwell and shield walls
  • Robert E. Howard
  • audio book listening habits
  • and much more

Overall I enjoyed the experience very much. The interview was 100% unscripted and occurred at 8 a.m. ET on a Sunday morning, just after my first cup of coffee of the day. Consequently I thought I stumbled around a bit in parts of the interview. I was also a bit nervous as it was my first-ever podcast experience, and the new microphone which I purchased for the interview kind of sucked sound-wise (I sound a bit robotic and broken-up). But in listening to the podcast again it's not too bad and at least I didn't embarrass myself.

You can check it out here if you're so inclined. Thanks again to Jesse and Scott for having me on and allowing me to ramble a bit about all things fantasy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Merry Christmas to me: John Howe's Myth and Magic art book a nice find

Christmas is all about giving, but while shopping for a present for my kids in Borders the other day I was overcome by a selfish urge and made a purchase for myself. Sitting on a bargain book table and priced at a very affordable $7.99 was Myth & Magic: The Art of John Howe. This sweet baby retails for about $39.95 (though it was not made in Grand Rapids, Michigan), and includes some 250 illustrations by Howe, a bona-fide fantasy art kung-fu master.

Normally I'm not an art book collector for two reasons:

1. It's expensive. Were I loaded I'd start my own fantasy art gallery, but that's never going to happen.
2. I prefer text over photos and would rather let my own imagination do the work.

Well, the $7.99 bargain-bin price tag overcame barrier # 1, and Howe is a rare exception to rule #2. His work, and in particular his illustrations of Tolkien's books, are bar none among the best fantasy artwork you can find. I find Howe inspirational, his images capable of conjuring stories in the mind. His artwork actually enriches my favorite scenes and passages from the books as they cause me to rethink my own mental images. For example, I hadn't thought of Tolkien's dwarves in The Hobbit as very warlike or grim until I considered this shot of Roac delivering news to Thorin atop Lonely Mountain (look at Thorin's knotted pipes!):

Howe has illustrated the works of such diverse fantasy authors as David Gemmell, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Robin Hobb, and, as did the immortal Frank Frazetta with the Lancer Conan paperback series of the 1960s, has undoubtedly boosted their sales. Myth and Magic has a chapter entitled "Works of Art: Fantasy and SF Book Covers," which includes some pieces that have graced these authors' covers, as well as critical appraisal by the authors themselves. Universally, they state that Howe's art nails exactly--if not surpasses--the images they had in mind while writing. "John Howe's images of the characters and settings from my book do not match up with my mental images at all. They are far better," Hobb writes. "His art has the jagged edges of another reality, one that snags the viewer's attention with detail and colour."

I've included a few pieces of Howe's work from this book as a demonstration of the man's staggering talent. I note that Peter Jackson drew heavily from Howe's images when having the sets of The Lord of the Rings built, which are often near-exact replicas of Howe's fertile imagination. For example, Bilbo's hole at Bag End looks awfully familar... does this image of Mount Doom, straight out of Jackson's ROTK:

I love this shot of Gandalf in particular. Look at the purposeful look on his face, his long, league-eating stride. He looks as though he were caught on some important errand, perhaps en route to research Bilbo's mysterious ring in the library at Gondor:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fighting the World: Too few shining examples in a fantasy film wasteland

A couple of the regular blogs I visit have recently posited that all fantasy films more or less suck. Granted, Noisms and James were both discussing fantasy films in the context of the absolutely awful Dungeons and Dragons film, and the generally bad idea of trying to bolt narrative structure onto a role-playing game. I agree wholeheartedly with both of these observations. But both bloggers also state that, in general, there are no good fantasy films. That I cannot agree with. I can only say that these guys must have never have seen Excalibur.

Now, I'll admit that the genre is awash in drek: Beastmaster, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Willow, Kull, The Scorpion King, the Dungeons and Dragons movie (one of the worst films I've ever seen--someone, somewhere, owes me an hour and a half of my life back), are shite. These and other awful films certainly make fantasy a tough genre to defend.

But for all that I would argue that there have been three great fantasy films made. In order: The Lord of the Rings, Excalibur, and Conan the Barbarian. You can make case that the Star Wars films are fantasy with SF trappings, and if you agree, that brings the total of great fantasy films to five (Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back). After these handful, I also think there's a handful of watchable and/or pretty good fantasy films to consider: Dragonslayer is one, and Ladyhawke is another. I haven't seen the latter in many years but remember enjoying it quite a bit as a youth.

The problem with most fantasy films is that they stack up very poorly with the source material: I love Conan the Barbarian, but it's not Robert E. Howard, and we have nothing approaching Beyond the Black River or Red Nails on celluloid. I adore The Lord of the Rings but understand that it deviates from Tolkien's novel in many places, and respect the opinions of those who found Peter Jackson's adaptation not to their liking.

Fantasy filmmakers have also largely shied away from making bloody, bleak, grim, and, most importantly, adult fantasy films in favor of safe, theatre-filling, PG-13 drek. There's nothing even close to The Broken Sword on film, or the bawdy, bloody, good humor of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. 300 should have been the marvelous Gates of Fire, but, a few good scenes notwithstanding, was completely over-the-top and apparently written for teenage boys in the throes of raging hormones. We desperately a need a film based on Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord trilogy or the Saxon Stories, with shield walls and hall-burnings and historic accuracy, but instead we have the disappointing King Arthur and The 13th Warrior, two shaky pegs on which to hang our horned helmets.

What fantasy films don't need are more special effects. The Lord of the Rings works because of Sam's bravery and Boromir's "My captain, my king" speech; Conan is great because it's a classic revenge story--as we watch Arnold grow strong on the wheel, or seek out the symbol of Set, we're behind him all the way. Fantasy film directors would do well to avoid the trap of seeking to please fantasy fans, but instead focus their efforts on telling good stories that resonate. Captivating stories, and the empathy we feel for the characters that populate them, are the pumping heart beneath the breastplate of good fantasy films.

Which brings me back to Excalibur. John Boorman's film bucks fantasy heartbreak by hewing remarkably close to the source material, which is no mean feat given the plethora of Arthurian sources from which Boorman had to draw. It's a dark film, downright savage in places, poetic and uplifting in others, a heady mix. The dark is rising throughout the film, but not despair, so long as a few brave knights stand fast.

Nigel Terry plays a sympathetic King Arthur whom you want to see ascend to the throne of England, carve out his kingdom, and win the war against the usurper Mordred. Launcelot's return on the battlefield at Camlann is heroism at its highest and is deeply affecting, as is Merlin's speech to Arthur atop Camelot, silhouetted against a blood-red setting sun, symbolic of the end of a golden age of man. The cast really makes this film stand out: Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Helen Mirren (Morgana) and Terry are brilliant, and Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart also shine in small roles.

Unfortunately, films like Excalibur and The Lord of the Rings are so rare, and the bulk of their sword and wizardry company so shabby in comparison, that the result is aspersions and a dim view of the genre as a whole.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Sea of Trolls: Children's lit with a viking spirit

This recent post over at Black Gate reminded me of how much good writing, past and present, has been done in the fantasy genre under the guise of young adult literature. Some classic series for children that I enjoyed back in the day (and still do) include Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, and of course, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

Nowadays J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials are at the forefront of the young adult fantasy field. I can't vouch for either of these series, since I haven't read Pullman's trilogy and have only dipped my toe in the water of the Potter books. But I will highly recommend another semi-recent entry in young adult fantasy: Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls (2004).

Despite the good work being done in the genre I'll freely admit that the young adult tag had me a bit skeptical at first, but any hesitancies about reading The Sea of Trolls proved ill-founded. Indeed, for the viking-lover in me, Farmer's work gets a hearty thumbs-up. It just proves that good writing transcends age limits, which are largely artificial designations anyway. Good books are good books regardless of how they're categorized.

The Sea of Trolls certainly pushes the young adult envelope--although there's no sex and gore, it does contain quite a bit of violence, and plenty of suffering, fear, and loss. But I wouldn't hesistate recommending it for any young teen. Although I'm generally no fan of children as protagonists (they're usually portrayed as too adult-like, are granted with superhuman powers and/or surrounded by a halo of protection that makes them invulnerable, or are just plain annoying), Jack, the main character of The Sea of Trolls, was well-drawn and likeable.

Jack is a young, bright boy living on the Irish coast and is taken in by the powerful, reclusive Bard as a servant and understudy. But Jack and his sister Lucy are abducted in a viking raid led by the berserker Olaf One-Brow (yes, the tale bears more than a passing resemblance to Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea). Through his own pluck, good fortune, and magical training learned at the feet of Bard, Jack proves his worth and avoids being sold into slavery. He manages to befriend Olaf and become the berserker's personal skald, and even warms the heart of his icy daughter Thorgill.

But later Thorgill decides to give away Jack's sister Lucy, her thrall, as a gift to Ivar the Boneless and his half-troll wife Queen Frith. This begins an epic quest to the magic troll-lands of Jotunheim in which Jack has to rescue Lucy before she is sacrificed to the goddess Freya.

Farmer's book is a wonderful blend of action, myth, norse legends, viking raids, and magic, all wrapped up in a well-told, albeit lengthy, tale. At 480 pages, The Sea of Trolls is a hefty read, and I have to wonder how receptive young adults are to this book. As much as I love fantasy lit I know I would have balked at a novel that size as a kid. Then again, I'm consistently amazed at the success of the Harry Potter books, which, despite their telephone-book girth are devoured like candy by both adults and young kids, so what do I know?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A reign begun in blood: A look back at Stephen King's Carrie

Warning—spoilers ahead

Along with J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King was the first author for whom I had feelings approaching reverence. For a good long while—darn near 13 years, or the period roughly from 1974’s Carrie all the way through 1987’s Misery—King produced brilliant horror fiction. I consumed King novels in my high school years like I would consume cheap beer a few years later in college. King was “the king” of my reading world, and not just of horror but all fiction.

In my opinion King’s meteoric career hit its first snag with The Tommyknockers (1987), a meandering, unsatisfying novel with some ridiculous, head-scratching elements thrown in. He recovered with some excellent books like The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Half, but cracks began to appear in the 1990s with very forgettable books like Gerald’s Game, Desperation, and Dreamcatcher. Also, as my tastes changed and I began to read more widely, I realized that other authors had just as much to offer.

But though I now view King as a mere mortal, he’s still undeniably great. For every bad ending (of which he’s penned a few), or every too-long novel that could stand to be put through the wringer by a merciless editor, there’s a Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Stand, or Different Seasons, which I consider near-perfect examples of the modern novel/novella (Different Seasons may be my favorite stand-alone King book). When he was at his best, King was, to use a baseball analogy, throwing high 90s with nasty stuff. He was just damned good.

Now that you know how I feel about the early King, you’ll understand the thrill of glee I experienced last weekend when I went into my local library and found a copy of the Simon & Schuster unabridged recording of Carrie sitting on the shelf. As fans know Carrie was King's first novel and provided the ignition on his rocket ride to the top of the publishing world. While it’s not a great book, I’ve always liked Carrie, and it had been at least 15 years since I last read it. So I decided it was time to read (or, more accurately, listen) to Carrie again. This audiobook had the added appeal of being read by Sissy Spacek, who was brilliant as Carrie White in the terrific 1976 film adaptation of the novel. For the record, she’s a great reader, too.

While it’s ostensibly about a girl with telekinetic powers (or TK, as the book describes this ability), Carrie is really all about conformity and the torments inflicted on the less fortunate on the edges of society—in short, of the awful realities of high school. Raised by a psychotic mother whose fundamentalist Christian ethos is turned up to 11, poor Carrie never has a chance. Meek, emotionally stunted, and forced to dress in a spinsterish hand-made wardrobe, she goes through life as an easy target for the other kids in school.

King himself provides a nice introduction to the Simon & Schuster audio book, and he tells a story that leads the reader to believe that Carrie may be a rather long apology on his behalf. King says that Carrie White was an amalgamation of two girls he knew in high school, both of which were targets of practical jokes and harassment. While King says that he never joined in on the hazing, he does say he was a silent partner in it, and it’s obvious he still harbors some guilt. Many of us probably feel the same way—high school can be a cruel place.

Carrie begins with a memorable opening scene in which Carrie experiences a long-overdue first menstruation in the shower of the girls lockerroom. Unaware of the workings of her own body, Carrie reacts in a predictable fashion—tears and terror, fearing that she’s bleeding to death. Her classmates humiliate her and the traumatic experience brings Carrie’s latent telekinetic ability to the fore.

One of the girls involved in the incident, Sue Snell, later repents for her part (while not a tormenter, she looked on and laughed). Snell asks her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the senior prom. He accepts, and, to the horror of her God-fearing mother, Carrie does too.

But like Medea or some other brilliant yet horrible Greek tragedy, wheels of disaster are set in motion. Chris Hargensen, a particularly vindictive girl whose daddy is a lawyer and who takes pleasure in beating down anyone who tries to move out of their “station” in life, devises a plan with her boyfriend Billy to dump buckets of blood on Carrie at the height of the prom. I listened with one ear shut (is that possible?) during the climactic scene, hoping that somehow the buckets of pig blood wouldn’t fall this time—but of course, they do, and all hell breaks loose. I actually found the ensuing scene of the fire in the high school gym difficult to listen to—it evoked awful memories of the horrible Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people in 2003 (note: I wasn’t at that fire but I’ve been in a few clubs like it, and the images from the news are still too awful to think about). There’s more than a little raw, dangerous, revenge fantasy in the prom scene, as well as in Carrie’s subsequent rampage through the streets of Chamberlain.

But it isn’t the scenes of carnage or the awful potential of telekinetic power unleashed that makes Carrie so memorable. Rather, it’s the haunting question “If only”—if only the teachers paid more attention to Carrie’s torments, if only all the girls hadn’t laughed, if only someone, at some point in her life, showed a bit more compassion for Carrie, her life may have turned out otherwise. Carrie exposes the uncomfortable truth that many people are, to put it bluntly, pigs in the way they treat the less fortunate.

King also does an admirable job with the character of Sue Snell, whose motivations for asking her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom are quite complex—is it guilt? Did she secretly hope that something bad was going to happen? Or was it a genuine act of repentance?

I also found King’s message about religion a bit muddled. His portrayal of Margaret, Carrie’s mother, was a bit overblown and clichéd, and also more than a little frightening—as loony as she was, it’s hard to not shake the impression that Margaret was right in her bible-thumping plea not to let her daughter attend the prom, her "whore of Babylon" screeching aside. But then again, Margaret's brutal methods of discipline and rule of fear are hardly anyone’s idea of the Christian way. And had she not attended the prom, Carrie surely would have died a slow, drawn-out death, crushed under the yoke of under her mother's ceaseless, merciless rule. It's just further proof that Carrie's life was tragically doomed from the start.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Don't look now, I'm a Superior Scribbler

I'm always pleasantly surprised to find that people actually read and enjoy my blog. Today I recieved a nice surprise in my inbox from Julie Davis over at the Happy Catholic, as Julie tipped her cap to The Silver Key by bestowing a "Superior Scribbler Award" upon it. Julie writes:

Brian Murphy discusses books, movies, and much more. I'll just say it like this. The guy reviewed an audiobook of Beowulf in such a way that I now can't wait to get my hands on one. Beowulf! I ask you! So, yes, he's a compelling writer who opens your eyes to hitherto unknown realms.

Thanks Julie. Anytime I can get someone to pick up a book--or an ancient poem of heroic epic fantasy--my work is done.

So now it's my turn to honor five blogs I make it a point to visit with "Superior Scribbler" awards of their own. These include:

The Cimmerian
The premiere Web site for news about Robert E. Howard and in-depth reviews of seminal works in the fantasy field. Regular posters Steve Tompkins and Leo Grin always have something intelligent and interesting to say. And even though Steve compared my beloved Conan the Barbarian film to Li'l Abner versus the Moonies, I forgive him. His recent posts about Armistice Day and World War I-inspired fantasy writers and his speculation on the forthcoming The Hobbit film more than made up for that sleight.

Black Gate: Adventures in Fantasy Literature
Not really a blog, but Black Gate, publishers of a fantasy fiction magazine, recently started a daily stream of thoughtful blog posts about fantasy penned by various writers. I don't know if they can keep up this current trend of quality output but it's got me heading over to check it out each day. You should too.

Grognardia is the premiere blog for fans of old school Dungeons and Dragons and its literary heritage. Author James Maliszewski offers brilliant analysis of the origins of the game and convincing explanation of why the older editions worked and continue to work, blowing up the myth that fans of AD&D and OD&D are simply stricken with an unhealthy nostalgia.

Jeff's Gameblog
Jeff's "blog about games and stuff" is compulsively readable and suffused with a palpable love for RPGs. You can't fake this kind of enthusiasm. It's also a place to find wonderful ideas to lighten and liven up your game sessions. He puts the "game" back in role-playing games.

The Dwarf and the Basilisk
Matthew Conway's blog is a wonderfully eclectic mix of posts about computer games, role-playing games, horror films, Dr. Who, and the most exhaustive, in-depth recap of James Bond films I've ever seen in one place. I find myself nodding quite a bit when reading his posts. Another regular stop of mine.

Nice job folks! Winners are also required to post the rules of the contest, so here goes:
  • Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.

  • Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.

  • Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.

  • Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List (scroll down). That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!

  • Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf: An epic listen

Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let anyone who can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.

--from Beowulf, author unknown

As I've stated in past posts I'm a devotee of audio books. They give me something constructive to do on my hour-long commute to work each morning. A good audiobook can lift you above traffic and the drag and drain of daily worries and transport you to better places where skalds sing the deeds of great men.

The world described in the ancient poem Beowulf is such a place. It's an era of warrior-heroes, men of martial prowess who value honor, bravery, and the everlasting glory that comes with a life spent performing great deeds. It's a tale of spear-Danes and the great kings who ruled them with courage and greatness. And Beowulf, the hero of the tale, stands head and shoulders above even these proud men.

I recently checked out a BBC recording of Beowulf translated and read by poet and critic Seamus Heaney. If you're also a fan of audio books and in particular of heroic fantasy, this one is definitely a must-listen.

The poem itself is a straightforward, simple story that begins with the tale of the monster Grendel harrying the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, slaying and devouring his retainers at night. Beowulf arrives from over the sea with a small band of hand-picked spear Danes to put a stop to Grendel and his mother, a monstrous hag living beneath a tarn. Act two fast-forwards the reader 50 years later where an aging Beowulf, now a lord of renown, must strap on his shield and armor one last time to stop a dragon from ravaging his kingdom. That's pretty much it.

Beowulf's real reward is in its wonderful language. Heaney's translation is a joy to listen to. Great warriors are "wreckers of mead-benches" and kings are "generous ring-givers." The ocean is a "whale road," the sun "the world's candle," a gleaming sword a "battle-torch." It's also loaded with alliteration. Some might find this language tedious but I loved it. Here's an example of a passage that describes Beowulf's boat heading back home, loaded with riches heaped upon the crew by a grateful Hrothgar:

Then the keel plunged and shook in the sea, and they sailed from Denmark. Right away the mast was rigged with its sea-shawl. Sail ropes were tightened, timbers drummed, and stiff winds kept the wave-crosser skimming ahead. As she heaved forward, her foamy neck was fleet and boyant, a lapped prow loping over currents, until finally the Geats caught sight of coastline and familiar cliffs.

Beowulf contains an interesting mix of old pagan gods and beliefs meeting the new. Christianity is definitely on the upswing and we hear continued references to a singular God, "the glorious almighty." But the poem also contains references to "the wyrd," or the fate from which no man can escape. Great warriors are burned on funeral pyres, and we are not certain where men's souls return after death. When Hrothgar's great-grandfather, Scyld, dies at the beginning of the tale and his wealth-laden ship is set out to sea, "No man can tell, no wise man in hall or weathered veteran, knows for certain who salvaged that load."

J.R.R. Tolkien admits to being heavily influenced by Beowulf, and it's clear that the scene in The Hobbit of Bilbo filching a cup from Smaug's horde is lifted straight out of the poem (it's also no coincidence that Beowulf's dragon has a soft spot beneath his nigh-impenetrable scaly coat, another device used by Tolkien in Smaug's battle with Bard over Dale).

The poem also gives an invaluable glimpse into the morality of the era. Dictums by the poem's unknown author provide us with the values and behavior which men upheld in roughly 5th-7th century Scandinavia. For example, reverence of the dead: "Then 12 warriors rode around the tomb, chieftains sons, champions in battle, all of them distraught, chanting in dirges, mourning his loss as a man and a king. They extolled his heroic nature and exploits and gave thanks for his greatness, which was the proper thing, for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear, and cherish his memory when that moment comes when he has to become void from his bodily home."

And this one: "And a young prince must be prudent like that, giving freely while his father lives. So that afterwards in age, when fighting starts, steadfast companions will stand by him and hold the line. Behavior that's admired is the path to power for people anywhere."

In short, highly recommended.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A fantasy blast from the past: The Enchanted World

My two daughters have recently started a habit that does my fantasy-loving heart good--paging through a series of Time-Life Books I purchased years ago, The Enchanted World. A really cool television ad that received a lot of airplay back in the early-to-mid 8o's roped me into buying several of them as a young teen, and they still stand proudly on my bookshelf today. Now much younger eyes and hands than mine are enjoying their wondrous contents.

Does anyone else remember these books? They were one of those deals where you bought the first book at a discounted price, then Time-Life would send you one each month (or maybe it was every other month) with "no obligation to buy." But of course these were so awesome I felt pretty darned obligated to purchase as many as I could afford. These books weren't cheap at the time, I think $20 each, but I couldn't resist buying several volumes. My collection includes:

Wizards and Witches

Spells and Bindings



Fairies and Elves

Legends of Valor

Giants and Ogres

I wasn't a big novel reader back then and The Enchanted World hit a sweet spot: Some text mixed in with gorgeous, full-color paintings and other illustrations. I've included a few of my favorites in this post. They were beautifully laid-out and fairly well-written as well.

Eventually my money ran dry and I had to stop collecting the books. I'm not sure how many of them Time-Life eventually published, but the collector in me sometimes has the urge to complete the run. In particular, I wish I hadn't missed The Fall of Camelot.

For the D&D fans out there, the picture below is The Wild Hunt, albeit a slightly different depiction than the one in Deities & Demigods. From Time-Life Books Ghosts:

Their great horses screaming, their hellhounds howling, the riders of the Wild Hunt coursed the northern skies. A host of the dead, they sought new companions from among the living.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

On the trail of the Grail: A review of Over Sea, Under Stone

So therefore, I trust it to this land, over sea and under stone, and I mark here the signs by which the proper man in the proper place, may know where it lies: the signs that wax and wane but do not die.

--Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone

Warning--spoilers ahead.

I love stories that involve the King Arthur legend, regardless of their form, and so it was with much anticipation that after more than 20 years I began re-reading Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone. While not exactly a children's book, Cooper's novel--the first in her acclaimed The Dark is Rising sequence--is geared for the young adult audience. But even though I'm far removed from that demographic I nevertheless found it to be very enjoyable and engaging.

Over Sea, Under Stone tells the story of the three Drew children--Simon, Barney, and Jane--who travel with their parents to Cornwall (located on the coast of England) for an extended holiday in the home of their great-uncle Merry. Merry is an eccentric but respected historian who lives in a many-roomed old mansion, the Grey House, which proves to be a fertile playground for the children. While rummaging about the attic they discover an ancient map which puts them on a quest for none other than the Holy Grail.

Merry explains that he came to Cornwall years ago to hunt for the Grail, which is also being sought after by the forces of the dark. The Drew children soon become involved in this ancient, millenia-old conflict. Says Merry:

"That struggle goes on all round us all the time, like two armies fighting. And sometimes one of them seems to be winning and sometimes the other, but neither has ever triumphed altogether. Nor ever will," he added softly to himself, "for there is something of each in every man."

Cooper is a good writer and she does a wonderful job making Cornwall into a living, breathing place. The Grey House and its concealed doors and dusty, treasure-laden attic is a memorable location, as is the rocky, sea-beaten coastline and its druidic standing stones. It's fun to watch the children puzzle through the map's ancient secrets, with Merry serving as a guide and protector, but always in the background. Because he must serve as a decoy and keep the attention of the dark forces focused on him, the children are thrust into the leading role in the quest to find the Grail.

This arrangment provides Simon, Jane, and Barney with plenty of chances to shine. In a memorable scene Simon and Barney are racing against time and the rising ocean, exploring a dark cave at the foot of Kenmare Head on the coastline which is revealed only during low tide. Like a young knight of the round table--or Arthur himself, perhaps--Barney fights back his fear and squeezes through a dark opening with only a small candle to illuminate the dark. Due to his small stature and uncommon bravery, he becomes "the proper man in the proper place" to find the Grail.

I did have a few relatively minor problems with the book. Great Uncle-Merry as a Merlin-like advisor was pretty apparent early on in the book (the "big reveal" at the end was hardly that), though this is only a minor quibble. More troublesome for me was the portayal of Mr. Hastings, the chief agent of the dark side. Though he was suitably sinister, Hastings was not nearly as frightening as he should have been. Given that Hastings knew the Drew children were on the trail of the Holy Grail--an artifact of such power that it would tip the scales of the milennia-old struggle into favor of the dark, perhaps forever--you'd think he and his minions would stop at nothing to get it. But perhaps because this is a children's novel, Cooper places the Drew children in very little physical danger, save for a few semi-tense moments in the final showdown for the Grail. This makes the forces of darkness and night seem a little more like semi-threatening agents of an overcast afternoon rather than evil incarnate.

Still, Over Sea, Under Stone is a fine, enjoyable, easy read and I'm looking forward to watching the days grow much darker in the books to follow.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Over Sea, Under Stone

"You remember the fairy stories you were told when you were very small--'once upon a time . . .' Why do you think they always began like that?"
"Because they weren't true," Simon said promptly.
Jane said, caught up in the unreality of the high remote place, "Because perhaps they were true once, but nobody could remember them."
Great-Uncle Merry turned his head and smiled at her.

--Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone

On a whim I removed the first book from Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone, from my bookshelf and started reading. I literally haven't cracked this book in more than 20 years.

I'm always afraid to re-read books that I enjoyed as a child, fearing that I'll either find them poor in retrospect, or that I'll discover I've simply outgrown them and lost my sense of wonder. But 70-odd pages in I've been pleasantly surprised by Over Sea, Under Stone. I'm sure I'll be posting a full review soon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Halloween Tree: Illuminating death's great mystery

What is Halloween? How did it start? Where, why, what for? Witches, cats, mummy dust, haunts… it’s all there in the country from which no one returns. Would you dive into the dark ocean, boys? Would you fly in the dark sky?

—Ray Bradbury,
The Halloween Tree

This review may be a little out of season, but it was with relatively recent memories of carving jack-o’lanterns and taking my costumed children out to trick-or-treat that I listened to The Colonial Radio Players dramatized adaptation of The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. This neat little tale is ostensibly for children and young adults, but it contains an illuminating look into the origins of Halloween as well as an honest exploration of our own cultural view of death, that greatest of all mysteries.

The Halloween Tree opens with eight young boys gathered together on Halloween night to go trick-or-treating. A ninth boy, Pipkin, is notably absent from the group, and when he finally emerges from his house it’s apparent something is terribly wrong: He’s pale, moving gingerly, and clutching at a lancing pain his side. But the call of Halloween is too strong and he joins his friends. Later we learn that Pipkin is suffering from an acute bout of appendicitis.

The boys decide to go trick-or-treating at a haunted house, and there they encounter the ghostly, skeletal, white-haired Mr. Moundshroud. Moundshroud takes the boys to see The Halloween Tree. En route they have to cross a deep ravine, which proves to be a metaphor for the Valley of Death, and Pipkin fails to reach the other side. When the boys call to him, his pumpkin light goes out and he vanishes from sight.

Moundshroud offers to take the boys on a dreamlike trip back through time in order to save Pipkin. Along the way he reveals the origins of Halloween and its association with death. The boys travel back to ancient Egypt and view that culture’s reverence of the dead, including its great pyramid-tombs, mummies, and the worship of the sun god Osiris, murdered each night by his jealous brother only to rise again the next morning. They are whisked away to pre-Christian Europe and encounter the cowled, scythe-wielding Samhain, the druidic god of death from which Halloween derives its origins.

The boys witness the extinction of the druids and their religion at the hands of the murdering Romans, whose polytheistic approach to religion is itself eradicated by the coming of Christ. “Now the Christians come and cut the Romans down—new altars, boys, new incense, new names,” Moundshroud says. Here I’ll mention that The Halloween Tree includes a subversive view of Christianity, as the boys witness the persecution of innocent witches in the dark ages in the name of Christ.

The boys’ journey continues to 16th century Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral and finally to Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebration. Their strange, dreamlike trip not only reveals the origins of Halloween, but also illuminates our own view of death here in the United States—cemeteries are lonely, cold places, and when someone dies we turn our attention to moving on and forgetting, rather than remembering and honoring our deceased loved ones. When contrasted with Bradbury’s bright description of The Day of the Dead, our cultural reaction to death seems stunted and sad in comparison:

By every grave was a woman kneeling to place gardenias, or azaleas, or marigolds, in a frame upon the stone. By every grave knelt a daughter, who was lighting a new candle, or lighting a candle that had just blown out. By every grave was a quiet boy, with bright brown eyes, and in one hand a small papier-mâché funeral parade, glued to a shingle, and in the other hand a papier-mâché skeleton head, which rattled with rice or nuts inside.

Halloween, this odd, out-of-place holiday that has persisted through the ages, and remains with us now as a night to beg for candy in a costume, is revealed as an ancient ritual denoting the end of the harvest season and the onset of cold winter, of night, and of death. Its origins trace back thousands of years and span multiple cultures. “Four thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, this year, one place or time, but the celebration’s all the same—the Feast of Samhain, the Time of the Dead Ones, All Souls, All Saints, the Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos, All Hallows, Halloween,” Bradbury writes.

In the end the boys are presented with a difficult choice to bring Pipkin back from the dead, one that involves a paganistic sacrifice to the dark gods. I won’t spoil the ending. But there’s a great line where one of the boys asks Moundshroud, “Will we ever stop being afraid of the night and death?” Moundshroud (who may be death himself, or the spirit of Halloween) replies reassuringly, “When you reach the stars, boy, yes, and live there forever, all the fears will go, and death himself will die.”

I had a few minor quibbles with the presentation of the story. The Colonial Radio Theatre presentation at times relied too heavily on unnecessary sound effects and crashing music that threatened to overwhelm the story, although the voice of Moundshroud, Jerry Robbins, was excellent, as were the production values. The tale also contained a bit more whimsy (a giant kite that whisks the boys back through time, etc.) than I typically like, but Bradbury is such a gifted, poetic writer that it mostly works.

Death may be our greatest mystery, but Bradbury is not afraid to look into its cold, impenetrable depths in search for meaning. The Halloween Tree illuminates the subject with a ghostly pumpkin candle whose light remained with me long after the tale was over, which is one sure mark of a good book.

Note: This review also appears on

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Delinquent posting

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I haven't been slain in a viking raid, butchered by an orc chieftain on the Pelennor Fields, or had my skull split by a sword-wielding Cimmerian for impolite behavior. Rather, I've been busy writing about football (and other things).

Although I work full-time for a publishing company, I also moonlight covering high school football for a local newspaper (I was a sports editor in another life, and played football back in the day). Well, the team for which I'm the beat writer is 10-0 and heading to the playoffs, so I've been churning out a heavier stream of articles than normal. It's also approaching Thanksgiving and for anyone who knows Massachusetts high school football, it's rivalry week. And if you've ever worked as a sports writer for a small local Massachusetts newspaper (I can't imagine that anyone reading this blog has actually done this, but stranger things are possible), that means a separately-printed Football Bonus Supplement.

The regular posts on heavy metal, fantasy, role-playing, and other of my favorite topics will hopefully resume shortly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fantasy films update: Conan gets a director; A Song of Ice and Fire pilot gets green-lighted

Following are two news items that should be of interest to any fantasy fan. I'm not sure if these qualify as old news, but they're new to me:

1. Brett Ratner to direct Conan film. Although I will defend the original Conan the Barbarian film to the death (okay, not to the death, but maybe To the Pain), we're long overdue for a Conan film based on the actual character created by Robert E. Howard. This news, if correct, seems to imply that that's (sort of) what we'll be getting:

Ratner jibed to the "Conan" script by Gersh-repped Joshua Oppenheimer and Thomas Dean Donnelly, who looked to Robert E. Howard's original pulp stories of the 1930s to create their take on the character. The writers are doing a quick polish to incorporate some of Ratner's ideas, with an eye toward releasing the film in 2010.

I can't say I've seen Rush Hour 3 or X-Men: The Last Stand, which the story states that Ratner has directed. I get the impression, however, that these are run-of-the-mill action movies, and I hope that's not we get in the new Conan film. It deserves better than to end up as another entry in the recent run of forgettable fantasy films (see Troy, King Arthur). Also, let's hope the writers' "take on the character" does not deviate too much from Howard's source material. Suffice to say that I don't think anyone will be reading Oppenheimer or Donnelly 70 years (and counting) after their deaths.

2. HBO green-lights A Song of Ice and Fire pilot episode. So in case you've been living under a rock, author George R.R. Martin is currently in the midst of penning one of the better epic fantasy series I've ever read, and now it seems that HBO will be testing the viability and popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire on the screen with a pilot episode.

If the pilot gains traction, I think this could be a very good, long-running series. HBO had a smash-hit on its hands with The Sopranos, and what is A Song of Ice and Fire if not a medieval version of modern-day gangsters? Martin's tale is replete with seamy politics, warring families, revenge, and shocking violence. My mind is already turning with the potential casting decisions.

I do hope that HBO realizes that George R.R. Martin may never finish the series (this is no sarcasm on my part--I am not at all convinced that it will happen). So brace yourself for the possibility of a cliffhanger ending that never gets resolved.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mourning the passing of Michael Crichton

Lo, I see here my father and mother
Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting
Lo, there is my master, who is sitting in paradise.

--From Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton

In case you missed it, author Michael Crichton passed away this week at age 66 following a battle with cancer. Crichton was probably best known for his tales of science fiction, which include Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, and The Lost World, among many others.

I'll leave it to others to discuss those works. Instead, I'd like to take a moment to commemorate the man for his efforts in writing a lesser-known viking novel.

Eaters of the Dead receives little attention and most people know it better in its film adaptation, The 13th Warrior. The movie is okay but in my opinion Eaters is much better. If you're a fan of the film, or of dark ages/viking inspired fiction, you owe it to yourself to give it a read (and at only 180 pages it's not much of an investment of time).

I reviewed Eaters of the Dead not too long ago, and if you're interested in reading what I had to say (it's got a few spoilers), click here:

Crichton died far too young but he leaves behind that which any viking would be proud to have as a legacy: Great stories that will not soon fade. In Eaters of the Dead, the vikings live by the following phrase, which lends them their fearlessness:

The deeds of dead men are sung, and also the deeds of heroes who live, but never are sung the deeds of ordinary men.

Though his body now lies beneath the mould, Crichton had the honor of living a life far more accomplished than an ordinary man. His works will continue to be read after his death and thus, he will live on.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Land that Time Forgot: A tale best left forgotten

Repeat after me: Pulp is a great genre, but not all pulp is great. And some of it isn't very good at all, I'm afraid.

I lead with this because I've noticed that pulp often gets a free pass from its advocates. Fans will leap to the defense of poorly plotted, boring, or otherwise not well-written stories and pulp-inspired films with a simple, "well, it's pulp"--as if this fact somehow makes the genre above criticism.

Now, I happen to be a big fan of pulp, but I can also recognize a flawed example when I see it. Even when its written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of pulp's grand masters (see many of his wonderful Tarzan and John Carter stories).

I'm sorry to say that Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot is not very good. It's not as bad as, say, Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold , and I've read worse, but when compared to the best pulp has to offer--i.e., almost anything written by Robert E. Howard--The Land that Time Forgot simply does not measure up.

Part of my problem with this book may be the fact that I listened to an audio recording produced by Audio Realms, delivered in uninspired fashion by narrator Brian Holsopple. Audio Realms is also responsible for producing the fantastic series The Dark Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, read by Wayne June (who is a terrific narrator), but I found this particular entry in their catalogue rather poor.

To be fair, Holsopple doesn't exactly have Lovecraft at the top of his game to work with. Some of the dialogue in The Land that Time Forgot is so stilted and cornball that I found myself literally cringing behind the steering wheel while driving into work. Here's one less-than-stellar example:

"You have evolved a beautiful philosophy," I said. "It fills such a longing in the human breast. It is full, it is satisfying, it is ennobling. What wonderous strides toward perfection the human race might have made if the first man had evolved it and it had persisted until now as the creed of humanity."

"I don't like irony," she said; "it indicates a small soul."

"What other sort of soul, then, would you expect from 'a comic little figure hopping from the cradle to the grave'?" I inquired. "And what difference does it make, anyway, what you like and what you don't like? You are here for but an instant, and you mustn't take yourself too seriously."

She looked up at me with a smile. "I imagine that I am frightened and blue," she said, "and I know that I am very, very homesick and lonely." There was almost a sob in her voice as she concluded. It was the first time that she had spoken thus to me. Involuntarily, I laid my hand upon hers where it rested on the rail.

I mean, this stuff makes the lines delivered in Days of Our Lives seem like John Keats in comparison.

The Land that Time Forgot tells the tale of Tyler Bowen, an American on a merchant vessel whose ship is attacked by a World War I German U-boat. Bowen survives and with the help of some British sailors manages to overpower the U-boat's crew. Bowen is eventually betrayed by one of his own men who smashes the U-boat's instruments in an attempt to doom the ship's crew. When Bowen finally learns who his betrayer is, the man on his deathbed reveals his secrets like an unmasked villain from Scooby-Doo:

"I did it alone," he said. "I did it because I hate you--I hate all your kind. I was kicked out of your shipyard at Santa Monica. I was locked out of California. I am an I. W. W. I became a German agent--not because I love them, for I hate them too--but because I wanted to injure Americans, whom I hated more. I threw the wireless apparatus overboard. I destroyed the chronometer and the sextant. I devised a scheme for varying the compass to suit my wishes. I told Wilson that I had seen the girl talking with von Schoenvorts, and I made the poor egg think he had seen her doing the same thing. I am sorry--sorry that my plans failed. I hate you."

And he would have succeeded if it wasn't for you meddling kids.

Lost at sea and low on food and water, Bowen and his men land on the island of Caprona, a literal island that time forgot. It's inhabited by dinosaurs of every age as well as ice-age beasts and men in various stages of evolution. Bowen then spends the rest of the book rescuing a stranded damosel from the hands of lustful Neanderthal men and hungry dinosaurs, as well as kicking the crap out of primitive men. Oh, I didn't mention that Bowen happens to be a physical specimen and a master of judo? Here's my favorite passage:

Three of the warriors were sitting upon me, trying to hold me down by main strength and awkwardness, and they were having their hands full in the doing, I can tell you. I don't like to appear conceited, but I may as well admit that I am proud of my strength and the science that I have acquired and developed in the directing of it--that and my horsemanship I always have been proud of.

And now, that day, all the long hours that I had put into careful study, practice and training brought me in two or three minutes a full return upon my investment. Californians, as a rule, are familiar with ju-jutsu, and I especially had made a study of it for several years, both at school and in the gym of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, while recently I had had, in my employ, a Jap who was a wonder at the art. It took me just about thirty seconds to break the elbow of one of my assailants, trip another and send him stumbling backward among his fellows, and throw the third completely over my head in such a way that when he fell his neck was broken.

"Californians as a rule are familiar with ju-jutsu?" "I am proud of my strength and the science that I have acquired and developed in the directing of it?" "A Jap who was a wonder at the art?" Man, if this isn't Mystery Science Theatre 3000 material than I don't know what is.

About the only thing that The Land the Time Forgot has going for it is that it isn't entirely boring, if you like one mindless action scene strung together after the next. But, in summation, if you're looking for a good representative of the pulp genre, look elsewhere.

Note: The Land that Time Forgot is now in the public domain, and if you're so inclined you can read it in its entirety at Project Gutenberg, here:

Addendum: This review also appears at

Friday, October 31, 2008

Annabel Lee

By Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee--
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
I and my Annabel Lee--
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me--
Yes!--that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we--
Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
And so, all the night-tide, I lay down by the side
Of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea--
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fright Night: 1980s + vampires=fun

You won't see Fright Night, a semi-obscure, fun little vampire flick from 1986, on many "best of" horror movie lists. Nevertheless, it's one of my personal favorites. Fright Night packs into it all the elements I ask of a good horror film: A decent plot, some reasonable acting, a little mayhem, some monsters, a handful of nice visual effects, and a little bit of skin. On all these requirements, Fright Night delivers.

You can tell that writer/director Tom Holland is a horror fan. The film is very much an homage to Hammer Horror, a UK-based series of classic monster films that ran from roughly the late 1950's to the early 1970's whose line included such memorable titles as Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. Fright Night is also a love-letter to the once-prevalent late-night horror celebrity-hosted movie shows such as Elvira Movie Macabre and Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs. In fact, the movie derives its name from a fictional and self-referential B-horror television program.

The basic plot of Fright Night is as follows: Main character Charlie Brewster is up late watching Fright Night while making out with his girlfriend Amy (pretty much a perfect horror movie beginning). Glancing out his window, Charlie sees two men carrying a coffin into the basement of a vacant house next door. The next day, a stream of gorgeous prostitutes begin to show up at the house, followed shortly by evening news reports of a series of murders.

Charlie begins to spy on the going-on at the house, and late one night he sees his new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige, kissing a beautiful woman in the window. Dandridge leans in to kiss her neck and opens his mouth wide--to reveal a set of wicked fangs. He's just about to bite the woman when he looks up and sees Charlie watching, wide-eyed. Dandridge pulls down the shade to complete his feast.

Convinced Dandridge is a vampire and behind the string of murders, Charlie seeks out the services of Peter Vincent, Vampire Killer and host of Fright Night (and an obvious 1:1 correlation to Hammer Horror's Peter Cushing). Vincent has just been fired from Fright Night, which has fallen sharply in the ratings due to the public's current thirst for "psychotic ski masked killers." But Vincent, thinking that Charlie is just a crazy kid, refuses his appeal for help.

Desperate, Charlie decides to sneak next door and drive a stake into Dandridge's heart. Amy and Charlie's friend Ed Thompson (another horror fan appropriately nicknamed Evil), don't believe Charlie's claims that Dandridge is a vampire, but in order to stop him from committing murder they recruit Vincent to perform a phony "vampire testing" ceremony on Dandridge. "Just like in Orgy of the Dead!" says Evil. Dandridge drinks holy water (tap water) supplied by Vincent and passes the "test." But Vincent, exiting the house, notices in a handmirror that Dandridge casts no reflection. The action really picks up from there.

Some of my favorite elements from Fright Night include the following:

Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge. Dandridge must have done some film study of the 1979 film Dracula when prepping for his role, as he reminds me of a funnier, more self-deprecating Frank Langella. Dandridge is not in the mold of a frightening Nosferatu, a-la Kurt Barlow from Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot. Rather, he's a handsome seducer and pours on the sex appeal to charm his way into his victim's lives.

Dandridge is introduced in a great scene that starts when Evil tells Charlie that a vampire cannot enter someone's house unless he is invited inside by its rightful owner. That night when nailing his bedroom window shut Charlie's mother calls him downstairs. "I had someone over I'd like you to meet," she says. The look on Charlie's face when he sees Dandridge reclining in his living room easy chair is priceless.

Classic vampires--with a twist. Fright Night has all the standard vampire trappings I like: An aversion to crosses and holy water, sleeping in coffins, avoiding daylight, inhuman strength, shape-shifting ability, etc. I don't like stories that mess too much with the old tropes. But Fright Night makes subtle tweaks to the formula that work. For example, instead of a broken down, Gothic-style home or a haunted Transylvanian castle, Dandridge lives in a not too out of the ordinary home in the heart of a suburban neighborhood.

Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent. McDowall is the best actor in the film and his transformation from a phony, self-absorbed small TV star to real-life heroic vampire killer is a joy to watch.

1980's nostalgia. Fright Night is very much a period piece and has all the trappings (the distinct clothes and hairstyles, even a cheesy nightclub with synthesizer music) that those who grew up the decade know and love.

Fright Night isn't without its flaws. One subplot in particular (Dandridge is drawn to Amy, Charlie's girlfriend, because she looks like a woman he used to love ages ago) is not at all developed and wholly unnecessary. But overall it's another film that, along with The Lair of the White Worm and An American Werewolf in London, treads the horror and humor line just perfectly. It's certainly given me great enjoyment over the years and has held up to multiple October viewings.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

An American Werewolf in London: Lycanthropy has never been so fun

"Stay on the road, keep clear of the moors... beware the moon, lads."

--Unnamed patron of the Slaughtered Lamb, from
An American Werewolf in London

In his non-fiction study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King lays out the case that evil in fiction can be broken out into three archetypes--the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name. According to King, the Werewolf archetype includes stories that explore the evil lurking within mankind, "something vicious in the human makeup that has not yet been bred out."

But when it comes to actual on-screen depictions of the beasts themselves, werewolves have received a middle child's neglect--or worse, outright abuse (see most of The Howling series, the miserable An American Werewolf in Paris, etc.). One of the few and notable celluloid exceptions is the terrific 1981 film An American Werewolf in London, for my money still the best werewolf film of all time and a true standout in the horror genre.

An American Werewolf in London opens with sweeping views of the moors of Northern England. The sinister and mist-shrouded landscape is ringed with steep hills that seem to conceal something terrible, a hungry creature watching the land for potential victims. There is nowhere to hide or to run. Civilization (such as it can be called) consists of small towns huddled in vales, points of light in the darkness.

Over this opening visual sequence comes the song "Blue Moon" (with its ominous line, "Now I'm no longer alone.") This juxtaposition of light-hearted music and dread-filled imagery sets the tone for the remainder of this underappreciated horror classic. Director John Landis' skillful balancing of comedy and horror is in large part what makes An American Werewolf in London so enduring and memorable.

As the film opens, Jack and David (played by actor David Naughton), two young American travelers hiking their way across europe on an ill-fated vacation, are hitchiking on the back of a farm truck with a load of sheep, and are unceremoniously dumped at an intersection in the heart of the moors. The two walk into a small village and, seeking comfort from the cold, enter an inn ominously named The Slaughtered Lamb. Jack makes the mistake of asking about a pentagram on the wall and the mood in the inn immediately turns hostile and sour. Finding themselves unwanted, Jack and David prepare to leave into the moonlit light. As they depart a local issues an ominous warning: "Stay on the road, keep clear of the moors... beware the moon, lads."

In a terrifyingly effective sequence, David and Jack are stalked on the moors and savagely attacked by a werewolf. Jack suffers a horrible death and David is left wounded and bleeding... to himself become a werewolf at the next full moon. While recouperating in a London hospital, David and his nurse, Alex, become romantically involved. But their idyllic romance is interrupted by David's horrible dreams, which include sequences of himself running nude through the woods, transforming into something monstrous, as well as visions of wanton destruction inflicted on those he loves. This is the lycanthrope lurking inside David, dark porents of the horror he will soon unwillingly inflict on the people of London.

Once again Landis injects levity back into the story with the reappearance of Jack. Though he's now undead, and horribly mauled to boot, Jack retains his wisecracking, self-deprecating personality (in fact, the two chat about Jack's funeral service back in the United States, with Jack complaining about his grief-stricken girlfriend finding solace in the bed of another man). Jack tells David that the only way the curse of lycanthropy can be broken--and Jack's soul laid to rest--is to end the werewolf's bloodline, of which David is now the inheritor. "Take your life David. Kill yourself--before you kill others," Jack urges.

Like the voice of David's conscience, Jack returns again and again throughout the film, his visage growing worse and worse with each appearance due to the onset of rot, each time imploring David to take his own life. By the end of the film all the flesh has fallen away from Jack's face, leaving a grinning skull. In a memorable scene, David meets the heavily-decayed Jack in a sleazy adult movie theatre along with six other victims of his first murderous rampage in London. Their mauled corpses offer suggestions as to how David can best kill himself as the grunts and sighs of a porno flick drone on in the background.

All in all, this is one of my all-time favorite horror films and one that I find myself returning to annually each Halloween.

I won't spoil the ending, but I'd be remiss if didn't mention at least a few other of my favorite scenes/elements from the film:

The werewolf transformation sequence. Done prior to the advent of CGI, this is a masterpiece of latex, fake hair, and camera tricks that, 27 years later, remains the best werewolf transformation ever put to film. Naughton does a great job of conveying the agony of changing into a werewolf as his body is wracked with unnatural growths, including lengthening leg bones, a snout bursting through his face, and hands and feet that stretch and sprout claws.

David's attempt to get arrested. When David discovers to his horror that he is a werewolf and responsible the murders of six London civilians, he attempts to get arrested and thrown behind bars to prevent himself from killing again. He runs up to a policeman and begs to be taken to jail ("I want you to arrest me you asshole!"). When the officer refuses, he shouts at the growing crowd, "Queen Elizabeth is a man, Prince Charles is a faggot, Winston Churchill was full of shit, Shakespeare was French!" This is laugh-out-loud funny.

The subway scene. In his werewolf form David pursues a businessman in the subway tunnels beneath London. Landis wisely takes a cue from Jaws and keeps the werewolf largely off-screen, which proves very effective: Its deep, bestial growl echoing in the cavernous mouth of the subway tunnel is terrifying, as are the few glimpses we get of hate-filed eyes and gray fur. In the businessman's panicked looks over his shoulder we can see the approach of his own horrible death (I note that when Landis does show the werewolf in the full light of the London streetlamps at the end of the film, it's not nearly as scary).

I also have to give props to the soundtrack, which includes the aforementioned "Blue Moon," as well as other appropriate werewolf songs (Van Morrison's "Moondance" and "Bad Moon Rising" by CCR).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The perverse underbelly of horror: A review of The Lair of the White Worm

Note: I have a weakness for horror films of all types--good and bad, classic and B-grade, you name it--that the approach of Halloween always brings out. The following is the first review of a couple of lesser-known horror films that also happen to be among my favorites.

Funny, gruesome, sexy, campy, hallucinogenic, uneven, and twisted are just a few of the adjectives I'd use to describe The Lair of the White Worm. Directed by Ken Russell, this 1988 horror film is supposedly based on a Bram Stoker novel of the same name, and I say supposedly because, although I've never read Stoker's novel, the plot summaries I've reviewed bear almost no resemblance to the movie.

The basic plot summary is as follows: A visiting student archeologist (Angus Flint) uncovers the skull of an enormous snake while excavating the buried remains of an ancient Roman temple in the quiet, pastoral village of Derbyshire. His find lends weight to the old Derbyshire folklore that a knight named John D'Ampton slew a great man-eating-worm/wyrm (i.e., dragon) that terrorized the countryside centuries before.

Angus is staying in the home of two comely lasses named Mary and Eve, whose parents disappeared a year earlier while walking along a wooded path near the home of the mysterious Lady Sylvia. Sylvia is soon revealed to be a vampiric snake-woman and worshipper of the ancient snake god Dionan. Sylvia later captures Eve as a living sacrifice for Dionan, and it's up to Angus, Mary, and James D'Ampton--the many-times great-grandson of the legendary hero John D'Ampton--to stop Sylvia and destroy the ancient evil dwelling in the dark caverns overlooking Derbyshire.

I strongly urge highly religious people (and, in particular, devout Catholics) to steer clear of The Lair of the White Worm since it contains some sadistic, fever-dream flashbacks of cruelty, murder, and worse inflicted on nuns and other religious symbols/personages. But if you can overlook these elements, and a couple of other bizarre and mostly nonsensical cut-scenes/dream sequences (which include an erotically-charged lesbian wrestling match in the interior of a Concorde jet), The Lair of the White Worm has a lot to offer.

For all its faults, I find The Lair of the White Worm compulsively watchable and enjoyable. Here are some of the reasons why:

The Lovecraftian vibe. The Lair of the White Worm has a strong "Thing that should not be," mythic, elder-evil feel to it, starting with the opening credits, red letters superimposed over a menacing cave mouth that portends something evil lurking within. Russell smartly and humorously inserts snake-like imagery and serpentine allusions into the film, building up to the "big reveal" at the end. He also succeeds in infusing the action with the dark history of Derbyshire, a small town that nearly two millennia ago was the site of a Roman-era cult dedicated to the worship of the snake-god Dionin. You could run a great (albeit half-slapstick) Call of Cthulhu game following this script.

Amanda Donohoe. To say that Donohoe (Lady Sylvia) chews scenery in this film is an understatement. She is absolutely stunning and sexy--and plays a wonderfully wicked vampiric snake woman to boot. Donohoe also manages to display a lot of flesh, which is definitely part of the film's appeal.

Hugh Grant. I liked Grant in this, even more so because the actor who went on to star in safe, family comedies like Nine Months doubtless would like to forget ever being in this film.

The camp. For all its gore and scary scenes, you're not supposed to take The Lair of the White Worm seriously. Russell lays on the campiness pretty thick--and it works. One of my favorite scenes has D'Ampton telling Angus about the legend of the D'Ampton worm as the latter shoves forkfuls of pickled earthworms into his mouth while attempting to talk with his mouth absolutely overflowing.

The biblical allusions. These are at times a bit ham-fisted but they do add another dimension to the film. We have Eve, the pure and virginal maiden, kidnapped by Sylvia, the serpent, who seduces her from a tree a-la the Garden of Eden. James D'Ampton is in the middle of the conflict, drawn to the sluttish Sylvia by his lust and to the chaste Eve by his heart. This tension is drawn out in a truly bizarre dream sequence/lesbian wrestling match I alluded to previously.

The bad effects. Most of the "special effects" in this film aren't so special, but I like them all the better for it. One of my favorites is a scene in which James D'Ampton cuts a snake-woman in half with a sword, leaving her legs and upper body writhing a pool of blood. Only it's painfully obvious that the two halves were created with two actors sticking up their legs and upper body through the floor of the set. It's a scene that's sure to bring to a smile to fans of schlock horror.

To read more about this fine (?) film, I recommend this Web site:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard: A review

The echoes of Robert E. Howard's life can be found in the places where he best lived it--in his copious amount of fiction and verse. And while that is a good place to start forming a complete picture of Howard, eventually the Lone Star State will rear its ungainly head and bellow, "Well, what about me?" You can always take the man out of Texas, but it's impossible to take Texas out of the man.

--Mark Finn, Blood and Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard

It's hard for me to compare Mark Finn's Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, with any other biography of Howard, for the simple fact that it's the first full-length treatment of Howard's life that I've read. But over the years I've picked up a lot of detritus on the life of the man who brought us larger than life, pulp heroes like Conan of Cimmeria and Solomon Kane, gathering enough scattered bits of information to form what I thought was a pretty accurate picture of one of my favorite writers: Immensely talented, yet socially malajusted, overly dependent on his mother, with paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies.

Fortunately, Finn has set the record straight on Howard's character with Blood & Thunder, presenting an alternative view that brings Howard into focus as a colorful and misunderstood young man who took his own life largely due to circumstances beyond his control. Finn admittedly wrote his book as a counterpoint to the only other full-length biography of Howard, L. Sprague de Camp's Dark Valley Destiny, which according to Finn is responsible for many of the inaccurate myths surrounding Howard's life. "I tried to think of everything that I didn't like about de Camp's effort, and then I tried very hard not to do that," writes Finn. This is both admirable and, in a few places, limiting.

Blood & Thunder's strength to me is its claim that Howard was very much a product of his environment. The creator of Conan of Cimmeria and Kull the Conqueror was born and raised in early 20th century Texas, one of the last vestiges of American frontier life. Howard's father, a physician, moved Robert and his mother from small town to small town, following work that spilled over from the boom-and-bust cycles of oil speculation. These small towns were wild and violent places, Finn writes, and Howard the elder's services were needed to stitch men back together. Into this potent mix of brawling, wealth-chasing men, towns that knew untapped wealth and crushing poverty in a span of days, and the wide open plains of sand and scrub of rural Texas, Howard's career as a writer was born.

Finn's insights in these chapters are unique and insightful, as its easy to write off that Howard's "weird tales" were entirely products of his own imagination, and sprang, fully formed, from the recesses of his mind. Writes Finn, "To ignore the presence of the Lone Star State in Robert E. Howard's life and writing invites, at the very least, a few wrongheaded conclusions, and at worst, abject character assassination."

However, I don't agree with all of Finn's conclusions, including one of his boldest: that Howard had no choice but to commit suicide. Finn posits that Howard's death by self-inflicted gunshot "was the one, the only, thing he could do, given his circumstances." Finn paints a grim picture of those circumstances, which included constant brushes with poverty (due to the Great Depression and the whim of the pulp magazine editors, who often went months without cutting Howard a check), an overbearing and terminally ill mother, and a nomadic upbringing that left Howard unable to make lasting relationships. But to say that suicide was the only thing Howard could do in his situation absolves him completely from blame. There's always a choice to soldier on, no matter how grim our circumstances. Surely better times were ahead for Howard, and now we can only sadly speculate on the great works that would have flowed from his pen in his middle years. But, as Finn does state, the only one who truly knows why Howard pulled the trigger was Howard himself.

But Blood & Thunder is much more than an analysis of the how and why of Howard's death. There's some well-researched biographical material here, including a review of some of the odd jobs Howard worked, a look at his friendships and his brief relationship with Novalyne Price, his fascination with boxing and physical conditioning, and an overview of his correspondence with famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. One of my favorite chapters is "Mythology," the last, which provides a great overview of the post-Howard years, including his resurgence in the Lancer paperback series of the 1960's and 70's, the "Conan the Barbarian" boom sparked by the comic books and the movie of the same name, and the growth of critical studies dedicated to Howard's works (unlike Finn I happen to think that Conan the Barbarian was a terrific swords-and-sorcery film, if nothing at all like Howard's character).

I was particularly intrigued by "the trunk,"a huge collection of unpublished miscellaneous material that lay largely unopened from Howard's death until 1950, as well as the early days of Howard publishing by the likes of Gnome Press. Much of this material was new to me.

Finn also spends some time in this chapter refuting the claims about Howard's character circulated by the likes of de Camp and Hoffman Reynolds Hays, the latter a reviewer for the New York Times. De Camp's assessment of Howard is a doozy: "The neurotic Howard suffered from Oedipean devotion to his mother and, though a big and powerful man like his heroes, from delusions of persecution. He took to carrying a pistol against his 'enemies' and, when his aged mother died, drove out into the desert and blew his brains out." This is certainly unfair and, as Finn points out, in many places simply inaccurate. I do think Finn is quick to dismiss all of Dark Valley Destiny, even the interviews it contains from people who knew Howard. Finn says that de Camp's interview questions were leading in nature and evoked the negative responses about Howard for which de Camp had come looking, and already believed to be true. This may be true, but I'd like to read Dark Valley Destiny and formulate my own opinion.

In the end, however, this is another strength of Finn's book: It opens up the wider world of Howard's books and other material about his life that may not be so widely known. After reading Blood & Thunder I feel inspired to go back and read more of the Howard I've overlooked, such as his boxing stories and his historic fiction. The now-defunct Amra, a small-press fanzine dedicated to Howard's life and writings, sounds particularly intriguing.

Finally, Blood & Thunder contains a glowing foreward by Joe Lansdale, an underrated and very talented horror/suspense writer. Lansdale is a Texas native and is highly complementary both of Howard and Finn's book. Like Finn, Lansdale states that Howard is an author of worth and deserves wider recognition for his considerable talents as a writer of visceral action, adventure, and atmosphere; I happen to agree strongly with both men.

In summary, Blood & Thunder is highly recommended for any Howard fan.