Thursday, May 29, 2008

The glory that was The Savage Sword of Conan

As a kid I used to take weekly walks to a local comic shop to blow my allowance. It was there in this dusty, creaky old store on the edge of the town common that I first discovered The Savage Sword of Conan.

At that time I was a fan of a handful of Marvel superhero titles, including Captain America and The Avengers, primarily, with a smattering of Fantastic Four, Hulk, and Thor thrown in. But one day I stumbled across a rare find: An unmarked cardboard box on the floor of the store, with two rows of a strange magazine standing unbagged and upright therein. I lifted out an issue and looked at the cover, which depicted a muscular hero swinging a bloodied axe, battling a horde of ghouls, skeletons, pirates, and a wizard, while a scantily-clad, voluptuous blonde woman looked on in amazement and desire.

It was SSOC 16, the cover of which I've included here. I knew the name of Conan from the movies and from references in popular culture, but this was something different: A magazine both dangerous and adult, with unfathomable alien articles and lots of text to go with stunning black and white artwork by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala. I bought it right then and there, paying the princely sum of $2, and put in the bag with the other handful of titles I purchased that day.

When I got home I was treated to the first part of The People of the Black Circle, described in the magazine as follows: In the vast, mysterious subcontinent that is Vendhya, Conan the Cimmerian battles to save an ancient throne from the most fearsome wizards of the Hyborian Age. Next to the splash art was an evocative page with which I'd soon become intimately familiar, and one that still evokes a feeling of excitement and adventure: the famous excerpt from The Nemedian Chronicles ("Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of..."), along with a map of the Hyborian Age of Conan, circa 10,000 B.C.

Also in the issue were:
  • A Probable Outline of Conan's Career (by popular demand!), a reprint of a classic Robert E. Howard essay from Weird Tales detailing Conan's timeline;
  • A Portfolio of Robert E. Howard, illustrations of Conan, Kull, and Red Sonja by seven artists;
  • Fire and Slaughter, the fifth chapter of Howard's saga of prehistoric civilization (circa 9,500 B.C.);
  • Worms of the Earth (at last!), a story of Bran Mak Morn, king of the Picts, who battles against the invading Romans with the hordes of Hell on his side!; and
  • Swords and Scrolls, the letters page, featuring a lengthy letter from Yasmina, flower of the dawn and thief in the night, a belly dancer (accompanied with a semi-revealing photo) who attended a comic book convention dressed as Conan's love-interest Yasmina.

Needless to say I was hooked, drawn into a world in which all the men were mighty of limb; the women full of hip and breast; where magic was wild and unpredictable and to be feared, the province of madmen; where ancient, vine-choked cities lay in the heart of foreboding forests, to be plundered only by those foolish or brave enough and trained in the art of the sword. Conan was my guide in this wondrous Age of Hyboria and I lived vicariously through his adventures. Over the coming months I would return to the store again and again, buying a couple of SSOC titles each time for $1 or $2 apiece. I read the remainder of The People of the Black Circle (issues 17-19) one-by-one like a highly anticipated serial, then moved on to buy #5, 6, 13, 21, 23-27, 29-31, 33-38, 40-50, 55-59, 61, 63-64, 67, 69, 75-76, 78, 80, 81-82, 84, 92, 94, 95, 97, and 100. I know the exact numbers because I still have them all and cannot bear to part with them, and probably never will. I have too many memories wrapped up in these magazines, and owe them a debt for the hundreds of hours of enjoyment they delivered. Later on I would go on to buy many more SSOC titles in the mid-upper 100's.

In addition, I also purchased a huge run of Conan Saga out of the same box. Conan Saga was great because it was cheap and contained classic reprints of SSOC as well as Conan the Barbarian and Savage Tales. For as little as 75 cents each I scored issues 1-13, plus 16-30, 32-42, 46-52, and 54. The value of these magazines had no meaning for me at the time, only the stories they contained.

The now-defunct SSOC was--and remains--a terrific swords-and-sorcery magazine. I prefer the term magazine when referring to SSOC (1974-1995) because it can't rightly be called a comic book, which to me implies a safe, bubblegum adventure story for kids. I don't know how many comic books contain actual articles (reprints of Robert E. Howard articles from Weird Tales), detailed and scholarly book reviews (of Howard collections), or eye-popping photograph spreads (of bikini-clad Red Sonja lookalikes). Savage Sword had all these and more.

Soon SSOC and Conan Saga became an obsession. I liked them because they contained self-contained adventures (a few had stories that spanned more than issue). You didn't have to invest a ton of time and money following a long story arc like you did with traditional comics. Each magazine was its own entity, with a great swashbuckling adventure that started and concluded right there.

The scantily-clad women and decapitations were great, too, but most of all SSOC stood out for its great cover and interior art, and also for having terrific writing and amazing stories. I'm sure the X-men and Batman had some good writers working for them in those days, but SSOC had Robert E. Howard (until his tales ran out). Advantage? SSOC.

Sadly, both the comic book store and SSOC are long gone, but the memories (and my back issues) remain. And I have SSOC to thank for awakening me to Howard's actual stories themselves, which will likely be the subject of another post. In fact, this might in the end be its greatest legacy: I firmly believe that, in addition to the Lancer/Ace Conan paperbacks of the 1960s/1970s, SSOC and its brethren introduced a new generation of fans to Howard that might not otherwise have ever read of the mighty-thewed barbarian.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Del Toro, Jackson talk The Hobbit

Okay, so I'm a day late and a dollar short on this one (blame the long weekend and a lack of internet access), but the WetaHolics Web site recently posted a transcription of a series of Q&As that fans and Weta staff asked of director Guillermo del Toro and producer Peter Jackson regarding the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hobbit. You can find the complete transcript here. Thanks to Trollsmyth for tipping me off to this event.

Following are some highlights from the transcript and my own thoughts on the exchange (note that I'm dropping my comments into the Q&A; I unfortunately was not part of the dialogue :).

WetaHost: Peter: What was it about Guillermo that made you feel he was the right guy to continue on the saga of Middle-earth? Are the two of you on the same page for the vision, direction, and style that these movies will have? If the two of you disagree on a point, who wins out?

Peter Jackson: I'll talk more about this in a later question, but watching his films, he has respect for fantasy. He understands it, he's not frightened by it. Guillermo also understands character, and how the power of any movie is almost always linked to how closely we empathize with characters within the story. His work shows great care and love for the main characters he creates. He also has supreme confidence with design, and visual effects. So many film makers are scared of visual effects - which is no crime, but tough if you're doing one of these movies! If we disagree, the director has to win, because you should never force a director to shoot something they don't believe in. But we're both reasonably practical and ego-free, and I believe that if we disagree, we both have the ability to express our differing theorys - state our case, like lawyers - and between us, work out what's best for the movie.

Me: I'm glad that Jackson is giving Del Toro plenty of freedom on The Hobbit. Movies are definitely one of those mediums in which too many cooks can spoil the broth, and create a watered-down, safe, boring product. However, I'm also glad that Jackson will be providing a fair amout of input.

Eriol: So what age rating are you aiming at?
Peter Jackson: Hi Eriol - the rating will be the same as the Trilogy, PG13 on both movies
Guillermo del Toro: An intense PG-13...

Me: Exactly as I had expected. Surprisingly, many across the internet were expecting a PG-children's film, but with the success of The Lord of the Rings, I knew that there was no way New Line and Jackson were going to mess with the audience or the formula.

WetaHost: In the Hobbit book, we have talking trolls and the Eagles and Smaug talks as well, however in the LOTR Trilogy, trolls did no more than grunt, Fellbeasts screamed, and the Eagles, who were meant to talk, just stayed silent. How much will the portayle of such animals change in the Hobbit?

Guillermo del Toro: I think it should be done exactly as in the book- the “talking beast” motif has to exist already to allow for that great character that is Smaug. It is far more jarring to have a linear movie and then – out of the blue – a talking Dragon.

Me: My confidence in del Toro is rising. More Tolkien=better product (see The Lord of the Rings films, which were at their best when they hewed closest to the source material).

WetaHost: Hi. Do you intend to play this one by the Book (The Hobbit that is) and make it a very light childrens tale on film, or do you plan to stick with the much darker treatment- in keeping with the LotR films - particularly the latter ones. My personal preference would be for the latter - cannot see how eg. the Rivendell Elves could regress from their nobility in LotR to those "...Tra-la-la-la...." singing versions which were in teh Hobbit Book. Thank you.

Guillermo del Toro: We’ll see about the “Tra-la-la-" later- but the book, I believe, in echoing the “loss of innocence” England experienced after WWI, is a passage form innocence to a darker, more somber state- The visual / thematic progression should reflect that in the camera style, color palette, textural choices, etc.

Peter Jackson: As I said earlier, I personally feel that The Hobbit can, and should have a different tone. The "tone" of these stories shouldn't be defined by the pressure our characters were under in LOTR. The world is a different place at the time of the Hobbit. The shadow is not so dark. However, what should stay the same is the reality of Middle-earth, and the integrity we bring to it as film makers.

Me: I like this decision too. As I've mentioned in past posts, The Hobbit is certainly lighter in spirit than The Lord of the Rings, but the difference is most pronounced at the outset of the story. Over the course of The Hobbit a tonal shift occurs which moves the tale into a darker, more complex, adult story. Tolkien later stated that he would have written it with the same voice he employed in LOTR, given a second chance, so I have no quarrel here.

Merlkir: Any ideas about the talking wargs? the wargs in hobbit are remarkably different from the "hyena" ones in the LOTR movies..

Guillermo del Toro: Absolutely: they will be different from the Hyena ones established in the Trilogy- they will be faithful to the creatures in the book and will be redesigned accordingly.

Me: So far, del Toro is batting 1.000. Wargs should be wolf-ish, albeit larger and more menacing and a bit more bestial. The wargs from LOTR (the films) were certainly nasty, but they weren't very wolf-like.

WetaHost: I always thought creating Gollum would pose a great artisic challenge to the artists whose job it would be to adapt the Lord of the Rings. With the Hobbit I believe Smaug will pose one of the great challenges. Now we have all seen dragons in movies. But for the Hobbit I personally am excepting nothing less than unbelievable . Were will you go for inspiration? What styles will the art dirction look at? Personally I can see a lot being done with the setting from Pan's Labyrinth. Thank you and good luck to you all.

Guillermo del Toro: This is a big one-- Allow me to quote form my random responses at… I am a big Dragon fan. I've said it before- And I was fortunate enough to be born a Dragon in the Chinese Horocope... And although its always impossible to agree on the "greatest" of anything, I bring forth these two as the main film contenders for that title: Eyvind Earle / Disney's Maleficent dragon ( a triumph of elegance of color and design) and Vermitrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer. In my opinion, every other design has borrowed heavily from these two. I plan to create something new and groundbreaking. Smaug should not be "the Dragon in the Hobbit movie" as if it was just "another" creature in a Bestiary. Smaug should be "The DRAGON" for all movies past and present. The shadow he cast and the greed he comes to embody- the "need to own" casts its long shadow and creates a thematic / dramatic continuity of sorts that articulates the story throughout- In that respect, Smaug the CHARACTER is as important, if not more important, than the design. The character will emerge form the writing- and in that the Magnificent arrogance, intelligence, sophistication and greed of Smaug shine through- In fact, Thorin's greed is a thematic extension of this and Bilbo's "Letting go" and his noble switching of sides when the dwarves prove to be in the wrong is its conceptual counterpart (that is a hard one to get through, Bilbo's heroism is a quiet, moral one) and the thematic thread reaches its climax in the Bilbo / Thorin death bed scene.

Anyway, back to Smaug: One of the main mistakes with talking dragons is to shape the mouth like a snub Simian one in order to achieve a dubious lip-synch. .. A point which eluded me particularly in Eragon, since their link is a psychic one. To me, Smaug is the perfect example of a great creature defined by its look and design, yes, but also, very importantly, by his movement and -One little hint- its environment - Think about it... the way he is scaled, moves and is lit, limited or enhanced by his location, weather conditions, light conditions, time of the year, etc. That's all I can say without spoilers but, if you keep this curious little summary you'll realize several years form now that those things I had in my mind ever since doodling the character as a kid had solidified waaay before starting the shoot of the film. A big tool is also how and when he is fully revealed. I could give you specifics- beat-by-beat in fact (I'm geeking out to do it), but... I will say no more in order to save you from ruthless spoilerage (we have a few years to go, you know...?) and increased anxiety. Let me, however, say that this is actually one of the points I feel most enthusiastic about. As to his voice- well, each reader has a Smaug voice in his / her head, just like you always do when "hearing" a great character in a book. I have mine... and it will be revealed in time...

Me: del Toro is the man--dropping a Vermithrax reference into the interview was totally unexpected and very cool. Dragonslayer is one of the best fantasy movies to emerge from the 1980's and that decade's pile of wildly awful and great fantasy films, and Verithrax remains my favorite wyrm put to film. If The Hobbit can improve on him we'll be in for some great scenes, indeed. More to the point: It is nice to hear del Toro put into words that he's drawing on Dragonslayer for some degree of inspiration and is chomping at the bit to get his vision on film.

WetaHost: Hello Mr. Jackson and Mr. Del Toro! Thank you very much for this time. My question is one that I think you will hear alot of from many of us...from what material will you pulling the second movie from? I know it'll be great with you two on board, but I am mighty curious. I am a huge fan of both of you and I look foward to more Tolkien films!

Guillermo del Toro: The idea is to find a compelling way to join THE HOBBIT and FELLOWSHIP and enhance the 5 films both visually an in their Cosmology. There’s omissions and material enough in the available, licensed material to attempt this. The agreement is, however, that the second film must be relevant and emotionally strong enough to be brought to life but that we must try and contain the HOBBIT in a single film.

Peter Jackson: I'm really looking forward to developing Film Two. It gives us a freedom that we haven't really had on our Tolkien journey. Some of you may well say that's a good thing of course! The Hobbit is interesting in how Tolkien created a feeling of dangerous events unfolding, which preoccupy Gandalf. There's an awful lot of incident that happens during that 60 year gap. At this stage, we're not imagining a film that literally covers 60 years, like a bio-pic or documentary. We would figure out what happens during that 60 years, and choose one short section of time to drop in and dramatise for the screen. I'm really interested in how it effects The Hobbit - do we show what happens to Gandalf during his trips away? We'll see. We may well have seeds for Film Two that we'll subtly sow during The Hobbit.

Me: Pretty much a non-answer to my biggest question. Film two could be a great and worthy addition to the series, or frankly, it could veer into disaster. Without a strong, central narrative from Tolkien to draw upon, I fear that the latter is more likely. And no offense to del Toro, Jackson, or the other wonderful writers on this project, but Tolkien is the wellspring from which your movies--and financial and artistic success--flow. Again, the best parts of the LOTR films were straight from or closely aligned with Tolkien. The handful of failures--shield surfing, Aragorn over the cliff, etc.--were deviations.

WetaHost: Considering that you're stretching The Hobbit into 2 movies can we assume that Beorn will be featured and will not be given the Tom Bombadil treatment?

Guillermo del Toro: I may be in the minority, but I absolutely LOVE Beorn and I intend to feature him in the films. BTW I also like TB quite a bit…

Me: Okay, back to the good. I love Beorn too, and it sounds like he'll be in the films--unless Jackson and Boyens rip the decision from del Toro's hands.

WetaHost: I'd comment on the awesomeness of director choice, but I'm sure that gets old. Concerning The Hobbit and the numerous Dwarves, I was wondering if all of them are going to find their way into the film. In Lord of the Rings, you had 9 in the Fellowship, but you had three movies to flesh them out. In the Hobbit, you have 13 Dwarves and one film to throw them all in. I'm definitely hoping to see all 13 make their way in, but what are you doing about this?

Guillermo del Toro: Tolkien wrote 13 dwarves and I intend to use 13 dwarves. I am, in fact, thrilled to keep them all and have them be distinguishable and affecting as characters. Much of the drama and emotion in the last third of the book and film will come from them.

Me: This may seem like a minor issue, but I'm glad that del Toro will be retaining all 13 dwarves. It's going to be difficult to write in 13 short, stumpy men early into the script and make them unique and accessible to the audience, and it would probably be easy to cut the number down to a manageable 6 or 7. But again, more Tolkien=better (keep repeating that mantra).

WetaHost: My question is, when Del Toro has acknowledged his disdain for Hobbits and "sword and sandals" fantasy, how can he do justice to the movie? Why can't Peter direct it himself after The Lovely Bones? He can direct these 2 movies and then direct the 3rd Tintin movie.

Guillermo del Toro: Okay- If by “Sword and Sandal” you mean “Sword and Sorcery” I stand by the general lines of my statement in 2006. But allow me to reproduce the following paragraph from and expand it- Since the age of 4 I became an avid reader and collector of books; manuscripts, pamphlets, first editions, small press or worn-down paperbacks... they all find a home at my library which has grown so cumbersome and obtrusive that I had to move to a separate home from the family one... For many decades my main area of interest has been horror fiction: Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, MR James, LeFanu, etc and classic Fairy tales and literature about the engines of Myth: unabridged Grimm, Andersen, Wilde, Bettelheim, Tatar, etc.

Now and then I indulge in Science Fiction (not hardware oriented but more humanistic things) and thus I count Bradbury, Ellison, Sturgeon and Matheson amongst my favorites. My area of interest gets much narrower when we deal with another genre... the genre that is shelved under Fantasy. As a youngster I read Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, Lloyd Alexander, Fritz Leiber, Marcel Schwob, RE Howard and a few others.

Nevertheless I was never propelled into an aleatory addiction to sub-genres like Sword & Sorcery or indiscriminate fantasies about magical this or that- Like any other genre or subgenre there's a great abundance that makes it hard to discern when a new "trilogy" or "chronicle" comes from as genuine a place as Tolkien's or derives from genuine fervor -religious or otherwise- like C.S. Lewis' did. But here I am now: reading like a madman to catch up with a whole new land, a continent of sorts- a Cosmology created by brilliant philologist turned Shaman. As if he grasped an existing universe outside our Platonic cave, Tolkien channels an entire world, weaving expertly from myth and lore. The oustanding virtue is that all this scholarly erudition doesn't reduce his tales to mere Taxidermy. He achieves an Alchemy all of his own: he writes new life in the freshly sculpted clay of his creatures.

I have, through the years become familiar with the very roots of Tolkien's myths and the roots of Fafhrd or Elric or Hyperborea and many a time I have relished the intricate ways in which demonic wolves, shape-shifter and spindly-limbed pale warriors can be woven into those many tales that become, at the end, the single tale, the single saga- that of what is immortal in us all. In creating Pan's Labyrinth I drank deep of the most rigid form of Fairy Lore and tried to contextualize the main recurrent motifs in an instinctive rhyme between the world of fantasy and the delusions of War and Politics (the grown man's way of playing make-believe) and in re-reading THE HOBBIT just recently I was quite moved by discovering, through Bilbo's eyes the illusory nature of possession, the sins of hoarding and the banality of war- whether in the Western Front or at a Valley in Middle Earth. Lonely is the mountain indeed.

When that statement was made- at different times during PANS LABYRINTH’s promotion, many a time I made the distinctive call to say that although I had not read Tolkien outside THE HOBBIT I had been fascinated by the Trilogy films. A statement that I already had the chance to make in 2005 when PJ, Fran and I met about HALO. So, no, generally I am NOT a “Sword and Sorcery” guy or a “Fantasy” guy- By the same token, I'm not a sci-fi guy but I would make a film based on Ellison in a second- or on Sturgeon or Bradbury or Matheson. I'm not into Barbarians with swords but i would kill to tackle Fafhrd and Grey Mouse... and so on and so forth... I'm a believer but not a Dogmatic.

Allow me to put a final, finer point to our discussion. The aesthetics of HELLBOY II are completely Pop and color-saturated, much more comic book / modern than I would ever use in THE HOBBIT but- I spend two years creating a world of Fairies, Elves, Trolls, etc Two Years. A career / creative decision that precedes any inkling of THE HOBBIT. I wrote the script years before I met with PJ or Fran. In other words I dedicated the last 6 years of my career (between PL and HBII) to create Fantastical world inhabited by Fairies, Fauns, Ogres, Trolls, Elves, etc In that respect- I guess I am a Fantasy guy when the particular world appeals to me. Back in the Jurassic Period (1992 / 1993) when CRONOS won the Critic’s Week at Cannes I was referred to as an “art house guy”- I followed that with a giant cockroach movie that proved successful enough to spawn two sequels and allow me to co-finance THE DEVILS BACKBONE which send me back to being an “art house guy”. Then I did BLADE II and people thought of me as an “Action guy”- PJ went through a similar mercurial career with HEAVENLY CREATURES, BAD TASTE, DEAD ALIVE, etc I squirm away from a tag and I hope I can avoid being just a “Fantasy guy” after PL, HBII and H… I do the tales I love (regardless of what shelf Barnes & Noble classifies the book under) and I love the HOBBIT. I love it enough to give it half a decade of my life and move half a world away to do it.

Me: Another big question I wanted answered, and I'm glad that del Toro took it on, even if his answer is not completely satisfying (and a bit prepared). I think I know where he's coming from--he's not a "sword and sorcery" fan, but rather a supporter of stories with resonance and meaning regardless of the forms they take. I respect that, even though I don't like when folks try to place themselves above particular genres. You don't have to read every derivative series ever written (Dennis McKiernan, I'm looking at you) in order to be a fantasy fan, but there's also no shame in respecting the fantasy genre as a place where terrific authors have worked, great stories are told, and lasting myths are made. I think he mostly did that here.

Summation: Del Toro won some major points with me in this interview and my faith in The Hobbit has been re-energized.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The swords and sorcery debt owed to Lin Carter

The name of Lin Carter, widely reviled in fantasy fiction circles, deserves some reconsideration.

Nowadays Carter is regarded as a hack who tarnished Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. There's little debate that he and L. Sprague de Camp engaged in some heavy-handed editing of Howard in the famous (infamous?) Lancer-published Conan paperback series of the 1960's, altering Howard's words and intermingling his stories of the legendary Cimmerian with some questionable-quality pastiches of their own.

But the other day I had a revelation after reading Flashing Swords #1 (Dell Publishing, 1973), the first in a briefly-running fantasy anthology series edited by Carter: The guy had an undeniable passion for the branch of fantasy fiction known as swords and sorcery, and, as a keeper of its flame for a good decade or more, probably deserves much better treatment than he receives in many Howard circles.

One of Carter's short stories appears in Flashing Swords #1: "The Higher Heresies of Oolimar," an adventure of Amalric the man-god. It pales alongside the other trio of swords and sorcery heavyweights in this volume, including Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance. On his best day, Carter was nowhere near the class of writer of these three.

"Oolimar" reads like a bad Conan pastiche, all sound and fury and no soul (although Carter is not without a sense of humor, and there's some amusing scenes in it. In fact, I'm not sure that Amalric isn't intended as some lampoon of the mighty-thewed barbarian archetype). Even his most ardent fans (if any such exist) surely wouldn't claim that Carter was a great writer. He was not. But it's not his swords and sorcery yarns, his science fiction, nor his Cthulhu pastiches for which Carter deserves reconsideration. Rather, it's his contributions to the field as an editor and ethusiastic, influential spokesman that makes Carter worthy of respect.

I found his introduction to Flashing Swords #1 ("Of Swordsmen and Sorcerers") as illuminating and entertaining as any of the tales that followed. Carter's best qualities as an editor shine through here, including the following:

His knowledge of the field. Carter starts off with a definition of Swords & Sorcery, a branch of fantasy that is still widely misunderstood today (heck, Hobbit director Guillermo del Toro called Tolkien's body of work "swords and sorcery," which couldn't be further from the truth). As Carter succinctly sums up:

We call a story Sword & Sorcery when it is an action tale, derived from the traditions of the pulp magazine adventure story, set in a land, age or world of the author's invention--a milieu in which magic actually works and the gods are real--a story, morever, which pits a stalwart warrior in direct conflict with the forces of supernatural evil.

That seems to be a pretty-spot on definition to me, and it was written in 1973. Carter also wisely credits Fritz Leiber for coining the term Sword & Sorcery, and Howard for founding it. Again, I think he's spot-on here. His essay speaks eloquently about Howard's influence and the genre's beginnings in the pulp men's magazine Weird Tales.

His enthusiasm for Swords & Sorcery. Love him or hate him, Carter's passion for Swords & Sorcery was undeniable. After laying the foundations of the genre, "Of Swordsmen and Sorcerers" next details Carter's relationship with the other S&S writers of the 1960'/70's. During a three-way exchange of correspondence between himself, de Camp, and John Jakes circa 1970, Vance hit on the idea of forming a guild, similar to the Mystery Writers of America or the Science Fiction Writers of America. Calling themselves The Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America--or SAGA for short--the group banded together and eventually expanded to eight members, a terrific cast that eventually included Jakes, Carter, de Camp, Leiber, Vance, Anderson, Michael Moorcock, and Andre Norton. Says Carter:

We authors of S&S--all eight of us!--would form a genuine do-nothing guild whose only excuse for existing would be to get together once in a while and hoist a few goblets of the grape in memory of absent friends.

How can you hate a guy with that kind of passion? SAGA's members later conferred outrageous titles upon each other--for example, de Camp was honored with the title of Supreme Sadist of the Reptile Men of Yag, while Carter was the Purple Druid of the Glibbering Horde of the Slime Pits of Zugthakya.

Getting S&S into print. Folks today largely forget that fantasy fiction was once a pale shadow of its current self--bookshelves now choked with heavy volumes of fantasy trilogies were once dominated by science fiction titles, and writers like Poul Anderson--whose natural inclination was fantasy--were forced to write science fiction stories because they paid the bills. But the rise of J.R.R. Tolkien helped change all that, as did the influence of the oft-overlooked Carter. Springing from SAGA came Flashing Swords, an anthology of stories by some of S&S's best minds. And according to the Web site below, during his stint as a Ballantine editor Carter was also responsible for revival reprints of fantasy masters such as Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, William Morris, and E.R. Eddison.

So how is Flashing Swords #1? Not bad. I enjoyed Leiber's tale ("The Sadness of the Executioner," a story of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser). "Morreion" by Vance didn't do much for me, although for D&D buffs it contains a couple recognizable elements that Gary Gygax borrowed wholesale, including Ioun Stones and colorfully named spells like Houlart's Blue Extractive. The best of the lot was Anderson's "The Merman's Children." I find Anderson to be a great writer. Check out his wonderful description of this ruined undersea city:

Below him reached acres of ruin. Averorn had been large, and built throughout of stone. Most had toppled to formless masses in the silt. But here stood a tower, like a last snag tooth in a dead man's jaw; there a temple only partly fallen, gracious colonnades around a god who sat behind his altar and stared blind into eternity; yonder the mighty wreck of a castle, its battlements patrolled by weirdly glowing fish; that way the harbor, marked off by mounds that were buried piers and city walls, still crowned with galleons; this way a house, roof gone to show the skeleton of a man forever trying to shield the skeletons of a woman and child; and everywhere, everywhere burst-open vaults and warehouses, the upward twinkle of gold and diamonds on the seabed!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Anderson is one of the unappreciated true greats.

But back to Carter: While I fault him for his ill-advised editorial decisions with Howard, his work bringing to print Flashing Swords and other stories "with verse and sparkle and wit and polish ... headlong adventure and excitement; stories of action and stories of subtler mood" makes him worthy of equal parts criticism and praise.

Note: For more about Lin Carter's influence, check out this Web site (if your eyes can stand the horrible green background):

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Hobbit: A fun and worthy film, warts and all

Confession: I like The Hobbit. The 1977 Rankin/Bass animated film, that is.

I'm interested to know if anyone else holds this film in high regard. I do, although I fully expect to have some tomatoes flung my way for admitting as much.

That is not to say that The Hobbit is flawless. It has its bad moments and a few warts, too. But for what it is--a children's film, limited by 1970's animation and the constraints of time--it's actually a pretty solid little movie.

The Hobbit screams 1970's period piece, from its Glenn Yarbrough warblings ("The greatest adventure, is what lies ahead") to its choppy and in some places creaky animation. It's also not so easy to follow: I came to The Hobbit as a youth having already read J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, but I would imagine that, from the perspective of a viewer with no exposure to the story, it could seem a bit confusing. Amazingly, it checks in at only 78 minutes, but in places it feels rushed.

I've compiled a list of likes and dislikes regarding this film, but as you will see the former list outweighs the latter.


The voicework. This is perhaps the film's greatest strength. Orson Bean (Bilbo), Hans Conreid (Thorin), Brother Theodore (Gollum), are very good, and Richard Boone (Smaug) and John Huston (Gandalf) are brilliant. As great as Ian McKellen is in Lord of the Rings, Huston's smoky, grandfatherly, and kind-yet-strong delivery is an absolutely perfect, spot-on representation of what I thought Gandalf should sound like.

Bilbo. Okay, he looks a bit weird (what's up with the perm?), but the movie does his character justice. We meet the stay-at-home, food and tobacco loving Bilbo at the film's outset, and over the course of the film something Tookish stirs in him. For the most part, the film is able to capture this critical awakening. Duty above comfort and acts of heroism by the small, unimportant folk is what The Hobbit and even The Lord of the Rings is really all about, after all.

Smaug. I hope the upcoming film does the same justice to Smaug as does Rankin/Bass. Smaug is still probably my favorite dragon ever put to film (Dragonslayer does a nice job as well) and, as a child at least, I found him to be truly terrifying. And The Hobbit gets bonus points for retaining the line, "My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are like swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath--death!" Good stuff.

The music (most of it). An admission I fully expect to be crucified over, but I'll come out and say it: I enjoy "Fifteen birds in five fir trees" "Roll them down the hole," and, God help me, even "The Greatest Adventure." And of course the dwarves singing "Far o'er the Misty Mountains old, to dungeons deep and caverns cold" at Bag End is pure awesomeness. In fact, I hope the forthcoming Del Toro version retains this song. But there are some duds: I freely admit that "Tra la la lally, here down in the valley, a-ha," is awful.

The bits of Tolkien. No surprise that all the great lines in the film are either straight from Tolkien or slightly modified from the book. "To go and see the great mountains, to hear the pine trees and waterfalls, to wear a sword instead of a walking stick," is one; "Child of the kindly West, I have come to know, if more of us valued your ways: food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," is another.

The maps. You can tell the writer/director loved Tolkien's maps, which is a good thing. The movie starts with a shot of Eriador, panning in on the Shire. Later Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin, pore over Thror's map in detail, and both maps appear to be exact reproduction from the books. The film also keeps Elrond's discovery of the moon letters on Thror's map.

Gollum. Andy Serkis was great in The Lord of the Rings, but the Rankin/Bass Gollum has a lot going for him. He's more menacing and even less hobbitish here, and his pale, orb-like eyes hew closer to the look described in the book than does the Serkis Gollum. Riddles in the Dark works pretty well, and the hateful look in Gollum's eyes after Bilbo makes off with his ring remains chilling, 70's animation and all.


The wood elves. These are absolutely hideous. Gray, ugly, with flat noses and spidery-thin limbs? Where did this art decision come from? This description is nowhere to be found in the book, and the end result is a race of woodland creatures who make the goblins seems downright comely in comparison. I have no idea why this choice was made, given that Elrond looks pretty good.

Most of the dwarves. Thorin was well-depicted, but what's up with Nori and Ori? Why are they wearing scarves that cover half their face, and why are they eerily silent? And the introduction of the dwarves is lame--we get a quick run-down of their names instead of great scene in the book, which has Gandalf cleverly introducing them all by twos and threes so as not to overwhelm Bilbo all at once.

No Beorn. Beorn suffered the same fate as Tom Bombadil did in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, written out of the script or left on the cutting room floor. I know that removing Beorn is an easy cut, but he's one of my favorite minor characters in the book and actually plays a very significant role in the Battle of the Five Armies. I truly hope he makes Del Toro's version.

The Battle of Five Armies. This is the film's biggest weakness, in my opinion. There is no sense of the scope of the massive, climactic event of the book as the animators resort to the cheap trick of using clouds of dust (with what looks like fleas struggling in their midst) to obscure the events of this memorable scene. When Bilbo receives his knock on the head, it's over, and we don't even get flashbacks or the events retold by Gandalf after the fact. This also robs Thorin of his moment on the battlefield. Poor, poor.

Still, flaws and all, overall I very much enjoy The Hobbit. It's comforting to know that, even if Del Toro's version flops, I'll have my old Rankin/Bass VHS tape to pop in the VCR.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

You're one of us now

A review of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney, read by Kristoffer Tabori

The image of Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers—mouth yawning open, eyes rolled back, finger stabbing at the screen—haunted me throughout my childhood. I stumbled onto the now iconic scene while watching television one day and it absolutely traumatized me. I found that alien shriek terrifying, and I still do.

It was with that chilling image gnawing at my mind that I began listening to the audiobook of 1955’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, upon which the Sutherland and as well as an earlier (1956) film are based. I found out early on that, while lacking the visceral fear of the 1978 film, the novel evokes a deeper sense of dread, and also packs some literary and historic heft, including a deft examination of the political landscape of 1950’s America.

While I went into Body Snatchers listening for pure story alone, its subtext was undeniable. Body Snatchers was written during the height of McCarthyism, and you don’t have to try to look for parallels—Body Snatchers is as much a reaction to the existential threat of Communist Russia as it is a book about battling alien invaders.

But Body Snatchers is no simple allegory of the Red Scare, either. Finney also provides a nostalgic snapshot of a simpler time, infusing the story with elements that are largely fond relics these days—soda jerks, doctors’ home visits, and shoe-shine men, for example. Finney sets the book in 1976, but perhaps he sensed that, even in the mid-50’s, those elements of small town America were already starting to fade away. You can’t help but feel a sense of sadness and loss amid the growing horror.

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s a tale about an alien race of seed pods who drift through space, seeking out planets whose life they imitate with perfect simulacrums while the host body is absorbed. The invasion begins in the small California town of Santa Mira.

The book opens with the narrator, Miles Bennel, living a quiet, uneventful life as a doctor in town. But soon a creeping, icy fear begins that builds deliciously over the course of the book, rising to near-panic when we learn the magnitude of the invasion. Remember that this is 1950’s style horror, so there’s no overt bloodshed or gore. But who needs splatterpunk when you’re confronted with an alien, parasitic race intent on consuming all life on the planet? Try to imagine the suffocating paranoia and slowly awakening terror of discovering that people all around you that you thought you new—teachers and sales clerks, husbands and wives—are being replaced by emotionless clones. And no one believes you.

Kristoffer Tabori reads the audio version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and does a wonderful job. He also shares in an interview on the final disc that his father, Don Siegel, directed the original 1957 film by the same name.

This is not a book without some flaws, however. One weakness is the spread of the aliens. At the risk of divulging a minor spoiler, the seed pods absorb their hosts’ bodies by growing in close proximity to their victims, typically in the basement of their homes. The process can take hours or days (how long is never revealed), but it begs the question: If Bennel and his friends managed to stumble upon a clone before it came fully to life, how come more Santa Mira residents didn’t do the same? Are we supposed to believe that every home has a convenient hiding hole in its basement capable of concealing three-foot long green vegetable pods? Also, the ending of the book was a bit of a let-down. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it felt a bit tacked-on and unsatisfying.

But, overall, Invasion the Body Snatchers is well-written and thought-provoking sci-fi/suspense, and a fine way to pass the time while commuting amidst the rest of the soulless conformists “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes” on their way to the office.

Edit: This review has also appeared on

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Spamalot--the bright side of life

During a business trip to Las Vegas last week I managed to catch a showing of Spamalot. It was hilarious and worth every penny.

If you haven't seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and I can't imagine anyone reading this who hasn't), then you won't have nearly as much fun watching Spamalot as someone like me, who has the film nearly memorized. Half the good feeling I got from watching Spamalot was seeing all the classic skits replayed on stage, and enjoying the cheers in the audience when the black knight strode onto the stage, for example, or when Arthur and co. rolled out the wooden badger. Many in the audience recited the lines right along.

Spamalot does differ from Holy Grail in several ways. There's far more musical numbers--no surprise given that it's a musical--and there's also greatly expanded roles by a couple minor characters, including the Lady of the Lake and Herbert, the gay singing prince. Spamalot is also a send-up of Hollywood musicals in general, with a particularly funny lancing of Hollywood love songs ("The Song that Goes Like This").

But the audience is also treated to most of the best parts from the movie, including the French knights, the black knight, the "bring out your dead" scene, Launcelot slaying half the wedding party, Tim the Enchanter, the peasant who argues with Arthur's right to kingship ("Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony"), and of course the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog. A couple omitted items I missed included the Knights of Nee/shrubbery scene (the Knights of Nee were in Spamalot, but there was no shrubbery, alas), and the two guards/"make sure he doesn't leave" scene was also left out. Ah well.

I also enjoyed the scenery and stage props--they rolled out a large-sized castle on stage for the scene with the French knights, and actually fired a large stuffed cow over the wall, for example. There was also a very funny effect when the rabbit beheads Bors--his head rolls around on stage and red streamers spill out of the neck. Playing the role of King Arthur was John O'Hurley of Seinfield fame (J. Peterman), and he was excellent.

If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend Spamalot.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Exploring the wondrous myth of King Arthur

I’m not a monarchist, but on some level I find the prospect of being ruled by a kind and just king comforting. Living the life of a noble knight in which your mission is to be obedient to his word and protect the weak from tyranny is pretty appealing, frankly.

This wishful thinking is, of course, flawed, as its based on a childishly idealized portrayal of authentic medieval monarchies. In order for an actual monarchy to succeed, the king (or queen) must be the human ideal, a paragon of strength, wisdom, justness, and grace--in other words, someone who never was, and probably never will be. With an imperfect man on the throne, we'd see poor policy, unfair laws, or at worst a cruel dictatorship. Real history is rife with examples of corrupt kingdoms.

Nevertheless, this quest for perfection on earth is part of the reason why I find the Arthurian legend in all its forms so powerful and compelling. The other reason of course is that the best of these tales--Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur, the film Excalibur, T.H. White's The Once and Future King--are amazing works of art which not only tell a great story, but convey deeper meaning about mankind, the roots of passion and conflict, social and spiritual ideals, and more. These, the best Arthurian stories, are worthy of study and repeated readings/viewings.

I've often wondered whether Le Morte Darthur is at some level an elaborate criticism of monarchies--after all, if ruin afflicts the kingdom of even the near-perfect Arthur, and was fated so from the start, then when can a monarchy ever succeed? But perhaps Malory's intent was to present in his work an honest portrayal of a king who is flawed because he's just a man, after all, but is nevertheless the shining ideal for past and future civilizations. After all, he is the once and future king, and according to Malory will return again at some time of dire need, presumably:

Hic Iacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus (Here lies Arthur, The Once and Future King)

Over the years the myth of King Arthur has taken on as many different forms as it has tellers. Each author, director, musician, and artist has his or her own version the Knights of the Round Table and Camelot, a shining, golden kingdom that illuminated a dark period in human history.

I've listed here my own criteria for tales of King Arthur. These elements should make their way into the story in some form:

Arthur (of course), a semi-divine king, a lawbringer, selfless, whose only fault is his love for his knights, which blinds him to Launcelot's indescretions with Guinevere.

Launcelot, the best knight and the stuff of legends, but flawed by his passion for Guinevere.

Guinevere/Launcelot betrayal. The story should in some way depict the love triangle, which played a part in the downfall of Camelot.

Foundation of Arthur’s kingdom/round table/chivalry/code of law. The foundation of right over might, representing a codification of order and peace and light as a bulwark against the chaos and tyranny of the Dark Ages.

  • Merlin, who adopts Arthur and who represents the old guard of paganism and faerie giving way to Christianity.

  • The Quest for the Holy Grail, the literal search for religion and Christ's cup at the last supper, but also the symbolic quest for a spiritual ideal, an internal search to elevate the soul beyond earthly ambitions. The myth of the Fisher King.

  • Mordred, the ill-begotten son of Arthur and his half-sister Morgause. He delivers the fatal blow to his father on the battlefield, and prior, when his betrayal strikes a grievous blow to Arthur's heart.

  • Camlann, the final battle, which must include Arthur’s wounding by Mordred, and his spiriting by boat to the mystical island of Avalon.
This next list are elements that frequently appear in the myth. While not required, I do enjoy them in my Arthurian fiction:
  • Excalibur, which confers a divine right upon Arthur when he draws it from the stone, and is cast into the sea at the tale’s end. Like Arthur it too will be found and return in some shadowy, indetermine future time, a powerful weapon with the singular, paradoxical ability to unite.
  • Camelot, the idealized kingdom of gold and silver spires.
  • Anachronistic elements. While I like the idea of the 5th century “historic” Arthur, as best portrayed by Bernard Cornwell in his terrific Warlord Trilogy, I enjoy more the full plate armor, 14th and 15th century, classic version of the knights of the round table.
  • Mythical beasts. If you like your Arthur with anachronisms, I figure that you might as well go full-bore and throw in serpents and giants and dragons, too.
  • Galahad, the paragon of virtue who succeeds in finding the grail and ascending to heaven. Other versions have Percival finding the Grail.
  • Morgan le Fay, the evil enchantress and foe of Arthur.
  • Sir Gawain, one of Arthur's bravest and perhaps his most loyal knight, whose desire to revenge himself on Lancelot for the murder of his (mostly) wicked brothers helps lead to the downfall of Camelot.
Here are some of my favorite versions of the Arthur myth in book, movie, and music form:

Must reads
  • Any version of Thomas Malory, the wellspring from which the tales flow (yes, I know there are older French sources, as well as Monmouths' History of the Kings of Britain, but these works contain scattered bits of the myth. Malory created the first complete narrative of the Arthur legend. I have a copy of Malory: The Complete Works, as edited by Eugene Vinaver, which retains the old English. But any version of Malory is acceptable.
  • The Once and Future King , T.H. White. The best modern treatment of Malory available. It's simultaneously very readable and focuses on the philosophical and moral underpinnings of the tale.
  • The Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell. Great three-part series which portrays the "historic" Arthur (who is believed to have existed in some form in the 5th century). Brutal and realistic to the period.
  • Pendragon/The Great Pendragon Campaign, Greg Stafford. A meticulously researched role playing game by Greg Stafford. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons, which contains a mish-mash of elements from fantasy literature, Pendragon's game engine is designed specifically to recreate the spirit and events of Malory. It's a great read besides.
Must views
  • Excalibur. By far the best version of the myth ever put to screen. This is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now a cliche, but it remains one of the funniest movies ever made and a great send-up of the tale of Arthur.
Must listens
  • The soundtrack to Excalibur, as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Terrific score that includes tracks borrowed from Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.
  • Mordred's Song, Blind Guardian. Powerful, epic treatment of Mordred that captures the pathos of the villain of the Arthur myth and renders him sympathetic ("No one can heal me, nothing can save me, no one can heal me; I've gone beyond the truth, it's just another lie; wash away the blood on my hands, my father's blood, in agony we're unified")

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hrolf Kraki's Saga: A viking warlord in King Arthur's court

Though life is lost, one thing will outlive us: memory sinks not beneath the mould.
Till the Weird of the World stands, unforgotten, high under heaven, the hero's name.

--The Bjarkamaal

It is a glaring weakness of mine as a lover of fantasy literature that I haven't read deeply of the Norse sagas. For example, sitting on my shelf right now and staring at me like a thick challenge is The Sagas of Icelanders, a massive tome in the Penguin Classics line which has remained on my "to read" list for far too long. It's a shame because, in the few instances in which I've encountered the Sagas, either in translation or adaptation, I've enjoyed the heck out of them.

Hrolf Kraki's Saga by Poul Anderson falls into the latter camp. It's a terrific little novel (260 pages in paperback) that moves with the speed of lightning and hits with the impact of Thor's hammer. As I said in a past post about Anderson (see my review of The Broken Sword), he's an author that seems to be largely forgotten these days, and when his name is mentioned it's usually for his prolific career as a science fiction writer, or for Three Hearts and Three Lions. But Anderson loved the Viking Sagas too. While arguably a better book, The Broken Sword is Anderson's creation; Hrolf Kraki's Saga is a retelling of the life and times of an actual Danish king. From the foreward by Lin Carter:

He was a real man, he really lived; he was the greatest of the Kings of the Danes and his court was glittering and fabulous, like that of Arthur at Camelot; there gathered the foremost heroes and warriors, the champions of their age--Bjarki, who held the charmed longsword Lovi; Svipdag, the slayer of berserkers; young Hjalti, who owned the magic sword Goldhilt.

But the old myths and tales of Hrolf Kraki are scattered and piecemeal. Anderson brings them all together in Hrolf Kraki's Saga (he calls it a 'reconstruction'), spinning a wonderful, epic tale in the process. It's a tale that's not for the faint of heart, as Anderson admits in his own foreward:

Here is no Lord of the Rings, work of a civilized, Christian author--though probably it was one of Tolkien's many wellsprings. Hrolf Kraki lived in the midnight of the Dark Ages. Slaughter, slavery, robbery, rape, torture, heathen rites bloody or obscene, were parts of daily life ... Love, loyalty, honesty beyond the most niggling technicalities, were only for one's kindred, chieftain, and closest friends. The rest of mankind were foemen or prey. And often anger or treachery broke what bonds there had been.

Yet Hrolf Kraki transcends this time by carving out a shining kingdom reminiscent of Camelot, "a moment of sunshine during a storm which raged for centuries," according to Anderson, driving back the darkness and bringing a rough order to a savage, dark world. The basic story is as follows:

Kraki is the son of King Helgi and Yrsa. His father is slain by the treachery of King Adhils of the Swedes, whose lust for Yrsa leads to foul murder and Yrsa's capture. Kraki inherits the throne and gathers great heroes to his side, including Svipdag, the one-eyed slayer of berserkers, and Bjarki, the son of a shape-changer, who retains some of his father Bjorn's bear-like size and strength (hmm... name sounds familiar).

Together, the group reunite the Danish kingdom a-la the Knights of the Round Table, avenge themselves on Adhils, and begin a seven-year reign of peace and prosperity of such greatness that its legend survives the ages.

Of course, this is Icelandic Saga and no gold can stay. Ultimately all is undone by Skuld, Hrolf Kraki's jealous sister, who convinces her husband Hjorvardh to rise up against Hrolf Kraki. He brings with him an army of cutthroats and mercenaries, strengthened by trolls and demons summoned by Skuld, a practitioner of the black arts, and starts a final battle against Hrolf Kraki and his men Ragnarok-esque in proportion.

If this doesn't sound awesome, your blood must run cold.

I won't spoil any more, but will end by offering a simple encouragement to find a copy of Hrolf Kraki's Saga and read it. You can blow through it in two nights and it will leave you thirsting for more of the Northern myths. As for me, The Sagas of Icelanders is calling...

Saturday, May 3, 2008

"The Unnatural City" finds a place in The Cimmerian

The latest issue of The Cimmerian (Vol. 5, No. 2, you can find a complete listing of the contents on The Cimmerian Web site ), contains an article I wrote, "The Unnatural City." It's my attempt at analyzing a Robert E. Howard short story, "Red Nails," easily one of my top five favorite Howard stories of all time.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here's a brief outline: Conan and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood enter the ancient, forgotten city of Xuchotl (actually--and in true Howardian form--they are more or less chased inside by a dragon). While at first the city appears deserted, soon they discover that the final stages of a centuries-old blood feud is playing out to its grim end. Adventure ensues as Conan and Valeria are thrust into the middle of the two warring tribes, and into this incendiary mix Howard tosses a crawling monster from the crypts, a mad sorcerer, and dark magic. The story culminates with a murderous orgy of violence in the labyrinthine halls of the city. Pretty cool stuff.

I chose the word "labyrinthine" because that's the feeling I received while reading Howard's descriptions of Xuchotl. As his readers know, Howard despised civilized man, whom he felt became soft and degraded due to living a life bereft of battle and survival and honest labor. Howard's antipathy was also directed toward that symbol of civilized man, the modern city, our own concrete jungles. Howard's fullest depiction of the city occurs in "Red Nails" and led to the inspiration for my essay. For the record, I'm no fan of city life, either, and seem to get lost every time I drive into Boston.

Thanks to editor Leo Grin for his patient work hammering my essay into publishable form and providing some helpful references to Howard's letters. I hope subscribers of The Cimmerian find it interesting, and perhaps take from it some food for thought the next time they wander the halls of Xuchotl in their mind's eye.

Edit: If you haven't been to The Cimmerian in a while, check out this great post on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion by blogger Steve Tompkins. Interesting, well-written, and well-researched posts like these are why I always find time to swing by that worthy website.