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