Thursday, December 31, 2009

Williamson’s reading of The Hobbit available on Youtube

If there was ever a story meant to be read aloud, it’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien intended the tale to be delivered orally, and inserted an authorial voice into the text which imbues it with a lively, conversational quality. He himself read The Hobbit aloud for the Inklings, and countless parents have read it to their children.

If you could name someone perfectly suited to read The Hobbit, who would it be? Boomed by the deep-throated Orson Welles, perhaps, or intoned by the inimitable Christopher Lee? Narrated by the smoky-voiced John Huston, he of Gandalf fame from the Rankin/Bass animated film of The Hobbit? Sung by Hansi Kürsch of German power metal band Blind Guardian ?

While all of the above are great choices, arguably the perfect-sounding version already exists, delivered by veteran stage and screen actor Nicol Williamson. Originally released as a four LP vinyl record set by Argo Records in 1974 (now rare and expensive to obtain), you can listen to the entire recording courtesy of Youtube. It’s split up into 23 parts and is obviously a direct recording from the vinyl. There’s crackly record static, but that only adds to its wonderful atmosphere.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site .

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The War of Art: Striking a blow against creative blocks

Anyone who has tried their hand at creative writing knows how daunting it is to face a blank computer screen or an empty notebook. Fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, and general inertia stop the vast majority of wannabe writers, painters, and other artists dead in their tracks, destroying their best intentions as surely as a spear thrust through the thorax.

Steven Pressfield, author of the excellent novels Gates of Fire and Tides of War, gives this enemy a face and a name. Once identified, he provides tactical advice and strong words of encouragement for beating it in The War of Art, his 2002 non-fiction treatise on the writing process.

The War of Art is not a comprehensive book on the craft of writing. You won’t find rules of grammar, tips on writing first drafts, or help with eliminating passive voice. Rather, it has a singular focus on breaking through writing, painting, or other artistic barriers, the cause of which is a fearsome, implacable foe which Pressfield calls Resistance. Writes Pressfield:

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

To which I say: Amen. I love writing with an unshakeable conviction. But it’s not easy, and in particular I hate (and fear) getting started. To make matters worse, once you’ve started a project of any length and significance, you have to set a regular (preferably daily) writing schedule, or else you risk a hard drive full of half-developed stories that will never see the light of day.

As befits an author who brought the battle of Thermopylae to vivid life in Gates of Fire, Pressfield likens creative writing to a life and death struggle on a battlefield in which the only possible outcomes are total victory or utter defeat. He’s right, of course. Resistance must be fought and beaten every day.

After identifying the root causes and symptoms of Resistance in book one of The War of Art, book two provides advice for defeating the enemy. In “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro,” we get advice on living the warrior’s life, including setting a firm schedule and accepting no excuses. “The pro keeps coming on. He beats Resistance at its own game by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is,” Pressfield writes.

If this seems like a rather grim depiction of the creative process, well, it’s because writing is hard. But writers write not because they want to, but because they have to. And, as Pressfield explains, the act of writing, once mastered, can produce art beyond the capacity of he or she that sets pen to paper. The moment one commits oneself, Pressfield writes, providence moves too. There is truth in this: Who knows from whence grand ideas like Middle-Earth, Camelot, or The Dark Tower spring? Many authors have stated that their characters and stories seemed to stalk, fully formed, from some recess of their imagination. Robert E. Howard used these words almost exactly to describe his conception of Conan. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters that Faramir just appeared in The Lord of the Rings one day, as if from thin air: “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.”

From where does this creativity come? Pressfield attributes it to the hand of God, the supreme Muse. Regardless of your beliefs, there is great mystery in the act of writing. It’s undeniable that great things happen if we have the courage to begin writing and to keep at it.

Tapping into the potential that lies within us all is what The War of Art helps artists of all stripes accomplish. It’s otherwise rather airy and light, and if you purchase it in the hopes of getting a comprehensive book on writing, you’re probably better off buying The Elements of Style by Strunk and White or even Stephen King’s On Writing. But if you want advice on waging war against the grim foe of Resistance, The War of Art is a staunch ally.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: My top five reads of 2009

Merry Christmas! With the end of the year approaching I thought I would put together one of those ever-popular “best-of” lists for your consideration.

Following are my top five books that I’ve either read or re-read in 2009, and that I thought may be of interest to readers of The Cimmerian. If you’re looking for a few ideas for those book gift cards in your stocking, I highly recommend any of the following for purchase.

They make for pretty grim reading, but hey, The Cimmerian has always been less about “caroling out in the snow” and more of the “scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories” bent when it comes to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Master storytelling at work in Lansdale's Mucho Mojo

Today I’m here to sing the praises of one Joe R. Lansdale. I consider him to be one of the finest storytellers of this, and perhaps any, generation. He may not have tremendous literary depth and I'm not implying he's the greatest writer ever, but he tells entertaining, page-turning stories as well as any writer I’ve encountered. The guy is a born raconteur (I love that word).

If you’re an aspiring writer and want to study the craft of writing—pacing, plot, characterization, ratcheting up the tension, breaking it with levity—Lansdale is a master of the art and is well worth studying and learning from. If you enjoy reading entertaining stories well-told, Lansdale is your man.

Lansdale has carved out a nice career as a full-time writer. He’s written episodes for Batman: The Animated Series, stories for comic books (including Jonah Hex, Conan, and The Fantastic Four), and the novella Bubba Ho-Tep, which was adapted for the screen starring The Man, Bruce Campbell. Early in his career Lansdale was pigeonholed as a “splatterpunk” horror author, which is absolutely unfair. He apparently did write some gruesome novels early in his career, and violence punctuates everything I’ve read of his, but while graphic and real it’s not overdone. He’s a man of wide interests and moods (gigantic melancholies and a gigantic mirth, to steal a line from Robert E. Howard) and can’t be boxed off in any one genre. Here’s a link to an interview in which he states that his preferred genre is “the Lansdale genre.” That’s probably the best description of his unique style.

But despite a lengthy career and a laundry list of publishing credits, I get the feeling Lansdale isn’t that well-known. Most of the people I talk to (those that are regular readers, anyway) have never heard of the guy. An Amazon.com editorial review I came across says that Lansdale is something of a “cult writer.” If so, consider myself a junior acolyte of the Lansdale sect. I read my first Lansdale book a good 10 years ago and have only read a handful of his novels since (Savage Season, Freezer Burn, The Drive-In: A Double Feature Omnibus, and The Bottoms), plus some of his short stories. But except for The Drive-In, I’ve found them all to be very, very good.

Mucho Mojo is probably my favorite Lansdale story. It’s the second of his Hap and Leonard novels, which feature two recurring characters in rural East Texas. Hap and Leonard are two of the unlikeliest friends you’ll encounter—Hap is a white, perennially destitute, borderline honkey-tonk democrat, while Leonard is a black, gay, no-nonsense republican. Both are wisecracking, hard-fighting, no-nonsense dudes who get mixed up in a lot of tough business, including breaking up drug rings and solving murder mysteries. They always manage to extricate themselves using a mixture of martial arts, wits, and dogged determination.

There’s so much to recommend about Lansdale, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how darned funny the guy is. Humor is very, very difficult to pull off in the written form, but I smiled on nearly every page of Mucho Mojo. A couple times I laughed out loud.

Here’s a sample passage from chapter two of Mucho Mojo in which Hap and Leonard are attending the funeral of Leonard’s uncle Chester while wearing a pair of bad suits just bought from J.C. Penney:

Time we got to the Baptist church where the funeral was being held, we had sweated up good in our new suits, and the hot wind blowing on me made my hair look as if it had been combed with a bush hog. My overall appearance was of someone who been in a fight and lost.

I got out of the car and Leonard came around and said, “You still got the fucking tag hanging on you.”

I lifted an arm and there was the tag, dangling from the suit sleeve. I felt like Minnie Pearl. Leonard got out his pocket knife and cut it off and we went inside the church.

We paraded by the open coffin, and of course, Uncle Chester hadn’t missed his chance to be guest of honor. He was one ugly sonofabitch, and I figured alive he hadn’t looked much better. He wasn’t very tall, but he was wide, and being dead a few days before they found him hadn’t helped his looks any. The mortician had only succeeded in making him look a bit like a swollen Cabbage Patch Doll.


The basic plot of Mucho Mojo is as follows: After Chester passes away Leonard inherits his home and a bunch of money. He also receives a handful of mysterious items in a safe-deposit box. Among other items, it contains a key to a lock box containing the remains of a child, which is hidden beneath the floorboards of the house. The mystery begins. While Lansdale reveals the killer well before the end of the novel, and telegraphs the bad guys just a bit, I wasn’t bothered. It’s the journey that makes Mucho Mojo worth reading, including the writing, the characters, the setting, and the humor. Along the way Lansdale has a lot to say about racism, bigotry, crime, and poverty.

As I mentioned above, there’s a lot to recommend in Mucho Mojo, but perhaps most of all the characterization and dialogue. Hap and Leonard are well-drawn, and while I don’t know much about Texas or its residents they certainly feel like living, breathing residents of the Lone Star state. They’re pals, and convincingly so. When I closed Mucho Mojo I felt like I was saying goodbye to a pair of old friends with whom I’d just shared great conversation over a few beers. Their dialogue reminds me of that which you’d encounter watching a Quentin Tarantino film (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, etc.) but a bit more grounded and rough around the edges.

I’m looking forward to finally reading the rest of the Leonard and Hap novels, of which the latest, Vanilla Ride, was just published earlier this year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: High hopes and black fears for Del Toro's The Hobbit

Casting for The Hobbit has apparently begun, the news of which means that I’m back to split feelings of incredible exhilaration, and a terrible, impending doom. The Hobbit was my introduction to fantasy literature and made me a lifetime reader, both of the fantasy genre and of literature in general. It’s an important, central work for me and for many others.

While of course we’ll always have the book, regardless of what we get in the final film product, my fervent hope is that producer Peter Jackson and director Guillermo Del Toro get the movie right. It’s too important to screw up.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tolkien: Man and Myth, a review

One cannot afford to ignore Tolkien’s philosophical and theological beliefs, central as they are to his whole conception of Middle Earth and the struggles within it, but on the other hand one can enjoy Tolkien’s epic without sharing the beliefs which gave it birth.

—Joseph Pearce,
Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Literary Life

I love critical studies on J.R.R. Tolkien for many reasons. First and foremost I find them intensely interesting: They help illuminate the great depths of Tolkien’s works and enrich my subsequent readings of the source material, as all good works of criticism do. Secondarily, they serve as a bulwark against the absurd claims of the handful of critics who continue to label Tolkien’s works as childish, non-literary, or otherwise unworthy of study (perhaps petty of me, but there you have it).

Joseph Pearce’s critical study Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Literary Life (1998, Ignatius Press) may as well be titled Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Religious Life, as the author places most of his emphasis on and offers his greatest insights into the deep, abiding Catholicism of the author of The Lord of the Rings. It's an engaging, readable, and lively introduction to Tolkien, providing a nice summation of his life, letters, and existing critical works about the author, while managing to break some new ground in a fairly saturated field.

Having previously read Tom Shippey’s two exhaustive and highly recommended studies of Tolkien (The Road to Middle Earth and Author of the Century), along with a handful of other critical works, some of Pearce's book was familiar and seemed to retread old ground. For example, Tolkien: Man and Myth provides biographical details on Tolkien’s life that are readily available and more fleshed out in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography. It provides a summation and commentary on the mixed and often harsh critical reaction to The Lord of the Rings, both when it was first published in the mid-1950’s and again when it was voted as the book of the century in the late 1990’s. Again, Shippey covers the same material in Author of the Century (though to be fair, Pearce beat Shippey to the punch, as the latter was published three years after Pearce’s book).

Where Pearce’s book distinguishes itself from Shippey is providing additional illumination on two facets of Tolkien’s character: His deep and abiding religious faith, and his love for his family. Both aspects inform and inspire Tolkien’s works, yet are often deemphasized.

Most of the critical works I’ve read have identified the following as the primary inspirations for Middle Earth: Tolkien’s love of languages and Anglo-Saxon literature, his wartime years, and his desire to make a foundational myth to replace England’s early heritage, which was largely lost during the Norman conquest. Tolkien: Man and Myth reminds us that Tolkien’s simple love of stories, first expressed in his detailed “Father Christmas” letters to his sons John, Michael, and Christopher, and his daughter Priscilla, started him down the path to The Hobbit and his later tales. Writes Pearce:


When Tolkien scrawled ‘in a hole in the ground there lived hobbit’, the opening sentence of The Hobbit in around 1930, he was writing for the amusement of his children as well as for the amusement of himself. Indeed, it is fair to assume that if Tolkien had remained a bachelor and had not been blessed with children he would never have written either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps he would have written The Silmarillion, but in all probability it would never have been published.


In addition to the influence of his family, Tolkien’s friendships also spurred him to write. Chapters 4 and 5 of Pearce’s book (“True Myth: Tolkien and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis” and “A Ring of Fellowship: Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings”) explore Tolkien’s fecund friendship with C.S. Lewis, which provided Tolkien with an invaluable sounding board. Lewis was a constant friendly ear, listening to Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings aloud, chapter by chapter. When Tolkien faltered, Lewis urged him on.

Lewis was an agnostic when he first met Tolkien. But by convincing him of the “true myth” of the Gospels, Tolkien played a critical role in his conversion to Christianity. Tolkien explained that myths are not falsehoods, but are a means of conveying otherwise inexpressible truths. For example, although Middle Earth is fictional, it reveals truths about the human condition and our relation to God, and thus is a form of "truth."

Chapters 6 and 7 (“The Creation of Middle Earth”, “Orthodoxy in Middle Earth”) are the highlights of Tolkien: Man and Myth. Here Pearce contends that Middle Earth, though a fantastic world and bereft of any overt references to religion or god(s), fits neatly into the Christian conception of creation and the Christian universe. Though acknowledging Tolkien’s disdain for allegory, Pearce notes that the Christian doctrine of the Fall is given allegorical treatment in The Silmarillion (e.g., Melkor is Middle Earth’s equivalent of Lucifer, Manwe is the archangel Michael, etc.). The Silmarillion is “the myth behind the man, moulding [Tolkien’s] creative vision.” Writes Pearce:


Tolkien’s longing for this lost Eden and his mystical glimpses of it, inspired and motivated by his sense of ‘exile’ from the fullness of truth, was the source of his creativity. At the core of The Silmarillion, indeed at the core of all his work, was a hunger for the truth that transcends mere facts: the infinite and eternal Reality which was beyond the finite and temporal perceptions of humanity.

Pearce expands upon this theistic reading of The Lord of the Rings in “Orthodoxy in Middle Earth,” in which he compares Frodo’s carrying of the One Ring to Christ’s burden of the Cross, and Sam’s unassuming heroism to Christian exaltation of the humble. Likewise, the examples of Sam, Boromir, and Gandalf embody the Christian value of self-sacrifice.

Death in Middle Earth also mirrors its Christian conception, notes Pearce. While elves are immortal, their deathlessness is as much as a curse as a boon. Death is a gift given to men by Iluvatar, the creator. But because it is shrouded in mystery (“a grey rain-curtain”) and corrupted by Melkor, man fears it as he fears the unknown. “To both writers [Lewis and Tolkien] this world was but a land of shadows, a veil of tears as well as a vale of tears, which shielded mortal men from the fullness of the light of God,” Pearce writes.

There is more to recommend in Tolkien: Man and Myth, including a touching look at Tolkien’s final years (“Approaching Mount Doom”), but again this is material I’ve seen covered elsewhere. It is the examination of Tolkien’s spirituality which makes Tolkien: Man and Myth a commendable work, and highly recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: "Fantasy” a worthy entry in Anderson’s canon

While others seek the passageway to elven realms in vain, Poul Anderson throws wide the gate to let his readers enter into wonder … Anderson is a “literalist of the imagination.” He makes what is magical real and what is real magical. Of such power is poetry born.

—“An Invitation to Elfland,” Sandra Misesel, from Poul Anderson’s
Fantasy

Poul Anderson gets a lot of love around these parts, and with good reason. While I can’t speak to his metric ton of science fiction, he’s written a lot of great fantasy novels, including Three Hearts and Three Lions, and the Nordic-flavored War of the Gods, The Broken Sword, and Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. All of these are worth finding and reading.

But Anderson also wrote some excellent short stories. I have a couple of his collections and will vouch for the excellence of Fantasy (1981, Pinnacle Books, Inc).

Belying its vanilla title (Fantasy? Was Pinnacle Books considering Men with Swords as an alternative?), Fantasy is actually a wide-ranging, eclectic group of short stories that includes “soft” sci-fi (debatably fantasy) stories, a handful of essays, including a satirical non-fiction look at the sword-and-sandal brand of fantastic fiction (“On Thud and Blunder”), and a few excellent traditional fantasy tales.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Living Dead zombie anthology a feast for the brain

When I ordered the new John Joseph Adams zombie anthology The Living Dead, I was hoping for stories of zombie carnage on a large scale, a-la Max Brooks’ terrific World War Z and George Romero’s classic “living dead” films. As I read one story after the next, however, it soon became evident that all-out zombie war was (mostly) not the focus of this book.

Some disappointment naturally ensued. When the book arrived with its cover shot of a horde of shambling undead, zombie wars and tales of gun-porn survival were what I thought I was getting. I liken the experience to purchasing a book entitled “heroic fantasy” with a barbarian on the cover, and opening it to find that, instead of warriors and wizards, it’s mostly about everyday, modern people involved in acts of bravery, sans battle-axes.

In short, sometimes all you want is a little zombie mayhem. I was hoping that The Living Dead would afford me the opportunity to just turn my brain off and enjoy.

But once I got past my initial disappointment, The Living Dead turned out to be a very good collection of horror stories. On a scientific scale of 1-5 stars, I’d give it a solid 3 ½, a very good score for an anthology, given that any collection of short stories is going to contain a few duds. And upon further reflection, The Living Dead does have its fair share of carnage and zombie apocalypse, albeit not as much as I was hoping for.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Knocking some stuffing out of Moorcock's "Epic Pooh"

According to Michael Moorcock, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has endured solely because it’s comfort food. So proclaimeth the author of the Elric stories in his seminal essay “Epic Pooh".

Well, I’m here to knock a little stuffing out of his puffed-up essay.

“Epic Pooh” criticizes The Lord of the Rings on the weakness of its prose style. It also attacks Tolkien’s underlying themes and ideas. It accuses him of failing to challenge the reader and offering artificial happy endings instead. According to Moorcock Tolkien is guilty of glorifying warfare, of failing to question authority, and for ignoring the problem of death. He makes other spirited attacks of the work (and the author) as well.[*]

The first argument is highly subjective, a matter of taste for which I have little argument. Moorcock is entitled to dislike Tolkien’s prose, and if he finds it too coddling, removed, or just plain sub-par, that’s fine. I happen to enjoy it very much, but different strokes for different folks and all that.

But once you get past its criticisms of style, “Epic Pooh” fails rather epically as a critique of Tolkien’s themes. Let me explain.

Moorcock takes Tolkien to task for many perceived crimes in “Epic Pooh,” but perhaps most of all for using The Lord of the Rings to tell “comforting lies” and coddle the reader. Says Moorcock:
There is no happy ending to the Romance of Robin Hood, however, whereas Tolkien, going against the grain of his subject matter, forces one on us – as a matter of policy.
I’ve heard this argument made elsewhere and always found it to be a gross misreading of Tolkien’s work. Presumably because The Lord of the Rings ends with the defeat of Sauron, and the restoration of order, it is therefore a simplistic, neat, bow-tied conclusion in which our heroes return home happy and whole, safe and sound.
On the contrary, I would argue that the victory over Sauron is only a temporary reprieve against the encroaching dark. This is the great sadness of The Lord of the Rings—there is home and hearth for some of the victors, but not all of them, and perhaps not even for most. When Frodo departs for the West it’s on a full ship: Gandalf, and Elrond, and Galadriel, and the main of Middle-Earth’s elves are sailing away, too. Magic has left the world. The great evil of the Third Age is defeated, but its void will be filled with other, more banal but equally sinister incarnations of evil. In the wake of the likes of the elves and of Gandalf (and even Saruman and the Balrog and the orcs) comes the vagaries of men, and with them their propensity for both great good and unspeakable evil.
Wounded soldiers return with traumas seen and unseen, and this is evident in Frodo, who bears wounds that are deep indeed. Some essential part of him has been left on a foreign field, and his wounds are too grave to allow him to enjoy the peace he has so dearly bought:
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
In summary, The Lord of the Rings has a complex, bittersweet, melancholy ending. Happy it is not.
Moorcock also derides Tolkien for contributing to the glorification of war and the death of young soldiers:
It was best-selling novelists, like Warwick Deeping (Sorrell and Son), who, after the First World War, adapted the sentimental myths (particularly the myth of Sacrifice) which had made war bearable (and helped ensure that we should be able to bear further wars), providing us with the wretched ethic of passive “decency” and self-sacrifice, by means of which we British were able to console ourselves in our moral apathy (even Buchan paused in his anti-Semitic diatribes to provide a few of these). Moderation was the rule and it is moderation which ruins Tolkien’s fantasy and causes it to fail as a genuine romance, let alone an epic.
This statement is also inaccurate. Nowhere does Tolkien claim that war is a good thing. Rather, the implication in The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere in Tolkien’s writings is that it is, at times, necessary. Lest we forget, Tolkien served in the trenches in the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. He saw unspeakable carnage and death. But he also witnessed heroism of the highest order.
As I stated elsewhere in a review of John Garth’s Tolkien and The Great War, unlike many of the famous WWI combat veterans whose experience resulted in poems and stories of disillusionment and disenchantment (Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), Tolkien refused to believe that the sacrifice of brave young men was a waste. Says Garth: “In contrast, Tolkien’s protagonists are heroes not because of their successes, which are often limited, but because of their courage and tenacity in trying. By implication, worth cannot be measured by results alone, but is intrinsic.” This is Frodo’s lot: Thrust into a larger war beyond his control, his selfless heroism in carrying the ring to Mount Doom is but a tiny, insignificant role in the great sweep of combat at Minas Tirith and elsewhere. But it mirrors the great acts of unrecorded bravery on the battlefields of World War I.
The sacrifice of Frodo and Sam is not sentimentalizing, it is Tolkien expressing an honest respect and admiration for the soldiers who suffered through horrific, unbearable circumstances. Tolkien said that the character of Sam was inspired by the British rank-and-file soldiers who served and fought and often gave their lives without fanfare in the blood-filled trenches of World War I, expecting nothing and possessing only the hope of home at the end of it all. Said Tolkien, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”
Moorcock states that the hobbits represent a “petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo.”
I would counter with: What is so sentimental and consolatory about Sam’s endurance and will to go on, hoping only to return to home and hearth? I suspect that Moorcock has a problem with the social organization of the Shire to which the hobbits return, not necessarily their bravery in defending it.
Here’s another misguided Moorcock-ianism from “Epic Pooh”:
I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.
This statement makes you wonder whether Moorcock missed the scene from LOTR in which Sam looks upon the slain Southron and questions the very nature of war, including its participants and causes, laying it bare in all its futility. From The Two Towers:
It was Sam’s first battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.
Tolkien believed that war is terrible and of last resort, and slain foes are, in the end, just men–and therefore to be pitied. War is necessary when “destroyers” like Sauron or Hitler would impose their will on the free peoples of the world, but it is a duty to be carried out, not glorified. In his famous forward to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
Here’s another telling quote (from Faramir, again from The Two Towers) that tells you all you need to know about Tolkien’s views on war:
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
Moorcock also attacks The Lord of the Rings for fostering an attitude of selfish self-protection and insularity:
The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are “safe”, but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are “dangerous”. Experience of life itself is dangerous. The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality became the acceptable subsitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference.
While the woods beyond the Shire are certainly wild and dangerous, Moorcock’s statement is far too simplistic. Experience of life (i.e., that encountered beyond the borders of the Shire) can be dangerous, and often is, but as Tolkien demonstrates, it’s more dangerous to engage in isolationism, to stick one’s head in the sand and do nothing. War is coming to the Shire, and the hobbits must venture beyond its borders to save it. Self-protection and complacency is not a viable option. I note that Sam, Merry, and Pippin return as stronger hobbits, enriched from their experience. Is this experience dangerous? Yes. Is it necessary, and in the end, a good thing? Yes.
Yet the above statements are not Moorcock’s most egregious misreading of The Lord of the Rings. I reserve that for the following:
The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord of the Rings is merely one of the most recent.
This statement completely falls apart when viewed against the entirety of Tolkien’s works, which confront the problem of death head-on. Take The Children of Hurin, for example, which is an expansion of a story Moorcock would have read in The Silmarillion.[*]Here Morgoth is a dark demi-god, and a symbol of all that is twisted in mankind’s soul, all that of which we despair in the dark of night, rolled into a being of unspeakable malice. When he lays his curse upon Hurin and Turin, they are truly doomed. Morgoth evokes the ultimate fear of all mankind: that death is the end, and that nothing—literal, uppercase Nothing—awaits us in the grave. Says Hurin:
“Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.”
“Beyond the Circles of the World I will not pursue them,” said Morgoth. “For beyond the Circles of the World there is Nothing. But within them they shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing.”
The Children of Hurin begins and ends with death. The Silmarillion contains far more darkness than light, and carnage (and much defeat for the forces of good) on the scale of some of the worst battlefields of World War I. Even The Hobbit, begun as a children’s tale (though morphed in the writing to something quite different), touches on mortality: Following his epic journey and the costly Battle of Five Armies, Bilbo emerges a very different character, far less insulated and more appreciative of the fragile peace of the Shire, with “eyes that fire and sword have seen, and horror in the halls of stone.”
And as for The Lord of the Rings, its entirety can be viewed a metaphor for death. Where do you think the gray ship bore Frodo? He was dying, man.
In short, Tolkien’s works actively grapple with the terrible reality and uncertainty of our mortality. Demonstrably, they do not ignore it.
In fairness, I do agree with some of “Epic Pooh’s” points. Moorcock laments the ignorance of the reading public when it comes to writers like Fritz Leiber, who are often overlooked in favor of lesser fantasy authors that have achieved more popularity simply because they’re an easy, safe read (agreed). I also think that second-rate Tolkien clones—many of which I enjoyed as a youth—have muddied the waters of fantasy literature and contributed to dragging the genre down in the eyes of critics. However, I don’t think they should be actively avoided as Moorcock suggests, just recognized as derivative.
It’s undeniable that Tolkien was nostalgic. He hated seeing the English countryside disappear, to be replaced by factories and fabricated housing. The polluting mill that appears in “The Scouring of the Shire” was based off of an incident that occurred during Tolkien’s lifetime.
In “Epic Pooh,” Moorcock chides Tolkien for not being able to take pleasure from the realities of urban industrial life. But can you blame Tolkien for feeling embittered at the dwindling of the rural countryside? I cannot.
In conclusion, I’ve returned to The Lord of the Rings time and time again over my lifetime. I enjoy slipping into Middle Earth and meeting up with characters that now feel like old friends. I do take comfort in these aspects of the work.
But each time I do, additional unique and challenging facets of this one of a kind work are revealed. It gets better as I grow older, which tells of its surprising depth and multitude of meanings. The Lord of the Rings is not a comforting lie, but a living, breathing book that changes with each re-reading. The more one reads of Tolkien’s legendarium in The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, and The History of Middle Earth, the more suffused in darkness and uncertainty works like The Lord of the Rings (and even The Hobbit) become.
So Mr. Moorcock, pardon me while I return to the table for another helping of this one of a kind “comfort” food, prepared by the finest chef ever produced by the culinary arts school of fantasy fiction. You can take “Epic Pooh” and stuff it.
——
[*]
*A third strand of Moorcock’s dislike for Tolkien also emerges in “Epic Pooh,” that being his antipathy for Tolkien’s Toryism and conservatism. Moorcock takes Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to task for their politics and, to a lesser degree, their religion. It’s noteworthy that Moorcock in a post-publication author’s note lavishes praise on Phillip Pullman, a lesser literary light than Tolkien by any measurable standard, but a writer whose politics fall into lockstep with his own. But while I suspect that political disagreement is the true genesis of “Epic Pooh,” I’d prefer to leave this debate out of The Cimmerian.
[*]
* I was prepared to cut Moorcock some slack on the basis that he may not have read The Silmarillion before writing “Epic Pooh.” Puzzlingly, Moorcock has read it, and actually cites it in the essay. Therefore, I feel perfectly justified in using it and The Children of Hurin in Tolkien’s defense.

–Artwork by Ted Nasmith

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Burning Land set to reignite the Saxon Stories

The cover blurbs on Bernard Cornwell’s books read “Perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today,” and frankly, you’ll get no arguments from me. I've come to love Cornwell, who is in every sense a Man's writer. There's no romance in his books and no literary pretension, so if you're looking for those elements, try something else. On the other hand, if you like bloody battles, cowardice and heroism, grim suffering and cruel murder, oath-making and breaking, hard drinking and mirth, and, most importantly, darned good storytelling, Cornwell's your man. His greatest strength is probably his ability to spin a compelling, fun tale, and he does it with a keen eye for historic accuracy.

Cornwell's ongoing series The Saxon Stories features vikings, shield walls, axes, dark ages combat, hall-burnings, and general mayhem. If this stuff sounds appealing (and if you're a reader of The Cimmerian or this blog, how could it not?), you owe it to yourself to pick up the first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, and get started.

The Saxon Stories is an ongoing historical fiction series about the reign of Alfred the Great and the clash of Danes and Saxons in 9th century Britain. The stories are told through the viewpoint of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a warrior who was born a Saxon and fights for their cause, but was raised among the Danes, and so has an iron-plated boot in each camp. Uhtred is a fun character, as he's torn between hereditary love for his ancestral homeland and a passion for the Danes. Although they're murderous raiders, the Danes drink deep of life, scorn Christian "virtues" of humility and pity, and worship the pagan gods of Thor and Odin. These qualities appeal strongly to Uhtred, who grew to love the Danes during his capture and upbringing under Earl Ragnar.

I read the first four books in the Saxon Stories with gusto (these include The Last Kingdom (2004), The Pale Horseman (2005), The Lords of the North (2006), and Sword Song, published in 2007), and eagerly anticipated the next book in the series, so much so that Cornwell's decision to interrupt Uhtred's saga with Agincourt was a bit of a let-down, even though I wound up enjoying the heck out of it.

But I was very pleased to find out that the fifth book, The Burning Land, has been released in the UK and will be available in the United States in January 2010, according to Bernard Cornwell's official Web site.

Looks like 2010 will be off to a fine, blood-soaked start.

(Cross posted from The Cimmerian ).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My top 5 Stephen King novels

While surfing the internet recently I encountered something quite surprising: A post from a well-read genre fan who had just experienced Stephen King for the first time. In a reply to this post, someone wrote that they had also only recently read King, and through a few of his newer works (On Writing, Cell, and Lisey’s Story).

Having grown up on King, and at one point believing that the publishing sun rose and set on his novels, I’m still a little stunned when I see exchanges like this: I have the habit of assuming that everyone has read everything King ever wrote.

For a long time, I did just that. Starting in the mid-80s and running through the early 90’s, I was immersed in King’s world, enthralled with its big terrors lurking in small Maine towns, tractor-trailers and laundry machines come to horrifying life, and Walking Dudes. My first encounter with King was The Shining, which I plucked off my grandfather’s bookshelf as a curious kid, and proceeded to scare myself half to death (while loving every second of it). From there I diligently read his entire backlist, starting with his debut novel Carrie (1974) up through Cycle of the Werewolf (1985) or thereabouts.

When I was done with everything King had written, I proceeded to read each new King novel as fast as he wrote them. For a while King was pumping them out every year, or even quicker, but I ate up titles like Misery, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Tommyknockers, and The Dark Half with insatiable gusto.

But eventually, King fatigue set in. My tastes changed and broadened. The king of horror eventually lost his grip on me.

While I still read King from time to time, I’m no longer obsessed with him, and have skipped some of his newer stuff entirely. I can no longer lay claim to having read every Stephen King title (Hearts in Atlantis, Under the Dome—has anyone read these? Any good?), but I still count him among my favorite authors, for the simple fact that he’s given me more pleasure than just about any other author I’ve read. And, his prose has always been so damned readable.

But the aforementioned internet exchange got me to thinking: Maybe King’s shadow is starting to wane. I know that he’s still very widely read today, but he doesn’t seem to be quite the unstoppable juggernaut who once had a stranglehold on the bestseller lists. For a 10 or 12-year window—I’d place it at 1977-89—King was the undisputed King of Horror. Maybe now he’s a mere Emperor of Terror, or a (Dark) Lord, perhaps—still with an enormous clout and following, but a step below the popularity and penetration of writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Also, newer readers are coming into the fold that may very well be oblivious to King, or at least disinterested in what they perceive to be the voice of an older generation (like I used to think of writers like Norman Mailer or Herman Wouk).

So for those coming to King for the first time, or for those who can’t get enough of King (I still adore his older stuff, and readily sing its praises) I thought I’d put together my top five list of favorite King works. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Stand (Complete and Uncut, 1991). At 1,140 pages in paperback, The Stand is King’s post-apocalyptic version of The Lord of the Rings. A killer plague wipes out 99.4% of the world’s population. The survivors band together and are eventually drawn into opposing camps by two spiritual leaders—the forces of good under Abigail Trotts in Boulder, Colorado, and the forces of evil under Randall Flagg, aka. the walking dude, in Las Vegas. My favorite parts of the book are the early stages, in which King describes the spread of the plague and the terrible chaos following the collapse of society. The terror is palpable as the breakdown gets really bad, and barbarism and end-of-the-world excess are rampant. The Stand is also noteworthy as a tour-de-force of diverse characters. Flagg is a terrifying figure and a recurring villain of later King novels, and the book is peppered with a host of likeable and memorable personalities, including the deaf-mute Nick Andros, the mentally handicapped Tom Cullen, the fatally flawed Harold Lauder, and the raving, likeable lunatic Trashcan Man, among many others.

2. Night Shift (1978). I’ve long maintained that King might be a better short-story writer than a novelist. Night Shift is his first collection and is not only studded with a number of terrifying gems, but it demonstrates his versatility and range as a storyteller. There’s certainly terror in spades here: “The Boogeyman” makes you never want to sleep with your closet door open, not even a crack, while “Children of the Corn” is a story of a couple who drive into an isolated Nebraska town corrupted by an ancient fertility god, its children driven to sacrifice and murder. “Trucks” and “The Mangler” are fun tales of mayhem in which heartless, murdering machines rise up against mankind. But there’s also surprising depth here, such as “The Woman in the Room,” King’s heart-felt examination of aging and death, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” a well-written tale of friendship, faith, and loss.

3. Different Seasons (1982). If pressed to name my favorite work by King, short story, novel, non-fiction or otherwise, I would probably settle on Different Seasons. It consists of four novellas, one of which, I think, is rather a dud (“The Breathing Method”). The other three, however, are pure gold: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil,” and “The Body.” All three were made into well-done films (“The Body” was re-titled as “Stand by Me”). Some of King’s finest writing can be found here. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is a profound affirmation of faith and hope, and “The Body” never fails to bring me back to my childhood. Both stories are really about the bonds of friendship: Andy Dufresne and Red are the pumping heart of hope in “The Shawshank Redemption,” while Chris and Gordie’s fall from innocence binds them closer together in “The Body.” The same theme of friendship (albeit black and twisted) continues in “Apt Pupil,” the story of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American boy corrupted by a Nazi war criminal, whom he blackmails into telling the worst stories of the concentration camps. The story is all the more disturbing because Todd Bowden and Arthur Dussander share an uncomfortable amount in common with each other.

4. Pet Sematary (1983). For my money this is King’s scariest story. It’s also among his most uncomfortable to read. Louis Creed lands a job as Head of Medical Services for the University of Maine and relocates with his wife and two children. Behind their home and hidden in the Maine woods is a Pet Cemetery, and beyond that an old Indian burial ground, the soil of which is rumored to have the property of restoring the buried dead to life. The moral of Pet Sematary is that some things are worse than death, and that death is a mystery and should be kept that way. Of course that doesn’t stop Louis from raising the coffin lid and mucking around in the afterlife anyway. Like a slowly unfolding tragedy, you can see the train wreck coming, but we—like Louis—are helpless to stop, or to turn away. And when the horror comes home to roost for Louis, even though we know what’s going to happen, King’s execution is letter perfect and terrifying. King is not known for his great endings, and some of his otherwise brilliant novels land with a disappointing thud, but “Darling,” it said, still fills me with unspeakable horror and dread.

5. It (1986). “They float,” it growled. “They float, George, and when you’re down here with me you’ll float too—.”

It is wonderful book, containing arguably King’s scariest villain (Pennywise the Clown), an epic storyline spanning decades, and a memorable cast of characters. From the opening chapter in which a boy disappears down a sewer, grabbed by something sinister, It seizes you and never lets go, despite its length (1,090 pages, paperback). It tells the story of eight children who unite to stop a horrible monster terrorizing the town of Derry, Maine. Thirty years later, they return as grown men and women to destroy It for good, summoned by a spiritual call to right a monstrous wrong. By the grace of some power which King never fully explains, the adults have forgotten their childhood encounter with It. But when Pennywise is reawakened, the same force brings them to back together again, and terribly, their memories of the monster return as well. Though he commonly takes the shape of a monstrous clown, Pennywise can transform into your worst fear, rendering him all the more terrible. The town of Derry is so rich and detailed in its landscape and history that it becomes another character, right alongside memorable King-ian personalities like stuttering Bill Denbrough, asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, tough and resourceful Beverly Marsh, and the overweight, thoughtful Ben Hanscom. King explores the themes of growing up in It, and the importance of turning the page on your childhood in order to move on. This novel marked the end of a phase for King, one in which he moved away from traditional horror and into more psychological fare. Although he’s written some excellent novels since, I’ve always felt that King’s decline began post-It.

Honorable mentions: The Dead Zone, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Best battle-speeches


I’m no war-monger, nor do I make light of real battles and their terrible cost. But there’s no doubt that mass-combats make for great cinematic drama, especially in their build-up and occasionally in their denouement. Here on the day after Veterans Day, I’m marking the occasion by taking a look back at a film that every battle-aficionado should watch at least once: Henry V.

Many fantasy fans lament the lack of good movies in the genre, myself included. But I will say that you’re missing out if you haven’t given Henry V a chance (I speak here of the Kenneth Branagh 1989 film. I haven’t yet seen the 1944 version with Laurence Olivier). While it’s obviously not fantasy, Henry V has a lot of the trappings of the genre (armored knights, archers, kings, castles, etc.). It’s also got some surprisingly good combat sequences, as well as a few of the most rousing battle-related speeches/sequences ever put to film.

Despite its excellent reputation, I held off watching Henry V for a long time. My reasoning: How good could a Shakespeare film be? Impenetrable? Likely. Boring? Most certainly. Or so I thought.

I admit it; I was wrong.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian web site.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thanks to the vets


I came across a great video today, courtesy of MSN.com/The History Channel: colorized footage of just-restored footage from Okinawa, originally shot in 1945. Here's another one of Iwo Jima. Both are highly recommended (you may have to wade through a commercial first).

I love the old black-and-white combat footage, but it sometimes adds another layer of separation and unreality from what was a very bloody, violent, and not-so-distant conflict. While I'm not wild about the idea of colorizing old movies, when it comes to actual footage of real events, I'm all in favor.

To all of our war veterans, past and present, thank you for your service.

To old friend and World War II veteran Ed Cassidy, laid to rest this past weekend in Andover, NH, God speed.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Book of Merlyn and its Howardian connection

A good man’s example always does instruct the ignorant and lessens their rage, little by little through the ages, until the spirit of the waters is content: and so, strong courage to Your Majesty, and a tranquil heart.

—T.H. White,
The Book of Merlyn

The King Arthur myth has been told, re-told, and re-imagined countless times. I’ve read many interpretations, though far from all, from authors as diverse as Bernard Cornwell (The Warlord Trilogy) to Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, et. al.). But of all these, The Once and Future King and its separately published conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, is probably the most approachable version of the Arthur myth I’ve ever encountered. And it’s certainly my favorite.

For obvious reasons, I often feel a need to draw parallels between Robert E. Howard and other authors when writing blog posts over at The Cimmerian. But in this case, I didn’t have to look far, nor make any dubious, tenuous connections. At their core, White and Howard share the same pessimistic view of humanity. For Howard, barbarism was the natural state of mankind. White believed that mankind’s natural state was Homo Ferox, or “Ferocious man.” There is no leap required; these two men of different nationalities and stations in life drew the same bleak conclusions about mankind.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Of used book fairs and old King Arthur

I love used book fairs. I find them irresistible, like a dish of peanut M&Ms placed on my desk while I’m trying to work. A local library recently hosted one in which you could fill up a brown paper supermarket bag for the princely sum of $2. Needless to say I walked out of there with a laden sack, nigh to splitting.

Book fairs require you to sift through a lot of junk. Cookbooks, outdated science textbooks, encyclopedia sets (remember those?), V.C. Andrews novels, etc. always seem to dominate. But that’s part of their allure, of course. You have to sift through the silt to find gold.

Less appealing is the frenzied behavior of people grabbing great handfuls of books, seemingly at random, and shoving them in bags. I’ve seen this phenomenon many times and don’t get it. Why do people lose their sense of discrimination when the items in question are cheap, or free? I shouldn't be judgmental--perhaps they were donating them to charity, though my cynical side tells me they'll probably end up for sale on the internet.

This particular fair had a surprising number of decent books worth getting jostled over (I threw a few elbows myself, admittedly). Most notably, I managed to liberate a hardcover copy of The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White.

The Once and Future King happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, achieving a rare five-star “perfect” rating in my pseudo-scientific, highly subjective book rankings. While The Book of Merlyn—the previously unpublished conclusion to The Once and Future King—is not as good as its predecessor when compared as a standalone work, it was never intended to be a sequel, but a part of the whole, the final chapter of a wonderful story. It’s definitely worth owning. So although I already own the softcover, I snatched it up and stuffed it into my sack.

The hardcover of The Book of Merlyn has the advantage over the paperback of large print, glossy, sturdy pages, and wonderful, full-page, black and white illustrations (tangent—does anyone else appreciate the beauty of a good hardcover book? I used to be a paperback junkie, but I’ve since converted. The heft and stateliness of a good hardcover have won out over utility and portability).

Once I had The Book of Merlyn at home I was overcome by the urge to read it again. Just as I remembered, it remains a wonderful book. Some of the grabby boors at the book fair would do well to read it and let its lesson sink in--being, of course, that Might does not equal Right.

I’ll be posting a full review on Thursday.

In the meantime, here is a summary of my finds at the fair:

The Sea-Wolf and Selected Stories, Jack London (great writer--'nuff said)

Secret Weapons of World War II, Gerald Pawle (as a WWII buff, I was delighted to find this)

The Black Death, Philip Ziegler (Not surprisingly I'm a fan of medieval times, and I've never read a full accounting of the Black Death)

Hamlet (Norton Critical Edition), William Shakespeare (I own a copy of Hamlet, but the Norton Critical Editions are must-owns for the additional essays/criticism, and notes).

The Shining, Stephen King (hardcover--I own the paperback)

The Book of Merlyn, T.H. White (hardcover, illustrated)

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper (hardcover, entire five book series collected and unabridged--a great find!)

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (I've heard a lot of good things about this one)

Let's Roll, Lisa Beamer (a story of the heroes of United Flight 93)

Assorted books for my children

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A review of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles

All right, then, what is Chronicles? Is it King Tut out of the tomb when I was three? Norse Eddas when I was six? And Roman/Greek gods that romanced me when I was ten? Pure myth. If it had been practical, technologically efficient science fiction, it would have long since fallen to rust by the road.

--Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

I’ve never been a big reader of science fiction, largely because, rightly or wrongly, my perception is that SF worships at the altar of technology, and is fixated upon cold, clinical subject matter for which I have little interest. But if the SF genre contained more books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, I might view it a lot differently.

The Martian Chronicles tells the story of mankind’s colonization of the red planet. Driven by curiosity and the impending destruction of a worldwide atomic war, men send rocket expeditions to Mars in hopes of settling the planet and finding a place to carry on their civilization. It’s not a traditional novel, but a collection of short stories originally published in Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and a handful of other defunct SF magazines, which Bradbury ties together with a series of vignettes.

The Martian Chronicles was first published in 1950 and Bradbury set the first story, “Rocket Summer,” in a fictional (and then-distant) 1999; this latter printing advances the timeline to 2030. The Martian Chronicles certainly has some SF surface trappings, and the tale “There Will Come Soft Rains” (a haunting story about the aftermath of an atomic war) probably fits that category. But it’s certainly not hard SF. Bradbury doesn’t dwell on the Martian technology nor offer explanations for how it works. He describes what little there is in his inimitable short strokes of brilliant, poetic color: Houses with tables of silver lava for cooking bits of meat, pillars of rain that can be summoned for washing, metal books that sing their stories, like a fine instrument under the stroke of a hand.

In the introduction to the 2009 Blackstone Audio, Inc., production of the book, Bradbury says that the larger themes and deeper meanings of his work were buried in his subconscious as he wrote. It wasn’t until he saw an onstage production of The Martian Chronicles, juxtaposed with a viewing of a traveling Tutankhamun exhibit at the Las Angeles Art Museum, that he made the leap—he had written a myth, not a science fiction story:

“Moving back and forth from Tut to theatre, theatre to Tut, my jaw dropped. ‘My God,’ I said, gazing at Tutankhamun’s golden mask. ‘That’s Mars. My God,’ I said, watching my Martians on stage, ‘That’s Egypt, with Tutankhamun’s ghosts.’ So before my eyes and mixed in my mind, old myths were renewed, new myths were bandaged in papyrus and lidded with bright masks. Without knowing, I had been Tut’s child all the while, writing the red world’s hieroglyphics, thinking I thrived futures even in dust-rinsed pasts… Science and machines can kill each other off or be replaced. Myth, seen in mirrors, incapable of being touched, stays on. If it is not immortal, it almost seems such.”

Rather than explaining the hows and whys of rocket travel, or describe the atmospheric conditions of the red planet, Bradbury uses The Martian Chronicles to explore the age-old problems of colonization/colonialism, our fears of the unknown, our longing for simpler times, and the limitations of science and technology. It’s intensely elegiac, an ode to the quiet towns and neighborhoods of the 1920s and 30s, before the sprawl of cities and suburbs and the opening of the Pandora’s Box of atomic power.

The heart of the book is the short story, “And the Moon be Still as Bright,” which concerns a fourth rocket expedition to the red planet. The first three missions have failed. Mars is empty, its cities ghostly and vacant. The Martians have been hit hard by chicken pox, infected by the crew of one of the previous expeditions. When several crewmembers of the latest expedition get drunk and vandalize a beautiful Martian city of glass spires, one of the crewmen, Jeff Spender, turns on them in a murderous rampage.

Later, atop a hill, Captain Wilder approaches Spender in an effort to get him to surrender. Spender, who initially seems crazy, is revealed as the man with the clearest vision. He knows what modern man is like, a professional cynic who wants to tear down and rebuild in his own image, citing Cortez’s mission to Mexico (which wiped out nearly all traces of the Aztec Empire). Spender has read the Martians’ books and seen the relics of their culture, and discovers that it is a perfect balance of science and religion, nature and man (Martian) in harmony, with neither side dominant. Says Spender:

“[The Martians] quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. It’s all simply a matter of degree. An Earth Man thinks: ‘In that picture, color does not exist, really. A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light. Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.’ A Martian, far cleverer, would say: ‘This is a fine picture. It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired. Its idea and its color are from life. This thing is good.’”
It’s interesting to note that the Martians are not perfect, and in striving for balance they may have lost something. In “Ylla,” the second story/chapter of the book, a Martian woman upsets her husband to the point of murder. As the Martians are telepathic, Ylla is able to “speak” to the astronauts as they draw near in their silver rocket. She learns their burning desires and their strange songs. Despite the harmonious, tranquil, idyllic environment all around her, the brown-skinned, golden-eyed Ylla wants to be swept away to earth, crushed in the embrace of the white-skinned, dark-haired, blue-eyed Nathaniel York. For all its piggishness and destructiveness, the race of men is passionate, burning with the desire to live and explore.

As with all of Bradbury’s tales, The Martian Chronicles contains its share of humor, terror, heartbreak, and hope, and is written in Bradbury's beautiful, one-of-a-kind style. It holds a deserved place as science fiction classic, even as it transcends the genre and defies our attempts to categorize it.
This review also appears on SFF audio.com: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=12692

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Iron Maiden's The Trooper

(Note: Over at The Cimmerian, fellow blogger Deuce Richardson asked if we could supply posts to commemorate October 25th, which has resounded throughout military history as a date for epic, bloody battles. Following is my tribute to a famous charge and the heavy metal song that immortalized it, at least in my eyes).

Not everyone who comes to appreciate history arrives via the same path. Some have their interest piqued in school by reading traditional textbooks. Others learn from wisdom passed down in tales told by grandparents and great-grandparents. Still others get hooked from watching the (occasionally) fine programming of the History and Discovery channels.

Then there are those who learned about great historic battles at the feet of those long-haired, spandex-encased professors of heavy metal, Iron Maiden. I count myself in this crowd. ‘Twas Maiden who got me more interested in learning about the horrific World War I battle of Paschendale. ‘Twas Maiden that helped provide the impetus for my lifelong love of World War II with their take on the Battle of Britain, “Aces High.” And of course, it was Maiden that helped spark my interest in that famous engagement of the Crimean War, the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava.

This insane, glorious charge of horsemen into the roaring mouths of Russian guns was of course made famous by British poet Alfred Tennyson in his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But for those denim-jacketed outcast teens growing up in the 80’s, the Charge was immortalized by Maiden in their smash-hit, “The Trooper.” I've always thought of Iron Maiden as the heavy metal band that catered to the semi-nerdy crowd. If you were smart, you liked history and of course you liked Iron Maiden.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian web site.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: A Q&A session with the editors of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

Outside of a handful of anthologies and magazines, the market for the genre known as heroic fantasy is as dry as the sands of Stygia. Which is why I’m so excited to see newcomer Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (HFQ) enter the fray, broadsword in hand.

HFQ describes itself as a home for stories with “an emphasis on action. Be it an exchange of blows or insults, the spurring-on of steed, or the application of poultices to wounds, things happen and happen quickly in the pages of HFQ.”

HFQ publishes both short stories and heroic-flavored poetry on its web site. It’s a free publication and also pays its contributors, which will hopefully encourage new young writers to publish in this sadly neglected field.

Below, editors Adrian Simmons and David Farney generously provided the following answers to
The Cimmerian regarding their new venture. HFQ published its first issue in July and recently released its second issue, featuring three short stories and two poems.

Q: What made you launch this venture, given the general trends in publishing that favor multi-volume, epic fantasy?

Adrian Simmons:
Crazy as it sounds, the idea came from all the young adult fiction that grownups are reading. Why are they reading YA fiction? Because something HAPPENS in it. Plus, clearly there is a niche—the universe of short heroic fantasy venues has been shrinking, and although there are several places that pay for and publish the genre, there was a need for someone that paid triple digits.

David Farney: Turning 40! I’ve had real difficulty finding any fantasy I enjoyed as much as the Elric and Conan and Corum stories that blew me away as a teen. Translation: I think in HFQ I’m trying to rediscover or recapture some essence of my childhood. And though it’s been a lot of work, some of the stories coming into HFQ are indeed rekindling that sense of amazement in me. Also, like Adrian, I agree that S&S and Heroic Fantasy are getting pushed aside by the many other fantasy subgenres, both in short fiction and novel-length. That said, there’s PLENTY of solid short fantasy published both online and in print, but a real lack of S&S and Heroic. As writers of Heroic Fantasy, it occurred to us there are doubtless many others just like us who can’t find appropriate markets for their work, or who as fans keep reading older and older material (or YA) because the writing and storytelling is digestible and much faster paced.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ed Cassidy and Don Teschek: The postwar years

Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part article. You can read part 1 here.


Pictured above, Don Teschek and his daughter Karen on Lynn Beach, circa 1948.

Homeward bound
While Don and Ed served overseas, Eleanor sacrificed at home. Shortly after the outbreak of war at the age of 17 she had begun work at the Employer’s Group, which had changed its name to the Commercial Union. It was a time of sacrifice and scarcity: She recalls ration tickets, Victory Gardens, war bonds, brown-outs, and not having any nylons to wear (the armed forces needed the material for parachutes, she recalls). Her boss, 38-year-old Bob Anderson, was drafted into the service despite having two children at home. “It was such a long war and on so many fronts, they literally were running out of manpower,” she says.

She also remembers casualty lists: One of her friends, Red Slack, a young man with whom she used to dance, was killed in combat in Germany.

When V-E Day (Victory in Europe) and V-J Day (Victory in Japan) occurred, cities across the U.S. erupted in a wild celebration. The Commercial Union and all the rest of businesses in Boston emptied their workers—mostly females and older men past the age of military service—into the streets.

“It was great—we threw all the adding machine tapes and rolls of toilet paper out the windows like streamers, and went out and danced all around post office square when it was over,” Eleanor says.

After the war, Cassidy, his wife Kay, and Don eventually returned to the Boston area and resumed work at the Commercial Union. When Eleanor first caught sight of Don strolling into the office—tall and dressed sharply in a beige suit, but yellow-skinned from malaria pills and bad diet—she wasn’t so impressed.

“Over the years I had heard about him because he worked in (my) department,” Eleanor says. “I can remember the first thing I said was, ‘I don’t think he was so hot.’”

Nevertheless, the pair began dating and eventually married in 1946. Both families settled down and began raising families in the post-war years: Ed and Kay had four sons, Don and Eleanor three daughters.

Ed and Don didn’t talk about the war much, though they’d occasionally share a memory that stuck with them. Cassidy says it wasn’t the horrors of war or the grand sweep of the world-wide conflict they had participated in that prompted their conversations, but most often the small things. “We’d remember how bad the food was,” says Cassidy, recalling that the ice cream and fresh-baked Australian bread were manna from heaven in comparison.

The Andover connection
In 1953-54 Ed and Don began looking at summer property in New Hampshire. They initially considered a campground on Webster Lake, but that proved too expensive. Cassidy was alone when he first saw the Maple Street property in June 1954. It was a former orchard and a few apple trees remained on the long, sloping hill down to the lakefront, along with a small beach that caught Cassidy’s eye.

“The scoop was the woman that owned it had bought it, and her boys would use it, but because of the war, they had circulated around the country just like all of us did,” he says. “They met gals they ended up marrying and were out of state. So this place was not being utilized like she thought it would be and she decided to sell.”

Cassidy called Teschek and told him about the property, and the latter gave him the okay to tie it up. At the time, the price seemed high and it was a struggle for the two families to make payments.

“A lot of people thought we paid too much because a lot of land was going for cheaper, but not necessarily waterfront,” Cassidy recalls. “Land in general was very reasonable at that time in this area.”

Don and Ed soon set to work building cottages. Between the two of them they had minimal building experience—sheet rocking, plastering, and insulation was about the extent of it, Cassidy says—but that didn’t stop them. They drove up on the weekends and worked hard.

Some of the materials were new and others, including the windows, were second-hand or refurbished. Three windows in the Teschek place were hand-me-downs from Anderson—not the noted window manufacturer, but Eleanor’s boss, who had made it through the war unscathed. They built a pump house by the water’s edge and ran a couple of lines up the hill for a water supply. Cassidy recalls that they tried to drive a point for a well, but the rocky Andover soil wouldn’t oblige.

They started on the Cassidy cottage first. To speed things up the two men took a working vacation, pitching a 9x12 white sidewall tent and cooking their meals on a gasoline camp stove. Teschek slept in his car. Though quite different in their approaches to construction, the two men nevertheless made an efficient tag-team.

“Ed Cassidy is very deliberate in everything he does and [Don] was more apt to go ahead and get it done whether or not it was perfect all the time,” Eleanor recalls. “All of our couple friends knew these traits and we used to have a saying that if Ed built the cottage himself, he would still be building, and if Don built it himself, they would have fallen down years ago.

“Ed would be measuring and measuring and Don would say, ‘It’s only a cottage, Ed, nail it up,’” she adds. “I used to joke and say Don would fix the plumbing with a piece of chewing gum. In spite of these differences, together they got everything done.”

The work was hard but progressed rapidly. They got the Cassidy cottage framed, the windows in, the roof on, and put down felt paper. With a dry roof overhead they moved right in, even though the sides were open.

But late that first summer their work suffered a setback in the form of a raging storm that grew worse as the day progressed. As the wind whipped and the rain sheeted down, Cassidy and Teschek climbed up on the roof to try and keep the felt paper on—a futile and dangerous effort. Only later did the two men find out the raging blow was actually a hurricane.

Eventually the storm was too much and they retreated to Teschek’s brother’s house in Concord and holed up there until the storm blew through. “We came back and resurrected whatever we could. It was wide open so it wasn’t watertight,” Cassidy says.

Don and Ed worked hard to make up for lost ground, coming up every Saturday morning to work and leaving late on Sunday afternoon. By the end of the summer Cassidy says his cottage (pictured at right, Teschek cottage visible at rear, left) was nearly done.

The next year the two men scraped together enough money for materials and got started on Teschek’s cottage. They worked on it into the late fall and had the roof shingled, the siding nailed down, and the windows in when it started snowing on a Sunday afternoon. The early snow was a bad sign of a wicked winter to come.

“That winter we had very severe winter, lot of snow, rain, freezing, and the roof was loaded with snow and ice,” Cassidy recalls. “A lot of places collapsed, including commercial buildings, and that place collapsed too.” Under the weight of snow the roof fell in, pushed the back wall of the cottage flat, and knocked it off the platform. The end walls got damaged, too. More rework ensued.

“We had to dismantle everything,” Cassidy says. “We took off all the shingles very carefully and piled them up. Some of the boards were broken, some of the roof rafters were cracked in half, and we had to eventually replace those.”

Fortunately they were able to salvage half of the roof rafters and most of the siding. “Money-wise, it didn’t cost us that much to rebuild,” Cassidy says. “Time-wise, we lost a year.”

Eleanor, who remained home alone with her three children, says it was a period of struggle for her and for Kay. But the finished cottages and the expanded beach eventually turned out beautifully.

For a time the two families rented out the cottages to pay off the mortgage they needed to finance the Teschek cottage—a mortgage that all four (Don, Ed, Eleanor, and Kay) signed together. In the years after the cottages were completed, renters got more use out of them than the Cassidy and Teschek families.

Later, Teschek daughters Karen, Janet, and Joyce, and Cassidy sons Jeff, Bruce, Gary, and Allen began coming up for summer vacations with their parents, and renting the cottages soon was no longer necessary. In the photo at right, Eleanor, Joyce (holding her son Greg), Ed, Don, and Ed's grandson Patrick are pictured enjoying a summer day in the driveway between the cottages.

The two cottages have been reworked and added to over the years, including an extensive overhaul and addition on the Teschek cottage in 1989 by local contractor Patrick Frost. But although the cottages have been expanded upon and updated, their sturdy frames are still very much Cassidy and Teschek.

These days, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the two families continue to use them, and to enjoy the fruits of the labor and sacrifice of Ed Cassidy and Don Teschek. Their unique friendship, hard work, and lasting legacy as members of The Greatest Generation are not forgotten.