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.

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

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 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