Thursday, April 29, 2010

A King-sized project begins

Writer Adam Christopher has embarked on a very ambitious project—reading and reviewing all of Stephen King’s books in the order in which they were published. He started a Web site dedicated to the task a couple weeks ago entitled Stephen’s Lot.

Christopher certainly has a massive task ahead of him. According to his Web site, King has written 56 books, including 46 novels, seven short story collections, and three works of non-fiction. Christopher also plans to intersperse his entries with reviews of film and television adaptations of King’s works and other King esoterica. To date he’s completed reviews of Under the Dome (which he’s calling Book #0—it’s King’s latest and out of order, hence the “zero” appellation), and has since reviewed Book #1, Carrie. Next up is ‘Salem’s Lot.

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thirty-five years of despair: The continuing relevance of Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories

I still remember many years ago reading the admonition that serves as the preface to Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories (1975). I had never encountered a “buyer beware” message in a book and its three simple lines chilled me almost as much as the short stories that followed (what was I getting into? I remember thinking):

Caveat Lector
It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

I will vouch for the fact that Ellison’s warning is no cheap ploy, like a horror film declaring itself the most terrifying or gruesome ever to hook in a big gate. Rather, it lets the reader know that he or she is about to embark into a group of short stories whose combined effect is to deaden the spirit. This is the net effect of Deathbird Stories.

Written over a span of 10 years, the tales of Deathbird Stories are tied together by the concept that gods are real only as long as they have followers. “When belief in a god dies, the god dies,” writes Ellison. Old gods like Thor and Odin dissipated when Vikings took up the cross; Apollo was reduced to rubble when his temple fell, Ellison says in the book’s introduction. I’m not sure whether this idea of religious belief preceding divine essence was Ellison’s creation, but it may be (Neil Gaiman’s much-hailed American Gods also employs this concept, but Deathbird Stories, published more than 25 years prior, did it first and better). All I know is that 35 years later, its stories still resonate, and disturb.

Deathbird Stories is hard to pigeonhole (no pun intended): It’s probably closest to horror with a good deal of science fiction and fantasy elements thrown in. Story after story drives home the point that mankind has drifted away from belief in a benevolent, all-knowing and all-loving God and transferred its faith to soulless pursuits and material possessions. Deathbird Stories is Ellison’s negation (or perhaps more accurately, execution) of the Christian God, who is replaced by numerous, squalid, selfish (small g) gods upon whose sordid altars we now worship: The gods of cars, of gambling, of the modern metropolis, of pollution, and many more debased pursuits. The monstrous, twisted forms (both literal and symbolic) of these new gods are a marvelous work of Ellison’s creation. Old creatures of myth—basilisks, gargoyles, dragons, minotaurs—all make appearances, too.

Some of my favorite stories include “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” about the god of the slot machine and the mind-numbing dead-end that is Las Vegas; “Along the Scenic Route,” a short but memorable tale about a freeway autoduel of the future with equal relevance to our current road-rage fueled obsession with the automobile; “Basilisk,” which artfully combines the Greek myth of a serpent-like creature with a lethal gaze with Mars, the hungry and (well-fed) God of War; and “The Deathbird,” a disturbing inversion of the Genesis story which features serpent as hero and Adam’s search for the truth on a dying, ash-choked earth of the future.

One story is quite different in tone than the rest of the collection, “On the Downhill Side.” Here the ghosts of a deceased man and woman meet on a midnight street in New Orleans; the god of love has given them one last chance to find love in each other’s arms (the man, Paul, loved too much in life, while Lizette is a virgin who was unable to commit herself to a relationship). A great sacrifice is needed to consummate their love, which does not culminate in a playing of harps or choir of angels singing, merely a compromise “forming one spirit that would neither love too much, nor too little.” Along with “The Deathbird,” “On the Downhill Side” is Ellison at his rawest and most exposed—one gets the feeling that this how he truly believes that love and religion operate.

Ellison has always been a polarizing figure, a man of very strong opinions that he’s not afraid to share (his rants are everywhere on Youtube). You may or may not buy his cynical views, but they’re impossible to ignore. Likewise no reader will ever cuddle up with Deathbird Stories. It’s a difficult, often painful read. But it makes us think, and it immerses its reader in the beauty of the written word and the limitless potential of the short story. Love him or hate him, Ellison is an immense talent, and 35 years on Deathbird Stories still deserves to be read and discussed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Howard’s Muse: Some ruminations by historical fiction author Steven Pressfield

Historical fiction author Steven Pressfield, perhaps best known for Gates of Fire, a magnificent re-telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, writes about the art (or more accurately, the hard labor) of writing every Wednesday on his Web site, This week’s installment references our favorite author ‘round these parts, Robert E. Howard.

In The War of Art, his non-fiction treatise about the writing profession (and upon which Writing Wednesdays are based), Pressfield describes writing as the product of grit and effort, accomplished by overcoming the demon of resistance. In other words, writing is largely an unromantic slog and the result of hard work. But Pressfield also believes that ideas are an entirely different animal: Inspiration like Howard’s arrives from the wings of angels, a kind of divine insight that alights on our shoulders as we set pen to paper. Pressfield calls this the spirit of the Muse.

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

Thursday, April 8, 2010

“Unshaken on his rocky throne above the bleak fjords”: A review of H. Rider Haggard’s Eric Brighteyes

The default setting for most fantasy is a faux late-Middle Ages, generally ascribed to the period from the Norman conquest of 1066 to roughly the end of the 15th century. Hence we get novels whose characters live in sprawling, lavishly decorative castles, answer to a high king in a monarchical society, embrace chivalric ideals, and speak in an ornate language of high culture. In comparison, the coarse, rough mine of the early Middle Ages and in particular the Viking Age is relatively untapped. I enjoy the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War as much as the next guy, but I prefer the song of spear and axe, the smoke of the burning hall, and the sight of the dragon-headed longship against the backdrop of the ruins of ancient civilization.

This disparity is unfortunate, because although the number of novels set during the Viking Age is relatively low, I have generally found them to be of exceeding high quality. Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and The Broken Sword are among the best of this smallish genre (though I’m not sure if the latter can be properly classified as set during the Viking Age, heavily Nordic-influenced though it may be). Bernard Cornwell’s ongoing historic fiction series The Saxon Stories is similarly great, devoid of ant overt references to magic but with all of the poetry of the age. I would add to that mix Harry Harrison’s The Hammer and the Cross, a fun, if savage and bloodthirsty read, while Nancy Farmer’s young adult work The Sea of Trolls is quite good and entertained me as a full-grown man. I have also heard praise from many quarters for E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong, which I have not read (it’s out of print and not easy to acquire).

It’s hard to say which of these Viking Age-inspired works would win a theoretical Holmgang amidst hazel rods, but having just now read H. Rider Haggard’s 1889 novel Eric Brighteyes, I can now state that any previous order I had established is deeply in doubt, so mighty is this book. In fact, I would unhesitatingly declare it among the finest works in the genre, better than Cornwell and at least as good as Anderson’s best. It may not be as much a household name as Haggard’s more famous works King Solomon’s Mines and She, but it’s nevertheless rightly considered a classic in some quarters and one of Haggard’s best.

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

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cimmerian sighting: Adrift in The Pacific

I’ve always had a fascination with World War II. When I was a kid I played with army soldiers and guns, pretend battles with friends that always pitted the U.S. vs. Germany. When I got older I started to read about the war, broadening my interest from its tanks and planes and guns to its root causes, its personalities, its tactics and triumphs, and its tragedies.

But it wasn’t really until 1998’s Saving Private Ryan that I grasped the true hell of combat. Even now, some 12 years later, when I think about those landing craft approaching the beaches at Normandy, my palms break out in sweat, my heart begins to race, and my damn testicles crawl up inside my body.

I had the same reaction watching 2001’s Band of Brothers. When Easy Company’s paratroopers bail out over France into heavy flak and tracer bullets, landing spread across hostile fields in which enemy soldiers wait below, wanting only to kill them, my first thought was an incredulous, Men actually did this?

The memories of these scenes left me eagerly anticipating the 10-part HBO miniseries The Pacific, which switches the action from the European theatre of war to the savage battles waged against the Japanese. Having recently read With the Old Breed—an outstanding combat memoir by Marine infantryman Eugene Sledge, and one of the books upon which the mini-series is based—I knew The Pacific had the underpinnings to be very, very good. And with the same superstar producer duo that brought us both Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers—Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks—I was hoping that lightning would strike thrice with The Pacific.

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