Monday, October 31, 2011

The Conqueror Worm

Lo! t’is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Woe!

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

--Edgar Allan Poe

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Swords from the East, Swords from the Sea by Harold Lamb, a review

Swords from the Sea
Harold Lamb
Howard Andrew Jones, ed.
Bison Books (552 pp, $24.95, 2010)

Swords from the East
Harold Lamb
Howard Andrew Jones, ed.
Bison Books (476 pp, $24.95, 2010)

It must have been something, the pre-television age when pulp magazines were a widely consumed form of entertainment. I can only imagine the anticipation of opening up one’s mailbox, finding inside the latest copy of Adventure magazine, and settling in to an evening of rousing tales by the likes of Talbot Mundy, H. Rider Haggard, and Harold Lamb. It was a time of pulse-pounding action and tales of distant historic epochs on the printed page.

Those days are now gone, and for many years the contents of those now-yellowed pulps were largely inaccessible, save through the efforts of patient and often deep-pocketed enthusiasts. But fortunately some of these works are now being collected in anthologies. Editor Howard Andrew Jones has done the Herculean task of assembling Lamb’s stories in the eight volume “Harold Lamb Library” series by Bison Books. These include Swords from the Desert and Swords from the West, and recently concluded with Swords from the Sea and Swords from the East.

To read the rest of this review, visit The Black Gate website .

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Rising by Brian Keene, a review

If there’s one comforting aspect to zombies, it’s the fact that they’re brainless, depicted in most mediums as well below the level of primates. While some of the undead maintain vestigial memories of the person they once were, and might be able to work a door handle or remember the location of a concealed room, they don’t organize or coordinate their attacks. A man with a gun and a lot of ammunition situated on high ground can hold out against them for a long while. Spread out a group of zombies thin enough and a desperate survivor can run right through them, if he’s lucky enough to avoid being snagged by a grasping hand. At worst they might use a tree limb to batter down a door or break a window. They’re deadly in big clusters, but one-on-one they’re manageable. They don’t set ambushes. They can’t operate heavy machinery. They don’t use weapons.

But in author Brian Keene’s universe of The Rising (2004), slow, stupid, Romero-style zombies have undergone a paradigm shift. You thought you were safe behind boarded-up windows, confident they would hold up against the pounding fists of the living dead? Now add a high-speed zombie-driven van into the equation. The man shooting zombies from a roof in The Rising will find the creatures shooting back, or coming around from behind while creatures in front draw his fire. Keene’s zombies can plan, and calculate, and employ tactics. We’re all screwed in this type of scenario, more or less meat for the hungry dead. And that’s before you add in the fact that dead animals are reanimating as well; some of the most dangerous creatures in The Rising are swarms of undead rats and birds, largely resistant to gunfire as they make such small targets.

This all makes The Rising a bleak novel, indeed. But there's a bit more to it than meets the eye.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Zombies on the brain

I've got zombies on the brain. Watched The Walking Dead season two premiere last night (good stuff) and I'm about to start reading Brian Keene's The Rising. With two weeks to Halloween I'm going full-bore horror.

Did anyone else catch The Walking Dead last night? If so, I'd like to know your thoughts on it and/or the series thus far. Discussion/spoilers follow after the break (now that Blogger has added the "insert jump break" button, I might as well start using it).

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Are we becoming "The Happy Breed"?

Still working my way through the Harlan Ellison edited anthology Dangerous Visions (highly recommended reading, by the way), and I’ve come across a story that stopped me cold in my tracks, because it concerns a subject about which I’ve given a lot of thought and worry. Namely, the problem of pain.

“The Happy Breed” by John Sladek tells of a theoretical future (amusingly, 1989—Dangerous Visions was written in 1967, and many of its entries err on the side of overestimating the proliferation of technology) in which machines will take away all our pain. It’s a world in which machines constantly analyze our bodies and minds and offer tranquilizers to still our troubling thoughts, and painless surgical intervention for every physical ailment. So what’s left for humanity in this future?

Sladek posits that with every machine we come to depend on, we surrender a bit of our freedom. What would happen to us if we no longer had any of life’s ailments to worry about? What would it do to our psyche, our creativity? What if we were theoretically able to conquer death itself? Would we be recognizably human any longer? Would we need God in this future?
Says Sladek:

…without evil or pain, preference and choice are meaningless; personality blurs; figures merge with their backgrounds, and thinking becomes superfluous and disappears. I believe these are the inevitable results of achieving Utopia, if we make the mistake of assuming the Utopia equals perfect happiness. There is, after all, a pleasure center in everyone’s head. Plant an electrode there, and presumably we could be constantly, perfectly happy on a dime’s worth of electricity a day.

Are we destined to become “The Happy Breed?” What do you think?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Barbarism meets academia at College of St. Joseph in Vermont

Cross posted with the permission of Rob Roehm of the Robert E. Howard Foundation website, I thought the following too interesting not to share with readers of Black Gate and The Silver Key:

Enduring Barbarism: Heroic Fantasy from the Bronze Age to the Internet

College of St. Joseph Popular Culture Conference
Contact email:
Dr. Jonas Prida

The inaugural popular culture conference will be held at the College of St. Joseph, located in Rutland, Vermont, April 13th-14th, 2012.

Proposal deadline: Dec 15th, 2011.

We are looking for a wide range of topics, figures, panels and cultural studies methodologies to explore the enduring figure of the barbarian in Western popular culture. Graduate students, established faculty, and independent scholars are encouraged to submit ideas. Possible paper topics:

The multi-faceted use of the barbarian in popular culture

Rise and fall of heroic fantasy in the 1970s

Comic book barbarism

Heroic fantasy as a heavy metal trope

The gendered barbarian

Explorations of lesser-known sword and sorcery texts

Italian sword and sandal movies

The barbarian’s future

We are actively interested in innovative panel ideas as well.

Please send 250 word paper proposals, 400-500 word panel ideas, or general questions to Dr. Jonas Prida at

If it only had Eric Adams as the keynote, this would be pitch-perfect.

But seriously, it does my heart good to see serious treatment of swords and sorcery. Now there’s a conference I’d love to attend. Get those proposals in!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

There has never been a craps table described quite like this

I'm at the halfway mark of a book I've long had on my "to be read" list--the Harlan Ellison-edited anthology Dangerous Visions (1967). I'm enjoying it immensely so far. Even when I don't quite understand everything I'm reading the sheer artistry of the stories makes up for the opaqueness. You can lose yourself in these tales.

I just finished Fritz Leiber's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning short story "Gonna Roll the Bones," about a beaten-down lowlife miner named Joe Slattermill who likes to blow off steam by gambling, getting drunk, and picking up cheap hookers. On this particular evening's excursion he enters a ghostly casino named The Boneyard and finds himself seated across the pool table from either death, or perhaps the devil.

It's freaking awesome. The way Leiber describes Slattermill's opponent--a skeletal, hollow-eyed, black-hatted figure known as The Big Gambler--reminded me of Iron Maiden mascot Eddie from my favorite Somewhere in Time tapestry, only with more menace.

I've never read anything quite like this story. It's a marvel of style. Here's how Leiber describes the crap table, for instance:

Joe lowered his gaze to the crap table. It was almost as wide as a man is tall, at least twice as long, unusually deep, and lined with black, not green, felt, so that it looked like a giant's coffin. There was something familiar about its shape which he couldn't place. Its bottom, though not its sides or ends, had a twinkling iridescence, as if it had been lightly sprinkled with very tiny diamonds. As Joe lowered his gaze all the way and looked directly down, his eyes barely over the table, he got the crazy notion that it went down all the way through the world, so that the diamonds were the stars on the other side, visible despite the sunlight there, just as Joe was always able to see the stars by day up the shaft of the mine he worked in, and so that if a cleaned-out gambler, dizzy with defeat, toppled forward into it, he'd fall forever, toward the innermost bottom, be it Hell or some black galaxy. Joe's thoughts swirled and he felt the cold, hard-fingered clutch of fear at his crotch. Someone was crooning beside him, "Come on, Big Dick."
I don't always agree with Hugo selections and other award winners, but "Gonna Roll the Bones" deserves whatever accolodates were thrown at it for that paragraph alone. The menace and alien nature of the table and its association with death, the reference to Slattermill's job and the accompanying insight into his character, the depiction of the soul of the inveterate gambler, the fear mixed with sex... wow.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Golden Apples of the Sun

Just finished this one, a collection of 22 stories ranging from science fiction to fantasy to mainstream and everything in between. Like all Bradbury it's hard to categorize, with fun little shockers in the tradition of EC Comics alongside stories like deep pools that leave you gasping at their magnificence when you rise back to the surface.

"Well," said the captain, sitting, eyes shut, sighing. "Well, where do we go now, eh, we are we all going?" He felt his men sitting or standing all about him, the terror dead in them, their breathing quiet. "When you've gone a long, long way down to the sun and touched it and lingered and jumped around and streaked away from it, where are you going then? When you go away from the heat and the noonday light and the laziness, where do you go?"

His men waited for him to say it out. They waited for him to gather all of the coolness and the whiteness and the welcome and refreshing climate of the word in his mind, and they saw him settle the word, like a bit of ice cream, in his mouth, rolling it gently.

"There's only one direction in space from here on out," he said at last.

They waited. They waited as the ship moved swiftly into cold darkness away from the light.

"North," murmured the captain. "North."

And they all smiled, as if a wind had come up suddenly in the middle of a hot afternoon.

Where are we all going? Hard to say for sure, but in Bradbury's capable hands, always to good places.