Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Evaluating Don Herron's hard look at Stephen King

Essayist/raconteur Don Herron is best known ‘round these parts for his outstanding Robert E. Howard criticism, which includes essays and editing duties in seminal works like The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph. Elsewhere he’s also regarded as an expert on the works of renowned mystery and noir writer Dashiell Hammett.

Based on this photo, he also wears a fedora and trenchcoat better than anyone.

But a lesser-known side of Herron’s resume includes his Stephen King criticism. I myself was unaware of Herron’s work as a reviewer of the king of horror until coming across his essay, “King: The Good, the Bad, and the Academic” from Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King (1986, NAL/Plume).

Seeing as how I’m writing for The Cimmerian website, whose now defunct print journal was home for many Herron essays, this next statement may make me seem like a suck-up, but that’s fine, I’ll say it anyway: I think Herron’s essay is perhaps the best in Kingdom of Fear. This is no mean feat, given that some of the other contributors to the volume include horror immortals like Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, and Harlan Ellison.

Whether or not you agree with that assessment, it’s rather indisputable that Herron’s essay is the most provocative of the lot. I first started typing “equal parts criticism and praise,” but upon further review it’s decidedly tipped in favor of the negative. Considering that Kingdom of Fear was published in 1986—arguably the height of King’s creativity and popularity—Herron’s final analysis of King as a talented but flawed writer is rather ballsy. Herron pulls no punches, neither for King nor his legions of fans and admirers. For example, he rips Douglas Winter’s book Stephen King: The Art of Darkness for containing too much fan-worship and not enough honest appraisal. Writes Herron: “[It] strikes me as remarkable because Winter never once disagrees with a King dictum, he does not suggest that one of the novels under discussion might, just possibly, have a minor flaw or two. In this respect it is typical of most of the new criticism, where the critics, like the audience of teenage girls who buy so many of the King books, find everything to be just wonderful.”

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Devil You Know: A review

Maybe if we cry together
Maybe if we cry as one
The tears that fall can kill
the fire
And keep everyone from
Atom and evil

--Heaven and Hell, Atom and Evil

I am one of those rare breeds who prefers the Ronnie James Dio-fronted Black Sabbath to the Ozzy Osbourne years (I acknowledge Black Sabbath's early greatness, but my favorite album remains Heaven and Hell). So it was with great anticipation of another Dio-Tony Iommi collaboration that I bought The Devil You Know.

After a couple play-throughs, The Devil You Know is what I would consider a slow burn--nothing jumps out at you at first listen, but it seems to get better with each subsequent spin. Still, I can't shake the feeling that, after waiting for 14 or so years since the last Black Sabbath album (1995's Cross Purposes), and 17 years since the last Ronnie James Dio-fronted Sabbath album (1992's Dehumanizer), I wanted something that immediately grabbed me by the throat. Sadly, there's no pulse-pounding Neon Knights to be found.

There is at least one bona-fide awesome song on this album, Bible Black. If you've ever heard Sign of the Southern Cross or Children of the Sea, Bible Black is in that same epic vein--a slow, melodic, acoustic intro, followed by an explosion of sound and Dio lauching into the song with his inimitable voice. My other favorites on the album are shaping up to be Atom and Evil (both a biblical allusion and a warning about unchecked nuclear proliferation), Follow the Tears, and Neverwhere.

The rest of the songs are solid if rather unspectacular, though I hope that changes with subsequent listens. As of now, the only ones that I'd rate as sub-par are Rock and Roll Angel and Eating the Cannibals.

Dio's voice doesn't have quite its old range and power anymore, but at 66 years old he's still pretty damned amazing. And if he's lost a little off his fastball he sounds arguably more evil and "metal" than ever, if that makes sense. The guy is a metal god, as is Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler, who pound out some awesome riffs on the album. The sound of the album is dark and bass-heavy, about what you'd expect. Iommi also launches into a couple memorable guitar solos (remember those?)

It's worth noting that the title of album and its artwork are a clever play on words and images--Black Sabbath is of course known for its use of satanic lyrics, but the band itself is the "devil" all metal fans know and love so well. The cover art (see below post) is exceptional, and appears to fuse both traditional Black Sabbath imagery and the Dio Sabbath/solo years. I might be reading into the image too much, but I can't help but feel that the long-horned demon bears more than a passing resemblance to the devil creature on Holy Diver and a handful of Dio's other solo albums.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Devil You Know: I've got it in my greedy hands

Today I did something rather out of the ordinary in my all too ordinary life--I bought a CD on its first day of release: The new Black Sabbath (scratch that, Heaven and Hell) album, The Devil You Know.

I know, I'm a damned lunatic. Stand back.

It's way too early for me to post an honest review and frankly, I haven't given my full attention to the album yet. But my initial impression is that it's got a good, dark, bass-heavy sound, decent if not soaring vocals by Dio, and at least one early leader: a great song named "Bible Black."

More on this to come.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Slaughterhouse-Five: A review

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.

—Kurt Vonnegut,
Slaughterhouse Five

During World War II, author Kurt Vonnegut was taken prisoner by the Germans and held captive in the city of Dresden, which was later reduced to flaming rubble during a harrowing fire-bombing by American forces. According to Vonnegut, the city was a gorgeous center of art, architecture, and fine civilian life; its value as a military target was negligible. “What I’ve said about the firebombing of Dresden is that not one person got out of a concentration camp a microsecond earlier, not one German deserted his defensive position a microsecond earlier,” Vonnegut said.

Somewhere between 25,000 and 120,000 civilians (the upper figure is an early estimate, which has since been revised downward to 25,000-40,000) were killed in the inferno of incendiary and high explosive bombs. As such, Dresden remains a controversial, dark chapter of America’s involvement in the war.

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s look back on this dreadful event. It’s not a traditional biography, but a modified account of his own experiences as seen through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a tall, awkward, disconnected dreamer who is drafted into the army and thrust into combat. Pilgrim is a pathetic soul with the appearance of a “filthy flamingo,” involved in tragic events beyond his control.

Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Pilgrim and 100 other soldiers are shipped to Dresden to serve as prison-labor. At night they sleep in a storage-cave beneath a slaughterhouse amidst the butchered carcasses of animals, and it’s this arrangement that allows them to survive the attack. After the firebombing, they emerge the next morning to find the once-beautiful Dresden so utterly destroyed that it resembles the surface of the moon.

A part of me feels guilty for reviewing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a science fiction/fantasy Web site. The connections of this classic anti-war novel to the science fiction genre are tenuous, but it attains this designation (in some circles) due to the presence of the Tralfamadorians, a race of aliens that capture Pilgrim and bring him back to their planet for examination. During his months on Tralfamadore, Pilgrim is placed in a sort of zoo, his body and mind laid bare to the curious aliens.

The Tralfamadorians may be simply the imagination of an unwell, traumatized mind. Pilgrim is emotionally unbalanced, suffers a head injury after the war, and reads voraciously of the novels of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, one of whose novels concerns an alien abduction that sounds suspiciously like Pilgrim’s own experiences on Trafalmadore. But the Tralfamadorians—real or not—allow Vonnegut to explore the concept of time and our place in it, which is the larger theme of the novel. The Tralfamadorians can see in four dimensions and have no concept of time; life just is, and human existence is a series of events and happenings with no beginnings and ends. Events simply occur; wars are fought, we are powerless to stop them and it’s ridiculous to think we can. Free will is a farce.

Pilgrim’s time among the Tralfamadorians allows him to experience his life in this fourth dimension, moving his mind back and forth to the past and future, seemingly at will. He is able to see his own death, and relive events from his childhood, his marriage, and his career as an optometrist. But Pilgrim’s wandering, time-traveling mind returns again and again to the terrible events of Dresden, an experience so powerful that his mind is unable to make sense of it. It just is, and all he can do with the rest of life is to try and look upon the good times in his life, the moments of joy, and not linger too long over the blackened, shrunken bodies of Dresden, or a fellow American and friend executed for salvaging a teapot from the ruins.

Actor Ethan Hawke (of Dead Poets Society and Hamlet fame) serves as the narrator and does a nice job reading with an understated, dispassionate voice that perfectly fits the tone of the novel. This Blackstone Audio production also includes an unexpected and enlightening 10-minute interview with Vonnegut on the final disc. Here Vonnegut reveals that Pilgrim’s character was based on a real person, Edward Crone, an American who died in Dresden. “He just didn’t understand the war at all, what was going on, and of course there was nothing to understand—he was right,” Vonnegut says.

This review also appears on

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Of Wolf Larsen and embracing the Howardian hero

“He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God’s thunderbolts,” Wolf Larsen was saying. “Hurled into hell, he was unbeaten. A third of God’s angels he had led with him, and straightway he incited man to rebel against God, and gained for himself and hell the major portion of all the generations of man. Why was he beaten out of heaven? Because he was less brave than God? less proud? less aspiring? No! A thousand times no! God was more powerful, as he said, Whom thunder hath made greater. But Lucifer was a free spirit. To serve was to suffocate. He preferred suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility. He did not care to serve God. He cared to serve nothing. He was no figure-head. He stood on his own legs. He was an individual.”

—Jack London, The Sea Wolf

Occasionally when I read Robert E. Howard I wonder: What is it that attracts me to his writing? Is it his great, galloping storytelling? Yes—if pressed, I would say that this is Howard’s finest trait as a writer. Is it the swords and sorcery trappings of Howard’s Conan and Kull stories? Yes—I’ve always felt an attraction to arms and armor, lost civilizations, and monsters and magic, which is probably why I favor these characters above Howard’s others. Is it is his disdain for civilization? Yes, this too—as an office worker in 21st century America, I have my frustrating, bad days where I feel an apathy or outright disgust for “the system.”

But do I also read Robert E. Howard for wish-fulfillment, for the vicarious thrill of stepping into the personas of Howard’s self-sufficient, strong, warlike heroes? Yes, I do. When reading stories like “The Shadow Kingdom” or “The Phoenix on the Sword,” I admit to imagining myself as a larger-than-life barbarian-king from an impossibly ancient era, living by the simple, violent code, “By this axe, I rule.”

I actually arrived at this realization not while reading Howard, but while re-reading one of his favorite authors and literary influences—Jack London, and specifically London’s The Sea Wolf. In this book we’re introduced to Wolf Larsen, the brutal, iron fisted captain of the sealing schooner Ghost. London spends considerable pages trying to convince the reader of Larsen’s despicable nature. Larsen is more beast than man: He rules with an iron fist, crushing his crew brutally underfoot, particularly those who dare to exhibit a will of their own. He doesn’t truck with weakness, or morality (in Larsen’s eyes, these qualities are one and the same). He forbids his crew to go to the aid of a young crewmate, frozen with fear in the rigging (“The man’s mine, and I’ll make soup of him and eat it if I want to,” Larsen says). He scoffs at the idea of an immortal soul.

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Good news on The Hobbit front: "Sequel" idea nixed

So if you haven't already heard the news, Empire Movie News is reporting that Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson have nixed the idea for a "bridge" film between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The revised plan is to do just The Hobbit, albeit broken up into two films. You can read the story here at Empireonline.

As you may recall, back when The Hobbit (film) was originally announced, del Toro and crew had planned on two films: The Hobbit, as well as a hazy sequel, the latter to be based on Tolkien's loose notes of the 60 years in between The Hobbit and the start of The Fellowship of the Ring.

This idea is now off the table, which in my opinion is a Very Good Thing. With all due respect to del Toro and Jackson--talented filmmakers both--creating their own stories of Middle Earth was a recipe for disaster. Tolkien's imitators are legion, and none of his literary successors in my opinion have come close to equalling the unique feel of Middle Earth or its mythic depth. I was skeptical of this sequel business from the get-go and I'm glad to see it's fallen through (I was picturing some ham-fisted quest storyline with cameos by every single actor in the LOTR films, and a half-assed Sauron origin story tacked on).

There will be complaints that The Hobbit does not need to be made into two films, it's a money grab by New Line Cinema, etc. There may be some padding needed to make two complete films, but hell, I'll gladly fork down the dollars to watch them both. I also note that although The Hobbit is only 280-odd pages, there's a whole lot of adventure and events crammed between its covers. I think you could make a nice clean break after Bilbo recovers the ring and he and the dwarves emerge from the Misty Mountains.

But then again, this is coming from someone who'd give his eyeteeth to see a full-on Silmarillon and Children of Hurin done in the exact spirit of the books. Maybe one day...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Heroic Visions takes a rather dim view of Howard

This past weekend I landed a major score at a local used bookstore, a haul that included no fewer than four works of swords and sorcery, a Weird Tales anthology, and a Year’s Best Fantasy collection. Needless to say I’ve got some good reading ahead of me. (Don’t ask me where this book store is: I won’t divulge my secrets until I’ve plundered the rest of its treasures).

Unfortunately, my excitement was dimmed upon discovering that the first book I opened, the Jessica Amanda Salmonson-edited Heroic Visions (1983, Ace Fantasy), begins with an essay that both exalts the S&S genre while managing to simultaneously land a swiping, drive-by broadsword blow on none other than Robert E. Howard.

Here’s the offending paragraph by Salmonson:

Heroic fantasy, in recent decades, has seemed too often to be epitomized by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, and this is a sad state of affairs. The millennia-old heritage of magical and heroic tales does not begin or culminate in the rather simplistic fictions of the pulp era or the current, slavish imitations thereof. Howard’s work is admirable; he was surprisingly well-read, and invested his stories with the hodge-podge of an amateur historian or Harold Lamb fan, creating something primal, evocative, intriguing. Stylistically, he was weak. The dozen-score imitators of Howard have tended to capture the weakness of his style, but not the primal thread of his limited though worthwhile heroic vision—his, shall we say, pathos. Without denying Howard’s genius or even qualifying it, it must be recognized that glorifying his rudimentary sword and sorcery as “ideal” heroic fantasy is akin to assuming Doc Smith’s old-fashioned space opera is “ideal” science fiction. No area of fantasy should be so stagnant and devoid of stylistic and conceptual growth or variety.
To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: The Demons before Carce

5. The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
The Demons Before Carce

Now came the Lord Juss with a great rout of men armed on his great horse with his sword dripping with blood, and the battle sprang up into yet more noise and fury, and great man-slaying befell, and many able men of Witchland fell in that stour and the Demons had almost put them from the bridge-gate.

—The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison

In a past review of The Worm Ouroboros, I noted that E.R. Eddison’s cornerstone work of fantasy is about the endless cycle of war (a worm eating its own tail and all that). As such, it offers a banquet of combat from which I had trouble selecting a single battle for my top 10 list. In the end I went with the last great engagement of the book, “The Demons Before Carce.”

In this battle the Demons (the forces of good), scattered and on the run, have marshaled their strength, fought back, and taken the war all the way to Carce, the Witches’ capitol city. All the great heroes of both sides are arrayed for final battle (and what wonderful names they are): For the Witches, Corinius, Counst Escobrine of Tzeusha, the Red Folio, Corsus, King Erp of Ellien, Axtacus lord of Permio, Olis of Tecapan, and the Lord Corund, among many others. They total 5,200 men or more. For the Demons, Lord Brandoch Daha leads a great company of horse, along with Lord Juss, Lord Spitfire, and the Lord Gro. On the Demon’s right, Lord Goldry Bluszco streams his standard, leading to battle the heavy spearmen of Mardardale and Throwater. With him is King Gaslark and his army of Goblinland.

The Worm Ouroboros is unrepentant in its love of battle. In Eddison’s universe war brings out the best in men. Even the “bad guys” (the Witches) shine like angels in gleaming plate-armor in the defense of Carce, fighting gloriously until the end. It’s impossible to not admire their feats-of-arms, even as we wish for their ultimate defeat.

The battle itself delivers on the promise of Eddison’s beautiful build-up and careful marshalling of the armies. The initial clash of troops is “like the bursting of a thundercloud.” Much like the forces of Troy when backed up the great walls of their city, the Witches fight fiercer than the Demons and gain the upper hand:

But like a great sea-cliff patient for ages under the storm-winds' furies, that not one night's loud wind and charging breakers can wear away, nor yet a thousand thousand nights, the embattled strength of Witchland met their onset, mixed with them, flung them back, and stood unremoved.

The Demons Before Carce appears to have influenced George R.R. Martin’s Battle of the Bywater. The two battles are parallel in many ways: Both include a battle before the gates of a large city and a combined engagement on land and sea. Just as at Bywater, fire plays a role in the outcome of The Demons Before Carce as the Demons’ ships, led by the young Hesper Golthring, are burned by the Witches, and the majority of Golthring’s soldiers are burned or drowned. Hesper himself, attempting to crawl away from the carnage, is stabbed with a dagger and dies. “The smoke of the burning ships was like incense in the nostrils of the King [Gorice] watching these things from his tower above the water-gate,” writes Eddison. In A Clash of Kings, Stannis Baratheon’s ships are burned in the harbor as Lord Joffrey and Cersei watch the carnage from above in the Red Keep.

Having disposed of the Demons’ ships, the Witches throw the main of their forces at the Demons’ ground troops, resulting in terrible carnage:

In which struggle befell the most bloody fighting that was yet seen that day, and the stour of battle so asper and so mortal that it was hard to see how any man should come out from it with life, since not a man of either side would budge an inch but die there in his steps if he might not rather slay the foe before him. So the armies swayed for an hour like wrastlers locked, but in the end the Lord Corund had his way and held his ground before the bridge-gate.

The Demons’ forces begin to bend and break. Lord Juss, seeing the threat of rout and defeat, makes a bold and perhaps fatal decision to ride his 800 cavalry into a gap in the Witches’ army to attempt to force a break. The language here is beautiful; J.R.R. Tolkien credited The Worm Ouroboros as an inspiration for his writing and you can see this heritage here, as Juss issues a Theoden-like battle cry before the latter’s great charge on the Pelennor Fields:

So it was from the beginning with all great captains: so with the Lord Juss in that hour when ruin swooped upon his armies. For two minutes' space he stood silent; then sent Bremery of Shaws galloping westward like one minded to break his neck with his orders to Lord Brandoch Daha, and Romenard eastward again to Spitfire. And Juss himself riding forward among his soldiers shouted among them in a voice that was like a trumpet thundering, that they should now make ready for the fiercest trial of all.

The plan works. Juss’ cavalry breaks through some initial resistance and sweeps through the gap, taking Corsus and Corinius’ forces in the rear, affecting a great slaughter:

There fell in this onset Axtacus lord of Permio, the kings of Ellien and Gilta, Gorius the son of Corsus, the Count of Tzeusha, and many other noblemen and men of mark. Of the Demons many were hurt and many slain, but none of great note save Kamerar of Stropardon, whose head Corinius swapt off clean with a blow of his battle-axe, and Trentmar whom Corsus smote full in the stomach with a javelin so that he fell down from his horse and was dead at once. Now was all the left and centre of the Witches' battle thrown into great confusion, and the allies most of all fallen into disorder and fain to yield themselves and pray for mercy.

Even as the Witches fall back with great loss, they do not break and run, but led by the valiant Corund fight bravely to the gates of Carce, step-by-costly-step. Juss, though a sworn, bitter enemy of the Witches, cannot help but admire their steadfast courage:

Juss said, "This is the greatest deed of arms that ever I in the days of my life did see, and I have so great an admiration and wonder in my heart for Corund that almost I would give him peace. But I have sworn now to have no peace with Witchland."

In the midst of the deadly melee, Corund and Juss square off like two prize-fighters. Corund smashes Juss’ shield and knocks him from his horse, but Juss recovers and drives his sword point through Corund’s mail shirt, a fatal blow. Corund, mortally wounded, retaliates with a great blow on Juss’ helm that knocks him unconscious.

Now pent up inside Carce and with the main of their army smashed, the Witches’ hopes for victory have fled. Corund is borne inside, unable to support his own weight. His next action is the stuff of fantasy legend: Weak and with his life-blood draining away from the terrible wound, he wills himself on to his throne, defiant and kingly to the end:

The Lady Prezmyra, when she perceived that his harness was all red with blood, and saw his wound, fell not down in a swoon as another might, but took his arm about her shoulder and so supported, with her step-sons to help her, that great frame which could no more support itself yet had till that hour borne up against the whole world’s strength in arms. Leeches came that she had called for, and a litter, and they brought him to the banquet hall. But after no long while those learned men confessed his hurt was deadly, and all their cunning nought. Whereupon, much disdaining to die in bed, not in the field fighting with his enemies, the Lord Corund caused himself, completely armed and weaponed, with the stains and dust of the battle yet upon him, to be set in his chair, there to await death.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Tritonian Ring

Even the Gods so glorious must march at the last, down the dim dusty road to death the destroyer.

—L. Sprague de Camp,
The Tritonian Ring

I hesitate to mention the name L. Sprague de Camp ‘round these parts, given the resentment held against him for his character-sullying, inaccurate portrayals of Robert E. Howard in his REH biography Dark Valley Destiny and elsewhere. But if you can look beyond his REH sins (and that’s a big if), de Camp the fiction author has a few gems to offer fans of sword-and-sorcery.

One of de Camp’s more highly-regarded S&S stories is the short novel The Tritonian Ring. Though an imperfect work and not in the same class as Howard’s best, upon recent re-read I found that The Tritonian Ring remains a cracking good read and worth picking up, if you can still find it these days. It’s pure story and possessed of a reckless momentum that lovers of S&S will appreciate.

Though de Camp greatly admired Howard’s writings and Conan in particular, latching on to Howard’s tales and reissuing edited stories and pastiches of the Cimmerian with fellow writer and S&S aficionado Lin Carter, The Tritonian Ring is a deliberate attempt by de Camp’s to break from The Hyborian Age and its larger-than-life heroes. According to this Wikipedia article, de Camp intended Poseidonis to be “The Hyborian Age done right” (i.e., a pre-cataclysmic age of earth that may have logically occurred, based on de Camp’s conception of the science of geology). It’s also an overbold claim sure to irk Howard fans.

It’s unfortunate de Camp again steps in it (and on Howard) with his attempted Howard one-upmanship, as the setting of The Tritonian Ring is among its charms, and differs in a few significant ways from The Hyborian Age—but “done right” is another matter altogether. Despite de Camp’s best efforts and ambitions, the world of The Tritonian Ring is in no ways a superior imaginative work than The Hyborian Age, and as a work of art, it pales next to tales like “Beyond the Black River” and “Red Nails.”

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

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Stripped-down version of Desperation rates as middling King

I had high hopes for Stephen King’s Desperation (small band of people held captive in a demon-haunted mining town, breaking loose to battle possessed corpses, scorpions, and wolves—what’s not to like?), but alas, it failed to deliver on its intriguing premise. I’d give it an above average 3 ½ out of 5 stars. It contains some interesting ideas and is worth a read, but is not in the class of King’s best works.

Desperation contains some effective action sequences and the usual dollop of King-ian gross-out horror scenes, though there’s little actual frightening stuff in here. The book walks a hazy middle ground between a straight-up horror story and an examination of the nature of faith and the personage of God, and at least (for me) never really succeeds with either objective.

The basic problem I had with Desperation is that it contains no memorable or even particularly likeable personalities. The closest we get to a main character is John Edward Marinville, a pretty obvious stand-in for King himself (Johnny is a graying popular writer and member of the Baby Boomer generation whose career is starting to flag, and embarks on a cross-country motorcycle trip to attempt to find inspiration for his next novel. Which is apparently identical to how King arrived at the idea for Desperation). But after his introduction Johnny gets placed on the back burner as King juggles a bunch of other introductions, and we don’t learn what makes him tick until the book is nearly through.

I will give King some benefit of the doubt as the Penguin audio book I listened to for this review was abridged, and King’s original text is cruelly slashed. It’s apparent that some character development was left on the Penguin cutting room floor. The audio version is (somewhat) saved by narrator Kathy Bates of Misery fame, who does a fine job as the reader.

The rest of the characters are your standard cast of interchangables, save for David Carver, an 11-year-old boy who is able to communicate directly with God. King was certainly ambitious with Desperation: Like he did with The Stand, King inserts God directly into this book. He also spends some time exploring the nature of God through David’s struggle to reconcile a being that is supposedly all-knowing and all good, but is also cruel and demands borderline unbearable sacrifices of his worshippers here on earth. In the cruelest act of all, King writes, sometimes God lets His broken and suffering people live.

Opposing our band of heroes is the demon Tak, an evil spirit penned up in a 19th century mine—the China Pit—located on the outskirts of the small, secluded town of Desperation, Nevada. Tak is freed when a modern-day mining company accidentally unearths the ancient shaft. There’s an old legend in Desperation that a group of Chinese miners were buried alive in the mine after the shaft caved in, and the white miners outside sealed them in, alive, after deciding a rescue was too risky. In another weakness of the book, it’s not apparent whether the Chinese had stumbled onto Tak, or whether he was summoned by the curses of the dying, vengeful workers trapped inside.

Tak has the ability to inhabit the bodies of his victims, and he uses his hosts to embark on a murderous rampage that wipes out nearly the entire population of Desperation. Last of all Tak takes possession of Collie Entragian, the hulking town sheriff, and using his body and his cruiser rides up and down Highway 50 snaring unwitting hostages one by one.

Entragian/Tak locks his hostages in the Desperation town jail for use as human hosts (demon-possessed bodies wear out rather quickly and gruesomely, we learn). But spurred on by a vision from God, David manages to squirm through the bars of his cell and free the group. The rest of the book follows David as he accepts God’s command to defeat Tak. But first he has to overcome the group’s skepticism of God and his own shaken faith, which is cruelly tested again and again.

The middle of the book is a rather uninspired, drawn-out sequence of the group holed up in Desperation’s movie theatre. The book ends in a final showdown at the China Pit as the survivors attempt to seal the shaft. I wanted to see more of the inside of the mine, which seemed to have lots of potential as a set-piece, but the book ends rather abruptly.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a scene in which Johnny/King shouts out, “God forgive me, I hate critics!” before detonating a cache of explosives. I have to believe that King wrote the scene with a big grin on his face, and I certainly got a laugh out of it, even though I’m likely among the critics for which King has little use.

Note: This review also appears on

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Bidding farewell to the heroic heart of Steve Tompkins

The news has begun to spread that Steve Tompkins of The Cimmerian passed away on March 23 after suffering a heart attack. As usual, real life has a lousy way of intruding on the fantastic.

I won’t sit here and tell you that Steve and I were friends. I’ve never met him face-to-face. But we had exchanged a dozen or so e-mails since he asked me in February to contribute weekly pieces to The Cimmerian. This news has hit me pretty hard and I feel like I’ve lost a comrade in arms, the trusted man to my left in the shield wall of those fighting to preserve Robert E. Howard’s legacy and promoting fantasy fiction as a whole. Steve’s shield was broader and he wielded a more skillful sword than most who answer the martial call of defending swords-and-sorcery and weird fiction.

Steve was a brilliant individual with an unquenchable passion for Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Edward Wagner, George R.R. Martin, Charles Saunders … the list goes on and on. He had a remarkable insight into the works of all these diverse authors, an amazing recollection of miscellanea and facts stored in the arsenal of his mind, and an uncanny ability to cite reference upon reference and work them, intelligently, into indefatigable essays. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that Steve’s knowledge of the fantasy genre dwarfed my own.

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

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Unearthing David Drake's "The Barrow Troll"

“You Northerners believe in trolls, so my brother tells me,” said the priest.

“Aye, long before the gold I’d heard of the Parma troll,” the berserker agreed. “Ox broad and stronger than ten men, shaggy as a denned bear.”

—David Drake, “The Barrow Troll”

One of my haunts for used books, Webhead Enterprises in Wakefield, MA, seems to house more than its fair share of exceptional short story collections (I’ve scored copies of Prime Evil, Dark Forces, and Revelations in Webhead, to name a few). It was there I purchased the excellent anthology Whispers, whose contents include “The Barrow Troll,” a terrific short story by David Drake.

“The Barrow Troll” was originally published in 1975 in Whispers magazine, a former periodical specializing in dark fantasy and horror. Drake, a former assistant editor for the magazine, wrote a nice piece about Whispers on his personal Web site.

Starting in 1977 editor Stuart David Schiff released the first of six best-of collections from the magazine in a book series also entitled Whispers. “The Barrow Troll” appears in the first of these anthologies.

In his introduction to the story, Schiff describes “The Barrow Troll” as “a brutal and shocking piece.” That about sums it up. It’s a wonderful fusion of horror and fantasy, probably my favorite entry in what is an almost-uniformly excellent collection (though Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” is also an absolute gem). Whispers’ table of contents reads like a who’s who of legendary horror/fantasy authors, as it includes stories by Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Dennis Etchison, Hugh B. Cave, Richard Christian Matheson, Robert Aickman, Joseph Payne Brennan, Manly Wade Wellman, and Ramsey Campbell, among others.

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