Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Heavy metal and fantasy

Like a wizard and his staff, or a dragon and its gleaming horde, heavy metal/hard rock music and fantasy literature are an inseparable pair. I haven’t seen any statistics published on the subject, but fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard just seem more inclined to listen to heavy metal than any other genre of music.

For a small sample of this trend, you need look no further than The Cimmerian’s About the Bloggers page: While I can’t speak for Leo, Steve, or Al, Deuce and I wear our metal credentials on our sleeves like Sauron’s orcs bear the Lidless Eye (for the record, Deuce is more metal than me). I don’t think it’s an aberration that at least 40% of this site’s bloggers are metal fans; there’s something to this phenomenon, even if I don’t quite understand the connection.

You don’t have to look far or dig deep to see the connections between metal and fantasy. Led Zeppelin might be the most popular fantasy-influenced hard rock band, with songs based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (Ramble On, Misty Mountain Hop) and Viking invaders (Immigrant Song). Progressive rock band Rush also shows Tolkien influences on its early albums, including Rivendell and The Necromancer. Molly Hatchet’s album covers featured work by the immortal Frank Frazetta, he of Conan the Cimmerian Lancer fame.

And that’s just hard rock. Full-blown heavy metal artists take the fantasy influence and turn it up to 11.

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Matheson’s I Am Legend falls short of classic status

Warning—stop here if you don't want to be spoiled.

So I just finished re-reading (actually, listening to the audio version of) Richard Matheson’s 1954 horror novella I Am Legend, and for the second time I came away with the same reaction: Good book, worth reading--but a horror classic, top 10 material as I’ve frequently seen it praised around the Web? I’m not so sure, Stephen King.

First, let me state the obligatory and not undeserved praise for I Am Legend:
  • Matheson deserves a lot of credit for taking a creative, unique approach to the tired vampire genre.
  • I am Legend helped to inspire the excellent zombie films of George Romero, and Romero’s recent successors. More reason for praise.
  • Matheson was, I think, the first to tackle the scenario of the last man on earth. It's a nifty concept.
  • In general, it’s a well-written, easy to read book.

Now that that’s out of the way, I'll admit that I found I Am Legend a bit disappointing. Yes, I know it's acknowleged as a classic in the genre. Yes, I realize it's been adapted for the screen no fewer than three times. But even though it may cost me my "horror cred," I Am Legend for me is a bit overrated.

For starters, there’s not enough introspection and depth to the story. Robert Neville is the last man on Earth. Barricaded in his home and surrounded by vampires by night, he hunts the creatures by day while searching for a scientific answer to the virus that infected all of humanity. Such a tightly-focused, one character book has the opportunity to explore what it means to be a human, for example. It could have been a powerful statement against anti-conformity (Neville is the ultimate non-conformist, as he deliberately holds out against the living dead as the last living man on Earth).

But Matheson, in my opinion, opts for mere plot over substance, and I Am Legend is a lesser book for it. What we do get is a semi-interesting tale of survival and a man trying desperately to crack the code of the vampire virus, and not much else. It should have/could have been much more.

I’m the first one to praise short stories and lament their fading influence, but I Am Legend reads like a novella that should have been a novel. In short, it’s too short. There are some interesting, fertile concepts here that unfortunately aren’t played out. For example, I wanted to see more of the society being rebuilt by the “living” vampires who eventually exterminate their undead brethren. I would have liked more flashbacks to the collapse of society and scenes of the chaos of the virus spreading across the globe. Instead, Matheson provides only the briefest of glimpses. More than that, I wanted more introspection, more of what makes Neville tick. We’re given tantalizing glimpses of Neville’s humanity in his friendship with a dog, and in a budding romance with a female survivor. Again, these are unfortunately quite cursory. Matheson spends a lot of I Am Legend’s limited page count showing us the science of vampirism, a rather dry, unconvincing explanation I could have done without.

Another problem I have with the novella is that Matheson’s vampires aren’t particularly scary, and their behavior is inconsistent. They’re dangerous in hordes, sure, but how can we take seriously creatures that prove utterly incapable of breaking into a boarded-up house (if the garlic on the doors and windows are too much, couldn’t they knock a hole in its side)? Matheson also doesn’t sufficiently define their abilities and limitations, at least for my tastes. Are the undead vampires of I Am Legend possessed of mere animal intelligence? It’s unclear. At times, they are able to reason. For example, female vampires are capable of using crude sexual acts in attempt to seduce Neville into coming out of his home. Neville’s neighbor calls him by name, and in one scene anticipates Neville returning back home and circles back to wait for him. These are the actions of something more than animal. Yet the vampires are unable to come up with any plans more cunning than lobbing bricks at Neville’s house, and at times appear no more intelligent than Romero’s zombie hordes. Stoker's Count Dracula is scarier and far more capable than the bunch of them combined.

I’ll admit that the ending of I Am Legend is pretty brilliant. Matheson turns the vampire legend squarely on its ear with Neville’s realization that he, as the last man on Earth, has become a reviled creature of superstition and legend, personifying the myth of the ancient, blood-sucking vampire. He knows what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a hunted, misunderstood “monster,” and remains defiant until the end. I just wish the rest of the book measured up with its shattering conclusion.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Twenty five years on, The (original) Terminator remains unstoppable

Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

Kyle Reese, The Terminator

From the previews I’ve seen, Terminator Salvation (which opened today in a theatre near you) looks pretty damned good, at least visually. But it will take one hell of an effort to wrest the title of best Terminator film from the vice-like, cyborg death grip of the original.

I don’t necessarily consider Rotten Tomatoes a bellwether for my own critical appreciation of a film, but it says something that The Terminator (1984) has a perfect, 100% “fresh” rating out of 38 total reviews. I won’t argue with the critics; the first Terminator is still the best in my book. Others argue convincingly for Terminator 2, a fine sequel whose special effects were revolutionary for its time and remain spectacular now. However, in my opinion the first film is better plotted, and more compelling due to its uncompromising ruthlessness and non-stop narrative thrust. T2 is excellent but has a tad too much humor and playfulness injected into the script for my own tastes.

Part of my unabashed love for The Terminator may be nostalgia: I was a kid when I first saw the film and was simultaneously enthralled by the great action and visuals, and haunted by its apocalyptic vision of the future, one which seemed all too plausible—not Skynet or robots, mind you, but nuclear destruction. When The Terminator came out the cold war was still going on and a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union was an all too real possibility. The grim television miniseries The Day After was frightening audiences at the time with the likely impact of a nuclear war, which promised instant annihilation for some, and a prolonged, painful death by radiation poisoning for the less fortunate. The Terminator seized on the fears of the age and a generation growing up with an omnipresent fear of atomic annihilation. I’ll never forget the ominous, mechanical opening theme, and the visceral image of the futuristic tank crushing a mound of skulls under its merciless track.

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

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tears of the Dragon: How Bruce Dickinson helped rescue heavy metal

The year was 1994. Heavy metal was arguably at its nadir. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were without their lead singers, Metallica had sold out, and Queensryche released Promised Land (yuck). The pretentious, overrated grunge scene (now deader than a doornail, I gloat with savage glee) had knocked metal from its long-held reign on the music throne. Flannel, hackey-sacks, and greasy hair were king, and denim and black t-shirts were out. I was still a card-carrying member of heavy metal, but my spirits and my optimism for the genre’s future were admittedly at their lowest ebb.

But in the midst of that dreadful year a song arrived to lift my spirits like a winged angel: Bruce Dickinson’s “Tears of the Dragon.” When I first heard this song (on the now-extinct Headbanger’s Ball) it brought a lump to my throat, so majestic and amazing were its power and vocals. Like a razor-sharp broadsword, Dickinson’s unmistakable voice cut straight through the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains pabulum that the rock stations were shoving down our throats.

This clip from Youtube features Dickinson performing “Tears of the Dragon” in a studio, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. There’s no faking it here, no pop-princess soundboard-smithing of his voice, just raw power and beauty. I encourage you to listen to it.

Alas, the rest of the album on which “Tears of the Dragon” appears (Balls to Picasso) ultimately proved rather weak and largely forgettable, but this song alone made the album worth owning. And “Tears of the Dragon” proved to be a harbinger of several more great solo efforts to come from Dickinson.

For those completely unfamiliar with heavy metal, Dickinson is the lead singer of Iron Maiden. Dickinson has always been an amazing singer and performer. Early in his career he could hit any note, regardless of how long or high. For proof, I offer this early live clip of him singing arguably the greatest heavy metal song ever written, Hallowed be thy Name.

But following some long tours with Maiden Dickinson’s voice seemed to deteriorate. His lowest point was No Prayer for the Dying or perhaps A Real Dead One, two albums on which his pipes sounded rough and strained. Shortly after Maiden released the uninspired Fear of the Dark in 1992, Dickinson left the band. It was a good time for a split by both sides—Bruce needed a break, and the band’s songwriting needed a recharge.

After Balls to Picasso came Skunkworks, another Dickinson solo album for which I’ve never acquired a taste. But then came Accident of Birth, in my opinion a home run. That was followed by The Chemical Wedding, the equivalent of a ninth-inning walk-off grand slam. It’s really that good, one of the best heavy metal albums of the 1990’s.

Dickinson’s voice alone does not explain his success. Other singers are as gifted or nearly as gifted as the Air Raid Siren. Rather, it’s his ability to weave powerful lyrics and themes that cut to the soul. The Chemical Wedding’s "Jerusalem" and its title track, Accident of Birth’s "Darkside of Aquarius" and "Man of Sorrows", and Tyranny of Souls’ "Kill Devil Hill" and title track are amazingly well-sung and well-written. If you’re a heavy metal fan and you don’t own these albums, buy them now. Heck, if you don’t like metal but can appreciate great singing, hunt them down on Youtube and listen/see for yourself.

When you combine an ability to write great music with a voice from the angels—or perhaps more accurately, ripped from the throat of a screaming banshee—you have a recipe for greatness. Pardon my man-gushing, but Dickinson really is, in my opinion, heavy metal’s greatest talent. Did I mention he's also a published author, licensed airplane pilot, and a one-time world-class fencer? What can't the man do?

Dickinson returned to Iron Maiden in 1999 for the Ed Hunter tour (I saw them in the small Orpheum Theatre in Boston that year and will never forget the show, which featured great music and heatstroke-inducing 100-plus degree temperatures). In 2000 Maiden released its first album with Dickinson back as lead singer, Brave New World. It was a great return to form for both he and the band. After another Maiden album in 2003 (Dance of Death), Dickinson released his sixth and most recent solo effort, Tyranny of Souls, in 2005.

Heavy metal, Iron Maiden, and Bruce Dickinson are back and better than ever. While I hope Maiden keeps cranking out the albums (A Matter of Life and Death is a great one), here’s hoping that the man who helped rescue metal from a dark age brings us more great solo efforts in the coming decade.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Still funny after all these years, and better than ever on audio

Humor is arguably the most difficult genre of writing to pull off. Hampered by the limitations of the print medium, humor writers must ply their craft without the benefit of a number of tools commonly used in live comedy and in film—visual gags, voice inflections, timing, and so on. This inherent difficulty is why good comedy writers like Dave Barry are a scarce commodity, and worth reading when you can find them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of those rare examples of written comedy that actually works. When I last read this book back in middle school (it seemed like every dorky, D&D and Atari-playing kid like me was toting it around at the time), I enjoyed it very much. But I was in for an even more pleasant surprise when I recently returned to this book via the audio format. This was actually the first comedy I’ve listened to on CD, and I now believe that this genre might benefit the most from audio treatment. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a first-rate example of what a talented narrator/actor can do with funny, well-written material. English actor/comedian Stephen Fry takes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to new comedic heights, and on a few occasions I found myself laughing out loud during my commute to work. Fry literally turns the text into a running Monty Python skit.

The plot of the book is as follows: Arthur Dent, a nondescript Englishman, is about to lose his house to a construction crew in the name of progress (an overpass is scheduled to run through Dent’s property). Simultaneously, an alien race called the Vogrons has scheduled the vaporization of earth to clear the way for a hyperspatial express route. Dent is saved from destruction at the last second by his friend Ford Prefect, a roving alien researcher on the earth to complete an entry for a galactic encyclopedia called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Prefect and Dent later hook up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, Galactic President and rogue ship-thief, and his two crewmates (an annoying robot stricken with depression and ennui named Marvin, and Trillian, a female and earth’s only other survivor). Beeblebrox has stolen a cutting-edge spaceship called the Heart of Gold and is on a mission to find the lost planet of Magrathea, rumored to hold riches beyond imagining, as well as the answers to the mystery of life, the universe, and everything.

To appreciate The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you must like Monty Python (author Douglas Adams has writing credits in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and appeared in two others, and his British comedy influences are plain). Here’s an example of the type of humor you’ll find:

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.

Although The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is ostensibly mere over-the-top comedy, part of the reason (I believe) for its enduring appeal are its pithy insights about the nature of humanity and the universe and mankind’s raison d’etre. Overall it’s well worth reading and/or listening to.

This review also appears on .

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: To read, or to re-read

I’ve never understood the claim that, once read, a book is bereft of value. I have seen this absurd belief posited on several occasions around the Web, and it continues to puzzle me. You mean to tell me that there’s no value in re-living the wondrous adventures of The Fellowship of the Ring? That it’s possible for someone to pick up every nuance and plot detail of the phonebook-sized A Song of Ice and Fire tomes the first time? That, once you’ve read Red Nails, you’ve sucked it dry of its magic, and you can safely close the cover on the tale of the wild, warring tribes of Xuchotl forever? For me, this one-book, one-read claim smacks of either arrogance (“I can assimilate any text with laser precision the first time, every time. Can’t you?”) or ignorance (“Yes, yes, I already know the One Ring was destroyed. Now I’ve moved on to bigger and better stories like The Sword of Shannara”).

But lately I find myself slightly (very, very slightly) sympathetic to this view, for the sole reason that I’m in the process of building a towering pile of books that I’ve never read, big enough to obscure the old favorites behind it. Here’s a sample from my bookshelf.

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

Monday, May 4, 2009

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: The Battle of Unnumbered Tears

4. The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien
Nirnaeth Arnoediad

Great was the triumph of Morgoth, and his design was accomplished in a manner after his own heart; for Men took the lives of Men, and betrayed the Eldar, and fear and hatred were aroused among those that should have been united against him.

J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Silmarillion

As much as I enjoy the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and the Battle of Five Armies, neither can compare in size, pathos, devastation, and sheer magnificence with the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, also known as the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, one of the six major battles of the First Age of Middle Earth. Imagine magnificent elf-lords in gleaming armor and high white helms, doughty dwarves blasted with dragon fire, Balrogs engaging in single combat, a battle of betrayal, of bravery and sacrifice, and of ultimate ruin. That is the Nirnaeth Arnoediad.

Though not quite as enormous as the War of Wrath, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears is massive in scope. This Wikipedia entry does a nice job of pulling together an order of battle that estimates 330,000-500,000 orcs in the hosts of Angband, the fortress of the dark lord Morgoth. Opposing them is a force of approximately 85,000-120,000 elves, men, and dwarves.

If these massive armies weren’t enough, Morgoth's forces are reinforced with balrogs, trolls, wolves, and the dragon Glaurung. That’s right—balrogs and a dragon are involved in the battle. The armies of elves, men, and dwarves include several great heroes of their age, such as are rarely seen in the Third Age of Middle Earth (the age in which The Lord of the Rings takes place) and of which songs are still sung.

Such a battle defies description: Even Tolkien, its creator, can’t do it justice. As he writes in The Children of Hurin:

Many songs are yet sung and many tales are yet told by the Elves of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, in which Fingon fell and the flower of the Eldar withered. If all were now retold a man’s life would not suffice for the hearing.

I’d be willing to sit at the feet of Tolkien's shade and listen to a full recounting of the battle, but I have only one life to give to the endeavor. Alas, as it now stands, our only description of the battle are eight pages in The Children of Hurin and a brief section of The Silmarillion. Still, what is told and/or hinted at is enough to easily earn the battle a place in my Top 10 Fantasy Fiction Battles.

As befits its name, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears results in perhaps the most devastating loss on the battlefield for the forces of good in J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium—utter defeat of the Noldor elves, the death of Fingon, their king, and the capture and eventual torture of the great human hero Hurin. It’s an antidote for critics who accuse Tolkien of being soft on war, and a teller of easy, child-friendly tales in which the forces of good always prevail. This opinion (and I've seen it espoused in more than one place) is horseshit.

The battle rages for at least six days, from what I can gather from the text, and is like a great, slowly unfolding tragedy. The forces of good are well-prepared, confident, and hold the high ground, and when Turgon and his 10,000-strong army issues uncalled for from Gondolin, Fingon’s heart is filled with hope of final victory. “The day has come! Behold, people of the Eldar and Fathers of Men, the day has come!” he says.

But a black night is in store. The Captain of Morgoth sends out heralds with tokens of parley, and bring with them Gelmir, a lord of Nargothrond, an elven lord whom Morgoth had blinded in captivity. The heralds cruelly hew off his arms and legs in plain sight of the elves and leave him to die. As fate would have it, Gelmir’s brother Gwindor sees this act of butchery and charges the heralds in a blind rage, slaughtering them. His forces continue the attack all the way through the gates of Angband, penetrating so far and with such wrath that Morgoth himself, hearing Gwindor and his men beating upon his door, trembles on his throne. But Gwindor is trapped at the doors and captured, and all his folk slain there.

Back on the field, Fingon and the main body of the elves have followed Gwindor onto the battle-plain where they no longer have the advantage of high ground, and there begins the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, “all the sorrow of which no tale can contain,” Tolkien writes. The field is lost when Gothmog, a balrog and high-captain of Angband, meets King Fingon in combat on the field. Fingon fights Gothmog to a standstill until a second balrog comes behind him and casts a throng of steel around him. Gothmog hews Fingon’s white helm with a stroke of his black axe, killing the elven king. “Thus fell the King of the Noldor; and they beat him into the dust with their maces, and his banner, blue and silver, they trod into the mire of his blood.” In addition, the Easterlings turn traitor and fall upon the rear of the sons of Feanor, helping to turn the tide of battle in favor of Morgoth.

Fingon’s younger brother Turgon escapes back to Gondolin thanks to a brave, suicidal rear guard action by Hurin and his brother Huor. This is perhaps the most poignant pause in a battle filled with such moments. Says Huor to the elf-lord:

“This I say to you, lord, with the eyes of death: though we part here for ever, and I shall not look on your white walls again, from you and from me a new star shall arise. Farewell!”

The Men of Dol-lomin fight a terrific last stand, affecting Turgon’s escape, but there is no escape for the brothers. Huor falls with a venomed arrow in his eye, all his valiant men are slain about him in a heap, “and the Orcs hewed their heads and piled them as a mound of gold in the sunset.”

Then comes the ultimate end. If this passage doesn’t invoke a chill in your soul, Tolkien will never be for you:

Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and seized the axe of an orc-captain and wielded it two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried aloud: ‘Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, who thought thus to do him more evil than by death. Therefore the Orcs grappled Hurin with their hands, which clung to him still, though he hewed off their arms; and ever their numbers were renewed, till he fell buried beneath them.

Unfortunately for Hurin, he is taken alive.

The enduring image of the battle is a great mound of corpses of men, elves, and dwarves that can be seen for miles off, and upon which no servant of Morgoth dares to trod. It later grows green and is the only verdant place in the desert of Anfauglith. Wives of the slain later find it and grieve upon it. Artist Ted Nasmith’s wonderful, grim painting “The Hill of the Slain” captures this image beautifully and terribly.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one other amazing sequence of the battle that is not included in The Children of Hurin, but which can be found in The Silmarillion: A battle of dwarves and dragons. Glaurung the dragon and his brood are wreaking havoc upon the Noldor, who break before the fire-spewing wyrm. But standing firm are the Dwarves of Belegost, who wear “great masks in battle hideous to look upon” and are thus able to withstand the flames. The dwarves surround Glaurung and hack at him with their axes. Glaurung in his rage turns and strikes down Azaghal, Lord of Belegost, and crawls over him, but with his dying stroke Azaghal drives a knife into his belly, so wounding him that he flees the field. The grief-stricken dwarves bear away their lord singing a dirge, and none dare to stay them, not even their foes. It’s an amazing image.