Friday, June 26, 2009

The Face in the Frost: True wizardry at work

John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost is one of those books recommended by Gary Gygax in Appendix N of the Dungeon Master's Guide ("Inspirational Reading") that I've had on my "to read" list for a long time, but never managed to track down. When I finally did score a used paperback copy it sat for months in an unread pile on my bookshelf.

I've now crossed this book off my list, and at 174 pages it flew by in a highly enjoyable and lightning-quick fashion. I would highly recommend it to anyone tired of tedious, drawn out, multi-volume fantasy. The Face in the Frost is not only remarkable due to its brevity, but also because its scope is far more (refreshingly) modest than traditional fantasy fare. There's no dashing young heroes populating the novel, no breathtaking swordplay on display, and no earth-shattering quests to complete. And that's all right. Bellairs reminds us that not all fantasy fiction needs to have its heroes save the world.

The Face in the Frost revolves around two old, earthbound, and rather unheroic wizards--Prospero and Roger Bacon--who embark on a journey to get to the bottom of a seemingly minor disturbance. An old cloak in the basement of Propero's house acts in a threatening manner and strange shapes hover in the woods at the edge of his lawn. When Bacon arrives for an evening of talk over good ale, the two old friends decide to put an end to the growing nuisance. Prospero leaves a note for his cleaning lady and the two set off the next morning through a tunnel in Prospero's basement. We quickly discover that one of Prospero's old peers from his youth--the wizard Melichus, now turned to evil and mischief--is at the root of the disturbance, and the problems take on a much more sinister air.

The Face in the Frost's finest qualities are its details. The world Bellairs creates has the feel of age. The buildings are old, moldy, and sunken; the woods are gnarled, decaying, dark, and mossy. Using sparse but vivid descriptions Bellairs gives Prospero's home and the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom into which the two wizards travel the feeling of groundedness and earthly reality. Prospero and Bacon are both likeable characters and interact with each other with dry wit and genuine friendship that is immediately endearing. In short, Bellairs builds his world and characters far more capably and believeably than many other fantasy authors I've read, and in far, far fewer words. This is no mean feat and a rather impressive piece of artistry.

The Face in the Frost is also recommended for its unique portrayal of magic. The magic here feels unique, dangerous, and unpredictable, much like first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (and unlike the boring, predictable, safe, modifier-enchancing magic that characterizes most of the spells found in later editions of the game). Spells are found in old musty tomes and require years of study to learn and master, and not even aged and proficient wizards can be sure they have selected the right spell for every occasion. Sometimes the effects are quite unintended (and often humorous). At other times the magic is Lovecraftian and evokes twisted, otherdimensional horrors that should-not-be. It's easy to see how this book was an influence on Gygax and early D&D.

If I have any criticism of the book it's its rather abrupt dues ex machina ending (which I won't spoil here); I was hoping for more of a final confrontation than what Bellairs ultimately delivers. But overall this is a minor complaint and not enough to keep me from recommending it strongly.

(Note: A cover blurb by normally sure-handed editor Lin Carter hails the book as "One of the best fantasy novels to appear since The Lord of the Rings". Not only is this a tired comparison (must every fantasy novel compare itself to Tolkien's masterwork?) but its also misleading in that many will open the novel anticipating another LOTR or Sword of Shannara. Ultimately my fears were groundless--this book is anything but an epic quest. A much more accurate description is this glowing recommendation by Ursula LeGuin: "This is authentic fantasy by a writer who knows what wizardry is all about.")

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dracula revisited: Some observations on an old classic

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of those books that, like The Lord of the Rings, I find myself returning to time and time again. There’s a lot going on in this book and a lot to like, both on a literary and a visceral horror/pure entertainment entertainment level. I’ve just finished re-reading it and there’s no doubt that it’s worthy of its classic status. There’s so much to comment upon in this novel, far more than I could ever cover in a single blog post, so I’ll direct my focus on two notable elements:

1. Dracula is a really bad guy (and not all that sexy)

Stoker’s depiction of the vampire contrasts sharply with the way they’re portrayed in popular media these days. Buff sex-symbols and/or world-weary, misunderstood, angst-ridden emo-types seem to have replaced the bloodsucking, undead monsters of yore. I blame Anne Rice’s novels for popularizing this trend, which has reached its full bloom with the Twilight movie.

Now, it’s true that Count Dracula is somewhat of an alpha-male and a sex symbol. Lucy transforms into quite the slut after she’s sampled his wares, and her suitors (and even old Van Helsing) pour their fluids—ahem, blood—into her, one after the other, to sate her ravenous needs. There’s reams of essays describing the scandalous sexuality of Dracula, particularly when viewed against the stiff, priggish Victorian era in which it was written.

But Dracula’s sexual element is mainly subtext. Count Dracula is hardly a suave, debonair Tom Cruise lookalike, seducing women with charm and good looks: He hypnotizes his female victims and drains their blood against their will. In Stoker’s world, sex is a corruptive influence: It’s a monster to be shunned and feared, not a buried urge to liberate and embrace.

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Update: And now for a brief interruption for World War II

When I was 11 years old my grandfather passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. He was a veteran of the Pacific theatre in World War II, having served in an antiaircraft unit.

I was too young then to appreciate or fully understand his war time experiences, and I regret not having the opportunity to speak to him about his time in the service later in life. Not long before he died he gave me a Japanese bayonet which I believe he got from the island of Leyte. I still have that memento and a few others, but his story was largely a mystery.

A few years ago I was able to sit down with my one of my grandfather's good friends who served alongside him in the Pacific, and recorded a priceless, lengthy, videotaped interview about their pre- and post-war years together. I'm currently in the middle of getting their story down on paper with the hopes of getting it published in a local newspaper.

In the interim my blogging will be light, and perhaps nonexistent (save for my Thursday cross-posts to The Cimmerian). I owe it to my grandfather and his friend to get their story told and that's what I plan to do. I firmly believe that they were a part of The Greatest Generation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis

(Warning—some spoilers ahead)

King Arthur: Which is our greatest quality of knighthood? Courage, compassion, loyalty, humility? What do you say, Merlin?

Merlin: Ah, the greatest. Well, they blend, like the metals we mix to make a good sword.

Arthur: No poetry, just a straight answer. Which is it?

Merlin: All right then. Truth. That’s it. Yes, it must be truth. Above all. When a man lies he murders some part of the world. You should know that.

—Excalibur, John Boorman

If you’re a fan of the Arthurian myths, the above exchange of dialogue from John Boorman’s Excalibur—still the best version of the King Arthur myth ever put to film—is probably scored upon your memory. It’s a shame that, in comparison, Clemence Housman’s The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis languishes in obscurity. Published in 1905, Housman’s book presages Excalibur by more than 70 years, and Merlin’s prophetic words of wisdom and warning are at the heart of this fine and all too little known novel.

The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis has for most of its history been a difficult book to track down. In 2000, Green Knight Publishing—a small and apparently defunct firm—republished the story, giving it new life and allowing people like me to finally get a copy. In addition to publishing original and reprinted Arthurian fiction, Green Knight also published the fine Pendragon role playing game, much like TSR and later Wizards of the Coast published a line of novels in conjunction with the Dungeons and Dragons game line. But if you come to The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis expecting to encounter typical role-playing game fan fiction, you’re in for a rude shock. This is not some breezy tale of the Forgotten Realms. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it archaic, the language Housman uses is, even for the (roughly) Victorian Era in which it was written, anachronistic. Housman writes in Middle English in a style deliberately imitative of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte D’Arthur.

In short, The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis is a difficult book to read. I had to go back and re-read opaque sentences and, on one or two occasions, found myself bogged down in the language. But bearing down and continuing on to the end was very much worth the effort.

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

Monday, June 8, 2009

Up: Uplifting for adults and children alike

Warning--some spoilers ahead.

So my wife was out of town this weekend and it was just me and the two kids. Needing to kill some time and to take my youngest's mind off the fact that mommy was away, I brought them to see the new Pixar animated film Up. And I found myself enjoying the film far more than I had anticipated.

Animated films are catering more and more to parents as well as their children (a smart move, given that we're stuck in the seats too), and I found Up to be not only very entertaining and enjoyable, but thematically ambitious and, to some degree, rather adult.

In addition to containing a good deal of comedy and fun, Up is also a film about coping with the death of a loved one. I was very moved by the opening 15 minutes of the film, which is a brilliantly rendered montage of what life inevitably holds for us all. I can't recall another animated children's film that confronts the viewer with growing old, getting sick, and dying. Up not only reminds us of our mortality, but spends the next 80 minutes or so facing it head on, examining how we can move on with the next phase of their lives. I'm not sure if all kids will understand what's going on (my older daughter did, but not my youngest, who's four), but its certainly an ambitious undertaking.

Up is also about finding meaning in our lives, even when we don't accomplish all we had set out to do, as well as the importance of turning the page on the past. It does so through contrasting Carl Frederickson, the old man and the central figure of the story, with Charles Muntz, Frederickson's boyhood hero. Muntz was wronged as a young man by the scientific community who question his discovery of the fossil remains of a large tropical bird. Humilated by the experience, Muntz spends the rest of his life searching for a living specimen in the hopes of exonerating himself and showing up his critics. Muntz' monomanical search renders his life lonely and empty, and indeed his mode of transportation--the zeppelin Spirit of Adventure--is full of skeletons, a symbol of the dry, dessicated past of which he cannot rid himself.

Likewise, Frederickson clings to his house after his wife passes away, and as the film moves on it becomes a literal albatross that he drags from place to place. But unlike Muntz, he eventually finds the strength to turn the page. There's a great scene near the end where, piece by piece, he unburdens his spirit of the heavy furniture of his past and is able to soar again.

If this sounds all rather deep for an animated film, well, it is, which is why I left Up pleasantly surprised, and why I highly recommend it (your kids will love it too).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Reading fantasy for escape's sake

Perhaps it’s because I’m a simple man compared to China Mieville (or perhaps it’s because I’m not as passionate about politics as he), but I take pride in my ability to approach fantasy fiction with a minimum of prejudice, and to explore new worlds and new viewpoints with an open mind. In short, I like to read fantasy fiction for the element of escape that it offers.

And, unlike Mieville, I do believe that fantasy can deliver this experience.

In case you missed it, my last post included a link to an interview with Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station and The Scar. In it, Mieville argues that escape through fantasy fiction is impossible, because we, the reader, carry all our prejudices and beliefs with us (he has a lot more to say about the politics of fantasy as well, but I won’t get into those issues here). Says Mieville:

The problem with escapism is that when you read or write a book society is in the chair with you. You can’t escape your history or your culture. So the idea that because fantasy books aren’t about the real world they therefore ‘escape’ is ridiculous. Fantasy is still written and read through the filters of social reality. That’s why some fantasies (like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) are so directly allegorical—but even the most surreal and bizarre fantasy can’t help but reverberate around the reader’s awareness of their own reality, even if in a confusing and unclear way.

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dracula remains a bloody good read

I'm currently listening to the audio book of Dracula, written by Bram Stoker and narrated by Robert Whitfield. It's a great book, now and likely always the definitive vampire story.

I'll plan on writing a full review once I'm finished, but for now here are some of my favorite scenes:

When Jonathan Harker leaves the west and enters the east en route to the Carpathian mountains and Transylvania, the trains no longer seem to run on time. This foreshadows the weakening of rationality and science in that part of Europe, and the increasing sway of superstition and the occult. This breeds an atmosphere of fear that allows the Count to hold the terrified countryside in his undead grip.

The count leaving his castle and returning with a child stuffed in a bag, which he proceeds to feed to his three vampiric mistresses. When the child's mother comes to the castle to plead for her child's release, Dracula calls a pack of wolves upon her. This is evil, folks--the antithesis of Twilight.

The arrival in Whitby of the ship Demeter. This whole scene is terrific--black stormclouds and a raging gale as the ship rushes toward land, "steered" by its dead captain lashed to the wheel; a large black dog that leaps off the prow once the ship touches shore; a hold full of coffins. Stoker wrote Dracula using a series of journal entries and letters from various narrators, and his use of the captain's log to tell the tale of the crew's strange disappearance, and the thin, ghostly-pale, red-eyed man hunting them one by one during the long voyage at sea, works very effectively.

Renfield. The lunatic asylum resident is a fun, memorable character. I've always enjoyed Dr. Seward's clinical observations of Renfield's carnivorous obsessions--he starts by attracting flies with sugar, which he then feeds to spiders, which he then proceeds to feed to captured sparrows. Renfield then asks for a kitten. Seward refuses the request, but it's chilling to think what would have become of the creature--and what would have been the next step in the food chain.

Dracula's early appearances in England, which include a trip to the zoo in which he frees a wolf. The zookeeper's description of the count to the authorities is suitably sinister--tall and thin, with a hook nose and pointed, mostly black beard, a hard, cold look and red eyes, white kid gloves, and a mouth full of white, sharp teeth. His sardonic, playful conversation with the dim-witted zookeeper reminded me of Hannibal Lecter's conversations with Agent Starling--humor mixed with a sinister undercurrent of murder.

Van Helsing. Along with the Count, the old, brilliant professor from Amsterdam is probably the most memorable character in Dracula. Some of my favorite scenes occur when Van Helsing realizes that a vampire is preying on Lucy Westenra, but is reluctant to tell the others, knowing that no one will believe him. This makes for some morbidly humorous moments, as when he tells Dr. Seward that Lucy will need to be "disposed of" after her death:

Tomorrow I want you to bring me, before night, a set of post-mortem knives.

Must we make an autopsy? I asked.

Yes, and no. I want to operate, but not as you think. Let me tell you now, but not a word to another. I want to cut off her head and take out her heart. Ah! you a surgeon, and so shocked!

The "Bloofer Lady." When Lucy rises from the dead and leaves her crypt to feed, the Westminster Gazette begins to report cases of young children returning home late. One child reports meeting a mysterious woman who asked him to come for a walk. The child refers to her as the 'bloofer lady.' The name becomes a funny catch phrase among the children until one of them goes missing, and is later found weak and emaciated with a wound to its throat. The device of a childish nickname for something monstrous would later be used by Stephen King.