Thursday, December 31, 2009

Williamson’s reading of The Hobbit available on Youtube

If there was ever a story meant to be read aloud, it’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien intended the tale to be delivered orally, and inserted an authorial voice into the text which imbues it with a lively, conversational quality. He himself read The Hobbit aloud for the Inklings, and countless parents have read it to their children.

If you could name someone perfectly suited to read The Hobbit, who would it be? Boomed by the deep-throated Orson Welles, perhaps, or intoned by the inimitable Christopher Lee? Narrated by the smoky-voiced John Huston, he of Gandalf fame from the Rankin/Bass animated film of The Hobbit? Sung by Hansi K├╝rsch of German power metal band Blind Guardian ?

While all of the above are great choices, arguably the perfect-sounding version already exists, delivered by veteran stage and screen actor Nicol Williamson. Originally released as a four LP vinyl record set by Argo Records in 1974 (now rare and expensive to obtain), you can listen to the entire recording courtesy of Youtube. It’s split up into 23 parts and is obviously a direct recording from the vinyl. There’s crackly record static, but that only adds to its wonderful atmosphere.

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

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The War of Art: Striking a blow against creative blocks

Anyone who has tried their hand at creative writing knows how daunting it is to face a blank computer screen or an empty notebook. Fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, and general inertia stop the vast majority of wannabe writers, painters, and other artists dead in their tracks, destroying their best intentions as surely as a spear thrust through the thorax.

Steven Pressfield, author of the excellent novels Gates of Fire and Tides of War, gives this enemy a face and a name. Once identified, he provides tactical advice and strong words of encouragement for beating it in The War of Art, his 2002 non-fiction treatise on the writing process.

The War of Art is not a comprehensive book on the craft of writing. You won’t find rules of grammar, tips on writing first drafts, or help with eliminating passive voice. Rather, it has a singular focus on breaking through writing, painting, or other artistic barriers, the cause of which is a fearsome, implacable foe which Pressfield calls Resistance. Writes Pressfield:

There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

To which I say: Amen. I love writing with an unshakeable conviction. But it’s not easy, and in particular I hate (and fear) getting started. To make matters worse, once you’ve started a project of any length and significance, you have to set a regular (preferably daily) writing schedule, or else you risk a hard drive full of half-developed stories that will never see the light of day.

As befits an author who brought the battle of Thermopylae to vivid life in Gates of Fire, Pressfield likens creative writing to a life and death struggle on a battlefield in which the only possible outcomes are total victory or utter defeat. He’s right, of course. Resistance must be fought and beaten every day.

After identifying the root causes and symptoms of Resistance in book one of The War of Art, book two provides advice for defeating the enemy. In “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro,” we get advice on living the warrior’s life, including setting a firm schedule and accepting no excuses. “The pro keeps coming on. He beats Resistance at its own game by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is,” Pressfield writes.

If this seems like a rather grim depiction of the creative process, well, it’s because writing is hard. But writers write not because they want to, but because they have to. And, as Pressfield explains, the act of writing, once mastered, can produce art beyond the capacity of he or she that sets pen to paper. The moment one commits oneself, Pressfield writes, providence moves too. There is truth in this: Who knows from whence grand ideas like Middle-Earth, Camelot, or The Dark Tower spring? Many authors have stated that their characters and stories seemed to stalk, fully formed, from some recess of their imagination. Robert E. Howard used these words almost exactly to describe his conception of Conan. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters that Faramir just appeared in The Lord of the Rings one day, as if from thin air: “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir.”

From where does this creativity come? Pressfield attributes it to the hand of God, the supreme Muse. Regardless of your beliefs, there is great mystery in the act of writing. It’s undeniable that great things happen if we have the courage to begin writing and to keep at it.

Tapping into the potential that lies within us all is what The War of Art helps artists of all stripes accomplish. It’s otherwise rather airy and light, and if you purchase it in the hopes of getting a comprehensive book on writing, you’re probably better off buying The Elements of Style by Strunk and White or even Stephen King’s On Writing. But if you want advice on waging war against the grim foe of Resistance, The War of Art is a staunch ally.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: My top five reads of 2009

Merry Christmas! With the end of the year approaching I thought I would put together one of those ever-popular “best-of” lists for your consideration.

Following are my top five books that I’ve either read or re-read in 2009, and that I thought may be of interest to readers of The Cimmerian. If you’re looking for a few ideas for those book gift cards in your stocking, I highly recommend any of the following for purchase.

They make for pretty grim reading, but hey, The Cimmerian has always been less about “caroling out in the snow” and more of the “scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories” bent when it comes to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Master storytelling at work in Lansdale's Mucho Mojo

Today I’m here to sing the praises of one Joe R. Lansdale. I consider him to be one of the finest storytellers of this, and perhaps any, generation. He may not have tremendous literary depth and I'm not implying he's the greatest writer ever, but he tells entertaining, page-turning stories as well as any writer I’ve encountered. The guy is a born raconteur (I love that word).

If you’re an aspiring writer and want to study the craft of writing—pacing, plot, characterization, ratcheting up the tension, breaking it with levity—Lansdale is a master of the art and is well worth studying and learning from. If you enjoy reading entertaining stories well-told, Lansdale is your man.

Lansdale has carved out a nice career as a full-time writer. He’s written episodes for Batman: The Animated Series, stories for comic books (including Jonah Hex, Conan, and The Fantastic Four), and the novella Bubba Ho-Tep, which was adapted for the screen starring The Man, Bruce Campbell. Early in his career Lansdale was pigeonholed as a “splatterpunk” horror author, which is absolutely unfair. He apparently did write some gruesome novels early in his career, and violence punctuates everything I’ve read of his, but while graphic and real it’s not overdone. He’s a man of wide interests and moods (gigantic melancholies and a gigantic mirth, to steal a line from Robert E. Howard) and can’t be boxed off in any one genre. Here’s a link to an interview in which he states that his preferred genre is “the Lansdale genre.” That’s probably the best description of his unique style.

But despite a lengthy career and a laundry list of publishing credits, I get the feeling Lansdale isn’t that well-known. Most of the people I talk to (those that are regular readers, anyway) have never heard of the guy. An editorial review I came across says that Lansdale is something of a “cult writer.” If so, consider myself a junior acolyte of the Lansdale sect. I read my first Lansdale book a good 10 years ago and have only read a handful of his novels since (Savage Season, Freezer Burn, The Drive-In: A Double Feature Omnibus, and The Bottoms), plus some of his short stories. But except for The Drive-In, I’ve found them all to be very, very good.

Mucho Mojo is probably my favorite Lansdale story. It’s the second of his Hap and Leonard novels, which feature two recurring characters in rural East Texas. Hap and Leonard are two of the unlikeliest friends you’ll encounter—Hap is a white, perennially destitute, borderline honkey-tonk democrat, while Leonard is a black, gay, no-nonsense republican. Both are wisecracking, hard-fighting, no-nonsense dudes who get mixed up in a lot of tough business, including breaking up drug rings and solving murder mysteries. They always manage to extricate themselves using a mixture of martial arts, wits, and dogged determination.

There’s so much to recommend about Lansdale, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how darned funny the guy is. Humor is very, very difficult to pull off in the written form, but I smiled on nearly every page of Mucho Mojo. A couple times I laughed out loud.

Here’s a sample passage from chapter two of Mucho Mojo in which Hap and Leonard are attending the funeral of Leonard’s uncle Chester while wearing a pair of bad suits just bought from J.C. Penney:

Time we got to the Baptist church where the funeral was being held, we had sweated up good in our new suits, and the hot wind blowing on me made my hair look as if it had been combed with a bush hog. My overall appearance was of someone who been in a fight and lost.

I got out of the car and Leonard came around and said, “You still got the fucking tag hanging on you.”

I lifted an arm and there was the tag, dangling from the suit sleeve. I felt like Minnie Pearl. Leonard got out his pocket knife and cut it off and we went inside the church.

We paraded by the open coffin, and of course, Uncle Chester hadn’t missed his chance to be guest of honor. He was one ugly sonofabitch, and I figured alive he hadn’t looked much better. He wasn’t very tall, but he was wide, and being dead a few days before they found him hadn’t helped his looks any. The mortician had only succeeded in making him look a bit like a swollen Cabbage Patch Doll.

The basic plot of Mucho Mojo is as follows: After Chester passes away Leonard inherits his home and a bunch of money. He also receives a handful of mysterious items in a safe-deposit box. Among other items, it contains a key to a lock box containing the remains of a child, which is hidden beneath the floorboards of the house. The mystery begins. While Lansdale reveals the killer well before the end of the novel, and telegraphs the bad guys just a bit, I wasn’t bothered. It’s the journey that makes Mucho Mojo worth reading, including the writing, the characters, the setting, and the humor. Along the way Lansdale has a lot to say about racism, bigotry, crime, and poverty.

As I mentioned above, there’s a lot to recommend in Mucho Mojo, but perhaps most of all the characterization and dialogue. Hap and Leonard are well-drawn, and while I don’t know much about Texas or its residents they certainly feel like living, breathing residents of the Lone Star state. They’re pals, and convincingly so. When I closed Mucho Mojo I felt like I was saying goodbye to a pair of old friends with whom I’d just shared great conversation over a few beers. Their dialogue reminds me of that which you’d encounter watching a Quentin Tarantino film (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, etc.) but a bit more grounded and rough around the edges.

I’m looking forward to finally reading the rest of the Leonard and Hap novels, of which the latest, Vanilla Ride, was just published earlier this year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: High hopes and black fears for Del Toro's The Hobbit

Casting for The Hobbit has apparently begun, the news of which means that I’m back to split feelings of incredible exhilaration, and a terrible, impending doom. The Hobbit was my introduction to fantasy literature and made me a lifetime reader, both of the fantasy genre and of literature in general. It’s an important, central work for me and for many others.

While of course we’ll always have the book, regardless of what we get in the final film product, my fervent hope is that producer Peter Jackson and director Guillermo Del Toro get the movie right. It’s too important to screw up.

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tolkien: Man and Myth, a review

One cannot afford to ignore Tolkien’s philosophical and theological beliefs, central as they are to his whole conception of Middle Earth and the struggles within it, but on the other hand one can enjoy Tolkien’s epic without sharing the beliefs which gave it birth.

—Joseph Pearce,
Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Literary Life

I love critical studies on J.R.R. Tolkien for many reasons. First and foremost I find them intensely interesting: They help illuminate the great depths of Tolkien’s works and enrich my subsequent readings of the source material, as all good works of criticism do. Secondarily, they serve as a bulwark against the absurd claims of the handful of critics who continue to label Tolkien’s works as childish, non-literary, or otherwise unworthy of study (perhaps petty of me, but there you have it).

Joseph Pearce’s critical study Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Literary Life (1998, Ignatius Press) may as well be titled Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Religious Life, as the author places most of his emphasis on and offers his greatest insights into the deep, abiding Catholicism of the author of The Lord of the Rings. It's an engaging, readable, and lively introduction to Tolkien, providing a nice summation of his life, letters, and existing critical works about the author, while managing to break some new ground in a fairly saturated field.

Having previously read Tom Shippey’s two exhaustive and highly recommended studies of Tolkien (The Road to Middle Earth and Author of the Century), along with a handful of other critical works, some of Pearce's book was familiar and seemed to retread old ground. For example, Tolkien: Man and Myth provides biographical details on Tolkien’s life that are readily available and more fleshed out in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography. It provides a summation and commentary on the mixed and often harsh critical reaction to The Lord of the Rings, both when it was first published in the mid-1950’s and again when it was voted as the book of the century in the late 1990’s. Again, Shippey covers the same material in Author of the Century (though to be fair, Pearce beat Shippey to the punch, as the latter was published three years after Pearce’s book).

Where Pearce’s book distinguishes itself from Shippey is providing additional illumination on two facets of Tolkien’s character: His deep and abiding religious faith, and his love for his family. Both aspects inform and inspire Tolkien’s works, yet are often deemphasized.

Most of the critical works I’ve read have identified the following as the primary inspirations for Middle Earth: Tolkien’s love of languages and Anglo-Saxon literature, his wartime years, and his desire to make a foundational myth to replace England’s early heritage, which was largely lost during the Norman conquest. Tolkien: Man and Myth reminds us that Tolkien’s simple love of stories, first expressed in his detailed “Father Christmas” letters to his sons John, Michael, and Christopher, and his daughter Priscilla, started him down the path to The Hobbit and his later tales. Writes Pearce:

When Tolkien scrawled ‘in a hole in the ground there lived hobbit’, the opening sentence of The Hobbit in around 1930, he was writing for the amusement of his children as well as for the amusement of himself. Indeed, it is fair to assume that if Tolkien had remained a bachelor and had not been blessed with children he would never have written either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps he would have written The Silmarillion, but in all probability it would never have been published.

In addition to the influence of his family, Tolkien’s friendships also spurred him to write. Chapters 4 and 5 of Pearce’s book (“True Myth: Tolkien and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis” and “A Ring of Fellowship: Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings”) explore Tolkien’s fecund friendship with C.S. Lewis, which provided Tolkien with an invaluable sounding board. Lewis was a constant friendly ear, listening to Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings aloud, chapter by chapter. When Tolkien faltered, Lewis urged him on.

Lewis was an agnostic when he first met Tolkien. But by convincing him of the “true myth” of the Gospels, Tolkien played a critical role in his conversion to Christianity. Tolkien explained that myths are not falsehoods, but are a means of conveying otherwise inexpressible truths. For example, although Middle Earth is fictional, it reveals truths about the human condition and our relation to God, and thus is a form of "truth."

Chapters 6 and 7 (“The Creation of Middle Earth”, “Orthodoxy in Middle Earth”) are the highlights of Tolkien: Man and Myth. Here Pearce contends that Middle Earth, though a fantastic world and bereft of any overt references to religion or god(s), fits neatly into the Christian conception of creation and the Christian universe. Though acknowledging Tolkien’s disdain for allegory, Pearce notes that the Christian doctrine of the Fall is given allegorical treatment in The Silmarillion (e.g., Melkor is Middle Earth’s equivalent of Lucifer, Manwe is the archangel Michael, etc.). The Silmarillion is “the myth behind the man, moulding [Tolkien’s] creative vision.” Writes Pearce:

Tolkien’s longing for this lost Eden and his mystical glimpses of it, inspired and motivated by his sense of ‘exile’ from the fullness of truth, was the source of his creativity. At the core of The Silmarillion, indeed at the core of all his work, was a hunger for the truth that transcends mere facts: the infinite and eternal Reality which was beyond the finite and temporal perceptions of humanity.

Pearce expands upon this theistic reading of The Lord of the Rings in “Orthodoxy in Middle Earth,” in which he compares Frodo’s carrying of the One Ring to Christ’s burden of the Cross, and Sam’s unassuming heroism to Christian exaltation of the humble. Likewise, the examples of Sam, Boromir, and Gandalf embody the Christian value of self-sacrifice.

Death in Middle Earth also mirrors its Christian conception, notes Pearce. While elves are immortal, their deathlessness is as much as a curse as a boon. Death is a gift given to men by Iluvatar, the creator. But because it is shrouded in mystery (“a grey rain-curtain”) and corrupted by Melkor, man fears it as he fears the unknown. “To both writers [Lewis and Tolkien] this world was but a land of shadows, a veil of tears as well as a vale of tears, which shielded mortal men from the fullness of the light of God,” Pearce writes.

There is more to recommend in Tolkien: Man and Myth, including a touching look at Tolkien’s final years (“Approaching Mount Doom”), but again this is material I’ve seen covered elsewhere. It is the examination of Tolkien’s spirituality which makes Tolkien: Man and Myth a commendable work, and highly recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: "Fantasy” a worthy entry in Anderson’s canon

While others seek the passageway to elven realms in vain, Poul Anderson throws wide the gate to let his readers enter into wonder … Anderson is a “literalist of the imagination.” He makes what is magical real and what is real magical. Of such power is poetry born.

—“An Invitation to Elfland,” Sandra Misesel, from Poul Anderson’s

Poul Anderson gets a lot of love around these parts, and with good reason. While I can’t speak to his metric ton of science fiction, he’s written a lot of great fantasy novels, including Three Hearts and Three Lions, and the Nordic-flavored War of the Gods, The Broken Sword, and Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. All of these are worth finding and reading.

But Anderson also wrote some excellent short stories. I have a couple of his collections and will vouch for the excellence of Fantasy (1981, Pinnacle Books, Inc).

Belying its vanilla title (Fantasy? Was Pinnacle Books considering Men with Swords as an alternative?), Fantasy is actually a wide-ranging, eclectic group of short stories that includes “soft” sci-fi (debatably fantasy) stories, a handful of essays, including a satirical non-fiction look at the sword-and-sandal brand of fantastic fiction (“On Thud and Blunder”), and a few excellent traditional fantasy tales.

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Living Dead zombie anthology a feast for the brain

When I ordered the new John Joseph Adams zombie anthology The Living Dead, I was hoping for stories of zombie carnage on a large scale, a-la Max Brooks’ terrific World War Z and George Romero’s classic “living dead” films. As I read one story after the next, however, it soon became evident that all-out zombie war was (mostly) not the focus of this book.

Some disappointment naturally ensued. When the book arrived with its cover shot of a horde of shambling undead, zombie wars and tales of gun-porn survival were what I thought I was getting. I liken the experience to purchasing a book entitled “heroic fantasy” with a barbarian on the cover, and opening it to find that, instead of warriors and wizards, it’s mostly about everyday, modern people involved in acts of bravery, sans battle-axes.

In short, sometimes all you want is a little zombie mayhem. I was hoping that The Living Dead would afford me the opportunity to just turn my brain off and enjoy.

But once I got past my initial disappointment, The Living Dead turned out to be a very good collection of horror stories. On a scientific scale of 1-5 stars, I’d give it a solid 3 ½, a very good score for an anthology, given that any collection of short stories is going to contain a few duds. And upon further reflection, The Living Dead does have its fair share of carnage and zombie apocalypse, albeit not as much as I was hoping for.

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