Friday, August 27, 2010

Cameron wants Avatar to compete with Tolkien and Star Wars? Pfft.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Cameron admires the universes created by George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry and the man who now has the two highest-grossing films of all-time (Cameron's "Titanic" from 1997 still floats there at No. 2 worldwide with $1.8 billion) openly admits that he aspires to compete with his own cosmic aspirations.

"You've got to compete head on with these other epic works of fantasy and fiction, the Tolkiens and the ‘Star Wars' and the ‘Star Treks,'" Cameron said. "People want a persistent alternate reality to invest themselves in and they want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time. They want to live somewhere else. Like Pandora."

I saw Avatar in the theatres in 3D and enjoyed it. It was a nice diversion and a fun couple hours of time spent.

But a half-hour after I left the theatre I never gave Avatar another thought, nor do I feel the need to ever re-watch it. Why? It's all spectacle and no story. Its plot was paper-thin and predictable. Turn it sideways and it disappears.

I give Cameron credit for creating a world on screen that looks real, but let's be honest--Avatar wowed because of the technology used to create it. Middle-earth existed solely in its readers' imaginations for 50 years (longer if you count The Hobbit) before it hit the screens, and shows no signs of slowing down. Star Wars' special effects are now 30 years out of date, but it remains a favorite because of its storyline, memorable characters, and mythic components.

Does anyone really believe Avatar will have the same staying power? The minute someone else develops a better Pandora using more advanced CGI I predict it will be relegated to a cinematic footnote. You don't create "a persistent alternate reality" on looks alone. Ironically, fantasy fans do "want the detail that makes it rich and worth their time." If there was any rich detail other than visual to be had in Avatar I must have missed it.

Finally, Cameron sells works like Star Wars and Star Trek and the world of Middle-earth terribly short by insinuating that their primary appeal is escape from reality. I would argue that Middle-earth is a reflection of our own reality, and while it can be read for escape's sake, it's also a mirror in which attentive readers can reflect upon matters of faith and the creator, life and death, sacrifice, and pity and mercy. What does Avatar have? Environmentalism? Tolkien even did that better than Avatar. It's Dances with Wolves with aliens, folks.

Rant over.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge, a review

As the summer begins to draw to a close and the cooling night air brings with it thoughts of fall and of Halloween, inevitably I’m stricken with the horror itch. So this past weekend I fed my cravings and read Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge, a horror author with whom I had yet to be acquainted.

I picked up Dark Harvest a while back based on some glowing cover blurbs, including the fact that it won a Bram Stoker Award for best long horror fiction of 2006. When I closed the cover after two brief sessions—at 170 pages Dark Harvest is more novella than novel—I was left with mixed sensations. There was some very good stuff in Dark Harvest, but other parts of the work fell flat, at least for me.

Dark Harvest takes place in an unnamed western town and concerns the events of a single Halloween night in 1963. For as long as anyone can remember the town has followed a strange, bloodthirsty ritual—every boy between the ages of sixteen and nineteen gets locked up for five straight days heading up to Halloween. The group is then turned loose on the streets with a cache of wicked weapons, including baseball bats, knives, and steel pipes. Their mission is to hunt down and kill the Halloween Boy, a pumpkin-headed monster from legend. The “winner” who claims the kill gets to leave the town's stifling confines. No one else is permitted to leave the town, ever.

But on this night in 1963, 16-year-old Pete McCormick discovers that all is not what it seems. The game is rigged. He vows to buck the tradition.

So on to what I liked and didn’t like. And warning, this review will contain some spoilers.

The bad
Dark Harvest had the feeling of a good short story padded out to novel length. It’s a great concept that would have been superb in 40 or 50 pages, but doesn’t quite work as a full-fledged novel.

For example, there’s no backstory or reason given why this strange ritual exists. Stephen King’s Children of the Corn did this sort of thing far better, and in fewer pages. And not only are we never given a reason for the existence of nor the ramifications of said bloody ritual, but we’re also never told how such an insulated town could exist. Seriously, no one is ever permitted to leave this town, ever, except for one lucky boy each year? And we’re supposed to believe this could happen, even in an isolated Midwestern town in 1963? I bought the scenario of Children of the Corn (in which every adult in town was slaughtered, and the only ones left were children indoctrinated into the cult of the corn god). I just couldn’t buy the events of Dark Harvest.

I also had a few problems with the narration. Partridge inserts the second person (“you”) voice into the text, but not consistently, and when he does it took me out of the flow of the novel. For example, “You” (the reader) are one of the bodies buried in the cornfield. If by “you” he means that I am one of the boys unable to escape conformity and small town existence and small worries, yes, I suppose, that could be me. But it comes across as “you, the reader, were one of the boys taken out into a cornfield and shot.” Really, I was?

More regrettably, the characters in Dark Harvest do not feel three dimensional. The teenage boy who was the October Boy to me seemed no different than McCormick, for example. Again, another 100 pages of character and plot development would have made Dark Harvest into a superb novel rather than a padded-out short story.

The good
So why do I still recommend Dark Harvest (with the above reservations)? For one thing the writing is sharp, concise, and strong. Partridge works with brevity and skill and a relentless energy that makes reading the novel a pleasure and a breeze.

For all its failings of believability, Dark Harvest works as a coming of age story. It’s a tale about how becoming an adult is more than just the passing of some arbitrary age (say, 21 or 25). Adults at some point must break from teenage groupthink, take a stand, question authority, and do right by their children by setting a good example (sadly, many of them don’t). Dark Harvest is also archetypal and borderline allegorical and this element also worked in its favor. For example, the long black road out of town is life, and leads to a barrier called The Line. The Line is difficult to cross. Most people never try to cross the Line, and the few that do are pursued at every turn by peers and authority figures that want to knock them down a peg.

Although it’s sharply critical of small-town conformity, Dark Harvest is also an elegy to childhood and lost innocence. My favorite scene is when the October Boy returns to his abandoned home and engages in a silent reverie while staring at his kitchen table. The past is gone and there are no second chances to reclaim a lost childhood, or speak words to loved ones that should have been said:

Jim’s misshapen fingers scrape across the rough-hewn table. It’s not a good table. It sits kind of cockeyed, and dinner peas escaping a child’s fork have been known to roll off the side like ships sailing off the edge of a flat earth. That’s why nobody bothered to steal the thing when the house was abandoned, and Jim’s glad of that. Because this is the table where he sat with his mother and father and little brother as the days faded to evenings for years and years and years. And this is the table where he thought many things, and a few of them made the trip from brain to mouth and found the ears of those other people who shared the table, but many of them didn’t. For one reason or another, many of his thoughts never left him at all.

In short, if you turn off your critical thinking and read it as a dark fable, Dark Harvest works. If you don’t dwell on the why or how of the ritual of the Halloween Boy and embrace your love of the mayhem and wildness of the dark side of Halloween you’ll be rewarded. And your appetite for fall will be whetted.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tolkien feature on the BBC, circa 1968

I came across a great video feature on Tolkien circa 1968, courtesy of the BBC. I've never seen most of this footage. Tolkien walking through his old haunts and talking about his books is priceless. Enjoy!

With that, I'll be signing off for a short vacation, returning Wednesday or so.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Toy Story 3: Genre fiction writers take heed

Warning: This essay contains some spoilers.

If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.
--J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf

I don’t get to the theatre too often these days, and with two young daughters in tow more often than not it’s to see a children’s film. But I’m not lamenting this fact, especially when the movies are of the quality of Toy Story 3.

Hey, I love Robert E. Howard, Bernard Cornwell, and the Viking novels of Poul Anderson as much as the next battle-mad fantasy fan, but I’m man enough to admit liking (most) Pixar films as well. And Toy Story 3 might be the best one I’ve seen. Critical consensus is not necessarily a hallmark of a good film (see Blade Runner, panned on its initial release by most critics, recognized as genius years later), but I think it’s telling that Toy Story 3 currently has a 99% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In this case, the critics are spot-on.

Toy Story 3 is a near-perfect children’s film. Like all children’s films, it possesses straightforward story lines, engaging visuals, and brisk action in order to keep young attention spans focused. (If these qualities sound like less than appealing, well, genre films can’t be all things to all people). So why sing its praises on Black Gate? Toy Story 3 serves as an instructive example of how to tell a great story within the confines of a given genre. Just like you can’t get too bogged down in dialogue or non-linear narrative techniques in a movie for kids, that story you submit to Heroic Fantasy Quarterly better contain some elements of sword play and sweeping action if you want to stand a chance of getting it published. If you disregard your audience you’re destined to fail.

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

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Princess of Mars, a review

A Princess of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs

In 1917 World War I was in the midst of its savage throes, and suspended over its torn battlefields like a bloody pendant hung Mars. Fertile ground enough for Edgar Rice Burroughs to pen A Princess of Mars, his first novel of earthman John Carter’s violent adventures on the red planet.

Thanks to the wonders of I was recently able to enjoy A Princess of Mars while driving to work (Librivox is to audio books what Project Gutenberg is to the printed word, providing public domain works, read by volunteer narrators, freely to the general public).

A Princess of Mars begins on earth in the decade following the Civil War. Carter, an ageless/seemingly immortal (for reasons puzzlingly left unexplained in A Princess of Mars) veteran of the Confederate army, is prospecting for gold in Arizona. A group of Apaches kill his friend and pursue Carter to a cave high in the mountains. Exhausted, Carter lies down and is mysteriously transported via astral projection to Mars.

Named after the ancient Roman god of war, Mars (called Barsoom by its native inhabitants) lives up to its violent appellation. It’s populated by monstrous beasts and alien races in a state of continual conflict. These include the green skinned, four armed Tharks, whose male members tower some dozen feet in height, and the more civilized Martians, human-like in appearance save for their red skin. Resources are scarce on Mars. Its waterless canals are cracked and dry and its air is kept breathable only through a massive atmosphere generator.

Carter’s first run-in on the planet is with the Tharks. Though he’s a stranger in a strange land and only half their size, Carter has several advantages that make him a formidable warrior. With a body used to earths’ stronger gravitational pull, Carter is able to make 50 foot leaps in the thin Mars atmosphere and is also equal in strength to the mightiest of the Tharks. Everyone on Mars has telepathy and can read one another’s thoughts, as can Carter, but he is immune to mind-probing and so is at a distinct advantage, able to anticipate their attacks in the duels to which he is frequently challenged.

Mars is a cruel planet and the Tharks exhibit no mercy. They are a race born into conflict, whose imperfect young are ruthlessly weeded out and murdered to create a physically strong, loveless race (“Tears are a strange sight upon Barsoom,” says a female Thark named Sola). But with his physical skills and easily assimiliation of the Tharks’ language and customs, Carter quickly rises in their ranks and reaches the status of minor chieftain. But he eventually finds himself at odds with the green men after the latter capture the beautiful red skinned Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak, jed of Lesser Helium and granddaughter of Tardos Mors, jeddak of the capital Martian city of Helium (one of Burroughs’ strengths as a writer is his creation of evocative, otherwordly names).

Carter is not what I would consider a fleshed-out, three dimensional character, but Burroughs provides a few tantalizing details in A Princess of Mars that elevate him into something more than a mindless action hero. In addition to his agelessness, Carter is a lonely soul who despite his long years on earth has never experienced true love. When he falls for Dejah, the sensation strikes him like a thunderbolt. He realizes that he does not want to return to earth, for on Mars he knows the fullness of love. His life now has a purpose.

The remainder of the book revolves around Carter’s attempt to rescue Dejah from the clutches of the Tharks. If you like non-stop action in your reading then A Princess of Mars is for you—it’s literally one epic battle or chase scene after another. It’s also a moving love story as Carter pursues Dejah Thoris to the ends of Mars, risking life and limb to win her affections.

What I find most interesting about the book are its contrasts with another pulp fiction writer and contemporary of Burroughs, one Robert E. Howard. In many ways Burroughs’ world-view was diametrically opposed to Howard’s own: Throughout A Princess of Mars civilization triumphs over barbarism, such as when Carter trains his thoat (an eight-legged creature that serves as a mount for the Tharks) using love and patience instead of brutality. Carter’s methods prove so superior to the Tharks’ brutal techniques that they have no choice but to emulate his methods. Also, the Martian races are portrayed as corrupted, fallen from their formerly peaceful ways. Mars had once been home to a highly cultivated and literary race, but wars with the green men and the changing climate resulted in the loss of all their archives, records, and literature (note that Howard did not acknowledge barbarism as superior to civilization in all respects, simply an inevitable state of mankind).

That said, Burroughs in my opinion is a notch below Howard as a writer. While he’s a great storyteller, Burroughs lacks Howard’s poetry and brilliant peaks of action, and his dialogue resembles stiff speeches rather than actual conversation. I was also left with unanswered questions about Burroughs’ pseudo-science and its ramifications (note that I’m not someone who picks at these kind of things, but a few of Burroughs’ oversights seemed rather egregious). For example, the telepathy issue was not well thought-out. It’s hard to grasp the ramifications of knowing everyone’s true thoughts and Burroughs doesn’t bother to try to explain it, only bringing up the issue when he needs to advance the plot. Carter should have been able to use this ability to his advantage at every turn (and why for that matter was Carter shocked when Dejah admitted she loved him—shouldn’t he have already known?)

Those criticisms aside, Burroughs is a wonderful storyteller and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the savage beauty of Mars. Burroughs even slips in some good lawyer humor (“In one respect at least the Martians are a happy people; they have no lawyers”) and a good deal of titillation: Everyone in the book is nude. I’m not sure how the forthcoming film plans to handle this; My guess is with some well-placed silks and loincloths.

A Princess of Mars was followed by ten more novels set on the red planet, most starring Carter. So if you enjoyed the book you're assured of many more Barsoomian adventures to come.

Because it’s in the public domain A Princess of Mars is quite easy to obtain. You can download the Librivox audio files (three Barsoomian cheers!) here: Or you can read the entire text of the story here:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

20 years of KISS—and counting

What in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support,

That to the height of this great argument

I may assert eternal Providence,

And justify the ways of KISS to men.

—Unnamed KISS fan

Twenty years ago I attended my first KISS concert at the Great Woods Performing Arts Studio in Mansfield, MA. It was the Hot in the Shade tour. KISS’ big hit at the time was “Rise to It” (though “Hide Your Heart” and the power ballad “Forever” were making the airwaves, too).

I was so pumped for that show and KISS did not disappoint. I still remember Paul Stanley’s command, “If life is a radio, turn it up to 10!” I listened to Paul and obeyed.

That night I rose to the greatness that is KISS and I’ve never come down. Over the years I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen them—a dozen or more probably. I’ve worn KISS makeup to concerts. One of my favorite memories is going through the drive-through at Burger King with three other guys, all wearing KISS makeup. Before we drove out the cashier had called over every employee in the restaurant to gawk at us through the narrow window.

Twenty years later—tonight, in fact—I’m returning to the same Mansfield stomping grounds to see them again. No makeup this time, but I’m still feeling the same old excitement.

KISS was the first band that I fell in love with and claimed as my own. I was 14 or so when I bought my first KISS cassette tape, Crazy Nights. Here was a band that instilled me with a sense of rebellion while also paradoxically inviting me to be part of something big and cool, the KISS Army. From “Crazy Nights”: “They try to tell us, that we don’t belong, but that’s all right, we’re millions strong!”

Although those years are long gone I still love KISS. I’ll never make the claim that they’re the best musicians. Far from it. KISS has had a couple okay guitarists over the years (Ace Frehley pre-booze, Bruce Kulick, Vinnie Vincent) and Eric Carr was a decent drummer, but that’s it. Nor have they written any deep or meaningful lyrics. I mean, have you ever tried listening to the mess that is The Elder?

But I consider this latter "shortcoming" a strength. I still have a chip on my shoulder about grunge bands, mainly because so many of them took themselves way too seriously. I loathe whiny, “my life sucks” lyrics, and personally I see no appeal in attending a concert to listen to that crap.

KISS is all about fun. Their lyrics are an absolute joy, at times approaching a Spinal Tap level of ridiculousness. For example, again from Hot in the Shade, here’s “Read My Body”:

Read my body
Are the letters big enough?
Read my body
Do you like the book of my love?
Read my body
Turn the page, get to the good stuff

KISS also always puts on a great stage show. Yeah, Gene Simmons is an absolute merciless capitalist, but so what? At least he’s open and honest about it. And KISS always delivers.

A review could be coming; we’ll see how I feel.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Stories: Discovering a kindred spirit in C.S. Lewis

Though he’s best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was also a prolific essayist and an ardent defender of fantasy literature. In addition to medieval studies (The Allegory of Love) and Christian apologetics (Mere Christianity), Lewis wrote several essays about the enduring appeal of mythopoeic stories, connecting fantasy’s remote, heroic past to its flowering in the early 20th century.

Lewis’ passion and erudition in the mythopoeic comes pouring through in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, a collection of essays and reviews loosely tied around fantasy literature. Lewis’ overarching theme in On Stories is that the best mythopoeic/romance literature (which includes works like E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and H. Rider Haggard’s She) stacks up with the best mainstream literature, and thus deserves to be not only enjoyed, but studied and preserved (I can sense a lot of nodding heads around here, but keep in mind that Lewis wrote these essays in an age when it was heresy to compare fantasy fiction to “real” lit).

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

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Taking the Fantasy Masterworks challenge

Riffing off (or perhaps stealing from, whatever you want to call it) posts over at The Blog That Time Forgot and Dweomera Lagomorpha, which in turn sprang from this post at the Mad Hatter's Bookshelf & Book Review, here are the books I've read from the Fantasy Masterworks catalogue (in bold):

1- Shadow and Claw - Gene Wolfe
2 - Time and the Gods - Lord Dunsany
3 - The Worm Ouroboros - E.R. Eddison
4 - Tales of the Dying Earth - Jack Vance
5 - Little, Big - John Crowley
6 - The Chronicles of Amber - Roger Zelazny
7 - Viriconium - M. John Harrison
8 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle - Robert E. Howard
9 - The Land of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll
10 - The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea - L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
11 - Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirrlees
12 - The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel - Gene Wolfe
13 - Fevre Dream - George R. R. Martin
14 - Beauty - Sheri S. Tepper
15 - The King of Elfland's Daughter - Lord Dunsany
16 - The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon - Robert E. Howard
17 - Elric - Michael Moorcock
18 - The First Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
19 - Riddle-Master - Patricia A. McKillip
20 - Time and Again - Jack Finney
21 - Mistress of Mistresses - E.R. Eddison
22 - Gloriana or the Unfulfill'd Queen - Michael Moorcock
23 - The Well of the Unicorn - Fletcher Pratt
24 - The Second Book of Lankhmar - Fritz Leiber
25 - Voice of Our Shadow - Jonathan Carroll
26 - The Emperor of Dreams - Clark Ashton Smith
27 - Lyonesse I: Suldrun's Garden - Jack Vance
28 - Peace - Gene Wolfe
29 - The Dragon Waiting - John M. Ford
30 - Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe - Michael Moorcock
31 - Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams - C.L. Moore
32 - The Broken Sword - Poul Anderson
33 - The House on the Borderland and Other Novels - William Hope Hodgson
34 - The Drawing of the Dark - Tim Powers
35 - Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc - Jack Vance
36 - The History of Runestaff - Michael Moorcock
37 - A Voyage to Arcturus - David Lindsay
38 - Darker Than You Think - Jack Williamson
39 - The Mabinogion - Evangeline Walton
40 - Three Hearts & Three Lions - Poul Anderson
41 - Grendel - John Gardner
42 - The Iron Dragon's Daughter - Michael Swanwick
43 - WAS - Geoff Ryman
44 - Song of Kali - Dan Simmons
45 - Replay - Ken Grimwood
46 - Sea Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories - Leigh Brackett
47 - The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers
48 - The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia A. McKillip
49 - Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
50 - The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales - Rudyard Kipling

So yeah, I've only read 17 titles. Kind of pathetic, and to be honest, some of these are probably stretches (I have only read some of the contents included in The Emperor of Dreams and Time and the Gods, for instance). I attribute this deficiency to a couple sources: One, I grew up in the 80s, so I've read a lot of high fantasy either too new or unworthy to make the cut: Dragonlance, Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Dennis McKiernan, etc. And despite the fantasy focus of The Silver Key, I also enjoy reading history and other non-fiction as well as horror and occasionally sci-fi, so my fantasy reading has correspondingly suffered.

But I also have some serious problems with the Fantasy Masterworks series itself. First, the omissions: No C.S. Lewis, Ursula LeGuin, or J.R.R. Tolkien? (although as Al Harron pointed out on The Blog That Time Forgot, this is surely a matter of obtaining publishing rights, not a deliberate oversight). Still, there are some rather head-scratching omissions, including William Morris, H. Rider Haggard, and T.H. White, to name a few. And some of the inclusions are puzzling. Beauty by Sheri Tepper? Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees? Never heard of 'em. That doesn't make them bad, as I've already admitted to an ignorance of a large swathe of the collection, but are these works truly deserving of the "masterworks" appelation? These aren't books that spring to mind when one typically thinks of the movers and shapers of early fantasy, and I can't recall any recent author interviews citing them as a major influence.

And four titles by Moorcock? Really?

Still, I have a compulsive obsession with "Best of" lists so I found this exercise irresistable. How many Fantasy Masterworks have you read?