Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Brak vs. the Sorceress: A really bad read

Ever the optimist, I managed to find a silver lining in the extreme suckiness of John Jakes’ 1977 novel Brak vs. the Sorceress, though I struggled mightily to do so.

If nothing else, it proves how talented Robert E. Howard was as a writer.

Howard could take the raw elements of a sword and sorcery story and make them come alive in unforgettable tales; in the case of Brak vs. the Sorceress one learns that muscled warriors in loincloths rescuing damsels in distress can also make for really, really bad camp.

I wish I had something good to say about this book, but I don’t. It’s not just derivative and lazy (though it is that, in spades), but it also serves as an instructive example in the art of bad writing. Brak vs. the Sorceress opens with a four-page infodump of cliché fantasy that is probably a recap of the previous book in the Brak series. I can’t be bothered to look it up and figure out whether that’s the case. Regardless, it proves utterly unnecessary to the remainder of the thinly plotted story. Here’s the description of the plot from the back of the cover, a poorly done run-on sentence that still makes the story sound much better than it actually reads:

Making his way south toward the golden land of Khurdistan, Brak must first traverse the desolate territory of the Manworm—a land gripped by terror of things unknown and awful—a land of unseen watchers and horrifying riddles—a land ravaged by the evil of Nordica Fire-Hair, the beautiful, hypnotic sorceress whose occult experiments include human sacrifice. To save the land and its terrorized people, Brak joins forces with the ailing Lord Stann and begins one of his most incredible adventures.

Basically the whole story is about how Brak accepts a mission solely to avenge the slaying of his pony and to teach a spirited woman a lesson in humility. I’m not making this up. From the book: To her the life of a pony was a small thing, and therein lay her evil. To him the pony’s life mattered much. His choice was clear-cut. He would not slink away. He would punish her. He was Brak, a man.

Got that? He’s a man, and she’s a wicked pony-killing woman. She must pay the price!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Metal Friday: "Beyond the Realms of Death" by Judas Priest

All right, I probably could have picked a slightly more upbeat song headed into the much-needed Memorial Day weekend. But I had this one on the brain and could not shake it, perhaps because it's one of the finest heavy metal anthems ever recorded.

The lyrical content of "Beyond the Realms of Death" is downbeat to say the least; I'm not sure why the prosecution in the Vance-Belknap trial  (a tragic but absolutely farcical bit of metal history) spent so much effort digging for subliminal messages in "Better by You, Better than Me" when this song is already on Stained Class. Fishing for suicidal messages is unnecessary in "Beyond the Realms of Death," whose meaning bites deep and chills like the first bitter winds of winter:

I've left the world behind
I am safe here, in my mind
I'm free to speak, with my own kind
This is my life, this is my life,
I'll decide not you

Keep the world, with all its sin
It's not fit for living in

A while back I rated the top 10 heavy metal singers of all time and put Rob Halford at the top of that list. While his is a wavering position, and could easily be usurped by  the likes of Bruce Dickinson or Ronnie James Dio depending on my particular mood that day, "Beyond the Realms of Death" stands as an epic testimony for Halford's greatness as a singer. I mean, he's good on this song, m'kay?

Here's another live version from 1978 that's worth watching--Halford kills this live. Odd outfit though:

Blind Guardian also does a wonderful cover of this song that I recommend seeking out. Turn it up!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Of Red Moon and Black Mountain and the anxiety of Tolkien’s influence

The shadow of The Lord of the Rings is long, indeed. In the 1960s Frodo lived and the reading public was hungry for more, and derivative works like The Sword of Shannara met that demand. That pattern continued into the 1980s with the publication of works like Dennis McKiernan’s Iron Tower trilogy, the series showing the clearest Tolkien “influence” of them all and one that literally provided more of the same. Now, this stuff wasn’t all bad; it filled a need and offered a safe, enjoyable formula. I willingly read many of these works back in the day and occasionally still do. But decades later many of the Tolkien clones haven’t aged all that well. I seem to have a lot less patience for them these days, even though I understand the environment in which they were written, and can appreciate that avoiding the influence of The Lord of the Rings 30-40 years ago must have been very difficult, if not impossible.

Take Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain (1970). It’s well-written, not hackwork by any stretch. In 1972 the Mythopoeic Society bestowed its Fantasy Award  upon the novel, denoting it as a work that best exemplified “the spirit of the Inklings.” Red Moon and Black Mountain has an unquestionable Tolkien-Lewis quality about it, if by spirit one means rewriting The Lord of the Rings with the framing device of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe tacked on. After a solid start it descends into full-on Tolkien-clone, which probably explains why it’s largely forgotten today.

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

Friday, May 18, 2012

Metal Friday: "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" by Metallica

Remember when Metallica was a good--pardon me, a great band? Arguably the best metal band on the planet? I do. From roughly 1981-90 Metallica was on the top of the heavy metal mountain, almost untouchable with a catalog that included the immortal Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and And Justice for All. Metallica (aka The Black Album), released in 1991, was a decent album but was deliberately written for a mainstream audience and marked the beginning of a long decline for the Los Angeles quartet.

But going back to those first four albums... pure gold. I've pinpointed Metallica's peak moment, right down to the year, album, and song--Welcome Home (Sanitarium) on 1986's Master of Puppets. This is their best, in my humble opinion. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you don't like this song then you probably don't like heavy metal. I'll still like you, just maybe not quite as much as before. Turn it up!

The Avengers: That's entertainment

After much anticipation and delay I finally got to see The Avengers on Wednesday night. While I wouldn't quite put it up for a best picture nomination, it's non-stop entertainment and 2 1/2 hours of your life you'll spend with an ear-to-ear grin on your face. It's action almost start to finish, with a fun sense of humor (I laughed out loud 4-5 times; there are some great one liners), and plenty of heart-swelling, feel-good, superhero moments as well. Highly recommended.

I'm rather an easy sell for director Joss Whedon. As a kid I read three comics on a regular basis: Captain America, The Savage Sword of Conan, and The Avengers (with a smattering of other titles thrown in). I've still got my old issues. From time to time I've debated selling them off, but I can't seem to pull the trigger. First of all I doubt I would get back what I paid for them, but secondly I have too many fond memories wrapped up in these stories.

I read The Avengers faithfully from roughly 1984-88, a period highlighted by an epic battle at the Avengers mansion against the Baron Zemo led Masters of Evil, a powerful group of evil superheroes that included the Wrecking Crew, Absorbing Man, Goliath, Mr. Hyde, the Fixer, Blackout, and others. That was a great storyline. I remember being almost physically shaken when the Masters beat Hercules into a coma and nearly killed him, roughed up Captain America and tore up priceless photographs of his friends and family in front of his face, and tortured and permanently injured poor Jarvis the butler.

Back then in the pre-CGI days there was no way you could realistically portray the powers of characters like Thor and the Hulk on film. Even Captain America--a human being at the absolute peak of human strength, speed, and endurance--could not be realistically portrayed by an actor given the limitations of the special effects of the time. Today of course it's a very different story, as The Avengers has proven. The only limitation is the budget.

What really gives this film heart is its casting. I've never seen any of the Iron Man films but I already cannot imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark. All the actors are good but Downey Jr. was clearly the best. I was pleased to see Captain America emerge as the leader and rally the rest of the team and the local cops on the streets of Manhattan. At times Cap, Hawkeye and Black Widow seemed hopelessly overpowered and out of place amongst such heavy hitters as Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man, but Cap's true strength is his leadership, his cool demeanor under fire, natural charisma, and an ability to bring together a disparate group of heroes. He also has arguably the best line in the film ("Hulk--smash") though Thor's "he is adopted" (in reference to Loki) is pretty close. Seeing Thor and Hulk go toe-to-toe was worth the price of admission alone (what does it say that I would pay to watch an hour of them fighting).

I'm already looking forward to the sequel, and would love one day to see The Avengers tangle with Zemo and co. on the big screen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A memorable Midway meeting: Bob Watson, veteran of Omaha Beach

While walking through the interior of the massive USS Midway this past weekend in all its stunning glory, admiring the vintage and modern planes and the cavern-like interior of the hangar deck, I came upon an elderly gentleman in fatigues sitting in front of a collage of photos. On his head was a familiar black cap sewn with gold lettering, the kind worn by members of the military to commemorate either the branch of the service in which they served or the engagement in which they fought. These hats always get my attention.

Truth be told I didn't even notice the man's battle ribbons at first, nor the Purple Heart on his chest. I was too busy gaping at the two words on his cover that chill the soul of anyone with even a passing knowledge of WWII: Omaha Beach.

Bob Watson , U.S. Sixth Naval Beach Battalion, was among the first waves of U.S. soldiers to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6 1944. He was just 18 years old. When I saw him on the Midway he was just finishing up speaking with another gentleman and his wife. Passers-by occasionally glanced his way, perhaps pausing to look over his photos of Omaha, once and a while stopping and thanking him for his service. He should have been swarmed by thankful citizens. Take a look at his story on the site I've linked to. His landing craft hit a teller mine on the top of a submerged wooden obstacle, a devious construction that was part of Hitler's famous Atlantic sea wall. The ensuing explosion blew off the front door of the craft, killing more than half of the crew. Dazed and injured Watson somehow made it to shore where he was thrust immediately into the Army firing line. Later he helped to clear the beach of obstacles with a bulldozer while still under German fire. It's amazing stuff. I got to hear Watson's story and much more, speaking with this kind old warrior for the better part of an hour.

Watson's collage includes photos of him shaking hands with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, taken on the eve of the debut of Saving Private Ryan. One of the more interesting bits from our talk was when Watson relayed his conversation with Spielberg, who had asked Watson what he liked and disliked about Ryan. "The landing scene was accurate, though not quite as bloody as what really happened that day," said Watson, noting that body parts and mangled corpses were everywhere while the ocean seemed on fire with exploding shells and burning gasoline. In general he thought it was an excellent film and a compelling portrayal of the war. His major criticism of the film? "I told Spielberg: 'Who were these guys (actors)? They're too old. All the guys I knew were almost all 18, 19 years old.'" Watson was just 18 when he hit the carnage on the beach. The thought of a bunch of 18 year olds whose first experience of combat was Omaha is sobering and horrifying. After almost an hour I shook his hand for the last time, thanked him profusely for his heroism and service, and was on my way.

I'm tempted to leave this post at that but I can't resist a bit of moralizing.

The same day Jessica Sanchez from American Idol was invited out to the Midway for a special performance  for her hometown fans. On the top deck Sanchez was surrounded by easily a thousand-plus screaming fans with handmade signs and cameras, hoping for a glimpse of a 16-year-old whose claim to fame is a good voice and some face time on a mediocre television program. Now, I have absolutely no hard feelings toward Sanchez, she seems like a nice kid, and I wish her the best in her singing career. I just found the whole cult of personality mentality a bit disheartening when the real celebrity was below decks. I couldn't help but feel that the incongruity of the situation is a rather sad reflection on the current state of our culture. Our heroes are in the history books--or in the case of Watson, living history. Not on TV. We have it all backwards.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Back, and with more Red Nails

Whew, I'm back from a week-long, stressful business trip to San Diego during which I had no time to blog. But now that I'm home again I'll be getting back on track with some new posts (including a great piece of WWII history I plan on sharing here).

As it turns out today posted a recent podcast on Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails" in which I was invited to participate. I'm definitely more comfortable writing than speaking but I nevertheless had a lot of fun with this rare occasion to talk about one of one my favorite authors (my wife and kids aren't particularly interested in hearing about the Hyborian Age over dinner, what can I say).

You can listen to the podcast here. The entire story is read first by Gregg Margarite from Librivox, followed by our discussion.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Metal Friday: "Hail and Kill" by Manowar

I'm still not sure whether Manowar take themselves seriously. With a lyric like this:

May your sword stay wet
Like a young girl in her prime

it's not immediately apparent.

But I take them seriously as musicians; backed by the power of singer Eric Adams Manowar has always been a favorite of mine, and "Hail and Kill" off of 1988's Kings of Metal is one of their best. If you're a fan of music about riding into battle with bloody axe held high, and pillage and slaughter, and gorging yourself on beef and ale afterwards, Manowar has the market cornered. Turn it up!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, a review

In his “Introduction to The Elder Edda” (from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun), J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the broad, multi-general appeal of Old Norse poetry:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power; moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

In other words, you don’t have to be able to read Old Norse in its native tongue to enjoy the myths and legends of Odin and Loki and Thor, of the war of the Giants and Aesir and Vanir, and of Ragnarok and the ending of the world. The characters and stories have a power all their own, regardless of the language in which they’re told or the particular form they take, be it alliterative verse or child-accessible plain narration. Which is why I derive such great pleasure in owning and reading Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin.

Published in November 1920, The Children of Odin would have been available to Tolkien (1892-1973) and perhaps he too read and enjoyed Colum’s work. One wonders what he would have made of the volume. It certainly meets his criteria of being possessed of a heady northern power, even while remaining accessible to younger readers.