Saturday, February 16, 2013

Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian: A review

Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian (McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013) offers a broad selection of essays on Conan, but not just the Conan of Robert E. Howard’s stories. It covers Conan in all his various forms, from the original Weird Tales barbarian, to the hulking brute of the Schwarzenegger film, to the various computer generated avatars in the Age of Conan computer game. In this way it differs greatly from its predecessors The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph, which reserve their analysis for Howard and Howard’s stories alone.

This book will, I suspect, set many Howard fans’ teeth on edge. It opens with an unapologetic defense of the L. Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter-edited Lancer/Ace Conan paperbacks, positing that without these books Conan and Robert E. Howard would be all but forgotten today. Writes editor Jonas Prida, “The problem of de Camp’s decision to re-order the chronology and list himself on Tales of Conan’s cover as one of the authors has been alluded to, but what must also be admitted is that without the controlling hand of de Camp, both Conan and Howard may have gone the way of Kull, relegated to footnote status in investigations into fellow Weird Tales’ contributor H.P. Lovecraft.” Now I personally have no issue with placing the DeCamp/Carter pastiches, or even the Conan films and videogames, under the academic microscope; far from it, I think it’s an interesting and worthy exercise. However Prida seems to think that the root of De Camp-ian resentment is purists defending the Conan canon, but I disagree: What draws the ire of many Howard fans is De Camp’s often mean-spirited assessment of Howard the man in these books’ introductions and elsewhere.

In addition, Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian trumpets itself as a trailblazer in what Prida describes as a limited field of traditional literary analysis (“The first scholarly investigation of Conan,” according to a blurb on the back cover). Though it tips a cap to Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder and Glenn Lord’s The Last Celt, Prida has apparently either not heard of The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph or does not consider them "scholarly," as these fail to garner a mention in the preface.

Ah well, some troubling early signs aside, on to the contents.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy birthday to JRR Tolkien; jeers to Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is another notable fantasy author who, alongside the likes of Michael Moorcock and Richard Morgan, has grossly missed the mark in his appraisal of The Lord of the Rings. Listening to this recent Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast I was dumbfounded not only by Pullman’s ignorance of The Lord of the Rings, but the gall he exhibits throwing around opinions on a work he admittedly read only once—and as a teenager. “I’ve tried to read it since, but I was unsuccessful,” Pullman says in the interview (note: the Tolkien portion starts around the 17:10 mark; its only a two minute segment or so of the interview). Admitting this fact should automatically invalidate any opinions you have on The Lord of the Rings. I was forced to read Moby Dick in high school. Had that been the only time I read it, and 40 years passed, how much would my opinions on the book matter? None, right?

But since Pullman is a big-time successful author, in the eyes of some we must take him seriously. So I’m taking this opportunity on what would be Tolkien’s 121st birthday to show just much how much he gets wrong.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a review

Warning: Spoilers follow.

As I left an IMAX 3D showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey early Saturday evening, I struggled at first to determine why I experienced such ambivalence about the film. Then I hit on it: Director Peter Jackson has taken what is a tightly-plotted, 300-page novel and turned it into the equivalent of a multi-volume fantasy epic, with all the good and the bad that change entails.

My short review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey deserves the mixed ratings it has received (65% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). It was a qualified success, with some high points and some low points. It’s good, but not as good as The Lord of the Rings films, in my opinion. And in places it’s downright annoying.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Just where is this guy?

Readers the world round are surely wondering what happened to that guy who writes The Silver Key blog? I wish I had something really cool to report, for example that I've been called in as an emergency consultant on The Hobbit, but alas, no. The answer to my lack of posting these days is: Life, covering high school football, and a side writing project. These things have consumed much of my limited free time and prevented me from posting to the blog. So rather than banging out half-hearted posts I've decided to take an extended break.

Am I burning with the news about Arnold Schwarzenegger reprising his role as Conan, or the muck Hollywood is making out of World War Z? You betcha. Have I been reading genre fiction worthy of critical review? Yes, that too. I just finished up the latest in Bernard Cornwell's ongoing Saxon Stories, Death of Kings, for instance. And a fair bit of swords and sorcery. I've been watching and enjoying The Walking Dead, too (alas, poor T-Dog, we hardly knew ye). I just don't have the time to write about these things with the blowhard attitude and half-baked analysis readers of this blog have come to appreciate and love.

I do plan on coming back and blogging again, but not now, and likely not anytime soon. So for now, a semi- apropos snatch of poetry from the great REH:

I could not bide in the feasting-hall
Where the great fires light the rooms—
For the winds are walking the night for me
And I must follow where gaunt lands be,
Seeking, beyond some nameless sea,
The dooms beyond the dooms.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Zombie Survival Guide, a review

The next time a Class 2 zombie outbreak occurs in my neighborhood, I’ll be well-prepared to deal with the shambling corpses of hungry undead now that I’ve read Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.

The Zombie Survival Guide dispels exaggerated myths and legends of the undead and instead presents the reader with unvarnished “truths” about zombies. You’ll find information on zombies’ physical strength, sight, hearing, and rate of decay, and the pros and cons of various weaponry for battling the undead (everything from medieval maces and claymores, to M-16s and flamethrowers). It describes various scenarios for identifying early signs of localized (Class 1) outbreaks, to full-blown widespread undead infestation (Class 3). You’ll find best practices for battling zombies in urban settings, in harsh desert and swamp environments, even under the sea. The Zombie Survival Guide tells you how to defend your home by stocking up with key food and supplies, moving to your second floor and destroying all staircases (recommended for Class 2), or how to survive on the run as you move to the most remote and therefore safest parts of the planet in a world-wide zombie apocalypse in which mankind is overrun (Class 4). The best vehicle should an outbreak occur? You might not guess it, but it’s a bicycle. On a bike you can easily outrun the slow, slouching pace of zombies, it will never run out of gas, you can carry a bicycle over rough terrain, and you can maneuver a bike through the inevitable traffic jams that accompany a full-on panic. Motorcycles are very good too, though their noise attracts the undead. Boats are also a secure means of travel, says Brooks, but watch your anchor line—zombies walking on the ocean floor can use it to climb up to your boat. “Hundreds” of hapless victims have died this way, Brooks tells us.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Last Call by Tim Powers, a review

Scott Crane abandoned his career as a professional poker player twenty years ago and hasn’t returned to Las Vegas, or held a hand of cards, in ten years. But troubling nightmares about a strange poker game he once attended on a houseboat on Lake Mead are drawing him back to the magical city. For the mythic game he believed he won did not end that night in 1969—and the price of his winnings was his soul. Now, a pot far more strange and perilous than he ever could imagine depends on the turning of a card. Enchantingly dark and compellingly real, this World Fantasy Award–winning novel is a masterpiece of magic realism set in the gritty, dazzling underworld known as Las Vegas. 

Tim Powers’ Last Call (1992 William Morrow and Co.; 2010 Blackstone Audio, Inc.) is studded with references to old myths, snatches of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” the art of poker playing, and the unique culture and atmosphere of old and new Las Vegas. It contains numerous major and minor characters, overarching themes and subplots, and digressions into probability theory. In other words, it demands close reading and attention to detail. Listening to it in half-hour chunks as I did while driving to work was probably not the best idea, and may have affected my review of the book, but what follows is an honest appraisal.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Plethora of Howard Days Panels on Youtube

If you didn’t make it out to Cross Plains Texas for Robert E. Howard Days this past June (I didn’t, and have not yet made the trip, though it is on my bucket list), despair not: You can experience the panels, vicariously, through the magic of Youtube. Videographer Ben Friberg filmed several of the panels and generously posted them for up for public consumption. They’re all incredibly interesting and fun, if you like this sort of thing. Here’s a quick list of links.

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