Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Last night my friend Cliff's dad had a stroke. A major one. The prognosis is about as bad as it can be. Cliff is one of my absolute best friends in the world and I hate that this is happening to him and his family. My paternal grandfather died of a series of progressively more debilitating strokes, so I know the havoc they can wreak on a person, changing them until they're no longer who they were.
Anyway, as always in a situation like this, you wish you could do something to help, but of course you can't. Everyone is helpless in the face of something like this. I'm just mentioning it here because that's where my thoughts are. With my friend.

Monday, July 30, 2007

For Love and/or Money

One of my on-line friends was telling me about how he never reads media tie-in books. You know the kind. Novels about TV series, movies, games,etc. Buffy. Magic:The Gathering. Charmed. Star Trek, whatever version. Forgotten Realms. That kind of thing. He had noted that I read a lot of Conan pastiches, which he was comparing to the various media tie-ins referred to above.
I tried to explain the difference between a pastiche and a tie-in, and that sometimes one book can be both. A true pastiche is something written to approximate as closely as possible, the source material, and usually is written by someone who has a great affection for and considerable knowledge of that material. While that does occur in the world of media tie-ins, far more of the TV and game books are written as work for hire by professional ghost writers, usually for book packagers. A book packager is someone who contracts to do certain types of books for publishers and then draws from a stable of writers to get the work done. (This isn't the case for Wizards of the Coast, who have their own stable of writers.)
Since this came up because of Conan, I'll use Conan as an example.
Back in the 1960s, science fiction writer L. Sprague Decamp was introduced to Robert E. Howard's Conan by his friend and frequent collaborator, Fletcher Pratt. Pratt had been given a review copy of a new printing of Howard's only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. He hated it, but thought Decamp might enjoy it.
That turned out to be an understatement. Decamp loved it, and became a huge fan of Howard's work. Over the next few years, Decamp would write quite a few of his own Conan stories, usually in collaboration with Lin Carter, another REH fan. These stories would be used to fill in gaps between the original Howard stories and also to fill pages to make up a series of a dozen or so paperbacks. Thus the Decamp/Carter Conan stories were written for love and money. There's no doubt that Decamp did well financially from the series, but he also genuinely loved the character and wrote hundreds of pages of essays and articles for the REH fanzine Amra, gratis.
Conan proved a hot property for many years and numerous other writers worked on the series for various publishers. Quite a few of these writers also were Conan fans, including Poul Anderson, Andrew J. Oufitt, and Karl Edward Wagner. But the majority of the new Conan books (specifically the TOR line of books) were written by a group of very competent and professional writers who weren't really that interested in REH or in Conan. Robert Jordan in his pre-Wheel of Time days. John Maddox Roberts. Roland Green. Steve Perry. Now we're slipping into media tie-in land. Books written to fill a gap.
Not that all of them are bad. Jordan writes surprisingly action packed books for a guy later known for the glacial pace of his series. John Maddox Roberts, who writes excellent mystery novels set in ancient Rome brings his vast knowledge of history to his books. There's some good stuff in there but none of these books were written for love of the material. It's the equivalent of a television episode. Some good. Some bad. Few inspired.
It's the same in other franchises. I know that some Star Trek tie-in novels are written by die hard Star Trek fans. I'm sure the same is true in other series. But overall I can see why my friend avoids most media tie-ins. Much like Forest Gump's famous box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. However, there is considerable difference in something written purely for a pay day and something written for love of the material, even if one gets paid for the latter. Fan fiction that you get paid for is often labeled pastiche, but deep down it's still got heart.
The world was covered in fog when I stepped outside this morning. I like fog. It's one of those weather phenomenon that, like snow, makes the familiar into the unfamiliar. In a dense fog, things look indistinct and vaguely unreal somehow. Depending on ones frame of mind, it can be creepy or mysterious or kind of enchanted.
It always puts me in mind of a trip my family made to Fort Mountain when I was eight or nine. We would go there every fall, my parents, my grandparents, my father's brother and his family. See, we owned a Dairy Queen when I was a kid, one of the last surviving Dairy Queens that wasn't a Brazier store. We only sold ice cream, so we were only open seven months out of the year. We would close at the end of every October and open again come spring. And the week after we closed we would always have a picnic on Fort Mountain. The tradition was started a couple of years before I was born, so it was something we did throughout my childhood.
Fort Mountain state park is at the very northern tip of Georgia, almost in Tennessee. As a result, the weather was usually colder than it was back in Canton. Once it snowed while we were driving up and we had to turn back because the roads were getting dangerous. But the year I'm remembering, the weather was cool and damp, and a great bank of white clouds had settled on the mountain. As we drove up the winding road that led to the picnic grounds near the summit, we entered a hazy, white world where visibility was down to a few feet. We had to go slowly, because there were no railings to speak of on the twisty, narrow road and a long drop waited on the right hand side.
When we reached the picnic area, the fog was so dense that we couldn't see the wooden shelter where we usually picnicked, and had to walk carefully along the rocky, uneven ground until we found the shelter. We had brought firewood and my grandfather soon had a huge fire going in the massive stone fireplace that stood at one end of the structure. I always remember coming home from those trips smelling of wood smoke and autumn leaves.
My brother, my cousins, and I played amidst the clouds that day, running and yelling and doing the things kids do and it was somehow more cool than normal because of the eerie, glowing, white mist that covered the world.

Reading Report Redux

Well, as I noted, my reading habits are hard to predict. I didn't end up reading either of the books I had thought might come next. Instead I read A History of Private Life Volume One: From Ancient Rome to Byzantium, which is pretty much what it sounds like, and Dean and Me, which is Jerry Lewis's memoir of his ten year partnership with Dean Martin as the comedy team, Martin and Lewis.
I enjoyed both books. From the former I picked up many interesting tidbits about life in the Medieval world, and from the latter I learned quite a bit that I didn't know about both Martin and Lewis. I'm something of a fan of the Rat Pack, so I have accumulated quite a bit of knowledge about that period of Dean Martin's life, but my knowledge of the early part of his career was limited to what I'd seen on an episode of A&E's Biography. Dean and Me gives all the back story of both men's early careers literally from the day they met by chance and were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Fascinating stuff.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Flat and Well Lighted Place

Everyone has their favorite place to read. For some people it's a chair or in bed. Me, I tend to stretch out on the floor on my stomach with the book spread in front of me. This is how I do most of my reading, though I occasionally sit on the couch or lie on my back in bed for reading. I've always been kind of a floor person. At parties and family gatherings, when seating is always at a premium, I never mind sitting cross legged on the floor. Part of this may be my couple of decades in martial arts. You spend a lot of time in class and at seminars sitting on the floor. But I suspect it's mostly just personal preference. I often sit on the floor with my back against the couch when I watch TV or play video games. In fact I mostly bought my couch for the comfort of visitors. I'm usually at my desk or in the floor.
But for reading, I definitely prefer the floor position. Even when researching, I can spread a bunch of books within reach and switch back and forth, sliding one book into the place of another. Maybe if I had a bigger desk I might do more of my research work sitting up. But I doubt it.
As a final note, whenever the phone rings or I need to get up quickly I do so in one of two ways. I either do a push-up and bring my leg up to my chest so that I can stand straight up, or I roll to my back and come up in the ju-jitsu base position, which is the best way to get up in a fight. Old habits die hard.
Important safety tip. Don't forget to spray the frying pan with PAM before coking scrambled eggs. Bad. Definitely, definitely bad.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Reading Report

Having finished up Poul Anderson's The Golden Horn, I decided to move on to Anderson's single Conan pastiche, Conan the Rebel. I've had this one for a while but never gotten around to reading it. Rebel is a lot of fun as a sword & sorcery novel, but Anderson has little understanding of the character of Conan. Like most writers attempting to follow Robert E. Howard, Anderson doesn't seem to quite 'get' Conan. Anderson's take on the character is more like one of his Viking heroes. A rough and ready man of action to be sure, but not the volatile, unpredictable Conan, especially since this book takes place when Conan is barely twenty. Read Rogues in the House or The God in the Bowl for an idea of what the big Cimmerian was like in his early days in civilization.
Still, the story is good and the jungle scenes well realized. Anderson has a real talent for descriptions of nature. His battle scenes are first rate and his vast knowledge of history is put to good use in his descriptive passages about ancient cities, ships, towns, and such. Conan the Rebel is certainly worth reading. It's just not really about Robert E. Howard's Conan.
After that I read James Patterson's Third Degree, which is one of his Women's Murder Club series. Unlike the Alex Cross books, which I read mostly to see what all the hubbub was about, I actually ended up liking the WMC books. The primary protagonist, San Francisco homicide detective Lindsay Boxer is a much more believable character than FBI agent Cross. The plots are more down to earth as well, usually centering on serial killings, where Cross has lately come up against what I can only describe as super villains.
In fact, I was thinking last night that Patterson and his legion of ghost writers would have been very comfortable in the days of the pulp magazines. The Alex Cross books remind me of Norvell Page's Spider pulps in many ways. Cross often comes up against world threatening menaces like The Wolf, who threatened to destroy and entire American city, or the vampire brothers who used a tiger as a murder weapon. Most of his villains have names like The Story Teller or the Weasel or the Three Blind Mice. They often enjoy murder and mutilation with a zest that would do the old Nick Carter villain, Doctor Quartz proud. Very over the top stuff.
Anyway, Third Degree is the last of the Women's Murder Club books written with Andrew Gross. Gross has gone on to write his own suspense novels and Patterson's collaborator on the next three books in the series is Maxine Paetro. I've read two of the latter ones and I prefer the Paetro books to those written with Gross.
At the moment, I'm reading Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, which is Crichton's take on Beowulf. It's also the basis for the Antonio Banderas movie, The 13th Warrior. Basically it's the story of a Muslim ambassador who, through a series of coincidences, ends up accompanying a group of Norsemen to save a Norse village from what appear to be a tribe of savage monsters. I enjoyed the movie and I'm having fun with the book. I'd bought it a while back and noticed it on the shelf last night when I was culling some paperbacks. Decided to read it on the spot.
In a lot of ways, the structure of the book reminds me on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Crichton includes a long introduction in which he explains that he is not the author of the book, but rather the translator and editor of an existing historical test. Burroughs included such introductions in most of his books about Mars, Venus, and Pellucidar. Thing is, Crichton is only partially kidding. The narrator, one Ibn Fadlan, is a real historical figure and did write an account of his travels. He gives one of the earliest first hand accounts of the Norsemen in the eastern world. The first three chapters of Eaters are more or less a transcription from Fadlan's memoir. After that it's all Crichton, though he continues to supply scholarly footnotes all the way through the book. He even winks at informed readers with a 'quote' from that famous Arab, Abdul Alhazred.
Next up is probably Robert B. Parker's Spare Change or Obsession by Jonathan Kellerman, but you never know. My reading is not only eclectic, but mercurial.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thongor Finale

Thongor rushed into the midst of the AUS (arachnids of unusual size) hewing about like a mad man. Hairy legs and gouts of greenish yellow ichors flew left and right.
"Want me to leave one for you, Priest?" Thongor called, thoughtfully.
"No, I'm good," said Priest, not wishing to deprive his burly buddy of the enjoyment of spider slaying.
Etheria, perched behind Zolthang's throne, said, "Gee, those things aren't even slowing them down."
"Obviously this isn't the first time that one has dealt with giant spiders," said Zolthang.
"Well duh, Einstein," said Etheria. "He's a barbarian. They eat giant spiders for breakfast. You need some new material, Mr. I want to be a dark lord."
"Oh sure, and I suppose you think shaking your bad-girl booty at them will stop them. It's your answer to everything else."
"It got them here, didn't it? You think you're so smart."
"Now now," said Priest, who had used the argument to inch closer to Zolthang and Etheria, "Can't we all just get along?"
Zolthang raised his hands dramatically, preparing to hurl a mystic bolt at Priest. Priest, quicker on the draw, raised the ornately carved chair he'd picked up on the way across the study and broke it over Zolthang's head.
"Um, he made me do it," Etheria said, pointing at the fallen sorcerer. "You're not going to hit me with that chair are you?"
Priest grinned, "No, I was thinking a spanking was more in line for you."
"Well now," said Etheria, twirling her emerald amulet. "Why don't we go to my room and discuss it."
Several minutes later, having reduced the giant spiders to small bits, Thongor looked up from the carnage, only to find Priest gone and Zolthang stretched senseless of the floor.
"Ha!" said Thongor. "One again barbarism has triumphed over decadent civilization. Um...where did everybody go? Preist? Priest!? Now where did he get to?"

The End

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Last Viking

I spent part of the weekend wandering the streets of Constantinople. (Not Istanbul.) As some of you may recall from earlier posts, I've recently been studying the Byzantine Empire. This came to pass because of a chance discovery that Vikings, or more correctly, Norsemen, had served as bodyguards to the emperors in Constantinople during the 10th and 11th centuries. I've been thinking of writing some fiction set in that time, so I've continued to brush up on my knowledge.
Thing is, though I've now consumed mass quantities of reference books, I'd been hoping to find some fiction set in the Byzantine Empire in the proper time period and not having much luck. I tried Stephen Lawhead's book, Byzantium, but couldn't get past the first few chapters. Ditto with a mystery set in Constantinople in roughly the right era.
This weekend though, I hit pay dirt. Quite by accident I discovered that no less a science fiction legend than Poul Anderson had written a three volume historical series about Harald the Ruthless, one of the most famous of the Viking kings. From some of my other reading, I knew that Harald had spent several years in Constantinople, serving in the Varangian Guard, the elite bodyguards to the emperor. The Golden Horn, which is the first volume in Anderson's 'Last Viking' trilogy, covers Harald's time in Byzantium. My copy arrived in the mail this week.
This is a really fun book, filled with all the things one could want from a historical novel. Anderson manages to bring the time and place to life. It was exactly what I needed to crystallize the era. Sometimes a good piece of fiction can do that. Combined with all my research, The Golden Horn has helped to fix 11th century Constantinople in my mind. And of course, it's a rollicking good adventure yarn too, full of battles, journeys, romance, and the ring of swords on shield and helm.
Harald left Constantinople a few years before my story idea would take place. He returned to his homeland and became the king of Norway. Oddly enough, he was killed in a minor battle in England in 1066, just a few weeks before the more famous history changing events of that year would occur.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

So long, Herc

Looking back through my blog I see that I started watching Hercules:The Legendary Journeys back in February. This evening I watched the last episode of the series, Full Circle. I've compressed six seasons of the series into six months, watching one episode most nights and sometimes two or three over a weekend. That was broken up by two seasons of Xena:Warrior Princess, but for the most part I've spent half a year in the company of the son of Zeus. I've had a lot of fun with the series and I'm a little sad to have reached the end. The good thing is, since I own them all on DVD, I can just wait about a year and then watch them again. And of course I still have four seasons of Xena left, though I think I'll take a break from ancient Greece for a bit.
The main thing that I liked about Hercules was that he always tried to do the right thing. He was a good role model and I think overall the show had a positive message for kids and for adults who think like kids. Anyway, as I said, I'm kind of sorry to see the big guy go.
A funny side note from the wrap party. When asked to do the Hercules series, producer Rob Tapert asked if he could do Conan instead. The rights weren't available then. Probably just as well.

And Part Four

"Treacherous slut!" spat Thongor. He felt a little bad using the word slut since he generally avoided profanity, but that was what you called women who betrayed you in a sword & sorcery story. Men were treacherous dogs. In fact, dog was a good all purpose expletive for bad guys, usually with an adjective in front of it. Cringing dog. Lying dog. Thongor reminded himself to add that to his guidebook.
"Sorry boys," Etheria said, slinking across the room. "A girl's got to look out for herself."
"But why?" said Priest, enjoying Etheria's sinuous slinking despite the danger of imminent death.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Zolthang.
"Well, no," Thongor said. "Maybe if we'd fought you before and you were like, our arch enemy or something. But being this is our first confrontation, you'd better to the exposition speech thing."
"Hmmm. All right. but no inching forward to attack me while I'm talking."
"Dang," said Thongor. That was precisely what he'd been planning.
"As you of all people know, Thongor, there's no real market for old fashioned sword & sorcery stories these days. Oh sure, Del Rey is reprinting Robert E. Howard's stuff, but no publishers are interested in new stories about barbarians and evil sorcerers of my type. Everybody wants Lord of the Rings clones. Epic quests with elves and dwarves and dark lords and such."
Thongor said, "True enough. I still don't see where Priest and I come in."
"It's quite simple. I'm looking for a career change. I want to become a dark lord. I want to brush the dust of this two-bit Conan knock-off world off my feet and start threatening an entire world. Just think of it. I could lose these stupid robes and become a disembodied force of pure evil!"
"Um, sure. But again. Why us?"
"You boys are really dense aren't you? And stop that inching forward, Thongor. You two are from a yahoo group that opens up into other worlds, Plus you've got that dimension hopping couch. You're my ticket out of here to the big time."
"You're mad!" said Priest, mostly because he hadn't had any dialog for several paragraphs.
"Cliche, but true," said Thongor. "If you think we'll help you get out of this world and become an even bigger menace, then all your dogs aren't barking."
"Oh really? Well perhaps THIS will change your mind."
Zolthang gestured hypnotically and a stone doorway grated open in the ceiling. Three huge spiders came scrambling down a strand of webbing as thick as a man's arm. The spiders mandibles made horrible clicking sounds and green ichor dripped from their gaping maws.
"Finally!" cried Thongor.

Thongor: Part Three

Priest and Thongor dutifully followed Etheria to the far side of the tower. A tall wooden door was set in a frame of brass. Strange runes were carved upon the frame and on the stone that surrounded it.
"Stand back," said Thongor, drawing his sword, "And I shall hew this portal down."
"Maybe it's unlocked," said Priest, reasonably.
Thongor rolled his eyes. "Priest, you have to get into the whole barbarian mindset. We don't unlock. We hew."
"Is this stuff written down anywhere?"
"Hmmm, no. But now that you mention it, I've been thinking of writing a guidebook. Thongor's Guide to Better Barbarism. What do you think?"
"I was thinking Barbarians for Dummies in your case."
"That's good too. Now get back. There's hewing to be done."
Fifteen minutes later the door was sufficiently hewed for the trio to enter the tower. Not surprisingly, a narrow flight of stairs coiled up the inner wall of the structure. The interior of the tower was mantled in Stygian darkness, lit only by the flames of torches that guttered in iron sconces set deep in the stone.
Thongor said, "He'll be in the uppermost chamber. They always are. I'll go first. Better draw your sword, Priest. We always stalk, sword in hand, into the lair of our foes."
"Good idea," said Priest. "Etheria, you follow Thongor. I'll bring up your..er..the rear."
Slowly the trio mounted the stairs. They wound there way around and around, moving ever higher into the sorcerer's tower. They passed only one window, high in the structure. The dim lights of the city flickered far below.
"I think I can see my house from here," said Priest.
"Shhhh," Thongor said. "The entrance to the sorcerer's chamber is just ahead."
"How can you be sure?" whispered Priest.
"There's a sign on the door that says, The Sorcerer is In," said Thongor.
Priest said, "You're not going to hew that door down too, are you?"
"No, I'm going to kick this one down with one mighty blow and rush into the room, sword at the ready."
"Okay. Good."
Thongor kicked the door to the sorcerer's chamber down with one mighty blow and rushed into the room, sword at the ready. He found himself in a circular room. Torches threw back reflections from a highly polished floor. The walls were adorned in rich tapestries of dark velvet. All around could be seem the tools of the sorcerer's trade. One long table held dozens of glass beakers and retorts. The dead eyes of a mummy leered from a golden sarcophagus that leaned against one wall. At the back of the chamber stood a high backed throne and upon it sat a man clad in robes so deeply crimson that they were almost black. The man stood and appraised the intruders with dark eyes.
"Good work, Etheria. You've brought the men I've been seeking."
"Uh oh," said Priest.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Odd Thomas

A decade or so ago I read Dean Koontz book Watchers and really enjoyed it. I followed that one up with Lightning which I liked even more. All told I probably read about a dozen of his books, including Cold Fire, The face of Fear, and Shadowfires, but after a while I found that the books had a sameness to them that eventually caused me to stop reading them. They also were very long and tended to spend more time than I liked on character back story. I know that makes some readers feel as if they "know" the character, but for me, it just slows a narrative down. (Laura always says I'm not interested in deep characterization. I think she's right.)
Anyway, Wednesday afternoon I was looking over the paperbacks at the grocery store and spotted a book by Koontz called Odd Thomas. Put me to remembering the days when I really liked his books. I thought, "You know, I wish Koontz would write something in a first person point of view. It would probably eliminate the whole back story thing because he would only be writing from the pov of one character and wouldn't feel the need to spend pages and pages on the history of every freaking character in the book."
I picked up the book and flipped through it and low and behold it was in first person viewpoint. Well, says I, doubtlessly I was meant to buy this book. When you make a wish and it is granted on the spot, you shouldn't tempt the fates. So I bought Odd Thomas.
I started it last night and was still sitting up past midnight reading. It's great. Has all the stuff I used to like about Koontz without the slow parts. I also like the narrator a lot. Odd Thomas is indeed odd. Like the little boy in the Sixth Sense, Thomas sees dead people. he also sees otherworldly demonic spirits who always arrive as harbingers of violence and tragedy. Thomas gets involved with spirits who can't move on, usually helping to solve their murders. He's friends with the local police chief who knows about Thomas's strange powers and follows up on the kid's weird hunches. In some ways it's almost a superhero story. Like Baron and Rude's Nexus, Thomas is driven to find justice for people who have met death at the hands of murderers.
This time, though, Thomas may be up against something else. I'm halfway through the book and a record number of the shadowy harbingers have arrived in our world, indicating that there may soon be a violent incident of biblical proportions. And what about the stranger in town who has a room in his dilapidated old house that seems to be a doorway to another dimension. And why is the spirit of Elvis Presley hanging around? I'm having a lot of fun with this book. There are already two sequels to Odd Thomas in print and a fourth volume is promised. Hope the others are as much fun as this one. And welcome back, Dean.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Flickering Images

I mentioned the old Canton Movie Theater in my last post and it set me to thinking about movies in general. We went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. It was something my parents could afford and it was something we did as a family, mom, dad, my brother, and me. There were two places to see movies in Canton in the 1960s and early 1970s. The theater in down town Canton, or Howell's Drive-In over in South Canton.
The drive-in theater seemed to be the place for spy movies. That's where I remember seeing some of the early James Bond movies, as well as Bond knock offs and spoofs like the two James Coburn Flint movies (which I still love) and the Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin.
The down town theater was an old style movie house with a balcony and slightly art deco furnishings. It had round windows on the stairwell and in the bathrooms. It was probably much smaller than I remember. It got all the 'A' movies. I remember seeing The Poseidon Adventure there and I know they had most of the mainstream movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Exorcist, and such. On Saturdays they would have special showings of Disney movies and other kid films all day long. I saw Robin Hood, the Sword in the Stone, Blackbeard's Ghost, The Love Bug, and re-releases of Song of the South, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.
The theater is also where I saw most of the later Tarzan films such as Tarzan in India and Tarzan and the City of Gold. My favorite memory of the old theater though, remains seeing The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. It's still my favorite Ray Harryhausen film. That came out in 1973, right at the point of my burgeoning interest in all things sword & sorcery. I absolutely loved that movie and it's the Harryhausen film I've seen the most times. (Jason and the Argonauts is a close second.)
Sadly, that was also close to the end of the run for the Canton theater. I suppose competition from bigger theaters like those popping up at malls in Roswell, Smyrna, and Marietta finally shut the old theater down. Like many other small towns, the downtown area suffered with the influx of new highways, malls, and superstores like Wal-Mart. The Theater gave up the ghost in the mid 70s. Someone tried to reopen the place in the early 1980s. I went to see some Chuck Norris film there and the film broke halfway through and they had to give everyone's money back. Not long after, the theater closed its doors.
It sat vacant for many years, but it has recently been refurbished an reopened as a venue for live theater. I haven't been inside. I probably won't. I'd rather remember it as it was.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Centennial Celebration

My Aunt Eula is 100 years old today. She was born in 1907. She also still lives alone in her own apartment and gets around just fine and her mental faculties are still sharp. Kind of amazing really. Anyway, because people don't turn 100 every day and because I am fond of her, I am suspending my usual policy of avoiding all large family get-togethers and I'll be attending her Birthday Party this evening. I don't plan to stay long. I just can't handle all the reminiscing and I'm somewhat anti-social anyway. But I'll put in an appearance and see her because I owe it to her.
When I was a kid my Aunt Eula was the aunt who always gave me drawing pads and construction paper and scissors and glue and the kind of stuff that I could use to make things. She understood that was what I liked. When my parents were out of town, she was the aunt my brother and I went to stay with. She loved having us. She always took us to the movies. Aunt Eula loved John Wayne and we saw True Grit and The Cowboys in the old Theater in downtown Canton where I also saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the original Batman movie with Adam West.
Most amazingly, and constant readers of this blog will realize what a big deal this is, it was my Aunt Eula who introduced me to Conan. In an earlier post I talked about how I discovered Conan through the pages of Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian comic book. Well it was Aunt Eula who gave me that comic. Now keep in mind, she didn't, and doesn't, know zip about Conan. She just knew I liked comics so she picked 10 at random and gave them to me one Christmas. But in that bunch was not only Conan, but an issue of Marvel's Greatest Comics, which gave me my first look at Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four work. Also my first ever issues of Spiderman, Marvel Team-Up, Captain America, Fantastic Four and The Avengers. I had never read any Marvel Comics until that Christmas.
I think we always remember the people who were good to us when we were children. Who genuinely enjoyed having us around. That's my aunt in spades. So Happy Hundredth Birthday, Aunt Eula. And thanks for the comics and the good memories.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Seeing Red

Red Sonja Properties and Paradox entertainment are arguing over the rights to the character of Red Sonja. For the uninformed, Red Sonja, she of the scarlet tresses, the chain mail bikini, and the enormous tracts of land, wasn't created by Conan's dad, Robert E. Howard. Howard had a minor character named Red Sonya with a 'Y', in a single story 'The Shadow of the Vulture'. Marvel comics writer Roy Thomas took the bare bones of that character and created the better known Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a Sword.
Now, Paradox who owns the copyrights to the Robert E. Howard stories and thus to Sonya with a Y, and Red Sonja LLC who own the copyrights to Red Sonja with a J, are throwing about charges of copyright infringement, lapsed rights, and Crom knows what else.
It's all about the Benjamins baby, and frankly I find it a more than a little sickening to see two groups who had ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with the creation of EITHER character whining and screaming about "their" rights to "their" characters. Both companies are making a living off characters created by other people, one of whom is dead and the other of whom isn't making anything from the profits being raked in with his creation. Work for hire and all that. In Conan terms I see it as two dogs scrabbling in the dust for scraps left by their betters.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Free At Last

Because of some weird paperwork stuff with my truck loan I ended up making the last payment today, three weeks early. Since that happened I just decided to go ahead and finish off my other loan as well. And just like that, I'm out of debt. I had begun to write a lengthy post, explaining how I had incurred the debt in the first place, but you know, it doesn't really matter, and I'm tired of talking about it. I've spent the last three years scrimping and budgeting and often doing without. Now I'm done.
A bit past the midpoint of 2007 and I've accomplished my two major goals. I've lost more than 50 pounds and I don't owe anyone anything. No more loan. No more truck payment. I've got a clean slate here.
It's kind of a freeing feeling. I could move to a nicer apartment if I wanted. I could make a major electronics purchase without worrying. I can make impulse buys of books and such. I can actually take a decent vacation trip. A little more money opens up a lot of possibilities.
Don't worry. I'm not going on a spending spree. Mostly I plan to save the extra money. But it's nice to know that I'm not living as close to the edge as I have been for the past three years.

School Daze

For some reason I dreamed I was back in high school this morning. I know this is a classic stereotype dream, but it's not one I have very often. I rarely, if ever, think of high school and can count the number of times I've dreamed about it on one hand and still have fingers left over.
Anyway, in the dream I was sitting in English class, drawing when I was supposed to be doing some assignment. The teacher came by and asked why I wasn't doing the work and I told her because it was stupid and pointless. Somewhat irritated, the teacher asked how I'd like to fail the class. I told her I'd be fine with that since I only needed one class to graduate and it didn't have to be hers.
Now this scene really happened but it was in a different class and with a different teacher and under different circumstances. When I was in high school, Cherokee County allowed students to graduate in three years instead of four. You could get enough class credit in three years if you didn't have any extra curricular stuff. Without really meaning to, I had accumulated all but one class by the time I left my junior year, so I only attended half of my senior year and I only had to pass one of my six classes to graduate. Four of those classes were art classes and two were English. Can you say cake walk?
But my drama class teacher was a first year teacher with a bad attitude and she didn't much like my tendency to be class clown. One day when I had smarted off once too often to suit her she asked me how I'd like a failing grade in her class. I pointed out that I currently had like a 98 average in the class, but told her if she wanted to fail me that was fine because I was sure to pass my other five classes and I only needed to pass one of them. That didn't make her too happy but eventually it all blew over. I passed the class and all. I find it funny that the scene popped up in a dream all these years later, in a somewhat altered form.
But wait, there's still a punch line. I mentioned in a previous post that I often have lucid dreams. This didn't start out as one, but as soon as I told the teacher that I didn't have to pass her class, I suddenly thought, "Wait a minute. I already graduated high school. This is a dream." At that point I became completely lucid and got up and left the class room. I woke up soon after, laughing as I rolled over to look at the clock. Sometimes I think my sub conscious just likes to mess with me.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Saturday at the Bookstores

Trish is out of town, but just for the weekend, so rather than haul her two cats up to my place for such a short visit, I said I'd just swing by and check on them today. That way they don't get too lonesome. I took advantage of being in that part of Marietta and stopped by a couple of used bookstores. I had good luck at both.
Book Nook Marietta does a brisk business in trading used books so its worthwhile to stop by there once a month or so. I almost always find something nifty. I was hoping to get either of the second two volumes in Poul Anderson's Last Viking trilogy, and though I didn't find either, I did get War of the Gods, which is another Viking saga by Anderson, and a collection of his short fantasy work that included his classic essay, 'On Thud and Blunder' which anyone trying to write heroic fantasy ought to read.
Then I visited Rowan's, which is a strange little store that sells used and remaindered books, DVDs and CDs. I don't usually find much there but they have some sort of odd deal which allows them to get mass quantities of Book Club editions of current best sellers, so often you can pick up a hardback book that's still on the chain store shelves at full $26.00 price for five bucks. I bought Jonathan Kellerman's new one, Obsession.
But the real find of the day was a used copy of Colin Well's 'Sailing From Byzantium', the hardback of which sells for $25.00 and the paperback for $14.00. My cost for a used hardback that looks brand new? Seven bucks. Gotta love it. This is yet another Byzantine Empire history book that I'd been wanting.
Loaded down with new books I made my way to Trish's condo. Amelia was pleased enough to see me to allow her head to be rubbed a bit before going off to Trish's bedroom to ignore me. Bruce was thrilled though and happily went to sleep on my back as I lay on my stomach reading. Eventually he woke up and went dashing about the house, which I took as my cue to leave. I never mind checking on the cats when Trish is away. I can sit and read at her place just as easily as I can sit and read at mine.

Apocalypto Now

Watched Mel Gibson's Apocalypto last night. The first twenty minutes kick ass, then the next half an hour or so is slow slow slow, then the film revs back up for the end. The movie follows the adventures of the jungle tribesman, Jaguar Paw, as he is captured by cruel Mayans and taken back to their city to have his living heart sacrificed to their god. Jaguar Paw escapes and a suspenseful chase ensues through the jungles. Like Mel's Jesus movie, this one has subtitles over an obscure language. Years of watching Japanese Samurai films have given me an immunity to sub titles so that slid right by, though I know some folks hate subtitles.
The middle part, the slow part, is mostly Mel trying to show just how cruel the Mayans are. Image after image of the Mayans being cruel. Okay, Mel. I get it. They're cruel. Move on. Reminds me of some stuff in Braveheart and Passion of the Christ. Cruelty must be a theme of Mel's or something.
The third part is very intense. Jaguar Paw is portrayed as a capable man, though not really an action hero. He barely survives the menaces he runs into and he's obviously afraid of his pursuers.
The production values are absolutely amazing. The Mayan city is fully realized. The costumes are wonderfully authentic. The scenery is great. This is a beautiful film.
It's also EXTREMELY violent and bloody so if that sort of thing bothers you, be warned. Not one to watch with the kiddies.
Of course the whole time I was watching it, I was thinking, 'This is what a Conan film should look like.' Not some overblown fantasy film that looks like it was shot on left over Star Wars sets, but something that looks historical and gritty. In fact, an adaptation of Red Nails could be filmed in a style very close to this, since the culture in that one is very much modeled on Mayan/Aztec culture. I'd even be okay with Mel directing. After all, Olmec, Tascela, and the other inhabitants of Xuchotl are really cruel. Mel would love it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Get the Skinny

Yesterday at work we had an ice cream party to thank everyone for working overtime and other 'over and above' stuff. Things have been a bit hectic. Since I'm still trying to lose one more inch off my waist I planned to abstain. But the nice human resources lady said, "Oh no, we got you Skinny Cow."
I had no idea what she was talking about until she produced a package of Skinny Cow Ice Cream Sandwiches. They're 97% fat free and only have 140 calories. Well within my dietary limits. And they're darn tasty. Had I not been told they were low fat I'd never have known. I plan to get some for home. Those would be good for my weight loss plan and for maintenance.
Anyway, I thought that was a nice gesture, since the folks at work have noted how I've turned down Birthday Cake, cookies, candy, biscuits, etc since the first of the year. They picked up the low fat ice cream just for me.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Simpson's Avatar

Well everyone else was getting one. Go to the Simpson's Movie site to create your own Simpson's version of yourself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


"The sorcerer's abode is just down this street," the woman said, leading Priest and Thongor out of the tavern and into the streets of Sharrazar the Naughty, one of the most dangerous cities in the Hibernation Age.
"It's a tower, isn't it?" Thongor said.
The ebon tressed woman said, "Why yes, you can see it there beyond the city square. However did you know?"
Thongor's gaze shifted from the wench's shapely backside to a narrow edifice of stone that thrust up against the night sky, blotting out the stars. He said, "Sorcerer's have a thing about towers. I think it's Freudian or something."
"Um...yes," the woman said. "My name is Etheria by the way. My sister Bunny and I came to the city looking for work to support our aged and unwell parents. We had planned to be shop apprentices or the like, but we ended up working as exotic dancers down at the Willing Mermaid."
"How did you get mixed up with Zolthang?" Thongor said, hoping to move the exposition along.
"Oh he was one of Bunny's regulars. Came in every Saturday night. Seemed nice enough for a trafficker in the dark arts. Gave Bunny some nice tips, let me tell you. But apparently he'd decided it was time to take their relationship beyond the lap dance stage. Tonight he turned all the bouncers into salamanders and carried Bunny off to his tower."
Priest said, "Salamanders?"
"Yes, they were really icky," said Etheria.
"Psst, Thongor," whispered Priest, "I don't want to end up a salamander."
Thongor said, "Don't worry. The spiders will probably eat you before Zolthang can turn you into anything unnatural."
"Dude, you are obsessed with spiders."
"I'm a barbarian. It's what I do."
They made their way through the winding streets to the base of Zolthang's tower. Thongor whistled as he gazed up at the sheer walls of the structure. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then turning to Etheria he said, "You know, I was just thinking. You said you were at the Willing Mermaid when Zolthang snatched your sister. That place is usually crawling with barbarian heroes. Blazing blue eyes. Square cut black manes. The whole nine yards. I mean guys that would be frothing at the mouth to attack a sorcerer in his tower. Why didn't you enlist one of those guys to save your sister?"
Etheria's slender white hand went to a glowing green pendant that was nestled charmingly in her cleavage. She turned the pendant slowly, so that the emerald light played across Thongor and Priest.
"Why, all of them were frightened away when they saw the bouncers transformed into salamanders," said Etheria.
"Of course," said Thongor. "Who wouldn't be?"
"These aren't the droids we're looking for," said Priest.
"Now," said Etheria, "Shouldn't we be trying to get into the tower and save my poor sister? I think the entrance is around on the other side."
Thongor shook himself as if waking from a deep sleep. "Right! Let's get to the rescuing!"
"And to the rewarding!" added Priest.

The Metatemporal Detective

This is the cover for the upcoming collection of Michael Moorcock's stories of Sir Seaton Begg, the Metatemporal Detective, posted here by permission of the artist, John Picacio. Thanks, John! The albino featured on the cover is, of course, Sir Seaton's arch enemy, Monsieur Zodiac.
Sir Seaton is often referred to as Mike's (Moorcock prefers Mike) Sherlock Holmes analog, but he is more closely modeled after another Victorian/Edwardian detective, Sexton Blake. Virtually unknown in the US, Blake was once arguably the most popular fictional detective in the UK. He appeared in literally hundreds of magazine stories and later in books, games, comics, movies, a radio program, and a television series. Blake shared many of Holmes' characteristics, right down to a Baker Street address, but he was much more a man of action, constantly getting mixed up in gun battles, fist fights, and as the series moved forward in time, car chases and the like. Blake was published right up into the 1960s when he became more of a Philip Marlowe style private eye, but his heyday was probably the early 1920s when he battled super criminals who wouldn't have been out of place in a Doc Savage novel. Blake's arch nemesis was Monsieur Zenith, an albino master criminal who favored black tie and tails. (Zenith was also a major influence in the creation of a certain albino who favors a black sword that eats people's souls.)
Seaton Begg is a part of the illustrious Begg/Bek/Von Bek family, whose members appear in various volumes of Mike's Eternal Champion saga including The Warhound and the World's Pain, The City in the Autumn Stars, The Dragon in the Sword, and in the most recent Elric trilogy which begins with The Dream Thief's Daughter.
Like Blake, Begg begins as a late Victorian detective but his adventures wander quickly off into Mike's Multiverse and he solves mysteries and fights menaces in various times and alternate realities. In fact, given the nature of the Multiverse, all the Seaton Begg stories may not be about exactly the same man, but instead about various version of Begg in various alternate dimensions and times. Thus he is the Metatemporal detective.
Likewise, all the versions of Monsieur Zodiac may or may not be the same man. A couple of them might even be Elric, who used the alias of Zodiac when he was trapped in our own reality for several centuries. See how confusing all this Multiverse stuff gets. Anyway, the book's due in October, and should contain all the various Seaton Begg short stories, plus new material from Mike. I can't wait

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Short and Sweet

This weekend I'm reading more of the Collected Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith. Read 'Return of the Sorcerer' last night which is a Cthulhu mythos tale, complete with an appearance by the dread Necronomicon.
Also re-read 'Escape on Mars' which is the third novella of four which make up Llana of Gathol, a late entry into Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series. The indestructible John Carter finally gets the lost Llana back to Gathol, only to find the city under siege by an army of enemies. What's a Warlord to do but swing into action?
Oh, and 'The House of Arabu' which is one of my favorites of Robert E. Howard's non series tales.
This is turning into a major short story/novella weekend here at the Rutledge home.

Friday, July 06, 2007

First Impressions

Someone at the Robert E. Howard Comics Yahoo Group asked about everyone's first exposure to Robert E. Howard's actual prose. I started to reply but of course ended up writing another mini essay, so I decided just to put it up here at Singular Points. I've added a couple of bits of info for people who actually know me to this version.

My first exposure to Robert E. Howard was the Marvel Conan Comic but my first reading of Howard's prose is a bit more complicated. I discovered Conan in 1973 when I was eleven years old. I read several issues of the comics before I noticed the "adapted from" notes in the credit blurbs, so I didn't immediately know that Conan was a character who appeared in books. Of course once I figured it out, already being a bookworm and now being obsessed with Conan, I wanted those books.
But I lived in a small town in Georgia (Canton) and it had only a tiny library and no bookstores, new or used. My only chance was the occasional weekend trip to the closest shopping mall which was an hour away, near Atlanta. (Cumberland Mall, which in those pre Hwy 575 days was a long haul.) And of course once I finally nagged my parents into taking me to the mall, there were no Conan books to be had. Not only that, but no one at the bookstore had any idea what I was talking about. The books were out of print, though at eleven I don't think I'd have known what that meant, even if the clerks at B. Dalton or Waldenbooks could have given me that information. (I also didn't know that Lancer Books, the original publishers of the Conan paperbacks, had gone bankrupt and that the rights to the series were tied up in a legal mess.) All I knew was that I couldn't get my hands on the original Conan stories. I ended up with Lin Carter's Thongor and the Dragon City, and Fritz Lieber's Swords Against Wizardry. Not bad as consolation prizes but no REH and no Conan.
Jump forward a couple of years. My local library had a small paperback trade rack. You could bring a book in and take a book out on the honor system. It was mostly full of romance paperbacks, but occasionally I'd find a science fiction book I wanted. My mom was an avid reader, so I always had paperbacks to trade. I was scanning the rack and suddenly spotted the word CONAN. I snatched the book up. It was the Lancer edition of Conan the Freebooter. The cover was torn, the spine was broken, and the pages were loose, but it was an honest to gosh Conan book. Finally, I had found one. I took it home and scanned the contents. I liked the title "A Witch Shall be Born" so that was the first story I read. That was my first Robert E. Howard prose. The funny thing is, I didn't like it much. I think I was a little young for Howard's unfiltered dark imaginings. Edgar Rice Burroughs was more my speed. Later of course that would change.
Oddly enough, the first new Conan book I ever owned was a British Sphere paperback of Conan the Wanderer. While the rights to publish the Conan books were still tied up here in the US, Sphere was allowed to reprint the Lancer Conans in the UK and some of them were shipped over here and sold at B.Dalton. I've no idea how that worked out. I remember that I was shocked at the price. $2.95 when most paperbacks were still $.95 to $1.25. I still have that book. A few years later, ACE Books would get the rights to reprint the Conan series and then I could finally get all of the available Robert E. Howard Conan stories, albeit in slightly edited versions as I found out later. It would be almost three decades before the unedited texts would become readily available, but that's another story.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Independence Day!

Many people are unaware that the general for one of the pivotal battles of the Revolutionary War was Conan the barbarian.

(Okay, really it's an illo Gil Kane did for the Marvel 1976 Calendar, but if Conan HAD been around for the War of Independence, we'd have won a lot quicker.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Tale of the Tape

Well I'm just back from purchasing what should be the last size of blue jeans for awhile. I've now dropped somewhere between 45 and 50 pounds. Eight inches off my waist since January 1st. I still plan to lose a little more so that I can get down one more size in dress pants, but I'm pretty much at my original goal weight. My next step involves changing up my exercise program somewhat, but we'll talk about that later. Right now I'm just going to sit here and enjoy wearing the smallest jeans I've worn since 1992. Go me.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Reading Report

Yow, I've been reading a lot lately. Some of that has popped up in the previous posts but for the record in the last couple of weeks, I've read Fourth of July, Maximum Ride:The Angel Experiment, and Mary,Mary by James Patterson, Trunk Music, Chasing the Dime, and The Narrows by Michael Connelly, Flame Winds and Sons of the Bear God by Norvell Page, The Evil Gnome by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent), and American Detective by Loren D. Estleman. Plus selections from The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard and the Collected Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith Vol II. Throw in some other non fiction essays and articles from Blade of Conan and Spell of Conan, and a bunch of comic books and it comes to a lot of reading. Yes.
I have some other books waiting, including Ruth Rendell's new Inspector Wexford mystery, and Patterson's second Maximum Ride book. Cliff has ordered Robert B. Parker's new one, Spare Change for me, and a couple of other books loom on the horizon. So many books. So little time.

The Department of Lost Barbarians: Prester John

The Prester John of Legend was a Priest King, said to rule a Christian empire somewhere in the Orient circa the 12th century or so. The legends get pretty convoluted, linking Prester John to the Grail Quest, the Three Magi, Saint Thomas, and who knows what else.
In the late 1930s, though, pulp writer Norvell Page took the word Prester, usually said to mean 'priest', back to its Greek origins where it meant whirlwind or hurricane, to create Prester John aka Hurricane John aka Wan-Tengri.
After Robert E. Howard's suicide in 1936, many pulp writers tried to fill the void left by the passing of the creator of Conan. Henry Kuttner had Elak of Atlantis. Fritz Lieber wrote of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry was already appearing in Weird Tales while Howard was alive.
Norvell Page, probably best known as the primary writer (under the pseudonym Grant Stockbridge) of The Spider, a pulp hero whose adventures were so violent that he made the Shadow look like a school girl, stepped up to the plate with Prester John.
Prester John is a Scythian, adventuring in what today would be northern Mongolia. There he is known as Wan-Tengri, named for the fierce spirits of the upper air, the tengri. This is because of his berserker like battle rages where he becomes a whirling, sword wielding madman. Prester John had been a gladiator in Alexandria and traveled across the ancient world to Egypt, India, and Ceylon. In Page's two short novels, all that he ever wrote of Prester John, the red haired warrior fights his way across a sort of mythical Asia.
Prester John is an early Christian, and even wears a piece of the True Cross around his neck which he uses as a defense against the strange sorceries he encounters in his travels. Aside from that he's basically a Conan sort of figure, massively muscled and quick tempered. He has a sidekick named Bourtai, who is a minor wizard and overall comedic figure.
The thing (IMHO) that separates Prester John from most of the other Conan clones, such as John Jake's Brak and Lin Carter's Thongor, is that Norvell Page actually comes close to being able to convey the sort of over the top, berserker fury that Robert E. Howard wrote so well. Most of Howard's imitators just don't seem to be able to deliver that kind of emotional intensity. They can deliver the surface barbarian, the props, the milieu, and so forth, but they miss the main point of Conan, which is his utter disregard for civilization. The laws and the morals of the land don't apply to him. It's not his world and he has no use for it. Page comes very close to that with Prester John. I wonder if it's because Page had so much experience writing the equally over the top adventures of the Spider, which are violent even by the standards of the "bloody pulps."
Both novels were published in 1939 in the pages of Unknown, the same magazine that printed the early adventures of Fafhrd and the Mouser. The were reprinted as slim paperbacks in 1967 with nifty covers by Jeff Jones. Those are the editions I have. Both novels were eventually adapted by Roy Thomas for Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian comic, with Conan standing in for Prester John and relocated to Khitai, the Hyborian equivalent of Asia.
Anyway, I'm glad that I finally got around to reading both of Page's novels, Flame Winds and Sons of the Bear God, because these may be the best REH pastiches anyone's written. Too bad there are only two of them.