Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Phoenix on the Axe

The other night I decided to reread Robert E. Howard's very first Conan story, The Phoenix on the Sword. Not sure when the last time I read it was, but it was before the Wandering Star/Del Rey Conan books were released, so I probably read it in the L. Sprague Decamp edited Lancer/ACE paperback. Anyway, I sat down and gave it a read and not surprisingly, really enjoyed it. Now it seems whenever anyone reviews Phoenix, they can't get the words out quick enough that it was a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story, By This Axe I Rule and in many of these reviews it's almost as if the reviewer is implying that Howard merely changed the name Kull to Conan, and Shazam, instant success.
That's not really the case.
After I finished up Phoenix I decided to read By This Axe too and compare the two. This is the great thing about the Del-Reys. You can snatch em up and check stuff like this in the closest thing to REH's original typescripts you're likely to find. (And they remain in print. I smile every time I walk through the SF/Fantasy section at Barnes & Noble and see Robert E. Howard's name on the spines of those books.)
Anyway, the major plot remains the same in both stories, a group of rebels plot to kill King Kull/Conan and get him off the throne of Valusia/Aquilonia. The first few pages of Phoenix though, are considerably different from Axe, and I think stronger. Howard had learned a lot about setting mood and tone for his stories by then. Much of the dialogue among the plotters is the same but a lot of it has been moved around and reworked.
The main difference between Phoenix and Axe can be summed up in two words (Or possibly one. My Stygian is a bit rusty.). Thoth Amon. Not the arch enemy that the comics would have you believe, but rather a Stygian sorcerer who has fallen on hard times. Robbed of a ring which gave him great powers, he is trapped as the servant of the man who wields the real power among the plotters, Ascalante. Thoth Amon is involved in the plot, but not out of any real animosity toward Conan the Cimmerian.
In By This Axe I Rule, the secondary plot is a star-crossed romance between a young soldier and a slave girl. They can't marry because of Valusian laws and customs. In the end the soldier helps Kull and Kull abolishes what he considers the unfair laws. Nice, but it fails to stir the blood. There's also no supernatural element to Axe. REH originally submitted it to Argosy and Adventure magazines, two pulps that published historical adventure.
In The Phoenix on the Sword, this plot is replaced by the vengeance of Thoth Amon on Ascalante and there is sorcery aplenty. There's a demon from the outer dark and a dream journey and some other Weird Tales style goings on, including mentions of Elder Gods. Howard was beginning to show his interest in the work of pen pal H.P. Lovecraft. What struck me as kind of funny is that Thoth Amon is never terribly interested in Conan. Ascalante has led a group of assassins against the big Cimmerian and in the middle of a pitched battle Thoth Amon's demon shows up to kill Ascalante and anyone with him. This same battle occurs in By This Axe I Rule, but it's the young soldier who pops up to help Kull.
To me, and this is of course entirely subjective, Phoenix is by far the stronger of the two stories. The middle of Axe is a bit slow with Kull doing the old 'king in disguise' bit to walk among his people. The narrative drive of Phoenix seems much stronger and the story just plows through to its bloody conclusion. Thoth Amon is an interesting character and I kind of wish Howard had done more with him. Both stories are enjoyable though, so read them and make your own comparisons.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Quest for Lost Heroes

I first read this book about a decade ago. Found myself thinking about it recently, so I dug out my copy and was reminded of just why I like the late David Gemmell's books so much. They're full of the kind of action you'd expect so from a man who once listed his influences as Akira Kurosawa, Louis L'amour and Stan Lee. They're well written with the kind of seamless prose and narrative force that keeps you turning pages. And the characters are always well drawn, down to the smallest supporting character, everyone gets his or her moment.
But beyond all that are the messages about things that actually matter that Gemmell imparts over and over. Friendship. Honor. Responsibility. Love and obligation. His heroes do what they have to do, no matter the cost, and boy does it sometimes cost them.
Quest for Lost Heroes is exactly what the title implies, but it's not a quest for heroes who have vanished, it's about men who have become lost in their lives setting out to do something that matters again. A quartet of over the hill warriors set out on one last adventure to help a young man save the girl he thinks he's in love with. It won't be easy and everyone who left won't come back, but the journey has to be made.
In some ways it's the old "retired gunslinger" story. Gemmell is never far from his love of the Western. I've heard other reviewers compare his heroes (Druss, Waylander, etc) to "Indian Fighters" and they aren't off the mark. There are times the books feel like Cowboys with Swords. I'm okay with that.
But that doesn't mean the stories or the characters are simplistic. There are many shades of gray in Gemmell's worlds, even if his protagonists tend to see things in black and white. Some of Gemmell's villains are almost heroic and some of his heroes aren't very likable.
As I mentioned in a couple of my earliest posts here at Singular Points, it was David Gemmell who brought me back to reading heroic fantasy after well over a decade of reading nothing but crime fiction. And he's still keeping me coming back for the action and adventure and even to learn something now and again. Can't ask for much more than that.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Harold Lamb

If you want to learn how to write short stories, you should read Harold Lamb. Never heard of him? He was one of the top pulp magazine writers of the 1920s and he went on to be well known for his historical novels, biographies and volumes of history. He also became an accomplished screen writer for Hollywood.
But at the moment I'm talking about Lamb's skill as a writer of short fiction. He's probably best known for his Cossack stories. Those are the ones everyone seems to remember, but Lamb also wrote a ton of stories about the Crusades. I've been reading a volume of his Crusader tales, Swords From the West, collected and edited by my pal Howard Andrew Jones. This hefty book contains everything from novellas to short stories that are barely ten pages long. Reading through I've been amazed at Lamb's ability to get just enough detail into a short to make it work, without feeling overburdened by historical information and at his skill at plotting quick paced adventures.
But what really makes these stories work 90 or so years later is Lamb's skill at characterization. If you read a lot of short stories, and particularly if you write them, you know how difficult it can be to get the reader to feel for the characters in a short. It's much easier in a novel, where you have time to paint a portrait of a character in words. In a short, all you have time for is a quick sketch, and if you don't capture the character in a few strokes the reader isn't likely to care about him or her. Lamb was a master at this. I'll use his story Lionheart, a favorite from Swords From the West as an example.
The story begins in the point of view of a priest named Brother Clement. Within a paragraph you have a quick sketch of the priest. His worries and fears. A few sentences later you learn a bit more about his care for his flock as the young serf girl Marie hurries by on her way to meet her lover. A quick conversation shows Clement's affection and concern for the girl who has 'The White Death'. (Tuberculosis)
Just as you're warming to Clement, Lamb switches to Marie's pov and you quickly learn a bit about the girl. Despite her sickness she is full of life and spirit and she is wildly in love with her boyfriend, Peter. To calm Brother Clement, Marie says a prayer for her aunt and family and Peter and as an afterthought she adds, "and make me well -amen!" Within a few sentences, Lamb has made the reader care about and perhaps even admire Marie. Later, when things go bad, you'll care what happens to her.
The rest of the characters(Including Richard the Lionhearted himself)in the story are just as well drawn. Explained like this, it sounds easy, but trust me, it's not, and Lamb does this very same bit of magic in story after story. He makes you see his characters and believe in them. If you've read many pulp magazines you know that this level of characterization wasn't the norm. It's one of the things that put Lamb at the head of the pack. Thing is, though, this never gets in the way of the action and adventure. Lamb was a favorite of Robert E. Howard's and I think most REH fans would enjoy his work. I know many already do.
The amazing thing is, as good as Lamb is, most of these stories haven't been reprinted since their original publications. Kudos to Howard Andrew Jones for getting Harold Lamb back into print for those of us who love adventure and a well told tale.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Torchwood: The Children of Earth

The third season of the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood was something of a surprise in that it's only five episodes and only tells one story. At first I thought Children of Earth was just going to be a padded one hour episode, and in terms of plot, it pretty much is. Basically an alien race known to Earth as the 4-5-6, named after the frequency they use to contact us, delivers an ultimatum. Give the 4-5-6 ten percent of our world's children or they will kill everyone on the planet. Pretty standard Doctor Who plot. But this time the Doctor is nowhere to be seen, leaving things up to the remnants of the Torchwood team, who lost two of their members at the end of the second season.
But, what makes this mini series work is that rather than just filling the four or so extra hours needed to defeat the bad guys with mindless action, we get character studies of just about everyone involved, not only the three remaining Torchwood members, but all the supporting characters. In this way, Children of Earth is more like a novel. There's room for characterization here and the writer, director, and actors make good use of it.
Thing is, without the help of the extra-terrestrial Doctor, there are no quick answers to stopping the 4-5-6, leaving the governments of the Earth to make some very cold calculations indeed. It doesn't help that the British government is trying to cover up a dirty secret about the 4-5-6 by killing everyone involved, which includes the un-killable leader of Torchwood Captain Jack Harkness. But even Harkness's Lazarus like abilities are put to a test this time, reminding me of some of the stuff Marvel Comics did with Wolverine a few years ago. What happens when you use a bomb to blow up an indestructible man? It ain't pretty, I can tell you.
The producers of Torchwood take their cast into darker territory than ever in this series and I was impressed that they rarely pulled any punches or backed away from the terrible repercussions that came with the decisions that heroes and villains alike were forced to make.
Anyway, I enjoyed Children of earth, but it did leave me feeling a bit depressed. If you decide to watch it, make sure you have some feel-good DVDs handy afterwards. This ain't a story with happy endings.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Link the Loot

Good night at the Comic Book Store last night. The new Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection, El Borak, was in. Not a sword & sorcery character like Conan or Kull, El Borak was a Texas gunfighter turned wandering adventurer in Afghanistan and points beyond. I don't think I've read all the El Borak stories so there might even be a new REH tale for me in this book. Haven't really checked the table of contents as of yet.
My copy of the fifth Del Rey Elric volume made it in as well, and it looks to have a lot of fun stuff included. Again didn't really get much chance to peruse it. Got home and had to go to bed so I could be up bright and early for work. Expect more info on both books in the not too distant future.
So new Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard books in the same night. Not bad at all.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Only About Four Degrees

Someone brought up the game 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' at work today, and someone bet me I couldn't link Bacon to Humphrey Bogart. I said, "Well let's see. Humphrey Bogart was in African Queen with Katherine Hepburn who was in On Golden Pond with Henry Fonda who was in Wanda Nevada with Peter Fonda who was in Easy Rider with Jack Nicholson who was in A Few Good Men with...Kevin Bacon."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Less than Bloggy

Hey, sorry I've been less than bloggy lately. I had kind of a rough weekend (plumbing issues in my apartment and my truck broke down) leaving me very little time for reading, writing, or anything else, so I had very little to blog about aside from alternators and leaking pipes and who wants to hear about that?
Hopefully things are back to normal and I can get enough downtime to read something. I have been working through some short stories by Harold Lamb and I definitely need to blog about that.
I will relate one funny incident, just so you don't feel your time reading this post was completely wasted. What happened at the apartment was my next door neighbor's pipes sprung a leak and were leaking into the apartment below mine. Unfortunately that meant that the maintenance guys had to cut into the wall under my bathroom sink as well as that of the apartment next door. This happened Thursday when I was off from work, so my day off was pretty much shot. Anyway, after they had cut into both walls they realized that they didn't have the right pipe fittings so they had to go buy some at Home Depot.
While they were gone I noticed my cat Amelia wandering toward the bathroom. It occurred to me that there was a hole in the wall and Amelia, being a very curious kitty, might go into the hole. I jumped up and went after her, ducking into the bathroom just in time to see Amelia's tail vanish into the hole.
I had visions of an episode of Rescue 911 with the fire department coming over to rescue my cat from inside the wall, but fortunately Amelia had merely gone straight through to the other apartment. The tenants of that apartment weren't home so they weren't surprised by the sudden appearance of my cat. I hurried outside and luckily one of the other maintenance guys was in the breezeway and I got him to open the other apartment so I could go get Amelia. I found her casually strolling around the next door apartment, admiring the furniture. She was less than pleased to be snatched up and returned to her proper home. Needless to say I covered the hole with a large heavy object until the maintenance crew got back. Cats.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Rikki Tikki Tavi

I was watching the old Chuck Jones directed cartoon of Rudyard Kipling's story Rikki Tikki Tavi last night. Used to love it as a kid. It still holds up pretty well. I emailed the link to my brother who noted that now that he was an adult and a father the thought the father in the cartoon should have been a bit more concerned about the mongoose in his house and the snakes in his garden. You know those Victorian dads though. Nothing bothered them in the days of Empire. His wife showed a little concern and...

"Don't you think the mongoose might bite Teddy?
"Nonsense woman! Wild animals never bite children."
"Well what if he has rabies?"
"Why Rabies are good for a boy. When I was a lad, we all had rabies. Builds character"
"By the way, dear. Aren't you worried about all the cobras in the garden?"
"Pish tush. There are only two of them. Gives the place a bit of color. Now back to the kitchen with you, woman."

Not quite that bad, but close. Great cartoon though. See it here.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The City of Dreadful Night

Rudyard Kipling's creepy short story, The City of Dreadful Night, is one of those stories that reminds me of why I read. In this very short tale, Kipling takes me somewhere I've never been and shows me things I've never seen and makes me use my imagination in new ways.
The premise is simple enough. An unnamed narrator in Victorian era India cannot sleep because of the stifling heat. He takes a walk into the moonlit night, walking toward "The City of Dreadful Night" (Lahore City) and as he walks through the shimmering light he seems to find an army of corpses along the road. But these are living men, so overcome by the heat that they are literally sleeping where they fall.

"Straight as a bar of polished steel ran the road to the City of Dreadful Night; and on either side of the road lay corpses disposed on beds in fantastic attitudes--one hundred and seventy bodies of men. Some shrouded all in white with bound-up mouths; some naked and black as ebony in the strong light; and one--that lay face upwards with dropped jaw, far away from the others--silvery white and ashen gray."

As he enters the city he finds many more people sleeping in the streets and on rooftops, trying to escape the hot night air. Finally he climbs the steps of a minaret, disturbing kites sleeping in the stairwell, and looks out across the city with its hundreds of restless sleepers sprawled out in the streets. What an image.
The story is a little masterpiece of mood and I can't believe I never read it before. I'm sure I will again.